-Landmark History Happened Today-
In a world where developers run our city in a kind of tragic oligarchy, it is nice to be reminded that justice against the developers can sometimes still prevail. Here is the happy story.
You may remember last year the case of the great landmarked building at 346 Broadway. It has – among other glories – a wonderful Clocktower Suite with a huge mechanical clock, one that is similar in character to that of Big Ben in London. The suite and the clock were specifically designated as interior landmarks. The suite had customarily been open to the public since at least 1918. It was open for tours, scenic viewing of Lower Manhattan from the outdoor veranda, and for public events. It had also housed a public art gallery, art studios, and an “alternative” arts-oriented radio station. The City even appointed an official (unpaid) Clock Master to care for immense clock mechanism. Then, in an eyebrow-raising sale, the City sold the building to a developer, the Peebles Corporation. And then came the coup de grace. The Landmarks Preservation Commission, in a hotly contested public hearing – gave the developer a “certificate of appropriateness” to renovate the suite and to electrify the ancient mechanical clock mechanism – all in preparation for converting the suite to a private condo to profit Peebles. The public would no longer be allowed access.
Many were outraged – for several reasons. There was the sneaky way of privatizing the public part of a landmark. There was the getting around the official de-ascension procedure to remove a building’s landmark status. And last, there was the callous treatment of the rare and immense clock. Therefore, a group of us agreed to become plaintiffs in a lawsuit. The attorney was the brilliant Michael Hiller. Our group of plaintiffs was the Tribeca Trust, Save America’s Clocks (board and president), the Historic Districts Council, the city’s clock master Marvin Schneider and assistant clock master, Forest Markowitz, Alana Heiss, and Chris DeSantis, author of an authoritative book on mechanical clocks.
We sued the developer, Peebles, Beyer Blinder Bell Architects, and the City of New York, specifically the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Our court date was a few months back.
Today, March 31st, Judge Lynn Kotler finally issued her opinion. The result: the LPC decision to issue a certificate of appropriateness is overturned and declared to be “irrational, arbitrary, or capricious.” The judge wrote that the decision was irrational because the LPC is supposed to protect, enhance, and perpetuate landmarks, and that the permit would “render the Clocktower Suite ineligible to be designated an interior landmark once the work [of dismantlement] is completed.” Basically, the LPC was doing the opposite of what it was supposed to be doing. The C. of A. is annulled. Done!
There were also errors of law when the LPC gave Peebles the go-ahead to electrify the clock. The LPC had claimed that it was within its discretionary power to do so, but the court said instead that such a decision was to be based on interpretation of the actual statutes, a power that is “an issue of law for the courts.”
Here is the best quote from the ruling:
“Even though the Landmarks Law does not expressly require that public access to an interior landmark be maintained, absent an express limitation to that extent, the general provisions of the Landmarks Law vest the Commission with the power to regulate an interior landmark. That power must include the ability to direct an Owner to maintain public access, since public access is a specific characteristic of an interior landmark.” (Ruling, page 12)
Having witnessed the presentation of arguments in court myself, I gotta say, Michael Hiller was a class act. He was deeply prepared for every counter-argument, extremely precise, logical, and thoughtful, while the attorneys for the City and developer were, in my opinion, none of those things in front of the Judge.
It is a clear victory and an important one for landmarks law.
Nonetheless, problems remain at 346 Broadway unrelated to this lawsuit. The first is that the developer obtained permission from an overly supine LPC to put an entire glass spaceship “penthouse floor” on top of the building, adding considerably to the developer’s profits at the expense of the integrity of the landmark. The glass spaceship will be visible from all around. How that decision is not also considered “irrational, arbitrary, and capricious,” I will never know. But we did not sue over that part of the problem, darn it.
The second problem is that of improper dealing by the City. The CIO of Peebles is Tawan Davis. He used to work for the New York City Economic Development Corporation during the actual sale. (conflict of interest, anyone?) When a former top executive at Peebles (Daniel Newhouse) filed a suit last year against the developer over a profit sharing issue, it came out as incidental information the claim that Davis, while working for the City, gave Peebles insider information on other bids for 346 Broadway. How our Attorney General or at City Comptroller Scott Stringer is not all over that one, I don’t know either.
And the last problem is this: when the city was moving the law courts from 346 Broadway to another location on Hudson Street, Tribeca residents banded together and sued over the transfer of the courts. The city very quickly agreed not to locate the courts on Hudson Street and residents decided to drop the suit. Apparently it was the irregularities over the city’s sale of the building that made the City so willing to accommodate the contentious neighbors. Did the City not want that can of worms opened? Did those irregularities have to do with Tawan Davis? Perhaps we need another suit to find out.
Meanwhile, celebrate, one and all. The public got a rare win this time. And to add icing to the cake, our community board landmarks committee in CB 1 recently admonished Peebles to put back the iron ball on top of the building. Wouldn’t that be nice too?