As the city’s mayoral candidates continue to debate the issues most urgent to New Yorkers, a group of New York’s preservationist organizations feel as though their key issue is missing from the conversation.
“[Every candidate’s] website says ‘small business.’ Everybody’s website says ‘homelessness’, and those are important [issues] ... but nobody really talks about, like, ‘we really need to preserve more landmarks,’ or ‘we really need to make sure New York is a world class city, but maintains its own identity,’” said Sean Khorsandi, who serves as the executive director of Landmark West!, a land-use preservation nonprofit on the Upper West Side.
Khorsandi’s organization and 13 other similar preservationist groups hope to push the mayoral candidates to make landmark and neighborhood preservation a real part of their platforms with a petition put out last week. The change.org petition has received about 2,400 signatures as of Monday morning and asks that the next mayor support preservation for a stronger New York.
“We, the undersigned residents of the diverse communities of New York City, feel it is imperative that our next Mayor prioritize preserving and protecting our city’s history, its landmarks, and the character of our neighborhoods,” the petition reads. “Historic preservation contributes immeasurably to what makes our city great — our shared and varied heritages, our distinct sense of place, and the livability of our communities.”
In addition to Landmark West!, Art Deco Society of New York, Carnegie Hill Neighbors, City Club of New York, Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, Historic Districts Council, Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, Municipal Art Society of New York, Murray Hill Neighborhood Association, New York Landmarks Conservancy, Save Central Park NYC, Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance, West End Preservation Society and Village Preservation have all signed on as member organizations.
“We thought that we could really demonstrate that there’s a real constituency for preservation,” said Rachel Levy, who serves as the executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts.
With a new mayor, and much of city life altered by COVID-19, Khorsandi said this would be the right time to reevaluate the city’s priorities when it comes to development and preservation. He pointed to Project Commodore and the Empire Station Complex plan, two major Manhattan projects currently in motion, as development he feels will crowd landmarks and will be superfluous. With Project Commodore, a 1,646-foot-tall tower slated to replace the Grand Hyatt Hotel, and One Vanderbilt, Khorsandi said Grand Central is essentially being crushed.
“We say we love Grand Central: it’s amazing, it’s our favorite landmark,” said Khorsandi. “But then let’s just kill it with tall buildings?”
He called the Empire State Complex – a plan touted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo which proposes 10 new large-scale buildings that would also fund the overhaul of Penn Station – “shockingly ridiculous” at a time when many of the city’s candidates are talking about converting now-vacant office space into residential use.
“We’re rethinking how we use our office space, how we use our homes, the way we shop, how we procure the things we need for our sustenance, how we order meals, go to the grocery store, how we plan our trips,” Khorsandi said of the pandemic’s impact on city life. “Like every interaction in the public sphere is different now; yet, it’s almost as if development didn’t get the memo, and they’re still building higher, faster, different.”
Levy said their petition isn’t just about protecting historic landmarks, but preserving neighborhoods as well. It’s something she and her organization, Friends, are dealing with on the Upper East Side with a proposal from the New York Blood Center to expand to a 334 foot tower at East 67th Street that would require a midblock rezoning.
“In some ways, [the Blood Center] kind of demonstrates the broad types of thinking around preservation that many of the groups who have signed on to petition share, which is that we all love our historic districts that are individual landmarks and we want to see more of them recognized by the city, but it’s also about neighborhood preservation, and that doesn’t just mean necessarily our official landmarks,” said Levy. “It also gets to the other tools in the toolbox that contribute to the shape, scale and feel of our neighborhoods. In the case of the blood center, that’s really about the midblock contextual zoning that has been preserving the human scale of our side streets for 35 plus years.”
With 2,400 signatures and counting, the member organizations of the petitions are looking to accrue more support as they try to grab the attention of the candidates who will set the tone for development in the city for at least the next four years.
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“Every interaction in the public sphere is different now; yet, it’s almost as if development didn’t get the memo, and they’re still building higher, faster, different.” Sean Khorsandi of Landmark West!