January 11, 1987
A Landmark of Misfeasance

Seven members of the New York City Landmarks Commission last week issued a gratuitous warning against any proposal that would obscure part of the rear of the New York Public Library on 42d Street. It was an act of arrogance against normal process that calls not just for criticism but also for corrective steps. The first step is for the city studiously to ignore the commission's abuse of power and bring forward the city's plan to renovate Bryant Park, behind the library.

As distinguished private citizens, which the seven were before they joined the commission, each had the right to speak out at any time on any issue, notably controversial matters of architectural taste. But when they were sworn in as members of the Landmarks Commission, they gave up that right insofar as it involved matters likely to come before them for impartial consideration.

The Landmarks Commission is not simply a public lobby for the preservation of buildings and other artifacts its members prize. It serves as a quasi-judicial umpire that must decide, absent an unlikely veto from the Board of Estimate, whether or not to give a candidate-building landmark status, or to approve changes to one already designated. Its perceived impartiality is essential.

When the members last week linked their views of the library's facade to their approval of the construction of book stacks beneath Bryant Park, they were commenting in advance on a matter that has not yet come before them. When it does, they will be expected to render an unbiased verdict after listening to arguments pro and con.

That members would so recklessly pronounce their views before the Bryant Park proposal even came before them raises questions of their fitness. How, one wonders, would they feel about a judge who tells the defendant before the trial starts that his defense is ''absolutely untenable''?

There are only two possible remedies. One is to make the commission an advocacy body only, leaving its members free to express themselves as partisans. Their majority view would become merely advisory to the Planning Commission, which would then make landmarking decisions.

The other remedy is to replace its members promptly with people who realize that accepting the power to decide a dispute requires forfeiting prejudgment. Landmark owners, supporters and opponents are entitled to believe that each landmark decision is made with no advance commitments, not to either side or to preconceived notions that make evidence superfluous.