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27th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 27, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

Tomorrow, the City Council will hold hearings on the proposal to declare the privately owned Fieldston community in the northwest Bronx a “historic district.”There are many reasons why this shouldn’t be done, all of which are important but largely parochial in nature. Out of this local battle, I sense a larger problem: Are we allowing the “motherhood and apple pie” aspects of historic preservation to give certain professional interests a unique license to feather their own nests?

In the discussion of this issue, the merits of the developer and architect of much of Fieldston, Dwight James Baum, has become a topic of debate. A Riverdale resident and former city buildings commissioner, Charles Moerdler, called Baum a “hack.”
This remark elicited an angry response from the Bronx and Brooklyn chapters of the American Institute of Architects. The Brooklyn group, in a letter to the Riverdale Review, characterized Mr. Moerdler’s criticism as an “inappropriate public statement.” They claim the remarks were “widely discussed throughout the professional community because it is hard to overestimate their consequences.”

This got me thinking: Why do these architects seem so hyper-sensitive to criticism of a largely unknown, longdead colleague? After all, the Brooklyn architects characterize their profession as the creation of “art people live in.”

The appreciation of art is subjective. Why should architects be immune to the same criticism that one might give a painter, sculptor, or a musician? Could it be that the concerns of the architects aren’t about art, but really about business?

The acceptance of all that is old as intrinsically good has become big business for the architectural profession. Once a structure is designated a landmark, almost any change made to the exterior requires an architect to be hired, not just to work on the project but to also to prepare plans and filings that will conform to the demands of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and make appearances before the body and its staff.

The increase in the supply of landmarked properties is in the interest of the local architectural profession. That’s why the deck is stacked in favor of landmarking.

Take the case of Stephen Byrns, a member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Mr. Byrns is an architect, a specialist in historic preservation. This is no surprise, as the City Charter mandates that at least three of the 11 commission members must be architects. This is an unpaid position, and certainly those who volunteer to serve on city panels without compensation deserve our thanks.

Due to a commonly granted waiver by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, Mr. Byrns’s architectural firm may continue to handle cases that come before the commission.While he is a commissioner, Mr. Byrns must recuse himself from voting or discussing or gaining compensation from such cases. But his firm can continue to profit. The stature gained by Mr. Byrns’s presence on the commission cannot be lost on those looking to select an architect.

Moreover, each historic district that Mr. Byrns helps establish increases by scores, or even by hundreds, properties that will require, if not now then in the future, the counsel of an architect who is a specialist in these matters. If Fieldston is granted landmark status, it alone will account for 257 new properties.

Mr. Byrns is voting to expand the customer base from which he and his professional colleagues will draw for decades to come. Once he leaves the commission, the floodgates are free to open to him without restriction.
As for the Fieldston application, I’m astounded that it has gone this far. These homes were not built in colonial
times, nor in the early days of the Republic. The Civil War came and went, as did the Spanish American War, and even World War I was history before ground was broken on the first of Fieldston’s homes. Some of the homes have been built within the past two decades. Why are these homes so important to preserve? Our Landmarks Preservation Commission has declared that Fieldston is a notable example of a “romantic suburb.”

This area may be romantic, but its residents aren’t eager to share the love.You may drive through the streets (although at any time the Fieldston Property Owners Association may close, and indeed have closed their private streets), but be forewarned: Should you park your car, it will be towed, often within minutes. Should you wander in and walk through the paths and byways, expect to be stopped and ejected by Fieldston’s uniformed private security force.What romance?

When a vote of property owners was first taken on whether or not to seek landmark status in 2003, the owners of 46% of the properties expressed support for the plan, 39% were opposed, the rest undecided. Since then opposition has grown to nearly 53% as owners of 135 properties have petitioned Council Member Jessica Lappin, the chairwoman of the landmarks subcommittee. They are begging to be spared from the proposed designation, which they see as adding unwanted bureaucratic control over their lives. Because another 30 or more properties appear to be neutral, support for landmarking has slipped to less than 40%. But even if every single property owner was opposed, the designation could still proceed.

How did the landmarks law, which was drafted to protect truly historic structures, become a device for catering to the vanity of an elite, diverting city funds,resources,and energy to protect properties of questionable importance, and impose its onerous regulations upon a majority who disagree with the designation? Ask the architects who are working so hard to find history where none really exists.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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