Volume 23, Number 13 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 4 - 10, 2010
Commission denies landmark status for proposed Park51 site
By John Bayles
The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday voted unanimously to remove the old Burlington Coat Factory building at 45-47 Park Place from its calendar. The 9-0 vote cleared the way for the Cordoba Initiative’s proposed 13-story community center, recently dubbed Park51, to be built on the site.
Citing a lack of evidence to support landmark status, the commission held a brief public hearing at Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts where each board member spoke concisely on the architectural merits, or lack thereof, of the building, which was constructed in 1857-58 in the classic Italian Renaissance Palazzo style. Phrases such as “lacks special character” and “not rich enough” were used to describe the commission’s reasoning.
“At the last hearing we were there to listen. Today is our turn,” said Robert Tierney, chair of the commission.
On July 12 the commission held a public hearing to listen to the community’s thoughts on the site. On that day, the commission made clear it is not in their purview to consider use of a site. But it was the proposed use of the site, as a community center with a prayer space on one floor, which quickly led to the label “Ground Zero mosque,” that was the focus of much of the testimony.
“We must divorce ourselves from the reasons that have nothing to do with the landmark law,” said Commissioner Roberta Washington.
After citing numerous reasons why the building did not meet specific landmark requirements, Tierney said the commission had “carefully considered the cultural” factors associated with site, but ultimately found them “unpersuasive” in the commission’s decision.
In order to gain landmark status, a building must possess “a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation.”
Since the commission was established, roughly 1,100 of the city’s more than one million buildings have been landmarked.
Commissioner Frederick Bland said although the building was a handsome, well-proportioned example of a particular architectural style, and it fit in with the other buildings on the street, it did not necessarily “stand out.”
In their testimony, many of the commissioners noted the recent landmarking of previous buildings in the area, in particular a building at 311 Broadway. Commissioners stated the 311 Broadway building was a better example of the same architectural style and also noted that Park Place was a “side street,” a factor that contributed to their decision.
The commission also discussed other factors, such as not being able to identify the architect or engineer of the building; another building on Park Place that recently received landmark status, 23-25 Park Place, was designed by the noted architect Samuel Adams Warner.
The commission said the main historical significance of the site was the fact that it was damaged in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. However they noted, “the debris field was widespread and one cannot designate on that fact alone.”
Commissioner Christopher Moore recounted his own experience from the tragic day, how he emerged from the subway at Church and Chambers Streets to see the first plane strike the South Tower. He said he thinks about that day and the heroes who died in the attacks, every morning since. He said he viewed the Old Burlington Coat Factory building as “akin to a guard rail on a highway where a fatality occurred.”
In reference to what he described as the bluest sky he had ever seen on the morning of the attacks and the resulting debris and smoke that filled it, Moore said, “Last I looked, we don’t landmark the sky. Though, I wish we could.”