If everything goes as expected, by 1pm on January 11, 2011, the Borough of Queens will be well on the way to having one less designated landmark, thanks to City Council.
On October 26, 2010, at a hearing proudly proclaimed as “Queens Day”, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to designate Grace Episcopal Church Memorial Hall as one of the 68 individual landmarks in the borough. The two-story red-brick and limestone Tudor Revival building was completed in 1912 by the architecture firm of Upjohn and Constable for use as gymnasium, auditorium, meeting rooms and offices. It is the final piece of one of the most historic church complexes in New York City – the other parts of which (Grace Episcopal Church, 1861-62 and enlarged in 1901-02 and the adjacent graveyard, opened 1734) are both individual landmarks – and an important signifier of the role of the church in Jamaica as it expanded from solely providing religious services to include educational and social services for its community. LPC Chairman Robert Tierney stated, “This picturesque structure was built to serve as a powerful link to the church’s historic past, and secure a promising future. This parish hall nurtured and sustained this important congregation for almost 100 years, and its designation helps to assure its role will continue.” Unfortunately, the congregation doesn’t seem to agree.
Despite not bothering to appear at the public hearing about the hall in February (which they admit they were properly notified about), and despite the City Planning Commission’s analysis that the designation would enable them to sell 314,000 square feet of development rights which could go to approximately 20 nearby receiving sites, they’re not having it. So they reached out to their local Council member James Gennaro who stated “I’m going to be opposing it. More attention should be focused on the financial impacts of landmarking on nonprofit institutions.” Council member Leroy Comrie, who also represents part of Jamaica and is the chair of the City Council’s powerful Land Use Committee also stated to HDC that he would oppose the designation and that is frankly that.
Let’s forget about any lengthy discussions of the merit of the designation or the “financial” implications of landmarking. That really has no place at the public hearing. Most council members are going to vote with the recommendation of the local representative; it makes no sense to do otherwise in the communal environment of democratic government where you depend on the votes of other members to approve projects in your local district. 314,000 square feet of air-rights? What does that really mean when you have to fix your slate roof? In point of fact, St. Thomas the Apostle on Fifth Avenue received over $14 million to go towards building maintenance for some of their air rights in 2008 although, in full disclosure, we weren’t pleased with the proposed development that resulted.
Regardless, we aren’t the decision-makers here, nor are other groups who showed up to support this designation at the Landmarks Commission, nor is the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation who supported this in writing nor Queens Borough President Helen Marshall or State Senator Shirley Huntley who did also. The congregation is in control and the congregation doesn’t want designation, therefore it’s not going to happen, Q.E.D.
To be fair, this unfortunate scenario is well within the allowed-for practice of governmental power. It is the Council’s right to ask whether the power to designate a property as a landmark should be exercised, and there is no required assessment or measurement (political calculation notwithstanding). So the moral of today’s story is “When embarking on a community proposal, get your elected officials onboard early and contact them often.” Remember, if they’re not partners in your campaign, they might be partners in somebody else’s.