Disputing Tribeca's historic footprint


Though 92 Chambers Street (left) and 10 Hubert Street are similar in appearance and both located in Tribeca, the former falls outside of the Tribeca Historic Districts — the boundaries of which are the subject of a pending lawsuit. Photos: Michael Garofalo
District boundaries at issue in preservation group's lawsuit
BY MICHAEL GAROFALO

At a glance, and even upon inspection by an educated eye, 10 Hubert Street and 92 Chambers Street appear substantially similar. The two five-story buildings, located about a half-mile apart at opposite ends of Tribeca, are rough mirror images in their brickwork, arched windows and ornamental flourishes.

According to architect and preservation expert David Rau, the buildings “exhibit nearly identical characteristic in terms of nearly all their architectural features. They appear to be products of the same historical period, with similar scale, massing materials, coloration, fenestration and stylistic details.”

The key difference between the two buildings, at issue in a soon-to-be-decided lawsuit filed against the city: 10 Hubert sits in a designated historic district and 92 Chambers does not.

Though New Yorkers generally think of Tribeca as a singular neighborhood, in preservation terms the Triangle Below Canal is divided into five separate historic districts that encompass much, but not all of the area. Viewed together, the five Tribeca Historic Districts resemble a gerrymandered political district, winding across the neighborhood in fragmented fashion — some blocks in, some blocks out, with districts sometimes stopping mid-block to leave neighboring buildings with differing historical designations in spite of their architectural similarities.

Tribeca Trust, a local nonprofit focused on preservation issues, cites 10 Hubert and 92 Chambers among over two dozen other pairs of architecturally similar buildings situated inside and outside of the Tribeca Historic Districts in a lawsuit filed against the city. The differing designations of the pairs of buildings, which in several cases were designed contemporaneously by the same architect, show, according to Tribeca Trust, that the current district boundaries “lack any justification in architectural or historic terms.”

In 2013, Tribeca Trust filed a request for the evaluation of the expansion of the historic districts with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the city agency responsible for historic district designations. The LPC declined to expand the districts in 2016, citing agency priorities and the level of existing landmark protection in the area. (The potential expansion was not calendared for formal consideration by the full commission, which consists of 11 mayoral appointees.)

The LPC's ruling is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by Tribeca Trust, which seeks a court order to annul and vacate the decision and direct the commission to reconsider the case under new standards. The parties appeared in court earlier this month and a judgement will likely be issued in early 2018.

In court documents, the LPC said that drawing historic district boundaries is a “difficult and nuanced endeavor,” and that the commission “seeks to include landmark-worthy buildings while minimizing the inclusion of vacant lots and buildings that do not contribute to the special sense of place of the district, because, they are too altered or of an entirely different era.”

But Tribeca Trust, in its 2013 request to LPC, called the district boundaries “obvious bones thrown to the real estate industry” that allowed for “grossly inappropriate” buildings in the areas outside the historic districts that would not have been permitted within them. (Alterations, demolitions and new construction within historic districts require special permitting to ensure that appropriate context is maintained within the surrounding area.)

Lynn Ellsworth, Tribeca Trust's chair, said that Tribeca's “sense of place” has already been compromised as a result of “inappropriate” buildings built outside the historic districts' boundaries in recent years, such as by the 800-foot tower at 56 Leonard Street. “If you gerrymander the boundaries and then allow all of this insane out-of-context infill towers or hideous buildings, you're destroying the integrity of the historic asset that you designated in the first place,” Ellsworth said. “It becomes eroded through time.”

Tribeca Trust claims that LPC's decision was “arbitrary and capricious” — a key legal standard in this type of case, known as an Article 78 proceeding — because, the petitioners allege, the decision was made unilaterally by LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, “despite the absence of any lawful procedure or guidelines by which to consider expansion of historic districts.”

“In the absence of any procedure or guidelines for such determinations, the Chair is left with no reviewable method of decision-making, precipitating decisions which, by their very nature, are necessarily arbitrary and capricious,” states one Tribeca Trust court filing.

Sarah Carroll, the executive director of the LPC, disputed the characterization of the decision as “unilateral” in an affidavit stating that acted in consultation with and on the recommendation of agency staff in determining that the request for expansion wouldn't be presented to full Commission. “It would be impractical,” Carroll said, for the full Commission to rule on every such request, and that “as a practical matter” decisions of this type are delegated to the chairperson, though each commissioner can motion to calendar items.

According to Carroll, LPC research staff reviewed the proposal and “concluded that there were too many noncontributing buildings, altered buildings and vacant lots to warrant recommending expansion of the districts.”