harrison
The Harrison, a luxury condominium project that supplanted the Dakota Stables and is to open next spring (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

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.

The strategy has become wearyingly familiar to preservationists. A property owner — in this case Sylgar Properties, which was under contract to sell the site to Related — is notified by the landmarks commission that its building or the neighborhood is being considered for landmark status. The owner then rushes to obtain a demolition or stripping permit from the city’s Department of Buildings so that notable qualities can be removed, rendering the structure unworthy of protection.

“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 some owners pay little heed. In one of the most memorable cases, a wrecking ball destroyed a corner tower of the former Paterson Silks store near Union Square on March 8, 2005. The double-height glass tower was the signature feature of the building, designed by the architect Morris Lapidus, known for his flamboyant Miami Beach hotels.

A few hours later the commission, seemingly oblivious, agreed to schedule a hearing on the building’s future.

Preservationists were outraged, particularly because they had been trying to bring the building to the commission’s attention for at least three years. Yet the owner, Donald J. Olenick, vice president of BLDG Management, then a co-owner of the building, said he did not understand the objections. “This is certainly not the Plaza Hotel,” he said the day the tower toppled. “I’m a little surprised anyone was concerned about it.”

Robin Pogrebin
New York Times

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