Will Robert B. Tierney, Chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Exposed in the New York Times, Resign?


New York Times reporter Robin Pogrebin is back today with a powerful follow-up to her earlier piece that exposes how the painful, inexplicable and unforgivably slow pace of the work of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is damaging, often irrevocably, the cause of historic preservation in our precious, ever-threatened Gotham.

This new article, called “Preservationists See Bulldozers Charging Through a Loophole,” is all about what happens as a result of the egregious, arguably immoral lassitude of LPC Chairman Robert B. Tierney — who author Anthony C. Wood has called “a guy who’s had no demonstrable interest in historic preservation, who has the most important preservation job in New York City.” What happens? Here’s what happens, according to Pogrebin:

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Hours before the sun came up on a cool October morning in 2006, people living near the Dakota Stables on the Upper West Side were suddenly awakened by the sound of a jackhammer.

Soon word spread that a demolition crew was hacking away at the brick cornices of the stables, an 1894 Romanesque Revival building, on Amsterdam Avenue at 77th Street, that once housed horses and carriages but had long served as a parking garage.

In just four days the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was to hold a public hearing on pleas dating back 20 years to designate the low-rise building, with its round-arched windows and serpentine ornamentation, as a historic landmark.

But once the building’s distinctive features had been erased, the battle was lost. The commission went ahead with its hearing, but ultimately decided not to designate the structure because it had been irreparably changed. Today a 16-story luxury condominium designed by Robert A. M. Stern is rising on the site: the Related Companies is asking from $765,000 for a studio to $7 million or more for a five-bedroom unit in the building.

This is obviously outrageous, and Pogrebin provides multiple examples of how Tierney’s evident, if well camoflaged, hostility to the cause of preservation is creating a culture of sneaking and lying and deceit and, for all we know, double-dealing. That Robert A. M. Stern, of all people, is participating in this rape of the New York City I love leaves me speechless. Can it be that Robert A. M. Stern is an ememy of all that is good in America?

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And what are we going to go about this problem of the LPC’s ineffectuality causing the systematic destruction of designation-worthy structures in New York City. Should Tierney, for example, admit to his ineptitude — and his careless attitude toward the idea of preservation — and step down? You’d think that such an emperor, devoid of clothes, might do so. But only if we protest.

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To be fair, it’s not as if Tierney does not present a vigorous defense:

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“In the middle of the night I’m out there at 2 in the morning, and they’re taking the cornices off,” said Gale Brewer, a city councilwoman who represents that part of the Upper West Side. “We’re calling the Buildings Department, we’re calling Landmarks. You get so beaten down by all of this. The developers know they can get away with that.”

The number of pre-emptive demolitions across the city may be relatively small, but preservationists say the phenomenon is only one sign of problems with the city’s mechanism for protecting historic buildings.

“This administration is so excited about the new that it overlooks its obligation to protect the old,” said Anthony C. Wood, author of “Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks.”

In an interview Robert B. Tierney, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, called end-run alterations and demolitions “a terrible situation and a complete misuse of the process.”

He added that the commission was trying to address the issue. Before putting a property on the calendar for landmark consideration, for example, Mr. Tierney or the commission’s staff members meet with owners to explain the potential benefits of landmark designation -a federal tax credit for repairs or improvements, for example – in the hope of enlisting cooperation or even support.

“Owner consent is not required, but I strongly try to obtain it whenever possible,” Mr. Tierney said. “It helps the process going forward. It’s not a continually contentious relationship.”

But one must wonder just how vigorous Tierney is in his approach — and take note of how Stern, whose work I absolutely worship, tries to wiggle out of responsibility for the unnecessary end to a sterling building:

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In the case of Dakota Stables, some preservationists have accused the landmarks commission of deliberately dragging its heels. “The commission had no intention of designating Dakota Stables,” said Kate Wood, the executive director of Landmark West!, a preservation group. “They waited until it had been torn down. It was clearly too late for them to do anything meaningful.”

“It was all so carefully orchestrated,” she added. “It was politics. It was all just theater.”

But Mr. Tierney said he fought genuinely hard to have the case heard. “It was knock-down, drag-out time trying to do everything we could do to have a fair and open hearing on that building,” he said.

He also said he was “extremely unhappy with how the owners proceeded” on Dakota Stables and on Paterson Silks, yet added, “That’s two out of thousands – not to minimize them.”

Mr. Stern, the architect who designed the Harrison, the luxury condominiums replacing Dakota Stables, said the late-night demolition created “a controversial and awkward moment,” adding, “I don’t like to tear anything down if I don’t have to.”

And so I ask again: Should Chairman Tierney resign? And if not, what can he be doing faster and better? And how do we hold him to it?

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