WEST END AVENUE: BLAND BOXES OR A NEIGHBORHOOD TREASURE?

By Maria Gorshin

What was it like yesterday at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, where a highly-anticipated public hearing was held for the West End Avenue historic district extension? It could have come down to a long day of Us vs. Them; corporate greed mongers vs. local sentimentalists; The Man in the Black Suit vs. The Woman in the Floppy Hat but it was nothing of the sort. The public hearing lasted just under two hours and featured nuanced arguments from all sides (three at last count) regarding the future of one of New York’s most beloved neighborhoods.

Among New Yorkers who testified in favor of seeing much of West End Avenue landmarked beyond its existing historic district borders was Councilwoman Gale Brewer, an Upper West Side hero who represents New Yorkers who live between West 54th Street and 96th Street, from Riverside Drive to Central Park West. “All New Yorkers will be incredibly proud that West End Avenue and its side streets were preserved,” she said, reflecting her optimism that the LPC will rule in favor of seeing West End Avenue protections extended.

Henry Adams, speaking on behalf of State Senator Bill Perkins’ office, pointed out that many who are against the move speak as if “…some terrible thing is about to befall them when something wonderful is about to happen.” He added, “Preservation is a dollars and cents boost for business owners and property owners. Look at Tribeca.” Almost everyone who spoke in favor of preserving the area as it stands today spoke of the beauty, cohesiveness, and architectural significance of the area and of course its “sense of place.” Meanwhile, opposition to the proposal came as a surprise coming as it did from some long-time West End Avenue residents, small business owners, representatives of one of the Upper West Side’s oldest and most community-oriented churches and even an architectural historian.

“There’s nothing historic about my building unless you want to declare me historic,” said one Upper West Sider hopeful that historic district status will bypass the building he calls home. His statement was welcomed by good-natured laughter from all sides before he added more seriously, “You cheapen the concept (of preservation) by including buildings that have no historic value.” An owner of a small building echoed the sentiments of other building owners when he described his property as “not a public building…it’s a privately-owned home.” before he expressed concern that soon his “preferences and design ideas will come under the subject of LPC regulation.” A booming Upper West Side voice spoke up for those who would like to see “carve outs” – approval of the West End Avenue historic district extension with exemptions allowed for individual buildings. “A sense of place is not a law as far as I can tell.” A lone architectural historian stood to defend 300 West 72nd Street against possible landmarking with humor and alliteration, saying, “It’s a boringly bland brick box beige building. A decent place to live but…” not architecturally significant.

The entrance to 1 Centre Street, where the hearing was held.

The afternoon meeting progressed with speakers drawing on their decades lived in the area (up to 50 years on the Upper West Side in a few cases) and centuries standing in our midst (Rutgers: 215 years in NYC, against the extension. Collegiate: 400+ years old, on the side of preservation.) But one local building owner reached even further into the past. “I’ve lived half of my live on the Upper West Side and the other half in a city over 1,000 years old. My friends from Rome are in AWE of the fact that New York has a neighborhood like this and is trying to preserve it.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission faces a huge challenge – sorting through extensive testimony given by eloquent, passionate, well-informed New Yorkers on all sides of the issue to determine the future of what Kate Wood of LandmarkWest! accurately describes as, “one of the most beautiful, vibrant, livable neighborhoods in New York.” What will it be then:

No! to a West End Avenue historic district extension: “We can’t just pull up the gate and say we’re going to have Venice and not allow (the area) to grow.” George Beulow, 40 year resident of the Upper West Side

Yes! To a West End Avenue historic district extension: “The proposed district extension boundaries largely recognize the importance of preserving not just individual buildings or streets but also the exuberant skyline of Riverside Drive and the deep sense of place conveyed by the rowhouse streets.” Kate Wood, LandmarkWest!

Or somewhere in the middle with allowances made for those who want to be exempt: “Carve outs!”

Only one New Yorker came close to speaking for all sides when she said, “We want to be able to live in a real New York neighborhood and preserve what it’s been with improvements.”

Stay tuned until next fall when the Landmark Preservation Commission holds one last public hearing before it determines the future of West End Avenue.

Maria Gorshin, who runs the blog City Girl Writes, is a West Side Rag columnist and native Upper West Sider.

Photos by Maria Gorshin and Sarah_Ackerman via flickr.

    1. Harriet says:

      I’ve lived on the UWS since 1983 and on West End Ave. since 1992. I believe that BUILDINGS, not ENTIRE STREETS should be landmarked. One of the wonderful things about New York is that will never “be finished.” If we try to stop it from growing and changing, we are often trying to freeze our vision of life the way it was in our youth. There are truly ugly buildings within this proposed district which really SHOULD come down. If “sense of place” were a major criteria, then Lincoln Towers deserves to be landmarked. Yuck !!