New York City’s Historic Districts Council Public Review Committee is a group that reviews Certificate of Appropriateness applications submitted to New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).
The volunteer committee and professional staff examine each proposal and create testimony that is read to the Commission at public hearings. The following properties were some of the biggest projects that were reviewed this past year.
7 Irvington Place – Fiske Terrace-Midwood Park Historic District – Brooklyn
Public Hearing: February 14
Early this winter, a new owner purchased this 1913 house and applied to the LPC to enlarge and alter it to a state unrecognizable from its original shape and character. Its architect offered that it was in a state of disrepair, and that the house was “uniquely underbuilt” for its zoning as grounds for his argument. HDC argued that if this application was approved, the building would no longer be a “style” building, as its Arts & Crafts style would be completely destroyed and that the application, as it was submitted, displayed a total disregard for the building’s history or style. HDC also corrected the applicant, reminding him that there is no such thing as as-of-right zoning in an historic district. HDC noted to the LPC that many people willingly buy buildings in historic districts only to then seek permits to demolish them, which is unacceptable. The LPC took a No Action, with Chair Srinivasan advising the applicant to “seek legibility in the original home.” The second iteration of the design was approved with the condition that the large dormer on the front façade be reduced to more accurately relate to the historic scale and proportions.
Belvedere Castle & Paths – Central Park Scenic Landmark – Manhattan
Public Hearing: May 2
The Central Park Conservancy unveiled a plan in May 2017 to bring ADA access to the Belvedere Castle via a substantial elevated pathway. The pathway was affectionately termed by HDC staff as “the Great Wall of Gotkin,” named after the stalwart Central Park advocate Michael Gotkin, who rang the alarm bells about the proposal to neighborhood groups this spring. After carefully reviewing the plans, HDC found the pathway’s height, length, and width’s impacts on the surrounding landscape and the castle itself to be quite detrimental to the landscape of Central Park. In fact, under this plan, the castle would become partially buried as a result of the intrusion. Thus, HDC argued that the experience of the resource was being compromised to bring access to it. While LPC approved portions of the application such as restorative work on the castle, the pathway remains in limbo and has not yet been reviewed or approved by the NYC Public Design Commission. Due to enormous public interest of this scheme, the Central Park Conservancy has not yet proposed a revision of the pathway and HDC is anticipating its return in 2018.
60 Norfolk Street – Beth Hamedrash Hagadol – Individual Landmark, Manhattan
Public Hearing: July 11
Originally constructed as a Baptist church in 1850, Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol took over the structure in 1885 and converted it into a synagogue at that time. By the late 20th century, the century-old congregation dwindled and the building fell into disrepair. In early spring of 2017, the synagogue mysteriously caught fire and was severely damaged to a point of ruin. By the summer, the owner applied to the LPC for a demolition permit of what remained of the fallen edifice. In testimony, HDC reminded the Landmarks Commission that the same owner had applied for a demolition permit as recent as 2012 to build condos in its place, and at that time, the LPC denied the request. HDC testified that a hardship procedure exists within the Landmarks Law, and that this was the route the applicant should be seeking. HDC vehemently opposed demolition, as did many public speakers. After a long deliberation, Commissioners shared a consensus of retaining fragments of the building that could be stabilized and salvaged, nixing the wholesale demolition that the applicant sought. This application is an important example of the strength of the NYC Landmarks Law, and demonstrates to property owners that demolition of designated structures can be extremely difficult to secure, even in the most dramatic and damaging of cases.
111 Noble Street – Greenpoint Historic District – Brooklyn
Public Hearing: September 12
111 Noble Street is an altered wood-frame house built in 1855. Vernacular houses like this are important to the historic district because they are early surviving examples of architecture associated with the ship building industry of the mid-19th century. After the LPC denied various further alterations to this building by a previous owner a few years prior, the most recent owner applied to demolish the building and build a contemporary multiple dwelling in its place.
The applicant described the building as “non-contributing” and cited the building’s structural integrity as cause for demolition, despite currently renting the two units for over $3000 each at the time of the hearing. HDC stated to the LPC that there is no such thing as a “non-contributing” building within the Greenpoint Historic District and that there were several recent examples of altered houses, which are prolific within this district, which had been lovingly restored to their historic appearance. Allowing a demolition of this building would de facto jeopardize scores of other buildings in Greenpoint. The LPC stated that this district was designated as a middle-class district with many wooden, altered houses and that there wasn’t enough evidence for the Commission to support a demolition of this house. Currently, this application is scheduled to be reviewed again in 2018 by the LPC and the applicant has once again applied for demolition and construction of a smaller-scaled new building. HDC has reviewed the plans and the applicant has not provided any evidence of why the building cannot be saved, despite LPC asking them to provide this.
Fort Greene Park – Fort Greene Historic District – Brooklyn
Public Hearing: September 19
As part of its “Parks Without Borders” campaign, the NYC Parks Department came forward with a proposal to cut an entrance into the northwest corner of Fort Greene Park and to create a wide, paved axial path with a view toward the park’s iconic Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument. The path would also eliminate “the mounds,” a 1972 alteration by landscape architect A. E. Bye, whose extant works are few. HDC testified that the scheme was based on “a never-realized schematic by McKim, Mead and White, not by any of the park’s actual layers of history” and that “Olmsted and Vaux’s vision for a planted area protected from the street at the northwest corner has always been honored, even by the McKim, Mead and White design that was realized.” HDC, along with the local community, which came out in great numbers for the Public Hearing on September 19, also advocated for preserving the mounds and against the significant loss of green space and trees. The commissioners asked the Parks Department to further explore the entrance, encouraging them to work with the existing side entrance. The Chair opined that the mounds, while a feature of the park, were not necessarily one that needs to be retained, but suggested that they could be reconciled with further refinement of the design.
At the Public Meeting on November 21, the Parks Department returned with a design that was little changed from the first. The commissioners justified approval of the project with the argument that parks are always evolving and that opening up the park at the corner with an axial view toward the monument is appropriate. While one commissioner expressed disappointment that the Parks Department had not reacted more to the community’s desire for more green space instead of paving and that no effort had been made to integrate elements of the mounds, the former issue was cited as irrelevant to the Commission and the latter was not brought up by any other commissioner, so the comment was overridden.
292-314 Kent Avenue – Havemeyers & Elder Filter, Pan & Finishing House, Domino Sugar – Individual Landmark, Brooklyn
Public Hearing: October 31
Although the Domino Sugar Factory complex in Brooklyn had a Certificate of Appropriateness in place for its conversion, a new proposal was brought forth in October by Practice for Architecture & Urbanism. Unlike the previous version, the new design rarefied its insides, removing all interior components and rendered the existing building to a shell for a new building to live within it.
As HDC testified at the hearing: “The Refinery today is not a ruin, but a factory complex with floors, joists, beams and structural elements. If this project were in a similar state to that of the Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island, the proposed intervention may be appropriate and necessary. However, to strip the building down to a shell would represent a significant removal of historic fabric and would destroy the 19th century industrial construction methods still exhibited inside – and both are important reasons for the complex’s designation in the first place.” This sentiment was shared by Commissioner Michael Devonshire, who stated that he was “strongly troubled by the issue of taking what is a building and turning it into a ruin.” The applicants also stated that there were no existing floors in the building, which HDC confirmed in the testimony that there certainly were.
In the end, the LPC was pleased with the design of the new glazing of the project, including a large, glass dome which terminated the building, with Commissioner Devonshire being the only opposing vote when this application was approved. He concluded: “I disagree with the concept of this glass box somehow setting this landmark free. What this does in destroying the interior of this building is setting it free from its historical associations.”
Pier 17 – South Street Seaport Historic District – Manhattan
Public Hearing: December 12
For years, HDC has advocated against changes that fall short of honoring the historic character of the South Street Seaport. Some of our toughest battles in this part of the city were concerned with the demolition and rebuilding of Pier 17. While preservation advocates lost the battle to protect Benjamin Thompson’s Pier 17, we continue to monitor proposed changes to the Howard Hughes Corporation’s new mall in hopes of mitigating any further impact on the historic district. In 2015, the developer proposed a rooftop pergola spanning almost the entire length of the building, which the commission did not approve. On December 12, 2017, the developer came back with this proposal for a temporary, seasonal performance venue and retractable roof. HDC testified against it, citing the extra bulk on an already bulky building, the lack of precedent for rooftop performance venues in New York City, and the lack of evidence that the structure would, in fact, be temporary.
The commission was won over by the design and convinced by the applicant’s argument that the structure was needed for shade, rather than protection from the elements, and the application was approved. The only caveat was to set definitive dates for the installation in order to avoid it becoming permanent. The Commission set a window of May 1 to October 15 for the structure to be installed.