The state’s highest court reversed a decision that would have blocked a developer from turning a landmarked clock tower into a private penthouse.
A majority of judges in the New York State Court of Appeals ruled against advocates who sued the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), arguing that the agency did not act appropriately when it approved plans to convert the landmarked clock tower at 346 Broadway (the development is known as 108 Leonard) into a luxury apartment. In a significant blow to preservationists, the appellate court ruled Thursday that the city is within its rights to greenlight a project that prevents access to the timepiece and allows the developer to replace the clock’s historic mechanisms with an electronic system.
“We’re exceptionally disappointed especially after having prevailed in the lower courts,” said Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, which helped bring the lawsuit forward in 2015. “In a very real way, this is kind of a de facto de-designation of an interior landmark. It’s a troubling decision.”
LPC designated the Broadway building an interior landmark in 1987, including the E. Howard & Company clock tower that overlooks lower Manhattan. In 2015, the agency granted a certificate of appropriateness to the building’s owner—a partnership by the Peebles Corporation and El Ad Group—to convert the tower, and the rest of the building, into luxury apartments. Ownership also planned to restore the four-faced clock, but sought to swap the inner workings with an electrified system. (The manual clock must be regularly wound.)
Outraged preservationists argued that as an interior landmark, the clock tower should remain accessible to the public and claimed the plans violate landmark regulations. A handful of advocates banded together—including Save America’s Clocks, the Historic Districts Council, and the Tribeca Trust—to sue over the city’s approval of the plans.
Two lower courts sided with the preservationists. But in a 4-2 decision, the New York State Court of Appeals overturned those rulings. In court documents, appellate Judge Michael Garcia said LPC does not have the authority to dictate access to the building and that LPC’s approval was “well within the ambit of its discretion.”
“LPC’s determination to issue the [certificate of appropriateness] following this extensive and inclusive deliberative process, and to approve certain work to the clock tower and clock mechanism on the basis that the proposed work would restore the clock tower ... constituted a rational exercise of the LPC’s discretion,” wrote Garcia. “Certainly, those determinations are consistent with the purposes of the Landmarks Law.”
The city said it is glad to finally put the matter to bed. “We’re pleased the Court found that the Commission’s decision to approve this comprehensive project to restore and revitalize the building was appropriate and lawful,” said Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesperson with the city’s law department.
Initial rulings on the clocktower posed a setback for the developers’ plans, but they pressed forward with converting the rest of the 14-story building into 150 apartments. Sales launched for the building March 2018, with apartments starting at $1.5 million. The building’s owner did not return requests for comment.
Jeremy Woodoff, a board member of Save America’s Clocks, called the clock within the tower “a machine that embodies the pinnacle of late 19th-century American technology” and lamented the ruling as “a tragedy for all New Yorkers and for Americans.” Lynn Ellsworth, chair of the Tribeca Trust, argued that the “courts are making an error of law” and said that a “legislative fix” must be explored to ensure that similar rulings won’t cut off access to interior landmarks in the future.
Of the two judges who sided with preservationists, Judge Jenny Rivera called LPC’s approval “erroneous as a matter of law” and argued that the clock and its inner workers are a crucial part of what makes the city tick.
“The structures and sites that embody the spirit of the City should be preserved even when commercial interests seek their destruction,” Rivera wrote in court documents. “While it might be more profitable to disavow the clatter of the Cyclone, the sight of the Navy Yard dry dock, or the pace of the retractile Carroll Street Bridge, New York City appreciates these elements and the quality they add to public life.”