December 26, 1987
Preserving Balance on Landmarks

New York's rich architectural heritage, like that of other older cities, justifies efforts to protect truly distinguished buildings from onrushing change. In New York, that is the job of an 11-member Landmarks Preservation Commission. But the commission has been eroding credibility and undermining its proper function by designating questionable buildings, embroiling itself in neighborhood battles against reasonable development and usurping the role of zoning agencies.

For example, Marjory Pearson, the commission's own research director, was willing to put in writing her opinion that three small and decayed buildings were not distinguished enough for landmark designation. Yet, the commission designated the buildings, at Central Park West and 95th Street, landmarks anyway. These empty buildings were undistinguished on the day they were built and remain so. Declaring them landmarks sticks their owners with properties of small value and without any leeway to increase their worth.

The commission behaved similarly two years ago on the Rizzoli and Coty buildings on Fifth Avenue. It had long considered them unworthy of designation but suddenly declared them landmarks after a developer filed plans. The commission apparently bowed to community pressure to protect the ''scale'' of Fifth Avenue facades. But that is a zoning rather than a landmark issue. The commission avoided that problem by belatedly discovering a long obscured window designed by Lalique. Then both buildings were given landmark designation.
That might have been expected from a commission that would landmark the Mt. Neboh synagogue in Manhattan. The American Institute of Architects' Guide to New York says the building is distinguished only by the fake aging of its facade. The designation imposed financial hardship on the synagogue's owners. So did the commission's landmarking of Broadway theater interiors, ignoring a weighty report analyzing their crucial elements.

By such actions, the commission abuses special authority. All other city agencies concerned with land use, like housing and development agencies, must submit every proposal they originate to the Planning Commission and the Board of Estimate for approval before proceeding. The Landmarks Commission must submit nothing to Planning, and the Board of Estimate may act only to veto a designation after it is made. The law permitting that special power needs review.

Meanwhile, the Mayor ought to fill a vacancy on the commission and to replace Elliot Willensky and Anthony Tung, two architect members whose terms have expired. They remain only because no one nominated by Mr. Koch has been approved by the Council. Messrs. Tung and Willensky are respected architectural historians, but their single-minded interest makes them unfit for membership on a commission that needs balance, not zealotry. Lately that zealotry has cost the commission its reputation and the city some useful development.