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PODCAST: Sounding the Alarm as the Neighborhood "Watchdog"

By Emily Frost | November 10, 2015 6:44pm
 In this week's podcast, Kate Wood, the president of the preservation advocacy group LANDMARK WEST! explains the organization's history and its future tactics. 
Kate Wood Leads LANDMARK WEST!
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UPPER WEST SIDE — The neighborhood wouldn't look and feel like it does today if it weren't for the advocacy work of neighbors who banded together to form LANDMARK WEST! in 1985, said Kate Wood, the organization's president. 

Wood spoke with DNAinfo New York about the battles the organization has taken on in the past 30 years, fighting to keep development from encroaching on historic gems and overtaking views as a "watchdog," she said. 

In effect, the organization's preservation efforts have created a "force field" around the Upper West Side, she said. 

But there's a constant push to undermine that, she said. 

"There are a lot of very smart, well-moneyed, well-connected people who are trying to find ways to unlock the Upper West Side," said Wood. 

She also talked about challenges with the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the ways the mayor's rezoning plans would hurt preservation and affordable housing on the Upper West Side, as well as her favorite local landmarks. 

Emily: Kate, thank you for talking with me.

Kate: Thank you.

Emily: I want to jump into some news from this week, but first I want people to understand what LANDMARK WEST! is, and I wanted to ask a question I've always wondered about, which is why you have the exclamation point after the name, so it’s LANDMARK WEST!?

Kate: It’s all caps too, just to be correct. LANDMARK WEST! was founded 30 years ago in 1985. Back then, there were very few protected landmarks on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There were 337 landmark buildings, and just to put that in context, there over 3,500 landmark buildings on the Upper West Side between 59th Street and 110th Street, from Central Park,to Riverside Park today. That's largely owing to the advocacy of LANDMARK WEST! over the past 30 years. LANDMARK WEST! was founded in 1985. It was a group of neighbors who got together and said, look, there are crises all over this neighborhood.

 It's not just one site. It is many sites, and we need to unite under one umbrella and work as a community to come up with a better strategy for managing development in our neighborhood. They began to work towards creating the largest historic district ever designated in New York City, which is the Upper West Side Central Park West Historic District, and that goes all the way up from 62nd Street. to 96th Street, really most of the sweep of the iconic Central Park West skyline, the brownstone blocks. It’s over 2,000 buildings that in that first five years that LANDMARK WEST! was around between 1985 and 1990, that district was designated. This year we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of that district.

 But to your question about the logo of LANDMARK WEST!, the logo of LANDMARK WEST! was designed by Milton Glaser of “I Love New York” fame. Milton Glaser was an Upper West Sider. He was a neighbor. He got involved with LANDMARK WEST! in its earliest days. He designed the logo and he decided that it should have the exclamation point at the end and that it should be all caps.

Emily: It’s exciting.

Kate: You have to raise your eyebrows.

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. Let's jump into the news from this week about the American Museum of Natural History. LANDMARK WEST! was opposing the expansion — or had concerns about it. Now the museum has come out with designs. They’ve said that 80 percent is going to be from existing buildings. What do you think about this development and what are LANDMARK WEST!’s plans?

Kate: LANDMARK WEST! has raised serious concerns about the expansion of the Museum of Natural History. It is an individual landmark. It’s located in the Upper West Side Central Park West Historic District, so the context is incredibly important. It’s also in this great community resource, Theodore Roosevelt Park, which plays a really special role in the neighborhood. Quite rightly, people were very concerned about what the occupation of that park by the institution would mean. We had raised concerns about not only this expansion, but the museum's position that it has the right to develop throughout the entire park, and there's no zoning for that site. It's not just the footprint potential. It’s the height potential as well. We're watching this issue very, very closely. I think it's also important to realize that what the museum has presented are not designs. They're conceptual designs. They don't have schematic plans.

 We haven't seen a footprint of the space that would be occupied by this wing. All we’ve seen are renderings that have been presented and published in various news media. We plan to learn everything that we can about the museum’s ideas, their plans as they move forward. LANDMARK WEST! takes the long view. What does this mean for the continued growth of the institution? At a certain point, if they are allowed to grow in this way, and when I say allowed, I mean they have to go through a review process by different agencies. If they are allowed to continue this growth pattern, they will eventually max out this site, and then they're going to have to consider other ways of growing. We're saying let's think about those ways now before we trade off this important community asset, which is the park, for the growth of the institution. Let's see what we can find as far as a win-win for the institution and the community.

Emily: LANDMARK WEST! really sees itself as a watchdog.

Kate: We are a watchdog. I think it’s fair to say that because of LANDMARK WEST!, the Upper West Side is still the Upper West Side that people have loved, lived in, visited from all over the world, invested in. This neighborhood would be nowhere near as valuable and beautiful as it is today, without the work of LANDMARK WEST! as the standing, informed, active, day-to-day community organization, in collaboration with the neighbors who really engage in this ongoing process of preserving our neighborhood. You can’t just do battle by battle. Because of LANDMARK WEST!, the Upper West Side really has a force field around it. There are a lot of really bad ideas that have not become reality because of the active engagement and advocacy of LANDMARK WEST! and the larger community.

Emily: Now under the West End Collegiate Extension, all of West End Avenue is landmarked, but that didn't include parts of Broadway. What are your goals around that? Are you hoping to see almost every avenue landmarked, or are there parts of the Upper West Side that wouldn’t be appropriate?

Kate: With the Riverside West End and West End Collegiate Historic Districts, they were expanded over the past five years, which is really important because that part of the Upper West Side west of Broadway is so significant and so beautiful, and then Broadway was part of our wish list for what should have been included in those district expansions because how can you tell the story of the Upper West Side without talking about Broadway and without protecting Broadway as a visual reference? So when large parts of Broadway were not included in the district extensions, and just to be clear, they were included as the proposal that the Landmarks Commission itself put forward. The Landmarks Commission decided in its research phase that Broadway should be part of those districts, and public hearings were held, and there was no opposition on the record to including Broadway, so everyone was very surprised when the Landmarks Commission turned around and said we’re not including Broadway in this extension. Then they voted, and now we have this great district, which has a lot of important buildings in it, but it doesn't include Broadway.

 There was a lot of interest expressed by the Landmarks Commissioners themselves about why aren’t we including Broadway. We really should look at Broadway. I think that tells you a lot about the dynamics of the Landmarks Commission. The Landmark’s Commission is eleven experts from architecture, planning, real estate. They all have something to contribute to the discussion, but the commissioners are all volunteers, except for the chair. They’re all appointed by the mayor. The chair has a lot of power over the direction of the Landmarks Commission. Even though there were many commissioners who were concerned about leaving out Broadway, the chair was driving the agenda and the chair had decided that Broadway would be sacrificed. Sort of the clues are all starting to fit together now because now there's the Mayor’s zoning proposals, which show exactly that area of Broadway are going to have major height increases if this zoning is passed. The Upper West Side has disapproved the zoning changes, but it’s a city-wide proposal, so it depends on the rest of the process. Broadway was just in the cross-hairs of those two conflicting land-use policies, preservation and zoning for increased development, and it's unfortunate because preservation and development do not have to be at cross purposes.

 Throughout the rest of the Upper West Side, they work together but in that case the historic buildings of Broadway were sacrificed for the sake of development. That’s a much larger issue that we are very concerned about ... is the seat that preservation has at the table of urban planning. The Landmarks Preservation Commission is ... we talk about it ... It’s a captured agency. Unfortunately, development, developers, the real estate industry drive the agenda of the Landmarks Commission. I think it’s important that people recognize that, and that that's a large part of what LANDMARK WEST! does ... is that we continue to hold the line and to try to hold our city agencies accountable for the mandates that they have. In the case of the Landmarks Commission, their mandate is preservation. Their mandate is not development, so when they fall short of their mandate in a case like that, it's up to LANDMARK WEST! to sound the alarm.

Emily: That was one of my questions. The goals of affordability ... increased height means a developer could do 20 percent affordable housing because they'll have more space versus preserving existing housing stock, which doesn't have capacity for affordable housing. How do you square those two goals?

Kate: Well, I think it’s important to understand that the Upper West Side is a very diverse community and many of the buildings that are protected as landmarks as part of historic districts do contain affordable housing. If those buildings were lost, that affordable housing would be lost, and there's no guarantee that when-

Emily: Those residents would be pushed out?

Kate: Those residents would be displaced. They would have to find ... good luck finding other affordable housing on the Upper West Side. They’d move to other neighborhoods and the buildings that replace those buildings don't contain affordable housing. New development on the Upper West Side is luxury development. That's the thing that we keep pointing out with the Mayor’s zoning proposals is there's no guarantee in the law that’s being proposed.

Emily: They’re not being forced to include that. It’s an option.

Kate: Exactly, exactly. What’s likely to happen is that we will lose buildings that contain existing affordable housing. They’ll be replaced with new buildings that have luxury housing, and it will be a lose-lose for everyone.

Emily: You talked about how the developers can drive the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s agenda. How do they do that? How do they influence the commission?

Kate: Well, it’s just the way politics work in New York City. It's very money driven, and real estate is where the money is. The entire framework for the Mayor's progressive agenda involves major, major contributions to this fund for ostensibly the purposes of these social goals that he has. The contributions are coming in many cases from major developers and major real estate interests. They are driving the agenda. It's a quid pro quo. You make a contribution to the Mayor’s agenda and then the payback is that you get to build basically whatever you want. It's not just a laissez-faire attitude. It is a giveaway by design to real estate. It’s a fundamental change in this mayoral administration that’s going to have major implications for the shape of the city.

Emily: I was going to ask you how you think that the LPC, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, has changed over the years?

Kate: The Landmarks Commission is the smallest city agency. It has the same staff and budget in real dollars as it had decades ago when it had far fewer landmarks to regulate. Its workload has increased exponentially through its designation activity. It’s just by accumulation. Every year it designates a certain number of buildings. Some years more than others. Its workload has increased, but it's resources have not. It’s a starved agency. It receives its marching orders from the mayor, where preservation comes into conflict with some other part of the mayor’s agenda, preservation will lose.

Emily: One of the fights was to get a bunch of landmarks that were removed back on the table, including St. Michael's Church on the Upper West Side. How was LANDMARK WEST! involved in that?

Kate: St. Michael’s Episcopal Church on 99th Street and Amsterdam Avenue has been on our wish list for many, many years ... our wish list of landmark designation priorities ... also, the former IRT Powerhouse on 59th Street and 11th Avenue. It's a monumental building that occupies a full city block and it’s designed by McKim, Mead, and White. McKim, Mead, and White designed Penn Station, the original Penn Station, the one that we all mourn the loss of. These two buildings have been on the Landmarks Commissions calendar for many, many, many years. The record is clear. They are landmarks by any definition. The New York City Landmarks Law specifically does not include owner consent as a requirement of landmark designation. That’s because the law is designed to protect the public interest. An individual property owner’s interests should not subvert that larger public goal. Unfortunately, because of the way that preservation politics work in New York City, owner opposition has managed to prevent the Landmarks Commission from designating these very worthy buildings for decades. Now the Landmarks Commission is going through a process, not that they wanted to. They wanted to just de-calendar all of these buildings and there are nearly a hundred-

Emily: Take them off the list, off the table.

Kate: Exactly. There are nearly a hundred buildings like this throughout New York City that were on this kind of chopping block of landmark sites. Because of community outcry, they backed away from that plan and now they're going through this special hearing process. LANDMARK WEST!’s role in that is to demonstrate, once again, the broad public support for designating these buildings, their unquestionable significance, and meeting the criteria for being a landmark.

Emily: Do you get a huge adrenaline surge at these hearings because of everything that's at stake?

Kate: You do, but you also get really angry because ... just for example, yesterday when we were down at the Landmarks Commission testifying in support of the IRT Powerhouse, there were about 10 other buildings that were being heard at the same time. Scores of people there, and people kept coming and going and testifying. It was exciting, and it was great to see that many people who were cared enough to take time out of their day to come down to a public hearing, left their jobs, left their kids, whatever ... came down to a public hearing, passionate about these buildings, and there weren't enough seats for everyone. Not everybody could fit into the room. Everyone was given three minutes to testify on one building or ten buildings. As far as public process goes, it is not a shining moment for the Landmarks Commission. We do hope that the outcome will be that we're demonstrating for the record yet again the level of support that there is for these buildings.

Emily: In terms of public process, one of the issues that people have raised is that when a developer or architect is sent back to the drawing board by LPC, the community doesn't get to weigh in on those revisions before LPC takes a vote.

Kate: The Landmarks Commission often will tell the applicant to make certain changes and sometimes those are major changes to the application based on the feedback that they've gotten. You’re right. Then it will come back once the application has been revised, it will come back to the Landmarks Commission at a public meeting. At a public meeting, you have very little access to the plans in advance to be able to understand what the changes are. There's no opportunity for public testimony at those public meetings, so basically then it becomes an internal discussion between the Landmarks Commissioners that the public can watch, but not not participate in. A bone of contention is that the applicant is free to participate in those conversations. The applicant is given special privileges that the rest of the public is not, and we think that's inherently unfair. As long as an application is still in the process and changes are being made, there should be opportunity for the public to continue to weigh in.

Emily: A lot of landmark alterations come forward, say on West End Avenue someone wants to add a penthouse or a rear yard addition. What do you consider an appropriate penthouse addition, or do you at all?

Kate: Well, LANDMARK WEST! does not oppose every development proposal that comes before us. I think that’s sort of a misconception about what we do. We’re not always saying no, no, no. In fact, we often applaud the work that an applicant will present because we think that it is sensitive and that they've taken the time to think through all of the issues, not only the impact on the landmark, but the impact on the larger neighborhood. It’s a case by case evaluation that we do. What’s the impact on the individual building, and what’s the impact on the larger neighborhood? Is it visible? Does it occupy rear yard space that is shared communally by the block and affects neighbors? Does it preserve existing historic features, or in the case of many of these rear yard additions that we see, the entire back of a row house will be dismantled and replaced with steel and glass. That kind of thing that erases the integrity of these buildings altogether is unacceptable to us. I think it takes creativity and it takes talent from architects and consultants and people who are willing to really think about what it means to live in a historic district and what the responsibilities are.

Emily: You were saying you're not anti-change.

Kate: Well, no, the whole point of preservation is that neighborhoods evolve, buildings evolve. If everything just stayed the same, we wouldn't even need to be here because that it would just stay the way it is, but because we acknowledge the fact that neighborhoods change, buildings change. There's a constant evolution in the city. That's what our role is. Our role is to speak out on things that we think are good, are bad, need further thought.

Emily: How do you think things are going generally on the Upper West Side? Do you think preservation is winning? Are there too many soft spots? Are we in a dangerous moment for that?

Kate: We’re in a very dangerous moment right now because for decades, because of community activism and working hard and getting sound planning for the Upper West Side, we have contextual zoning that protects heights, that make sure that-

Emily: That means — for people that don’t understand zoning terms — the buildings have to be built in context.

Kate: Yeah, so contextual just refers to the fact that there is existing building fabric that should be preserved and any new development should work within that context. We have that on the Upper West Side quite extensively. We have quite extensive historic district and landmark protection. Those have been really beneficial for the neighborhood, and stabilizing value, and making it beautiful, and making it a place that people just want to be. The Upper West Side is in the crosshairs of a major new development. People need to understand that because we have these controls, we should be safe, right? No, because we have these controls, we’re a target. There are a lot of very smart, well-moneyed, well-connected people who are trying to find ways to unlock the Upper West Side. When we see these proposals to raise height limits through zoning and to weaken the Landmarks Law, we know that the Upper West Side is a direct target of those policy changes because it is challenging to develop on the Upper West Side because of all the rules that we have in place, for good reason.

Emily: What are some of the ways that you've seen developers do a workaround?

Kate: I think they’re the policy initiatives, which are the zoning changes that have been proposed in the case of individual landmarks like the former First Church of Christ, Scientist up on 96th Street and Central Park West. That was a home to a religious congregation for its entire history, over a hundred years, and is now being proposed to being converted to 36 luxury apartments. The entire inside has been demolished, and they have plans to carve it up into many units. They are seeking variances from the zoning, so basically they're asking for special exemption from the rules that govern everyone else. Applications like this are very well-funded by developers who have millions of dollars to invest because they have millions and more to gain from approvals if they are successful.

 For the most part, they are successful. The city, the Board of Standards and Appeals, which reviews these types of applications, very rarely denies variance applications, so in this case even though it's clear that giving these variances would have a severe negative impact on adjacent properties and that there are other ways to use this building that would have less impact on the landmark and on adjacent properties. In order to fight that type of development it is very costly for the community. In order to defend one's own property rights and the larger public benefit the fact that a community would be called on to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend those property rights versus a developer who is coming into a situation and is perfectly happy to spend money to try to usurp those existing regulations ... It’s an unfair battle.

Emily: And the Board of Standards and Appeals and LPC are not working together? They're not talking to each other?

Kate: Oh, they talk to each other, but they don't coordinate for the purposes of preserving buildings.

Emily: Well, I wanted to talk about your book. You have out that’s on the table. “Interior Landmark Treasures of New York.” What is it about and why did you decide to write a book?

Kate: I took a hiatus from LANDMARK WEST! a few years ago when my son was born. While I was away from LANDMARK WEST! I decided to do this book project in collaboration with the New York School of Interior Design. It was also in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the New York City Landmarks Law. There’s actually never been a study of New York's interior landmarks. The Landmarks Law gives the city the authority to preserve individual landmarks, historic districts, interior landmarks, and scenic landmarks like Central Park and Riverside Park. They're only 117 interiors that are designated as landmarks throughout the entire city.

Emily: The church we were talking about is not an interior landmark.

Kate: Right, right.

Emily: The exterior was preserved, but they could gut the interior.

Kate: They could gut the inside, and that’s part of the law is that it prevents the Landmarks Commission from being able to preserve religious interiors, but any other publicly accessible interior can be a landmark. It’s amazing to look back and realize that forty years ago Radio City Music Hall was not a landmark.

Emily: Or Grand Central.

Kate: The interior of Grand Central was not protected until 1980.

Emily: I don't want to make you pick a favorite landmark on the Upper West Side, but is there a landmark that you walk by and always makes you smile?

Kate: I think a very important resource for the Upper West Side and for the city, and it really is an icon worldwide, is the Central Park West skyline. We don't realize how fragile that is. I think that we take it for granted. If you just think of that silhouette of the twin towered buildings and that view from Central Park, which you know, Central Park-

Emily: From the reservoir.

Kate: Yeah, and it's just so New York. If you think about the other views from the park, you know, the south is changing dramatically because of super tall building in Midtown. Fifth Avenue is beautiful, but it doesn't have that distinctive up and down, kind of undulating quality of the Upper West Side. Who knows what ... at this point Central Park North is really not visible from the park because it's so low-scale. That's changing too. The Central Park West skyline is something that ... it should be so celebrated. It’s been part of the Historic District for the past 25 years. There is still great reason to be concerned about its future because of development potential.

 I just think that the Central Park West skyline has such energy and electricity to it, and you just think about when you were a kid and you would stand there and watch the parade balloons come down on Thanksgiving, and it’s just so much part of the New York experience. You realize that beyond that wall of buildings that have such distinctive character is this whole neighborhood of blocks where people really do care about their environment, people are politically active and mobilized to protect that environment. I think that those are qualities that the Upper West Side has a long-standing reputation of having. It needs to keep that reputation because it is an ongoing saga, and we need to remain ever vigilant to preserve what's best about the Upper West Side, which is to say that we’re protecting what's best about New York City.

Emily: Well, thank you so much, Kate. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Kate: Thank you, Emily.

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