Why do lovely old painstakingly designed and built buildings matter? It’s not just about history, or nostalgia. It’s something nearly every culture knows—that design determines a great deal of societal health and individual happiness. And (with many noteworthy exceptions) older buildings tend to preserve a sense of history and upliftedness that newer buildings don’t.
The strategy has become wearyingly familiar to preservationists. A property owner — in this case Sylgar Properties, which was under contract to sell the site to Related — is notified by the landmarks commission that its building or the neighborhood is being considered for landmark status. The owner then rushes to obtain a demolition or stripping permit from the city’s Department of Buildings so that notable qualities can be removed, rendering the structure unworthy of protection.
“In the middle of the night I’m out there at 2 in the morning, and they’re taking the cornices off,” said Gale Brewer, a city councilwoman who represents that part of the Upper West Side. “We’re calling the Buildings Department, we’re calling Landmarks. You get so beaten down by all of this. The developers know they can get away with that.”
Read the rest and weep—and get motivated to protect your community—go to city council meetings, picket, lock yourself to trees!
Safeguards crumble because the landmarks commission and the buildings department lack an established system of communication, and commissioners often are unaware that permits have been issued. There is also no set procedure by which the buildings department alerts the commission when someone seeks a permit to strip off architectural detail.
Some City Council members are determined to change that. Tony Avella, who represents northeastern Queens, has introduced a bill that would require the buildings department not only to withhold demolition permits but also to suspend existing ones and issue a stop-work order when the commission schedules a hearing to consider landmark status for a structure.
Another bill, proposed by Rosie Mendez, a city councilwoman representing the Lower East Side and the East Village, would require the commission to notify the buildings department as soon as a property comes under consideration, even if a hearing has not been scheduled. The department would then alert the commission if an owner applied for a work permit. Both bills are wending their way through the council.
A school in Ms. Mendez’s East Village neighborhood galvanized her to introduce the bill. In June 2006 the landmarks commission designated former Public School 64, a French Renaissance Revival building on East Ninth Street near Tompkins Square Park, as a landmark over the objections of its owner, Gregg Singer.
After that designation, Mr. Singer used an alteration permit that had been granted in 2003 and stripped the terra-cotta elements and copper cornices from the building’s exterior.