February 2019 – Lower Manhattan
By Mike Leventhal APB Staff Reporter
In a emotional and sometimes combative second hearing before the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, the owner of the iconic Strand Bookstore, Nancy Bass Wyden, continued her effort to keep the famed bookseller’s building from being designated a city landmark along with seven other buildings on Broadway between East 12th and 14th Streets.
Appearing with Alexander Urbelis, a former United States Deputy Attorney, Wyden offered the commission to put in place a historic preservation easement on the storefront. The easement would be the an agreement between the property’s owner and a third-party nonprofit group that would serve as a steward for the building’s preservation, assuring that, the building’s facade, would be properly preserved to the rules
At the first LPC hearing, the Strand’s team voiced strong concerns that a historic designation would place unfair restrictions on the last of its kind business and potentially threaten its future.
Wyden, whose grandfather founded the Strand in 1927, referenced the tax incentives that Amazon received to relocate to Long Island City at that previous hearing when she said, “The richest man in America, who’s a direct competitor, has just been handed $3 billion in subsidies. I’m not asking for money or a tax rebate. Just leave me alone.”
Wyden’s new proposal would mean the store would work with a nonprofit preservation organization rather than the city directly. But she might have received a negative sign that her plan might not fly with the commission: Sarah Carroll, who is both the chair and a commissioner of the LPC, said in her final remarks that the preservation easement was not seen “as a favorable substitute for designation.”
The Strand has been fighting to stay alive over the years as a bookseller and retailer in New York City, and in the era of Amazon, the number of bookstores in New York City has decreased by nearly 80 percent over the past 70 years, from 369 in 1950 to only 79 in 2018. The Strand says the landmark designation would limit their ability to adapt to a changing retail market.
Additional regulations would also delay many items from emergency flood repairs to upgrading the awnings or changing the layout of the store, as they would have to submit architectural and Department of Building plans in the maze of the bureaucratic processes of the LPC.
A key point the Strand stressed at the hearing is that the building is already built to its structure and has no air rights, so there is no danger of the building becoming just another high-rise, glass building or suite of luxury apartments.
The Historic Districts Council reminded the commission to consider the historic significance of the building, which was designed by William H. Birkmire, an architect who claimed to have developed the structural system in the 1888 Tower Building which considered by some to be the city’s first skyscraper as well as the world’s first metal skeleton building without masonry adjuncts.
Executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation Andrew Berman, who was present at Tuesday’s hearing, said that the commission’s selection of the seven building under consideration resulted from a privately negotiated deal between City Councilmember Carlina Rivera and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The commission is expected to offer their decision within a few weeks.