Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Times Coverage of Landmarks Preservation Commission: The Pieces Needing to Fall Into Place

The New York Times has now completed what has turned out to be a four part series on the problems with the workings of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. We previously wrote about this when the Times was two articles into this important series. (See: Sunday, November 30, 2008, Landmarks Preservation Commission: Will Times Special Series Have it All Covered?)

At the Half-Way Point: Our Noticing New York Comments

At that half-way mark, we noted that the series had yet to mention the accountability of the mayor. We also cited the Ward Bakery Building, as of then unmentioned by the Times, as a superlative example of problems with how the selectively of landmarking is controlled by the Bloomberg administration:

Superlative Example of Selectivity Not Mentioned by the Times: The Ward Bakery Building

Not mentioned was the Ward Bakery Building. The selectivity of its nondesignation and the ensuing destruction that resulted would have been well worth writing about to make a number of points. It is our understanding that landmarking protection was specifically not to be made available for the Ward Building. We can only presume that was a decision for which Mayor Bloomberg was responsible. Yes, sometimes developers race with the LPC to destroy landmarks before they can be designated, but Ward Bakery serves as an excellent example of a situation where one side is not even running.
The shoes finally dropped with the publication of the last Times article in its series (Preservation and Development, Engaged in a Delicate Dance, by Robin Pogrebin, December 1, 2008).

The power of the mayor in the process is one of the principal topics of the article and the Ward Bakery Building is mentioned. We have a few ideas of points the Times could, but didn’t, make, but these articles are a critical step in getting people to talk about matters that are very important to the city.

The New Times Article on the Power of the Mayor

The fourth and last Times article was very blunt about the mayor’s power which makes sense and is surprising only given the way that the subject was obliquely left out of the prior articles. Here is some of what they wrote:

Over a decade of whirlwind development, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has repeatedly played dance partner to a potent mix of preservationists, developers and city politicians. It must strike a balance between protecting architecture and accepting economic realities, between a responsibility to history and a knowledge that the city must evolve.

* * * *

. . .some preservationists and politicians assert that, under a mayoral administration that has emphasized new construction — from behemoth stadiums to architecturally bold condo towers — big developers have too often been allowed to lead on the dance floor. Some accuse the landmarks commission, charged with guarding the city’s architectural heritage, of backing off too readily when important developers’ interests are at stake.

“The real estate industry controls the agenda in the city,” said Tony Avella, a city councilman from Queens. “If they don’t want something to happen, it doesn’t happen. They pull the strings from behind the scenes, whether in rezoning reform or landmarking. It’s just incredible how much influence they have.”

“The direction comes from the mayor, and the mayor’s pro-development,” Mr. Avella added.
The New Times Article on the Ward Bakery Building

About the Ward Bakery Building the Times article wrote (in its final corrected edition):

Yet the commission is faulted for refusing to schedule public hearings on some of the most fiercely contested projects, like Ward’s Bakery, an imposing terra-cotta-tiled structure that lay within the 22-acre footprint of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. In 2006 the commission’s staff determined that the building was not eligible for a hearing on landmark designation. Yet it was ruled eligible for a listing in 2003 on the National Register of Historic Places. Forest City Ratner began demolition in September 2007 and has almost completed it.

“This appears to be a political decision by the landmarks commission,” Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for the group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, was quoted as saying at the time. “It is deeply frustrating that they have let politics enter their deliberation on a building that clearly deserves landmark status.”

A commission spokeswoman said of the bakery, “There are many other industrial structures like it around the city, and it had several branches throughout the city.”
Adding In a Little Ward Bakery Building Demolition Confusion

As a correction at the end of the article notes, the Times got a little confused about the status of the bakery building’s demolition. However, it is easy to get confused about the status of the demolition which has lasted an infernally long time, going back to the Spring of 2007 and involves a suspicious parapet collapse. Some of the grand old building still remains. (See: Saturday, December 06, 2008, Correcting the Times's Ward Bakery correction (and my own error), plus a big footnote.)

The fact that it took three tries for the Times to variously report that the building was torn down last year, this year and is still ongoing indicates that mention of the Ward Bakery might have been included in the article late in its writing. If some of us, Noticing New York included, who have “fiercely” objected to the failure to landmark the Ward Bakery Building contributed to getting it mentioned in the article, so much the better. For more of our Noticing New York thoughts on this see: Sunday, October 19, 2008, Building the Right Landmarks Case; Wrong Building and Wednesday, October 29, 2008, Puzzle Pieces: Proposed Prospect Heights Historic District, LPC Public Hearing.

Political Decisions: Ward Bakery Example

As noted in the Times article, the 2006 `determination’ not save Ward Bakery was made by the commission’s staff, which means, as was made clear by the preceding articles, that it was made under the direction of the commission’s chairman. We have noted previously that Chairman Tierney considered his hands tied and was apparently acting under the direction of Mayor Bloomberg. That is why the quote of Daniel Goldstein that it had the appearance of “a political decision” is precisely on the money. We’ll quibble, as we will amplify on shortly, with the second half of Goldstein’s statement that the decision was “by the landmarks commission.”

Lopate/Huxtable Discussion on Qualifications for Making (Political) Decisions

A great thing about the Times series is that it put these issues more prominently into the pubic forum. On Monday, December 1, 2008, before the final article in the Times series was published, the Times articles were discussed on the Leonard Lopate Show in a free ranging discussion with architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable (available at: Radical Architecture, discussion of the articles starting at 12:13 in the segment). The final Times article was not published in the paper edition of the Times until Tuesday, December 2nd although it was dated the 1st.

Picking up on from what was reported in the first article of the series, Leonard Lopate noted (15:30 in the recording) that “One of the criticisms we have heard about the Landmarks Commission is that the person in charge (by which he meant Chairman Tierney) doesn’t have a hist. . Doesn’t have a background in architecture.” Then he asked ,“Is it necessary to have an architectural background to make these kinds of decisions?” Ms. Huxtable’s response:

But that, that is not true of the commission. That is true of the chairman. The chairman of almost every commission we have is always a political appointee. Where you get your strength, your background is in the members of the commission and the landmarks law absolutely says there must be appropriate representation of the building and the architecture professions.
Ms. Huxtable’s response disregarded one of the main points of the first two articles in the Times series, a point which is key with respect to what was “determined” respecting the Ward Bakery Building: The credentialed and qualified commissioners are not currently taking part in the key commission decisions about what comes before them for a hearing on designation or how promptly it is brought. The decisions are being made exclusively by Chairman Tierney, whom Ms. Huxtable described as a political appointee she seems to regard as unqualified in the profession of architecture. Chairman Tierney works with commission staff, but according to the quote of a commission researcher in the first article “All the final calls are his.”

Final Analysis on Final Calls: They’re Bloombergian

In the final analysis though, final calls are not Chairman Tierney’s to the extent that he follows Mayor Bloomberg’s directives, which he apparently does. So despite Ms. Huxtable’s assurance we have a political appointee making what are apparently political decisions.

Commission Could Be Responsible

It is possible that the Commission could and should rein in the chairman by insisting that decisions the chairman now makes independently be made under the commission’s guidance and direction. That is a typical way for boards and commissions to structure responsibility and accountability. Until that day comes, Ms. Huxtable (with Daniel Goldstein in her company) will not be truly correct about the full commission being responsible for such important decisions. That is, unless one is to hold the commission responsible now by virtue of their inaction in taking any such step to date (a not unreasonable position).

Charitably Delicate Metaphor: Dance Equals Balance?

As its title “Preservation and Development, Engaged in a Delicate Dance” suggests, the final Times article uses the metaphor of a dance to speak in terms of striking “a balance” between the interests of preservation and evolution of the city through development. As the Times fairly intimates when it speaks of “big developers have too often been allowed to lead on the dance floor,” it is hard to strike a “balance” when the weight on one side of the scales is coming from “big” developers.

In judging how the balance is weighted, consider that for its last article the Times interviewed Patricia E. Harris, the First Deputy Mayor, since, as the Times reported, she “oversees the commission.” All indications are that Ms. Harris had a hand in signing the death sentence for Ward Bakery when she and Mayor Bloomberg met with the Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner in a meeting that bore evidence of a quid pro quo exchange of contributions to Bloomberg charities in exchange for project approvals. For more on this see: Are the Atlantic Yards Land Grab and City Official Fraud Being Used to Finance Bloomberg’s Bid for Billionaire Term Limit Exceptionalism? Wednesday, October 22, 2008 and Forest City Ratner Gives to Coney Island Carousel, Other Bloombergian Public Projects, April 1, 2007. The mayor and Ms. Harris met with Ratner in December 2005. The donation to Bloomberg’s charity was six months later in 2006. Note that the LPC `determination’ that Ward Bakery was in 2006 and that the demolition began in early 2007.

As we noted in the above linked article and in other articles (among them Monday, October 20, 2008, “Charity?” We Begin to Groan), Mayor Bloomberg’s mixing of his “charities” with politics and real estate developer relationships is very troubling. Deputy Mayor Harris’s mixing of her involvements with real estate development as in the case of her oversight of the commission and her history as Bloomberg's chief philanthropic advisor at Bloomberg, LP., plus her portfolio including arts organizations, is similarly troubling. Does Deputy Mayor Harris have anything to hide in this area? The Times article noted that “She agreed to reply only to questions submitted in writing.”

Proverbial Balance with Proverbial Heavyweights

Though the headline of the Times last article uses the word “delicate” to describe the dance wherein a balance is struck, it never used the word “delicate” in the article. We submit that the dance is anything but “delicate.” We wound up thinking of Bing Crosby’s and Fred Astaire’s banter when they, in later years, reprised their earlier rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Couple of Song and Dance Men,” with Bing asking Fred if he still taught dancing:

Bing: How would you teach a 300-pound gorilla to do the shimmy?
Fred: Any way he wants. . .
Bing: Just give him the downbeat and duck, huh?
(Keeping pace with the modern world, our proverbial large gorillas are generally now referred to as 800 to 1200 pounds.)

Deputy Mayor Harris Avers Administration Balances Development and Preservation

Deputy Mayor Harris responding to the Times questions which she had required be in writing promoted the idea that the Bloomberg administration performs a balancing of development and preservation.

“We don’t think about development without thinking about preservation . . . During a time of unprecedented growth, preservation has always been front and center.”
Two Buildings in the West Village; Similar Situation Contrasted with Ward Bakery

The Times told another story with parallels to the nonpreservation of Ward Bakery.

The story was about two buildings, the Superior Ink building, and the Whitehall Storage, which despite community requests for their preservation were left out when the Greenwich Village Historic District was expanded to cover the West Village, just the way that the Ward Bakery Building block was conspicuously carved out of the new Prospect Heights Historic District being created. Request for expansion of the Greenwich Village district was made in 2004. The commission approved the extension with the exclusion, sealing the two buildings’ fate in 2006, so the time frame is similar to the failure to save Ward Bakery. The Times writes about how developers lobbied for the exclusion:

Meanwhile, developers made their own efforts in hearings, private meetings and letters to persuade the commission to leave their properties out or not to extend the district at all. The Witkoff Group was planning to build a 15-story residential tower atop Whitehall Storage; Related Companies wanted to raze Superior Ink and build a condo tower and town houses.
The tale of what happened in the West Village diverges from what happened with Ward Bakery. It is easier to claim that in the West Village situation a need for development was being balanced against preservation. For one thing we are talking about development that was about to take place.

Today a 17-story luxury condo tower called Superior Ink and a row of Neo-Classical town houses are rising on the site at West and Bethune Streets.
The Ward Bakery is not replaced now and may not be replaced for 20 or 30 years. No matter what Deputy Mayor Harris might aver, preservation of the Ward Bakery was not weighed “front and center” against the possibility of current development.

Further Contrast: Ward Bakery Demolition a More Hostile-to-the-Community Act

We have made the case that Ward Bakery was destroyed not in order to develop its site at this time but for a more-hostile-to-the-community reason. Destruction is part of strategy to pressure the community to support the Atlantic Yards project by removing the community’s options and creating ongoing blight. In our last post we analogized it to the inverse developer values that cause developers to target and seek to erase a building’s historic and “distinctive features,” obtaining “stripping permits” with the purpose of irreparably damaging exactly those features of buildings that the public values so that the buildings will no longer be landmark-worthy. We also noted that this kind of demolition, driven by Ratner’s inverse values, continues, pointing out the new demolition of three attractive town houses on Dean Street. (See: Friday, December 05, 2008, On Dean Street, a slide show shows blight.)

When plants are stressed and dying they put their last resources into procreative seed production. These final demolitions are similarly last gasp. They come just as Ratner’s stressed and, we hope, finally dying project, is halting work. For more information about the “indefinite suspension of work” see: Saturday, December 06, 2008, With railyard work halted, no answers about the timetable to rebuild the Carlton Avenue bridge (and why is FCR in charge?)

Is this the way the administration weighs development against preservation?

Further Contrast: Ward Bakery Demolition Driven by Developer’s Creation of Its Own Incentives Outside of Proper Public Process

The development that was balanced against preservation in the West Village was normal development. The demise of the Ward Bakery Building cannot be weighed properly against the impetus for development that destroyed it because it is not being driven by the lure of normal development. Under normal development, the leanings of developers would more likely to have been to preserve Ward Bakery.

In the West Village the development side of the scale involved construction in accordance with zoning approved through a proper community process. In the case of Ward Bakery, the development is supposed to occur pursuant to a developer-driven and orchestrated zoning override. It is an override intended to grant the developer huge and unprecedented density. Excluding the public (and legitimate informed objection) from the upzoning process was critical to the developer’s end goal of being granted such unusual rights. The public is still objecting to the fact that it was excluded from the process. The early destruction of the Ward Bakery is intended to make the public more acquiescent toward the zoning override. Rather than the prospect of development incentivized by existing zoning being balanced against preservation, we have, in the case of Ward bakery, destruction and nonpreservation that are intended to incentivize an inappropriate developer-driven upzoning.

Lastly, as the notoriously odd shape of the Atlantic Yard footprint should make clear, the Ward Bakery block is being specially targeted for inclusion in the footprint for another reason connected to the zoning override. The developer is going after eminent domain windfall that it also intends to get by overriding proper public process.

Huxtable: Tough-Minded Moderate Believing in Balance

One thing that one takes away from the Leonard Lopate interview with Ada Louise Huxtable is that when it comes to preservationism, she views herself as we view ourselves: as a tough-minded independent moderate who believes in balance. She agrees with us (at: 14:06) that too much fuss was made over the alteration of Edward Durell Stone’s eccentric building at 2 Columbus Circle that she said she was against saving. Altered, it is now the new home of the Museum of Arts and Design. Mostly, she speaks of required balance not in terms of “development” vs. preservation but in terms of considering the condition of the buildings that might be preserved. In a modulated defense of the LPC that acknowledged it has problems she said (at: 12:44):

This is such a complex subject. You can’t just say save your building when there is no way to save it, when there is no money, when there is no way to keep it and preservationists tend to be very tunnel vision about that. Particularly in new York preservation is a . . it’s a very complicated thing that requires a lot of tradeoffs and a lot of willingness to look at all sides of a problem. We don’t have that now. We have a preservationist movement that really alarms me a little bit because they don’t want to deal with reality. They just want to forge ahead and save buildings and it is not that simple.
(The question of balancing the cost of preservation came up in the Times series, mainly in the third article which focused on preservation of religious buildings with the attendant issues about separation of church and state: Preserving the City: Houses of Worship Choosing to Avoid Landmark Status, by Robin Pogrebin, November 30, 2008)

Huxtable as Celebrant of Change

Ms. Huxtable also celebrates change (5:00):

One thing you learn is how relative it all is and it’s going to be a different skyline and it’s going to be a different skyline again. . . . I think it’s wonderful that things change.
Huxtable: Still a Preservation and Therefore Particularly Against Urban Renewal

As a tough-minded moderate Ms. Huxtable is nevertheless a preservationist and was particularly critical of urban renewal style destruction. Asked by Lopate about the 50's and 60's urban renewal, Ms. Huxtable responded (11:04):

That was the biggest mistake in the history of urban design. That was . . That grew out of the total ignorance of what was being lost. Urban renewal required total clearance. There was no provision for saving anything and that was how we learned how valuable the things were that we lost.
Lopate asked whether this was “the fault of European thinkers like Le Corbusier or because of American bureaucrats who found it more convenient to think that way?” Ms Huxtable:

Oh no, I think we were all guilty. There was no consciousness. That consciousness had to be found and raised; that the environment, the built world was a rich tapestry of time and style. We just didn’t know!
Atlantic Yards: Flying in the face of What We’ve Learned From Urban Renewal Mistakes

In essence, the Atlantic Yards magadevelopement is urban renewal all over again, complete with its mistakes (even old-fashioned superblocks) despite what we have now learned. In fact, part of the way the megaproject is being defended in court is that it is adjacent to, and might be considered an extension of, a 40-year-old urban renewal area (the Atlantic Terminal Urban Area or “ATURA”). That notion involves a substantial stretch of the imagination: Although the developer created the irregular configuration of the project footprint to include the Ward Bakery, for 40 years running the ATURA excluded the bakery and its block.

Can a supposedly knowledgeable and professional developer like Bruce Ratner and his Forest City Ratner development company now be designing a project that is the modern equivalent of an urban renewal project without being aware that urban renewal as Ms. Huxtable says, “was the biggest mistake in the history of urban design”? Without being aware how the destruction of the Ward Bakery especially exemplifies that mistake? This is highly unlikely since through all its initial phases the executive in charge fo the project for Ratner was Jim Stuckey*. Stuckey’s qualifications? He was formerly a city official responsible for city urban renewal projects (including the ATURA).

*(James P. Stuckey is now President of the Arts Commission of the City of New York, very recently renamed the “Public Design Commission of the City of New York.” Designated a “lay member,” he is one of those heads of commissions appointed during the Bloomberg administration that Ms. Huxtable would no doubt refer to as “a political appointee.” We deem that thereby hangs a tale or two.)

What about the obliviousness of our current city officials? There should also be no excuse. The urban renewal of the 50's and 60's was before creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. As one might say, the creation of the commission was because the “consciousness” that Ms. Huxtable said “had to be found and raised” was indeed found and raised.

This time it is was not that “we just didn’t know” that “the built world” is “a rich tapestry of time and style.” This time we not only knew; this time we had available the tools of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and yet the LPC did nothing. Do we think this was the result of a weighing process by current city officials or calculated obliviousness?

Leerily, On Gehry We Don’t Agree (A Double-lopate Digression)

Let us digress to say the following.

We respect and listen carefully to Ms. Huxtable’s points of view. We find it more valuable than that of the Times’ current architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, whose focus seems too narrow and adorational of “name” architects. We would suggest that if the Times is going to continue to retain Ouroussoff they should have more than one critic to provide necessary sweep and balance. It would be nice if they had someone on board able and interested to point things out if the city is going to be doing things like repeating the “biggest mistake in the history of urban design” in the 22 acres of Atlantic Yards.

Nevertheless, much as we respect Ms. Huxtable, we warily disagree with her and think she has a blind spot when comes to valuing the work of Frank Gehry. Mr. Lopate asked (22:50) about Gehry, noting that “now we have all these wild-shaped buildings by people like Frank Gehry” and asked “is that just the latest trend or do you see that as architecture’s future.” Ms Huxtable;

Well, you have to really be very careful about not putting it all into the same basket. Frank Gehry is a great architect. He has created an architecture that it is . . it is as much about restudying function, how we live and use buildings as in changing shapes. It works together. Then we have the knock-offs on the shapes. If this is getting publicity, and the press has a great deal to do with this, then that’s what they design.
Later on Ms. Huxtable talks about Gehry designing museums that suitably interplay with large sculptures to which they provide a home. (Richard Serra of “Tilted Arc” fame was mentioned.)

We would rather apply other of Huxtable’s general statements and thinking to Gehry’s work. She says (immediately below speaking about a lot of the modern condominiums):

There’s been all of the “wow” in Architecture that is for effect, and for show, and for status and I have very mixed feeling about it. I frankly don’t care if some of it disappears. (20:30)

* * * *

(Architecture) is the art we must live with. If you want to experience painting or sculpture it’s an option. But there is absolutely nothing optional about your experience of architecture. . . . We see an awful lot of bad buildings and I guess my life has been devoted, or a good part of it, to trying to say, `We have entitlements; we deserve better than this’ (17:10)
We found it amusing to hear Ms. Huxtable speak well of Frank Gehry in a Leonard Lopate interview when we had just read something similar in her Times interview with Phillip Lopate, Leonard’s brother. After Phillip asks her to explain what she meant when speaking critically of architecture as “eye candy” she explained:

The “wow” buildings. Don’t blame it all on Frank Gehry. Gehry is legit; what he did at Bilbao is superb. He showed us how to marry all the arts in our time. But the lesson taken away from it was: We need something that looks “iconic,” that’s going to put our city on the map.
She also likes Gehry’s “Dirty Iceberg” building, the IAC Building on the Hudson River. (See: Her New York, by Phillip Lopate, November 7, 2008)

On the other hand, in her interview with brother Leonard she did say, speaking of the `marvellousness’ of kitsch:

I think that kitsch has it place just as great art has its place. It’s all part of the culture. (19:30)
Even if we could chalk it up to subjective judgement and allow that Ms. Huxtable could be right in thinking that Gehry is a better architect on some projects than we think he is, it is doubtful that he is an appropriate architect to design the 22 acres of Atlantic Yards. There is also a moral component to it: it is not defeasible for him to lend his name to perpetrating a repeat of the “biggest mistake in the history of urban design.” Destruction of Ward Bakery has to be laid partly at his doorstep.

It Is Not All Balancing; There Is Also Principle and Precedent

Beginning the “battle lines were familiar,” the final article of the Times series starts out by talking about the Rudin/St. Vincent’s real estate deal in a way that gives the impression that, like other things being talked about in that final article, it involved a balancing with perhaps a give-and-take:

In the case of St. Vincent’s, the commission initially rejected the hospital’s plan, objecting to the height and bulk of the new buildings and invoking the aesthetic value of the old ones. Then St. Vincent’s reduced the scale of its project and resubmitted an application for permission to demolish the O’Toole building, the likely site for the new 20-story medical tower, citing physical hardship. A distinctive, sawtooth-sided low white 1964 structure on Seventh Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets, the O’Toole is valued by many Village residents and devotees of midcentury Modernism.
What the Times didn’t pick up on was that the commission’s actions in approving the Rudin\St. Vincent’s real estate deal didn’t involve a “balancing,” but a failure to adhere to principle and precedent. This is important because while it is hard for preservationists to counter the heft of big developers when a “balancing” is involved, community interests should fare better in battles when principles and precedent can be invoked.

Principles Should Have Given Greenwich Village Community Victory

In the Rudin/St. Vincent’s situation historic designations were in place. A Historic District already existed. Once designations have occurred, principles and precedent should come into play more readily and fewer “balancings” should be involved. By all rights the community was entitled to a win against the developers.

We have written before (Wednesday, October 8, 2008, The Subsidy Ball: The Rudin/St. Vincent’s Proposal) that the essence of the Rudin/St. Vincent’s real estate deal is that a portion of the Greenwich Village Historic District is being sold off for private real estate profit and to create a special real estate endowment subsidy for St. Vincent’s Hospital. That is not the way that we are supposed to subsidize hospitals, and it is not the way that the landmarks law or its concept of hardship is supposed to work.

Prospect of Creating Density Driving Deal

As with so many real estate megadeals that the Bloomberg administration is ushering through, the fuel for the Rudin/St. Vincent’s deal comes from the creation of a substantial amount of new density that can be created if the protections of the Historic District can be wiped out. Eliminating this corner from the Greenwich Village Historic District is not the end of the road and won’t itself create the extra real estate density now driving the deal. As the Times cryptically notes, “Further approval is still needed from city and state agencies.”

The extra density won’t exist until the City Planning Commission upzones to create it. The gyrations that the St. Vincent’s developers have been willing to go through in getting the LPC to contort itself indicate the developers feel reasonably assured of eventual City Planning Commission approval. (The Times is going to have to do a whole other series on the workings of the City Planning Commission.) The commission is, in fact, probably much more likely to dump the extra inappropriate density into what is still theoretically the historic district now that the LPC has voted to strip away landmark protections.

No Balancing; Just an Unworkable Precedent

A balancing would only have been involved if the LPC had been weighing whether the landmark O’Toole Building was worthy of preservation. Since it had already concluded that it was, the LPC could only consider whether landmarks acquired and in the inventory of charitable organizations can be destroyed if it is cheaper to convert them into higher-density uses than to buy other real estate where similar higher density is already possible. There was no precedent or principle for this. Furthermore, it should be recognized that it will always be cheaper to buy a low-density landmark and covert it to higher density. Therefore, if the LPC’s vote is a new precedent, it is an unworkable one since it amounts to both tool and incentive for all city landmarks and historic districts to be sold off.

Adieu to Landmark Protection

The horrible thought that all landmarks protection might have been eviscerated by the Rudin/St. Vincent’s real estate deal decision is probably the best place to conclude this review. The implications of the Rudin/St. Vincent’s vote and the implications in general of not adhering to principle is something the Times series largely missed, though the last article of the series concluded with a slight nod in this direction:

“They really need to look at a way to be more forthcoming, more explanatory, so you could at least understand their reasoning,”
The fact is the whole Times series was a very good one. It should generate a lot of discussion and raises a multiple issues for people to be talking about. That is what we have been doing here and, as we noted the series provoked worthwhile dialogue between Leonard Lopate and Ada Louise Huxtable even if they were just scratching the surface and we differ with Ms. Huxtable in some respects. There is easily enough material for several more Times articles. The series did raise, just as we said it needed to, the influence of Mayor Bloomberg and gave reasonable clues to how profoundly political his influence can be. As we suggested, the series presented, in brief, the example of Ward Bakery about which there was much more to say. The series also raised, as we think it needed to, the Rudin/St. Vincent’s real estate deal, though not apparently recognizing what we think are some fairly startling implications associated with it.

We see in what happened to the Ward Bakery Building just how poorly the public can fare under the Bloomberg administration when landmarking decisions amount to no more than a political appointee’s balancing test. Its destruction belies the words of the deputy mayor overseeing the commission who says “We don’t think about development without thinking about preservation” and avers that “preservation has always been front and center.” We have further seen in the case of the Rudin/St. Vincent’s real estate deal, that under the Bloomberg administration there is considerable reason to worry even when landmark status protection is officially in place. Protection is illusory when principle and precedent yield to the political power of development interests.

Principles to Be Found

There might be no known landmark-law principle that could have been invoked to save the Ward Bakery Building, but perhaps there ought to be. Should the things of most value to a community be targeted for destruction if only vacant lost will replace them? However, principles written into law mean that some people just look for loopholes or ignore them: Witness Rudin/St. Vincent’s. What we need more than anything else is leadership with an innate and natural sense of principles, leaders who would not need something written to know that the destruction of the Ward Bakery was unjust and that the Rudin/St. Vincent’s power play was unacceptable . . . leaders who would act upon those principles.

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