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Saving Downtown’s vulnerable landmarks; Advocates cry city must do more

BY PHYLLIS ECKHAUS | Last year, when a demolition permit was filed for the 200-year-old row house at 14 Gay St. — an integral part of the Greenwich Village Historic District — it sent shockwaves through New York City’s preservation community.

How could this happen? And what can be done to ensure other vulnerable landmarks aren’t lost?

John Weiss, deputy counsel of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, attributed the Gay Street debacle to “blatantly illegal” repair work by a contractor, who had removed the entire 25-foot foundation wall in one fell swoop, violating permits requiring the wall be removed in 18-inch segments.

Speaking at a Sept. 5 panel discussion organized by the Municipal Art Society and the Historic Districts Council at the 6th Street Community Center, Weiss assured the sold-out audience that L.P.C. staff are “devastated” when a landmark is lost.

Back in November 2022, Andrew Berman, the director of Village Preservation, condemned the destruction of 14 Gay St. (Village Preservation)

He described progress made under the city’s new Vulnerable Buildings Action Plan, which calls for new cooperation between L.P.C. and the Department of Buildings, and the sharing of information among city agencies and the public.

Weiss said L.P.C. is now getting information from D.O.B. when “a lot of work” is planned for a landmark or an adjacent building. And for the first time, L.P.C. is notified when there’s a vacate order for a landmarked building, which he noted, is “a huge red flag for us.”

Weiss said that a public online map of D.O.B. violations found at landmarked buildings, a new tool for preservation advocates, is forthcoming this fall.

Cooperation between L.P.C. and D.O.B. has also made it possible for an L.P.C.-affiliated engineer, trained in preservation, to accompany the D.O.B. engineer, potentially to influence the decision about whether a building — or its facade — can be saved.

Panelist Valerie Jo Bradley, the co-founder and president of Save Harlem Now!, cautioned the city’s plan may not deter demolition-by-neglect.

“I did everything right!” she lamented of the recent razing of a pair of long-vacant buildings in the Mount Morris Historic District, describing community activists’ 13 years of unsuccessful advocacy to force repairs and their securing of support from local politicians.

She contrasted the city’s inability to force repairs for vacant, privately owned landmarked buildings to its hands-on program for compelling repairs for occupied buildings — in the case of the latter, the city appoints a “7A administrator” to oversee repairs, and the landlord must foot the bill.

Bradley said she is working with city and state legislators in hopes of developing a comparable program for vacant historic buildings.

Richard Moses, president of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, told The Village Sun, “We need a lot more accountability from all parties” to protect at-risk buildings, plus “ironclad rules” rather than the uncodified, “soft guidelines” of the city’s plan.

Penalties must be increased, he said, noting, “Owners who neglect their properties need to face real consequences, including heavy fines, the forfeiture of their property, and even jail time in the worst cases. This is the only way to avoid potential catastrophic damage or injury.”

Moses was one of several local advocates to express concern about whether the city’s plan will serve to preserve fragile Downtown landmarks.

This past March, Susan Howard of SOCCC-64 (Save our Community Center / CHARAS Old P.S. 64) was among the speakers calling for the turn-of-the-century former school building’s return to community use. (Photo by David Sanders)
City workers sealed up the old P.S. 64, including covering up its broken windows and exterior doors, earlier this year. (Photo by Elizabeth Ruf)

Susan Howard is the coordinator of Save Our Community Center, CHARAS (SOCCC-64), a coalition of community groups fighting Gregg Singer’s efforts to redevelop the old P.S. 64 — a vacant and deteriorating East Village landmark, formerly a beloved community center when it was CHARAS — into possibly a student dormitory.

Howard blamed L.P.C. for the building’s disrepair, charging, “It’s their fault.”

She told The Village Sun that “nothing in the new plan would give the L.P.C. the ability to authorize emergency repairs to buildings like CHARAS that have been allowed to deteriorate for decades. It was not until December 2022 that D.O.B. finally stepped in and sealed and stabilized the building.”

In a last-ditch effort to retain control and prevent foreclosure, Singer has filed for bankruptcy, but Howard expects that effort to fail, and the former CHARAS property soon to go to auction. SOCCC-64 seeks CHARAS’s return to use as a community and cultural center.

As to the fire-damaged Middle Collegiate Church, the East Village landmark approved in January by L.P.C. for demolition, Moses — who is himself a preservation architect — emphasized that knowledge is key.

Noting that the gutted house of worship’s remaining Gothic Revival facade remains “substantially intact,” he said, “We would have had a lot more confidence” in the decision not to preserve the facade “if more seasoned preservation engineers had been able to get up close to and hands-on the conditions.”

L.P.C. gave the green light for Middle Collegiate Church to raze the historic facade of its fire-gutted church. (Photo by The Village Sun)

Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, dismissed the city’s plan as “window dressing” for an administration that, he said, actively endangers landmarks.

Citing the mayor’s directive to “Get Stuff Built,” Berman suggested that Adams’s pro-construction agenda means the city “doesn’t care if stuff gets knocked down along the way, even when these are people’s homes or our city’s historic landmarks that are supposed to be protected and which are destroyed in the process.”

He denounced what he sees as the city’s careless approval of development plans and ongoing failures of oversight and enforcement.

“At 10-14 Fifth Avenue, seven months after city-approved work resulted in the near-destruction of an 1848 landmarked building [No. 10] and dozens of tenants — including elderly, rent-stabilized ones — losing their homes, to which they have still been unable to return, there has been no accountability, and no explanation for how this happened or why.”

Berman said the city continues to stonewall inquiries about the monitors that were supposed to be installed to protect neighboring buildings from damage from the city-approved construction at No. 14.

As for 14-18 Gay St. and 18-20 Christopher St., Berman asserted, “The city has similarly failed to hold parties accountable or make any progress toward having these five vulnerable landmarked properties restored.”

He bemoaned restoration delays, noting the remaining houses “are in exceedingly vulnerable condition” and that “they have been cleared of all long-term tenants except one, who has bravely remained in spite of the landlord and city making his life a living hell.” The landlord, he noted, now has the properties up for sale at a discounted price.

And at 44-54 Ninth Ave./351-55 W. 14th St. in the Meatpacking District, Berman continued, L.P.C. “has never apologized or taken accountability for hiding relevant information from the public and even its own commissioners showing that experts believed these landmarked 200-year-old buildings did not need to be partially demolished.”

Instead, he said, the demolition work proceeded and the developer responsible for the conditions “was rewarded by being able to build a huge commercial office tower behind the buildings.”

In fall 2021, construction work for a new residential tower project at 14th Street and Ninth Avenue damaged historic building facades that were supposed to be incorporated into the new project, causing the city to order their demolition. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

Berman concluded his litany of city failures by declaring “the city’s lofty words about protecting vulnerable historic buildings are yet to be matched by a single deed reflecting any change in policy, action or approach.”

In a statement to The Village Sun, an L.P.C. spokesperson defended the city’s plan as a significant step forward:

“At-risk landmarks represent a small subset of the nearly 38,000 designated buildings and sites under LPC regulation citywide, but remain a critical priority for the agency,” she said. “While the vast majority of designated properties are well-maintained, the Commission is committed to delivering on the measures laid out in the Vulnerable Buildings Action Plan to protect the smaller number of sites at risk. In recent months, the Commission and its partners at D.O.B. have taken decisive action to implement an array of initiatives increasing coordination and information-sharing across agency and community partners, strengthening oversight and promoting earlier detection and monitoring for the city’s historic landmark buildings.”


  1. John Penley John Penley September 29, 2023

    Why did Rudy Giuliani turn 13 squatted buildings over to the Squatters ? Probably because it cost the city so much to evict 13th St. and required a tank to get people out and on the fourth of July Rudy’s patriotic speech was interrupted by helo newscopter shots on Jerry The Peddler , Cheese and others back inside one of the buildings on the roof with raised fists. Talk is cheap and people like to dream about saving loved real estate but honestly think about how the squatters saved their buildings and know that another rally at city hall or in front of Charas didn’t work for how many years now ?

  2. Maria Sarath Ragucci Maria Sarath Ragucci September 18, 2023

    It is crucial to maintain reporting on and publicizing of this issue. When these buildings are gone, they are gone. The indifference to the city’s landmarks and its history will come back to haunt us, I am afraid.

  3. Carol Yost Yost Carol Yost Yost September 14, 2023

    I hate to see these beautiful old buildings go down! Guess what: We don’t need any more luxury condos. Wonder when the developers will see the writing on their glass walls? There seems to be an endless battle that Andrew Berman of Village Preservation has to fight to keep irreplaceable, historic and beautiful buildings from being destroyed. “Demolition by neglect” is a wonderful term for a lot of this stuff. Developer greed is another. I wish they’d save all the old churches and synagogues, too.

  4. Phyllis Eckhaus Phyllis Eckhaus September 11, 2023

    I’ve been thinking about Valerie Jo Bradley’s great idea about a program enabling the city to force repairs to vacant landmarked buildings…but what about when the city lacks the political will, for example to go against a deep-pocket developer?

    What about amending the landmarks law to give individuals (and community groups, community boards, etc.) a private right of action to sue?

    The New York Preservation Archive Project has a law review with the records of a full symposium on improving landmarks enforcement. If you are a preservation nerd, it’s really cool:

  5. Jessica Green Jessica Green September 11, 2023

    Glad people are trying to save these old landmarks!

  6. David R. Marcus David R. Marcus September 11, 2023

    In that regard, take a look at 113 West 13th Street, formerly the home of Spain Restaurant, that has been gutted and sits in a total state of disrepair since the new owners took title in December 2021. It’s mockingly called the Leaning Brownstone of West 13th Street but LPC and DOB say they have issued work permits and there is nothing they can do to force the work to proceed and will then claim to be shocked when the building collapses.

  7. Deborah Wye Deborah Wye September 11, 2023

    Excellent article and especially helpful for those who could not attend the panel. It’s essential to keep the pressure on the LPC to protect vulnerable landmarks, particularly those no longer in use.

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