Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

City Council Stated Meeting - November 30, 2005

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

"This is a piece of trash. We should knock it down and put something nice up." – Councilmember Simcha Felder on why a Brooklyn warehouse should not be designated as a historic landmark.

By a vote of 43 to 6, the New York City Council rejected the Landmark Preservation Commission's decision to protect a historic building located on the Williamsburg waterfront. It was only the fifth time in the last 15 years that the council has overruled the agency.

The building at the center of the debate is the Austin, Nichols, and Company Warehouse, which was built in 1913 by architect Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Woolworth Building in lower Manhattan.

The massive reinforced concrete warehouse – located at 184 Kent Avenue - served as the headquarters for wholesale grocers Austin, Nichols and Company, then sat vacant for many years. In 2000, developer Moishe Kestenbaum began renting out some apartments in it.

Recently, Kestenbaum announced plans to convert the apartments into luxury condos. He also plans to build a large rooftop addition and modify the building's windows.

In September 2005, the New York City Landmarks commission designated the building an official landmark, calling it an "influential and innovative commercial building" that must be preserved. Although the designation only applied to the exterior of the building, the developer would have to submit any plans to alter it or to build a rooftop addition to the commission.

Councilmember David Yassky, who represents the district where the building is located, led the fight to overturn the commission's decision.

"This is simply not worthy of landmarking," said Yassky.

Recently, Yassky helped broker a deal for the developer to give $335,000 to build affordable housing in the area in return for permission to alter the Austin Nichols building.

"I believe that the future of the waterfront is in residential development, and that is what we should be promoting," he said.

Yassky was able to convince most of his colleagues, including Simcha Felder, who chairs the council's landmarks committee, to support him.

"This is a piece of trash," said Felder. "We should knock it down and put something nice up."

However, some members warned that the neighborhood could lose a historic structure and that the current tenants would likely be displaced.

"The community is in favor of those landmarks," said Councilmember Tony Avella. "I think it is a disgrace that this council is going to turn [it] down. Shame on this body!"

Other members said they did not know anything about the building before the meeting and were not prepared to weigh in.

"I did not come prepared for any deep thinking on this issue," said Al Vann, who remarked that he thought it would be a "regular day" when all the council member voted yes everything.

Six councilmember - Tony Avella, Letitia James, Margarita Lopez, Michael McMahon, Bill Perkins, and Al Vann - sided with the landmark's commission. Vincent Gentile abstained from the vote.

The mayor can veto the council's decision, but the council has more than the 34 votes needed to override him.

(For more on this and other historic landmarks in the city, play Gotham Gazette's Landmarks Preservation Game)

In 2002, the City Council approved a law that requires that information about public health programs such as Medicaid, Child Health Plus, and Family Health Plus be published in at least seven different languages - English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Yiddish, Korean, and Haitian-Creole.

By a vote of 48 to 2, the council approved a measure (Intro 700) that continues the practice.

Republicans Dennis Gallagher and Andrew Lanza voted against the bill, arguing that it cost taxpayers $20 million a year that would be better spent on schools, firehouses, or police.

"We should write things in English languages," said Gallagher. "And we should make English our official language here in the United States."

The City Council also approved a bill (Intro 510) aimed at cleaning up vacant lots in the city.

The new law will hold those who own or lease a property accountable for maintaining the lot and its surrounding sidewalk and street areas. Owners can be fined by the Department of Sanitation if a property contains "garbage, refuse, rubbish, litter, debris and other offensive material."

The council also passed a resolution (Res 1240) commemorating the life and recent death of Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon who refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus in 1955. The council is calling for December 1 to be observed as "Rosa Parks Day" and encourages businesses in the city to close or to allow workers to take time off to attend events commemorating her life. The resolution does not create an official city holiday.

The next Stated Meeting is scheduled for December 8, 2005.


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