The Manhattan Institute’s
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city’s planning, housing, and development
A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow

The City Council Does the Right Thing: Un-Landmarking in the Boroughs

Julia Vitullo-Martin, November 2005

Is the City Council signaling a new era in its oversight of landmarking? Within the last five weeks, the council has twice rejected designations of individual buildings by the mayorally appointed Landmarks Preservation Commission. In the 15 years since it was given authority by the New York City Charter to intervene in landmarking decisions, the council has overturned only five designations

Is this a revolution in the making? Yes and no. If the council made its last two decisions on the merits, as it argues it did, then it is merely asserting legislative oversight. Yet if these two decisions indicate council skepticism with the preservationist drive to landmark modern buildings, then a revolution may indeed be coming. It will be welcome.

TWO HOMELY LANDMARKS

On Nov. 30, the council voted 43-6-1 to disallow the designation of a homely, early 20th-century warehouse, the Austin Nichols building, at 184 Kent, on the Brooklyn waterfront. A month before, on Oct. 27, the council voted nearly unanimously (one dissent) to overturn the commission's designation of the former Jamaica Savings Bank, built in 1968, at 89-01 Queens Boulevard, in Elmhurst.

These buildings have several things in common. First, they are both ordinary-looking to the naked eye. One is a plain box; the other is a typical bank whose owner compares it, not unfairly, to an International House of Pancakes. Second, they are both examples of the commission's recently discovered interest in buildings outside Manhattan. Third, they were both ignored by preservationists and architectural historians until their owners proposed developing the sites; neither is covered in any important book on New York architecture. Fourth, they are both dubiously embroiled in the new preservationist debate on modernism.

The Landmarks Commission claims that Austin Nichols was a precursor of modernism—and that "European architects, such as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, identified this type of industrial building as inspiration for the development of European modernism." Not this particular building, just this type of building. Similarly, Landmarks calls the Jamaica Bank a "bold expression of mid-20th century engineering," and enthuses that "the form recalls the work of Eduardo Catalonao, Felix Candela, and Eero Saarinen." Again, there is no argument that the building itself is. In fact, the Commission all but admits that it's derivative ("recalls the work of" too often means: "copies the work of"). Even Docomomo, the modernist advocacy group, called the bank "decent eye candy."

Of course, there are differences between the two buildings. Austin Nichols was designed by the renowned Cass Gilbert, architect of the Woolworth Building, among many others. The Jamaica Bank's architect was William F. Cann Company, part of the far less renowned St. Louis-based Bank Building and Equipment Corporation of America. Austin Nichols's owners intend to convert the building to a very different use, luxury housing; the bank's owners hope to continue its use as a branch.

But the two buildings are yoked by their mundane appearances, which belie any landmark status. As Melinda Katz, chair of the council's land-use committee, said at the hearings, there are many wonderful buildings in the boroughs. Why did the commission landmark these two? Pick the good ones, she admonished.

THE DETAILS MATTER

In landmarking individual buildings, as opposed to whole districts, the details truly matter. After all, the owner of a landmarked building is saddled with expensive requirements and onerous regulatory oversight that other owners do not suffer. Singling out one owner puts the burden of proof on the landmarks agency to show that its case has strong merits.

Most of the case for designating Austin Nichols relies on Cass Gilbert's prominence. Yet architectural historian Andrew Alpern, who reviewed the Gilbert archives at the New-York Historical Society, says that the famous Gilbert himself disavowed the building, after the owner substantially changed design, "Designating this building," says Alpern, "demeans what Cass Gilbert considered important and trivializes his design intent."

The case for the Jamaica Bank seems to be only that it represents mid-century commercial architecture, which is rapidly disappearing from New York—though for pretty good reasons. The Jamaica Bank is falling apart : like most modernist buildings, it wasn't built to last.

THE FIGHTS AHEAD

The great preservationist debate today centers on modernist buildings. Advocates want all of them preserved, including truly questionable ones like the Marriott Marquis Hotel designed by John Portman in Times Square and the Silver Towers complex designed by I. M. Pei in Greenwich Village. Like so many modernist buildings, these defy the streetscape and rend the urban fabric. They are ugly and out of place. Should we preserve them?

New Yorkers want their landmarks saved. Of this there is no doubt. There's also no doubt but that landmarking codifies current use and and constricts evolutionary change. Landmarking must be judiciously imposed.

Here are three principles for the future.

  1. The burden of proof in designating an individual building should lie with Landmarks, not the owner. As Riverdale Councilmember Oliver Koppell noted at the hearings, when there is substantial doubt about whether a building should be landmarked, it shouldn't be. Or as former landmarks chairman Gene Norman testified, we shouldn't be landmarking on the theory that some building may have influenced great architects. Don't landmark on a surmise.
  2. Landmark law should be construed narrowly. The building should have real importance that can be demonstrated clearly. Preservationists believe the public to be uneducated about modernism. Maybe so. But it's the preservationist's responsibility to do the educating before the designating.
  3. Landmarking should work within current zoning and planning. As Brooklyn Councilmember David Yassky points out, the city just finished an expensive and arduous rezoning of the Brooklyn waterfront, which could easily be undone by piecemeal Landmarks. Landmarking should not be an end-run around zoning.

WHAT’S NEXT

The Landmarks Commission, which has now lost two battles in a row, has been embarrassed. It will almost surely seek the mayor's veto of the City Council's override. The mayor has 5 days to decide what to do about Austin Nichols. Will he go with his management impulse to support his appointees? Or will he heed common sense and conclude that the hulking warehouse is no landmark? As Brooklyn Councilmember and Landmarks Subcommittee Chair Simcha Felder warned the commission: You have to choose your battles carefully.

Let's hope the mayor does, and that he walks away from this one.


November 2005
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“Preservation advocates can lose sight of how fragile the consensus in favor of landmarking is. If you lower the bar you're going to invite a backlash that could undermine support for the good work of the commission.”
Ken Fisher,
Attorney for owners of 184 Kent
 
“It's going to take a lot of money to make this building habitable. The building leaks like a sieve. Tremendous work has to be done on the facade and the windows—but the facade and the windows are what the landmark fight is all about. There's nothing else to talk about of architectural worth.”
David Hurwitz,
Architectural Historian & resident of 184 Kent
 
“We should listen to the experts, and the experts say that Austin Nichols is a landmark.”
Queens Councilmember Tony Avella,
one of six to uphold the designation of 184 Kent
 
“There was no great public outcry by preservationists or advocates of modern architecture to designate the Jamaica Savings Bank, which had gone virtually unnoticed by the public as well as by architectural historians. Personally we felt that if you slapped a little orange paint on the roof it would look like a Howard Johnson's. So we called up architects and historians all over the city to ask them what they thought. Half felt it was worthy of designation and the others said it wasn't. But no one would testify for us. No one would go up against the agency.”
Jeffrey Chester,
Attorney, Einbinder & Dunn, representing 89-01 Queens Boulevard
 
“By the time the City Council gets a designation it's already been through two sets of hearings and two commissions. So there's some presumption of merit. Of course, presumption is not destiny.”
Professor Ross Sandler,
New York Law School
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