Preservationists on the Upper West Side recently won a significant - if incomplete - victory after the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to add over 300 buildings to Riverside-West End Historic District.
The original extension, which had been on the LPC’s calendar since 2010, included 377 buildings and encompassed Broadway, West End Avenue, Riverside Drive and side streets between 89th Street and 109th Street. After a recent review, the LPC’s research department recommended excluding 33 of those buildings and eliminating Broadway from the extension, as well as certain side streets.
Despite the unanimous vote approving the new historic district extension, a back and forth between a handful of the commissioners and the research department showed that some commissioners are questioning why the extension was downsized, especially along Broadway.
“Some of the commenters have written in about buildings that were designed by the same architects who designed buildings that are actually included in the district and were originally included on Broadway, and now they’re off,” said Commissioner John Gustafsson. “It raises an interesting question…if there is an adjacent building that is in the same style, how do we justify taking those buildings and carving them out?”
LPC researcher Lisa Keresavage said the Broadway buildings were excised because some of the newer buildings on the avenue now create an “uneven streetscape.” To include both the newer buildings and the architecturally significant buildings in the extension would contribute to a lack of cohesion in the historic district along Broadway.
LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said she believes some of the buildings that were left out of the proposed historic extension may be worthy of individual designation. Srinivasan said that overall, she believes the research department, “has done a very careful and very sensitive analysis” of the extension.
Despite those assurances, Commissioner Michael Devonshire voiced his dissent over the exclusion of a handful of tenement buildings on West 96th Street that are surrounded by taller apartment buildings, but were included in the original 2010 historic district extension.
“I have some strong misgivings about taking some of these things out, as John [Gustafsson] does…and I would feel much more comfortable if we could do a site visit simply because the enormity of this issue is so present,” said Devonshire, whose comments elicited raucous applause from the crowd.
The LPC’s research department said that block has a lot of newly constructed buildings with a “small fragment” of row houses and tenement buildings. “It was really for the cohesion, again, of the historic district,” said Keresavage.
Many West Siders who showed up to voice concerns that PS 75 Emily Dickinson on West End Avenue and 96th Street was removed from the extension were relieved to find out that the school is actually still included, though the school’s playground will not be included in the historic district.
Commissioner Frederick Bland questioned why the entirety of Broadway, which is the oldest north-south main thoroughfare in all of New York City and predates Manhattan’s grid layout, does not have its own, individual historic designation.
“I don’t hold out that that’s off the table,” said Bland. “I will vote today to landmark these extraordinary buildings [in the historic district extension] that we have before us and work hard to think about, in the near future, a different kind of a district, perhaps, adjacent to it.”
Kate Wood, executive director of Landmark West, said the LPC’s reasoning for downsizing the original historic district extension and excluding certain buildings, especially those on the west side of Broadway from 94th Street to 108th Street, had nothing to do with cohesion and everything to do with pressure from the real estate industry.
“The Real Estate Board of New York had lobbied against the inclusion of the Broadway buildings in the originally calendared district,” said Wood. “So that’s the only explanation that seems reasonable for them decided to exclude those buildings. Broadway is being set aside for redevelopment.”
A REBNY spokesman said the group didn’t lobby the commission and is not opposed to historic districts in general. “Our basis for opposition to the properties in question was because they did not contribute to the distinct character of the proposed district,” the spokesman said.
Landmark West has also criticized the commission for downsizing the proposed extension without input from the community. Mark Silberman, the LPC’s general counsel, said the commission was well within its bounds to research and propose changes to the extension without holding a public hearing.
“There’s no statutory requirement that requires the commission hold a hearing when the research department recommends changes to a calendared district or landmarked site,” said Silberman. “The commission is an expert agency, its decision making is not restricted to third-party testimony, and it can make decisions based on its own expertise and the expertise of its staff.”
Erika Petersen, vice-president of the West End Preservation Society, also questioned the LPC’s decision to downsize the extension without a public hearing and wondered whether the real estate industry used their influence to get certain buildings excluded. However, she also said she’s satisfied the extension is now on the books.
“What is concerning is that it is [the LPC’s] own recent staff that made that decision to [downsize the extension], and where did that change come from? Did they wake up in the middle of the night and say ‘oh let’s exclude Broadway’?” said Petersen, whose organization has fought for years to create a historic district along West End Avenue. “But we are tremendously happy to have this. I think for us, it’s a tremendous achievement.”