Councilman John Murtagh's address to the Charter Revision Commission on August 12, 2009:
Members of the Commission,
I need not tell you where I stand on this very misguided proposal. My record in favor of historic preservation is a long one.
Nevertheless, I do feel a record must be made.
The current proposal is wrong on many levels.
In the first place it is, frankly, an insult and an affront to the good, dedicated and knowledgeable members of our Landmarks Board everyone of them a volunteer serving for no other reason than a love for and a concern for this City and its many and varied neighborhoods.
Secondly, it is nothing but a bald attempt to usurp the power of the City Council, to place the Planning Board in the role of exercising veto power over decisions of the Landmarks Board before they ever reach the desks of those of us elected to represent the very neighborhoods impacted.
Thirdly, I believe this proposal is an ill-conceived knee jerk response to the Council’s vote to create the Phillipse Manor Historic District. That single vote, taken with the unanimous support of the Landmarks Board is, to my knowledge, the first time that this or any Landmarks Board in Yonkers or any City Council has exercised the Landmarking power in a manner that directly impacted a significant development project…and what was the immediate reaction…in effect, if you can’t beat them, kill them. In this case, effectively kill the Landmarks Board…and yes, it simply cannot be ignored that the Chairman of this commission is also the President of the property owner most impacted by the creation of the Phillipse Manor District. I say that not as some ad-hominem attack but merely as a statement of fact. I might add that since the landmarking, Greyston has appeared to work in good faith to achieve a workable compromise at that sit. Nevertheless, one can’t but suspect a bit of payback in this proposal.
Fourth, as a procedural matter, I believe some clarification is necessary. You sit as a “Charter” revision commission. Yet, the Landmarks ordinance and the statute which creates and enables the Landmarks Board is not in our Charter, but in our Code. You are not a “Code” revision commission. Indeed, the Code, to my knowledge, is the jurisdiction of the elected City Council and not this appointed Board.
These are specific criticisms, but the real issue is more fundamental and much broader…and that is: What direction will we take as a City as we redevelop? Unlike many of our neighbors – White Plains and Stamford Connecticut come to mind- we still have many of our old, historic and significant buildings and neighborhoods intact. When those cities remade there downtowns years and even decades ago, they did so with a wrecking ball and a bulldozer and no appreciation for the treasures they were leveling. For reasons political and otherwise, Yonkers missed those building booms of decades past. But as a result, we now have the opportunity to do better, to appreciate our history, our heritage and the fabric of our communities and to weave something better from that fabric by combining the best of the old and the new. We have a simple philosophical choice. Do we celebrate our heritage and preserve our history or do we bulldoze that history, blacktop that heritage and create yet another cookie cutter city? Do we recognize the extraordinary value of what we have and make it an integral part of a revitalized Yonkers or do we simply create acres more of glass, steel and concrete indistinguishable from New Roc City, the City Center in White Plains or Summer Street in Stamford?
Let me close tonight by quoting someone who said it all long ago and better than me. Jane Jacobs was no expert, no architect or engineer, no City Planner or developer. She was a housewife on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village fifty years ago when Robert Moses proposed bulldozing most of the West Village including Washington Square Park to build a highway across Manhattan from New Jersey to Long Island. Jane Jacobs a simple housewife took Moses on and won. Later, in her seminal book, the Death and Life of the American City here is what she said:
Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation–although these make fine ingredients–but also a good lot of plain, ordinary old buildings….
If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction. These high costs of occupying new buildings may be levied in the form of an owner’s interest and amortization payments on the capital costs of the construct
ion. However the costs are paid off, they have to be paid off. And for this reason, enterprises that support the cost of new construction must be capable of paying a relatively high overhead–high in comparison to that necessarily required by old buildings. To support such high overheads, the enterprises must be either (a) high profit or (b) well subsidized.
If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and small shops go into older buildings. . . . Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts–studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions–these go into old buildings. Perhaps more significant, hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods, and appreciated for their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.
As for really new ideas of any kind–no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be–there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.