Saturday, November 29, 2008

Loopholes vs Landmarks in NYC | Preservationists See Bulldozers Charging Through a Loophole | By ROBIN POGREBIN | Published: November 28, 2008

Hours before the sun came up on a cool October morning in 2006, people living near the Dakota Stables on the Upper West Side were suddenly awakened by the sound of a jackhammer.

Preserving the City
The Wrecking Race
This is the second in a series of articles examining the workings of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Preservationists lost a battle to protect the Dakota, built in 1894 and shown here in 1944, after the owner secured a stripping permit.

Soon word spread that a demolition crew was hacking away at the brick cornices of the stables, an 1894 Romanesque Revival building, on Amsterdam Avenue at 77th Street, that once housed horses and carriages but had long served as a parking garage.

In just four days the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was to hold a public hearing on pleas dating back 20 years to designate the low-rise building, with its round-arched windows and serpentine ornamentation, as a historic landmark.

But once the building’s distinctive features had been erased, the battle was lost. The commission went ahead with its hearing, but ultimately decided not to designate the structure because it had been irreparably changed. Today a 16-story luxury condominium designed by Robert A. M. Stern is rising on the site: the Related Companies is asking from $765,000 for a studio to $7 million or more for a five-bedroom unit in the building.

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.” ...

Loopholes big enough for bulldozers to drive through seem to be quite the problem in every area interested in balancing preservation of that which makes a place valuable and growth which is positive. We have our own loopholes around this town, which is why your neighborhood may have historic status and a teardown problem at the same time. In New York, it boils down to this.

Under current rules, once a landmark hearing has been scheduled, building owners may not obtain demolition or alteration permits. But if such a permit is secured before a hearing is scheduled, as was the case with Dakota Stables and 711 Third Avenue, the work may proceed without penalty.

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.

The NY Times six month study of landmarks, commissions and preservation can be found here.

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