The St. Vincent's Hospital Saga Continues

Six preservation organizations file amici curiae brief over Landmarks Preservation Commission's "hardship" ruling to permit demolition of the O'Toole Building at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village

By Carter B. Horsley

Six leading preservation organizations filed a brief as amici curiae with the New York Supreme Court November 4, 2009 in a case challenging the hardship ruling by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission authorizing the planned demolition of the Edward and Theresa O'Toole Medical Services Building on the west side of Seventh Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets by St. Vincent's Hospital.

The hospital wants to build a new hospital on the site and then let the Rudin Family redevelop its properties on the east side of Seventh Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets residentially.

The six organizations are the Municipal Art Society of New York, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Preservation League of New York State, the Greenwich Village society for Historic Preservation, the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts and the Brooklyn Heights Association.

The case has been brought by the Protect the Village Historic District, Historic Districts Council, DOCOMOMO New York-Tristate, the Historic Neighborhood Enhancement Alliance, Landmark West!, The Cambridge Owners Corp., the 174 West 12th Street Condominium, the John Adams Owners Inc., and numerous individuals including Carol Greitzer.

In announcing its participation in the "friends of the court" brief, the Municipal Art Society said that it and the other "amici" "have taken the uncommon step of supporting neither part to the litigation," arguing that the intent "is to assist the court in reaching its determination by outlining the proper judicial test for hardship relief, as well as the regulatory takings analysis on which that test is premised."

"By applying a test much more lenient than the courts have sanctioned, and inventing a campus-based exception to the Landmarks Law, the LPC has upset the finely tuned balance the law strikes between the rights and needs of non-profit property owners and the values of historic preservation. Even more disturbingly, the LPC's reasoning opens the door - far more than the Constitution requires - for non-profit owners of landmarks and buildings within historic districts to circumvent the requirements of the Landmarks Law," it maintained.

The hospital bought the O'Toole Building four years after the landmarks commission had included it within the Greenwich Village Historic District and in 1979 the City Planning Commission permitted the hospital to treat its properties on both sides of Seventh Avenue as a "large scale community facility development" so that it could pool all the air rights together to expand its complex.

The landmarks commission indicated in May, 2008 that the O'Toole Building, which was designed in 1964 with nautical motifs by Albert Ledner for the National Maritime Union, could not be demolished under a certificate of appropriateness because it contributed significantly to the historic district. The hospital then made a hardship application to demolish it based on principles in a case involving Sailors Snug Harbor properties in Staten Island. The landmarks commission subsequently voted six to four October 28, 2008 to approve the application.

In its "final determination" May 12, the commission stated that it had relied on the "hardship" standards of the Snug Harbor case that were "further elaborated by the Second Circuit" in a famous landmark controversy involved St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church on Park Avenue and 50th Street.

"The commission did not consider, as it must, whether the O'Toole Building would be 'taken' by enforcement of the regulations imposed upon it by the Landmarks Law. Instead, in making its Final Determination, the LPC found that 'the O'Toole Building is part of St. Vincent's campus...."

"The LPC's invention of a campus-based exception to the judicial test," the brief concluded, "flies in the face of the United States Supreme Court's repeated admonitions that property owners may not gerrymander the definition of their property, and is contrary to the language of the Landmarks Law, as well as forty years of the state and federal courts' application of the judicial hardship test."

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