Sunday, October 19, 2008

Building the Right Landmarks Case; Wrong Building


In yesterday’s editorial, The Missing Landmarks Commission, the New York Times starts making some valuable points about how the city Landmarks Preservation Commission needs to function, but the Times focuses on the wrong building. The building they wrote about was a building cared about by Manhattan’s uptown elite.

The Times editorial makes these points.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission should be a vital part of the planning process in New York City.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

We disagree with the Times about its solution, a solution that focuses on what we identify as the problem if we don’t want a process which, as they suggest, is “routinely outflanked by developers.” As the Times notes, it is the mayor “who appoints the commissioners.” The Times’ expresses its envisioned solution thus:

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.

We think that the solution that would truly result in the political will for the landmarks commission to do its job would be if the commissioners had greater independence from the mayor.

Such political will might also come with a different mayor, one less enamored by developers and one who is not so rich that he can use his wealth to overturn term limits. Is the Times editorial page doing penance or trying to make up for the damage it has done by its earlier editorial on term limits? The editorial page previously expressed the belief that Mayor Bloomberg should be unleashed to serve a third term by a special exemption from term limits, but then yesterday's editorial vaguely hopes that the Mayor will begin reining in developers, something he has never been willing to do. How valid could such hope be? As we arrived to testify at the City Council term limits hearing on Thursday, we saw Mr. Bloomberg leaving the building with a stressed- looking Amanda Burden, Chair of the City Planning Commission. Given that Bloomberg’s massive effort to specially repeal term limits was the order of the day, we must wonder what that was about. The City Planning Commission (like the Landmarks Preservation Commission) also works extensively with developers. Would it be grossly naive to imagine or hope that Ms. Burden was actually working to do something good on that day, for instance that she might have been working “behind-the-scenes” (as was once ostensibly the case) to urge reduction of the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment?

The Times yesterday used as its editorial’s focus point the reworking of Edward Durell Stone’s eccentric building at 2 Columbus Circle into the new home of the Museum of Arts and Design. Reviews have been mixed but not altogether negative. Saving the original version of the problematic and controversial Stone building, referred to as the “lollipop building,” was once a cause celebre. The Times notes:

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.

The Bloomberg administration may have inappropriately deprived the Stone building of an appropriate and proper hearing by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but it did not deprive influential Manhattanites of a voice. The Times itself helped. In a now rather famous op-ed piece alleging process failures, Tom Wolfe lambasted the Commission: Op-Ed Contributor, The (Naked) City and the Undead, November 26, 2006. The harsh piece was conspicuously exceptional for the Times in its length, and it dealt in depth with the real problem of the commission’s lack of independence from the office of the mayor. The harshness made for deliciously fun reading but was probably a bit unfair; the Commission is highly capable and does do its job excellently when permitted by the Mayor.

Was there a better building upon which the Times could have built its case? Yes, the Ward Bakery Building in the footprint of the proposed Atlantic Yards. The building, which was in use until the mid-1990's, was being bought and sold by developers and probably would be under development now, soon to be adaptatively reused, had it not been for the advent of Bruce Ratner’s endeavors, blighting Prospect Heights and Fort Greene in pursuit of personal wealth. Now it looks as if an empty Ward Bakery Building site will spend two or three decades as a parking lot unless the city finally kicks Ratner out. The Ward Bakery is one building on an entire block with other worthwhile buildings that is being condemned unnecessarily, purely to generate eminent domain and zoning-override windfalls for Ratner. For instance, the block is nowhere near the arena that is supposedly justifying Ratner’s 22-acre land grab.

Unlike the eccentric Edward Durell Stone building at Columbus Circle, the Ward Bakery Building was noncontroversially beautiful, fully functional, and had a long and important history in the neighborhood. The Edward Durell Stone building was finished relatively recently (in 1964) and, among other flaws, admitted little exterior light. It was technically old enough for landmarking, but it is not clear that it should have been. (If Columbus Circle is looking a bit desultory right now has less to do with the reworking of the Stone building than the mallishness of the Time Warner Center and the familiar Trump cliches of the Gulf and Western building Trump reclad.)

On the other hand, the older white terra cotta Ward Bakery Building should have been landmarked. We have been told that Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Robert Tierney confided, off-the-record, an interest in considering the building for landmarking, but expressed that his hands were tied. Any notion that the recently-used building was not in condition to be adaptively reused is most assuredly pretext. Everyone is aware that pretexts flow with abundance for Atlantic Yards. (It looks as if the Ward Bakery Building is sturdy enough so that its demolition is turning into a significant amount of work.)

I am reasonably sure that people of influence had Mayor Bloomberg’s ear to express both sides of the argument with respect to the highly controversial Edward Durell Stone building. Compared to what the Ward Bakery Building received, you might even say the Stone building had a hearing that was fair in its two-sidedness. Nor was there the situation of a rapacious, subsidy-stealing developer. Although it should have been absolutely clear that Ward Bakery Building should have been saved and adaptively reused (who could have argued otherwise?), the communities and people of Brooklyn are not like Manhattan. We do not have the ear of the Mayor to forestall the “outflanking” of developer Bruce Ratner’s unfair, one-sided access to Bloomberg. Which is not to say that Manhattan communities don’t sometimes have their work cut out for them: Witness the Rudin/St. Vincent’s proposals.

Noticing New York has solutions to propose. Two, in fact. For the Landmarks Preservation Commission: Greater independence from the mayor. As for Ward Bakery Building? Before Forest City Ratner is ever permitted to do business in New York again, reparation should be paid to the community. Forest City should be required to fully fund a careful and historically accurate recreation of the entire white terra cotta Ward Bakery Building, complete with all of its layered arches. (We will have someone else build it.) Developers have to be made to think twice about the “benefits” of outflanking proper process to rob communities of their valuable assets and history.

1 comment:

Neighbor1 said...

Thanks for the thoughtful argument about the virtues of the Ward Bread Building, (actually a complex of more than one building).

You are incorrect in one critical fact. Ward Bread was fully used by an active business at the time the Atlantic Yards Project was announced in 2003. In the mid 1990s the complex was purchased by a company called Time Moving and Storage. They renovated the building in full, turning it into a storage building primarily for documents.

Following the project's announcement by FCRC, a rival real estate developer Boymelgreen made a generous offer and purchased the building from Time Moving and Storage who cleared out of the building post-haste. Boymelgreen then proposed a hotel for the site, prodding Forest City Ratner to pay Boymelgreen over 40 million dollars for the building, doubling the price Boymelgreen had paid Time Moving and Storage six months earlier.