A proposed Morningside Heights historic district is one step closer to reality after the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing on the matter Tuesday, with the public overwhelmingly in favor of the project.
The proposed area comprises of 115 buildings and roughly stretches from West 108th Street to West 119th Street along parts of Amsterdam Avenue, Riverside Drive and Broadway. Most of the buildings in this area consist of residential developments that were built between the 1890s and the 1920s, along with some institutional buildings like churches and synagogues.
The institutions were among the few voices of dissent at the meeting on Tuesday. Daniel Victor, one of the board members of a small Upper West Side synagogue, the Congregation Ramath Orah, said the congregation barely breaks even at present, and that being part of a historic district would be an added financial burden the synagogue would find extremely hard to take on. He stressed that the synagogue was still $250,000 short on funds for much-needed repairs to the building at 550 West 110th Street.
Financial burden was also a concern for the Broadway Presbyterian Church, located on West 114th Street. A lawyer for the church said that a historic district would hobble their restoration efforts, and emphasized the fact that the gothic architecture of the Church was out of sync with the more Beaux-Arts elements of the buildings in the proposed district, and hence did not merit a designation.
“We do not want to deface our building,” Chris Shelton, the pastor of the church said at the meeting. “We share a deep commitment to keeping it the way it is, but landmarking will make this so much harder.”
Andrew Dolkart, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and the director of the school’s Historic Preservation program did not agree with this logic. Dolkart is also the author of Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development, and stressed the point that it was common for institutions like churches and synagogues to be incongruous with the architectural styles of the residential developments—it was how these institutions made themselves distinct.
Perhaps the best known institution from the neighborhood, Columbia University, was also on board with the historic district save for one particular area—a row of houses located at 604-616 West 114th Street. A representative for the University argued that the buildings had no architectural merit to be included as part of the district and that landmarking would make it hard for the university to use the building for future student housing needs.
Aside from those reservations, there was overwhelming support in favor of creating the historic district. The Morningside Heights Historic District Committee has been fighting for the past 20 years to create this district, and the president of group, Laura Friedman expressed great joy at the Landmarks Commission having taken up the matter.
Elected officials including City Councilman Mark Levine, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and State Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell have all strongly supported such a district for quite some time now, but the most powerful and persuasive testimony came from dozens of long-term residents of the neighborhood on Tuesday.
Many of the residents who spoke in favor of creating the historic district have been living there since the 1970s and spoke fondly of raising their families in the area. Marcia Powell, who along with her husband has lived in the neighborhood since 1976 stressed the urgency of protecting these buildings as developments like the rentals now hugging the Cathedral of St. John the Divine encroach upon the neighborhood.
“These buildings need the protection of law and preservation,” Powell said. “They should not end up in dumpsters.”
Even the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) was in support of creating the historic district with vice president of urban planning at the organization, Paimaan Lodhi stating that prime development sites along Broadway had been left out of the district which made the historic district “more coherent.”
The Landmarks Commission also held a public hearing for a proposal to landmark the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and its seven-building campus earlier on Tuesday with public opinion also favoring landmarking in this case.
The Commission will vote on both the historic district and the cathedral complex in the coming months.