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Save Morningside Heights from 'Atrocious Buildings,' Residents Urge City

By Emily Frost | December 6, 2016 5:58pm
 This map shows the boundaries of the proposed Morningside Heights Historic District.
This map shows the boundaries of the proposed Morningside Heights Historic District.
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Landmarks Preservation Commission

MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — Residents, elected officials and preservationists urged the Landmarks Preservation Commission at a hearing Tuesday to landmark the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and to form a historic district in Morningside Heights, warning of further encroachment from new high-rise apartment buildings without preservation safeguards. 

Dozens testified in support of the two proposals, which the commission said it would vote on early next year. The historic district would include parts of the neighborhood between West 108th and 119th street, as mapped by the LPC, while a separate proposal asks the commission to landmark the cathedral and seven buildings surrounding it. 

Morningside Heights "is under threat like never before," City Councilman Mark Levine testified at the hearing, describing the area as "an island of vulnerability" that's ripe for overdevelopment, compared to surrounding neighborhoods that are better protected. 

The majority of residents testified in support of the proposed district, describing the European feel of the neighborhood in loving terms and bemoaning new residential towers that they said dwarf the existing architecture.

A representative for Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell added that his office had received "a deluge of letters, emails and phone calls" in favor of the district. 

The Real Estate Board of New York, a trade association, also voiced its support for the district, with the exception of 10 buildings it believes should be excluded based on their lack of "architectural integrity." REBNY praised the commission's decision to leave out "prime development sites along Broadway." 

However, two religious institutions — a synagogue and a church, which are the only non-residential buildings included in the proposal — oppose the historic district. 

Leaders from Congregation Ramath Orah and Broadway Presbyterian both said inclusion would hamper their ability to perform essential capital improvements on their buildings.

Additionally, a representative for Columbia University said the school supports the designation, but asked that the commission exclude rowhouses on West 114th Street between Riverside Drive and Broadway that are "not architecturally distinctive," in case the university wants to expand its housing options there.

The current landmarking process is "bittersweet," explained local resident Gregory Dietrich in his testimony at the hearing. After past efforts to landmark the Cathedral of St. John the Divine were thwarted, "the experience of the cathedral has been severely marred," he said, leading to "out of scale" development in the area.

Laura Friedman, president of 20-year-old Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, added that the two new luxury rental apartments that went up on the north side of the cathedral's campus as "atrocious buildings."

The buildings became "the Penn Station of Morningside Heights," galvanizing residents to fight to protect the cathedral and the larger neighborhood, she said. 

While "we can lament over what happened in the past" to the cathedral, it is better to look forward, said LPC Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan. Landmarking not only the main cathedral but also the Cathedral Close "will establish the right setting for its preservation and protection," she said.

Sean Khorsandi of the preservation group LANDMARK WEST! quoted comedian George Carlin, a former Morningside Heights resident, in the organization's statement: "Property is theft. Nobody 'owns' anything. When you die, it all stays here."

LANDMARK WEST! is among the groups encouraging LPC to extend the historic district even further north, a move that would include Carlin's childhood home on West 121st Street.