Gotham Gazette

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New York City Council STATED MEETING - October 24, 2003

New York City Council Stated Meeting Report

Every two weeks the New York City Council meets for its Stated Meeting to introduce and pass legislation. As a regular feature, Searchlight covers these meetings and posts a summary of the bills passed.

STATED MEETING - October 24, 2003

Quote of the Day:

"No one here would argue that St. John the Divine hasn't been a landmark in New York City history... but landmark designation should preserve and protect an area from future development. This only protects the church structure, not the land around it." - Councilmember Melinda Katz, chair of the land use committee, urging a "no" vote on a measure to make the Cathedral of St. John the Divine a landmark.

Meeting Summary:

On October 24, the New York City Council unanimously rejected landmark status for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the world's largest Gothic cathedral located on the Upper West Side.

It was only the third time since the Landmark Preservation Commission was created in 1965 that the council has overturned a landmark status recommendation. (Read more about landmark preservation in New York City.)

The issue was not whether the 111-year-old cathedral should be preserved; in fact the commission has been trying to give the church a landmark designation for the last 37 years. The problem, council members contended, was that the action applied only the church structure itself. The 11-acre ground surrounding the church was not included.

St. John the Divine has plans to develop the area around the church and lease it to Columbia University. Current regulations would allow two buildings as tall as 20 stories to be built on the property.

Church officials said that they need the money from the lease to keep the institution running. They estimated that the church currently needs $20 million in repairs and said operating expenses have consumed their endowment. They also emphasized that much of their budget goes to social programs, like after-school programs, homeless services, and soup kitchens.

"What is at stake is clear: the financial security and existence of this beloved religious and public institution," said Reverend James Kowalski, the dean of St. John the Divine.

But council members questioned the integrity of the process, criticized the commission for letting financial concerns become part of their consideration, and raised doubts about whether the planned development would be appropriate for the cathedral and the neighborhood."This is not the way to do it, not at the expense of the integrity of the landmarking process," said Harlem Councilmember Bill Perkins, who represents the area.

The council voted 44 to 0 to reject the landmark commission's recommendation; six council members were absent. The council's action will not stop development of the land around the cathedral. The members urged the landmarks commission to start their process again.

The City Council also unanimously approved a bill (Intro 539) that allows more senior citizens to qualify for rent increase exemptions. Rent increase exemptions are available to New Yorkers over the age of 62, who pay a least a third of their income toward rent, and live in rent controlled or rent stabilized apartments.

Under the old law, a household had to earn less than $20,000 a year to qualify; the new bill raises the annual income level to $24,000.

The Independent Budget Office estimates that the bill will allow 2,575 more households to participate in the program at a cost of $1.8 million to the city.

The next Stated Meeting is scheduled for November 6.

For an archive of past meetings and council votes, visit Gotham Gazette's Searchlight.


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