A Landmark Moment

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | After four years leading the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), Meenakshi Srinivasan has resigned as its chairperson, and will take a position at New York Law School.

Srinivasan’s decision to step down from the critical agency, which she announced in April, came less than a month after local activists and preservationists packed an LPC hearing regarding the agency’s proposal to change its procedure on public review of applications. Basically, Landmarks wanted its staff to make a lot more of the decisions on applications. The staff already makes the majority of them  — but this would go too far, in the view of most in the room.

Those who testified against the plan strongly argued that allegedly “small” things — like rooftop additions and how visible they are from the street, changing backyard windows and the like — are not minor at all. Rather, they said, in a historic district or on an individual landmark, these features are part of the whole, and the public and community boards — both of whose input is vital — must not be cut out of the process. After all, who knows more about their neighborhoods than local residents, activists and preservationists?

Yet, with Srinivasan’s departure, word is those proposed rule changes are now not moving forward. But there are still myriad problems besetting LPC. For example, just look at the Gansevoort Historic District, a small area that covers much of the Village’s old Meatpacking District, to see what Landmarks has been doing wrong. In short, many feel Landmarks has lost its way in recent years, no longer upholding its mandate of protecting landmarked buildings and districts, but has become pro-development.

Take that “glass cube” plopped on top of the former one-story Pastis restaurant building, at Ninth Ave. and Little W. 12th St. Why? How could LPC approve that? We’re told that Restoration Hardware, the trendy furniture outfit that will be taking the space, was aghast at the design — resembling a giant frosted-glass shower stall — and that the cube design is now being tweaked and its perimeter pulled in a bit.

An earlier design rendering for the glass “cube” rooftop addition on the former Pastis restaurant building, at Ninth Ave. and Little W. 12th St.

Then there is “Gansevoort Row,” a truly unfortunate project that will build up parts of what had been one of the Meatpacking District’s most iconic blocks — the south side of Gansevoort St. between Washington and Greenwich Sts. Save Gansevoort, co-led by the late Elaine Young, waged a valiant court battle to stop that project, but they recently ran out of court options after the Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest court, refused to hear the case. As a result, 70-74 Gansevoort St., that strip’s westernmost building, has been demolished, and will now be rebuilt with a much-taller multistory building. In short, what was the point of creating the Gansevoort Historic District if LPC is going to allow these kind of projects?

For the record, the “Pastis cube” was approved under Robert Tierney, Srinivasan’s predecessor. (Pastis itself will actually be returning, but in a building in the “Gansevoort Row” project.)

And let’s not forget the facade of the former Florent restaurant. Thanks to — that’s right — a “staff-level decision,” that beautiful classic diner storefront was renovated with the wrong materials (wood) and resembled nothing of its former self. After the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation  (GVSHP) raised an outcry, the misstep was corrected. But this is exactly what can happen when the public is cut out of the process.

So where are we left now? Not necessarily in a better place. Namely, Fred Bland, a longtime member of the Landmarks Commission, has been elevated to acting vice chairperson. However, according to Andrew Berman, director of GVSHP, Bland tended to “march in lockstep” with the former chairperson.

Essentially, preservationists and community activists are now raising an urgent call for the next leader of the LPC to have — hey, what a concept! — actual preservationist credentials. They are waging a letter-writing campaign to the mayor and City Council to ratchet up the pressure to achieve this commonsense goal. (To add your voice to the effort, click here.) Several hundred letters have already been generated.

As Berman warned, “Left to his own devices, I believe that the mayor will appoint someone to continue to carry out the same agenda as the past chairperson, which was not very sympathetic to true preservation. That said, a permanent appointee must be approved by the City Council. I believe the Council can use its leverage to pressure the mayor to appoint someone who will actually care about the mission and duties of the LPC.”

Kirsten Theodos, of Take Back NYC, added that Bland also has conflicts of interest, since he is a principal at Beyer Blinder Belle, a pre-eminent New York City architectural preservation firm with projects that come before the LPC for review “all the time.” Bland should not even be on the commission, in Theodos’ view.

Laurence Frommer, president of Save Chelsea, has also written to the mayor, strongly urging him not to elevate Bland to chairperson, and stressing that it’s now time that LPC “changes course for the better.” Frommer mentioned, for example, how Bland inappropriately failed to recuse himself from a discussion on facade modifications proposed for 404 W. 20th St., the oldest house in Chelsea, even though Bland’s firm and the applicant’s attorney had previously worked together on other projects.

Above is what the landmarked block of the southern side of Gansevoort St. between Washington and Greenwich Sts. looked like two years ago. Below is the design for the “Gansevoort Row” project, which the community overwhelmingly opposed but which the L.P.C. approved. The westernmost building, in foreground of the photo above, has been demolished to make way for a new taller building to be constructed on the spot, seen below. The buildings in the middle of the block will also have stories added atop them under the plan.

We absolutely agree. It’s high time that Landmarks and Mayor de Blasio “change course for the better.” LPC must get back on track with what it should be doing — preserving and protecting our historic buildings and neighborhoods, not enabling developers to chip away at and destroy them. Send a letter!

Lincoln Anderson is editor of our sister publications, The Villager and Villager Express.

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