Monday, October 20, 2008

Lost New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission Missing Inaction

From the New York Times editorial page, Saturday, October 20, 2008, “The Missing Landmarks Preservation Commission”: “The Landmarks Preservation Commission should be a vital part of the planning process in New York City. Instead, it has become a bureaucratic black hole, the place where requests for evaluation — the formal nominations of buildings or districts to be landmarked — go to get filed and forgotten.” For a full version of the editorial, see below.

Change is a fact of life in New York City. But, for the last 45 years, since the shocking demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station in the 1960s finally prompted a response from City Hall, we’ve had an authority to referee change as it affects the treasures of our past—the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Except that today the LPC appears to have let developers—and our development-friendly Mayor—overrun the field.

Writes the Times: “Moving as slowly as it does — and nearly always without public hearings — the landmarking process is routinely outflanked by developers. What is clearly missing is the political will needed for the landmarks commission to do its job. For that, it must have the full backing of the mayor, who appoints the commissioners.”

Where is the LPC? And, more to the point, where is Mayor Bloomberg when it comes to protecting our city’s historic Landmarks? Or responding to the hundreds of public requests for buildings to become new Landmarks and Historic Districts? If the problems identified by the Times—the “bureaucratic black hole,” the maddening silence preceding the bulldozer—resonate all too well with you, then speak up! Send a letter to the editors (letters@nytimes.com), telling them about the buildings in your community that have been overlooked, threatened and lost as a result of LPC inaction (visit http://www.landmarkwest.org/advocacy/cecpp/landmarksatrisk.htm for examples citywide). Then, send a copy of your letter to Mayor Bloomberg! Print out your email and fax it to 212-788-2460. Also post your letter in the "Comments" section of this blog. Make the most of this opportunity—maybe your only opportunity—to be heard.

October 18, 2008

New York Times Editorial

The Missing Landmarks Commission

Late last month, the Museum of Arts and Design reopened in its new home at 2 Columbus Circle. That home is the controversial reworking of Edward Durell Stone’s eccentric building — much loved and much hated by New Yorkers ever since it was finished in 1964.

The Times’s architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, dubbed Stone’s original building “a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops.” To us, it looked almost Moroccan, as if the casbah had gone high-rise.

Brad Cloepfil’s bland redesign — which somehow suggests the technological polish of a desktop computer — will stir no such emotions, except as a potent symbol of the failure of the preservation process in this city.

Despite a public debate over the fate of Stone’s building, the Landmarks Preservation Commission never held a public hearing. The commission’s chair — with the encouragement of the Bloomberg administration — had the matter shelved. In June 2005, the city issued a permit to destroy the old facade and rework the building.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission should be a vital part of the planning process in New York City. Instead, it has become a bureaucratic black hole, the place where requests for evaluation — the formal nominations of buildings or districts to be landmarked — go to get filed and forgotten.

There are hundreds of requests from all across the city waiting to be acted upon. Some have been held up for years. Moving as slowly as it does — and nearly always without public hearings — the landmarking process is routinely outflanked by developers. What is clearly missing is the political will needed for the landmarks commission to do its job. For that, it must have the full backing of the mayor, who appoints the commissioners.

No one wants to see the city frozen by overly rigid landmarking. But New York is such an extraordinary place because of both its past and its future. The commission — in full consultation with the public — should play a critical role in balancing the two.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sign the Petition to Preserve West End Avenue!

Sign the Petition to Preserve West End Avenue!

Please join your fellow New Yorkers, the West End Preservation Society and LANDMARK WEST! in calling on the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to create an official historic district encompassing the full length of West End Avenue between 70th to 107th Streets.

This area vividly tells the story of the development of the Upper West Side from the 1880s to the 1930s. Distinguished by its strikingly consistent streetwall of uniform cornice heights, harmonious materials and creative interpretations of historical styles, including Arts & Crafts, Beaux Arts and Art Deco, West End Avenue showcases the work of many late-19th and early-20th-century architects who defined New York City as we know it today. For more information on this district and other ways to show your support, please visit http://www.landmarkwest.org/advocacy/Wish%20List%20Items/WEAHD.htm.


Two minutes is all you need to show your support for protecting one of our city’s loveliest residential boulevards. CLICK here and sign the petition now (see text below). Then, pass this on to your friends and neighbors—keep the support coming!

To: NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

We, the Undersigned, write to strongly urge you to designate Manhattan's West End Avenue, between 70th Street and 107th Street a Historic District. West End Avenue is one of the most distinctive residential avenues in New York City and it deserves and meets the criteria for Historic District status. Already designated are blocks between 75th Street and 78th Street and those between 87th and 95th Streets. We urge the Commission to extend and expand the Historic Districts to include the blocks down to West 70th Street and up to West 107th Street.

West End Avenue is lined primarily with Pre-War apartment buildings of unified height; most are approximately twelve to fifteen stories. These buildings were erected in the 1910's and 1920's by a small group of acclaimed architects specializing in apartment-house construction in that era. Spread intermittently between some of these unified apartment buildings are historic townhouses that predate the construction of 1910-1920.

As described in a recent New York Times article discussing the movement to preserve the avenue, "[s]ince the 1920's, West End has presented the same sleepy procession of ornamented brick and limestone 15-story apartment buildings, with an occasional townhouse from the 1890's." NY Times, May 18, 2008 ("A Bid to Shield a Row of Sturdy Soldiers" by Alex Mindlin).

Even when West End Avenue was first being developed, the Avenue seemed unique. In 1888, an organization called the West End Association declared that "West End Avenue, alone of all city avenues, has a chance of remaining a site of private residences exclusively and permanently." (Robert Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman: "New York 1880-Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Age"; Monacelli Press, New York 1999; p. 759).

Indeed, the beautiful and unique buildings on West End Avenue come together in a cohesive way to create a distinct sense of place. These buildings are important reminders of the history of early construction on the Upper West Side. According to historians, West End Avenue was developed "in a short period of time by developers with a shared vision. . ." (Id.) This shared vision resulted in a "unification" that was due to both "building type" as well as the builders' ". . . shared sense of that area's image of urban domesticity, comparable to that of London's West End." (Id.) As such, West End Avenue ". . . exuded an aura of overall aesthetic intentionality that was unrivaled in Gilded Age New York." (Id.) While walking along West End Avenue, one sees that this aura of Gilded Age cohesiveness continues to exist to this day-over 120 years later!

For these reasons, we, the Undersigned support the application to designate West End Avenue a historic district. We urge the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to find West End Avenue worthy of a landmarks preservation designation of a Historic District.

2 Columbus Circle: For the Record












2 Columbus Circle: For the Record

In two powerful articles timed in sync with last week's opening of the "new" Museum of Arts and Design at 2 Columbus Circle, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff condemned the destruction of the original 1964 Edward Durrell Stone building, reiterating points that he raised years ago, before it was too late. This time, let's hope, his words won't fall on deaf ears.

In the first article of his one-two punch, Ouroussoff writes that, whereas Stone’s building “occupied a crucial niche in the city’s architectural memory,” MAD’s project “is a victory only for people who favor the safe and inoffensive and have always been squeamish about the frictions that give this city its vitality…We’re left with an image of New York that has been scrubbed of any real meaning.” Click here for the full article, dated 9/26/08.

Then, the very next day, Ouroussoff followed up with a stinging piece called, “New York City, Tear Down These Walls,” in which he put the newly scrubbed version of 2 Columbus Circle in the same category as Madison Square Garden, Trump Place and the Javitz Center—buildings that Ouroussoff thinks ought to be knocked down because they “not only fail to bring us joy, but actually bring us down.” The paragraphs on 2 Columbus Circle are copied below. For the full article, click here.

LANDMARK WEST! led this 10-year preservation battle at its climax with an advocacy campaign that pulled out all the stops. Working with colleagues throughout the city, state, nation and the world, we used every conceivable tool in the preservation arsenal (press, petitions, protests, lawsuits) and even invented some new ones (online panel discussion, “ShameCam” web coverage of the demolition). We did everything in our power to convince the Bloomberg administration to do the right thing, let the Landmarks Preservation Commission give 2 Columbus Circle the public hearing it deserved, and preserve the integrity of New York City’s process for protecting the places that matter most to its citizens. For more on the history of the campaign, and some thoughts on lessons to be learned, go to http://www.landmarkwest.org/savelpc.html.

Now the price of letting politics subvert the mission of the Landmarks Preservation Commission is clear. We need leadership that says, “Never again,” and empowers the Landmarks Commission to act when our city’s heritage is at stake. Otherwise, 2 Columbus Circle and all of the other treasured places that have been sent to the landfills in recent years will have been lost in vain.

Excerpted from “New York City, Tear Down These Walls” by Nicolai Ouroussoff, September 28, 2008

2 COLUMBUS CIRCLE Edward Durell Stone’s building, which opened as the Gallery of Modern Art in 1964, incited one of the most bitter preservation battles in recent memory. Its defenders, who ranged from the writer Tom Wolfe to youthful preservation groups like Landmarks West, hailed its faux Venetian exterior as a slap against the prevailing standards of mainstream Modernism. Detractors, who would have been happy to see it leveled, mostly held up their noses, denouncing its swanky d├ęcor and cramped galleries as an urban eyesore.

The result? Everybody lost. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was too cowardly to render a verdict and never reviewed the case. The building was turned over to the Museum of Arts and Design, which gutted it to make room for new galleries and stripped away its white marble exterior.

If the city had chosen to preserve it, a key historical landmark would still be intact. If the building had been torn down, a talented architect might have had the opportunity to create a new masterpiece on one of the choicest sites in the city. Instead we get the kind of wishy-washy design solution that is apt to please no one: a mild, overly polite renovation that obliterates the old while offering us nothing breathtakingly new.