The battle surrounding the Strand Bookstore’s potential landmark status continued Tuesday morning, with advocates on both sides of the issue packing the David N. Dinkins Manhattan Municipal Building for a tense final hearing.
The proposed designation would establish 826 Broadway, home of the bookstore, and six other buildings in the Union Square area as landmarks. The buildings included in the proposal were selected after the $250 million, 21-story tech hub, Union Square Tech Training Center, was approved to be built on E. 14th Street and Irving Place.
On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission noted that the Strand’s 1902 building, designed by William H. Birkmire, was being considered for landmark status based on its architectural and cultural significance, tied, in part, to the bookstore’s mark on the city’s literary landscape and the role the building played during the expansion of New York City’s garment industry.
“The Strand Bookstore is the last vestige of the book world. And there is no question it represents an integral part of our local history,” said council member Carlina Rivera, who helped to secure the landmark proposal in response to the tech hub approval. Advocates in favor argue that the landmarking of buildings in the Union Square area will help to stave off overdeveloping.
Rivera, who reaffirmed her support on Tuesday to landmark the Strand, read from a submitted testimony from the East Village Community Coalition: “The owners have been good stewards of 826 Broadway and take pride in their business. A call for designation does not take away from this, but helps assure its continuance no matter what unforeseen circumstances may arise.”
Those opposed urged the Landmarks Preservation Commission to strike down the plan, claiming that the designation would place bureaucratic stress on the bookstore that could lead to its demise.
“We operate on thin margins in a fragile environment,” said Strand owner Nancy Bass Wyden, whose father relocated the Strand from its original home on Fourth Avenue’s “Book Row” to its current location on Broadway in 1957.
Wyden opened her statement by chronicling her family’s ties to the Strand’s history, stretching from when her grandfather established the bookstore in 1927 to when her father bought the building currently under landmark consideration, in 1996.
“Our story is about the Strand surviving in this community when more than 300 other bookstores have collapsed,” said Wyden. “We want to write more chapters about the Strand’s success story, not its obituary.”
Wyden said that if the building were landmarked, the resulting “red tape” would impede the bookstore from functioning in a competitive and responsive manner.
“Red tape is what we would face if the city takes control of final decisions, such as putting mortar in outdoor halls, bathroom renovation approvals, our signage and even rooftop air conditioning and mechanical changes that aren’t even visible from the street,” she said.
Eddie Sutton, the Strand’s general manager, echoed Wyden’s fears in his testimony. “We are concerned that our business, which demands agility and flexibility, may find our hopes and plans slipping in a sea of overwhelming requests,” said Sutton, noting that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has 40 staffers to oversee 36,000 buildings in the city.
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Those in favor of the landmark designation contested this claim, stating that the status would not govern changes to the interior of the building and that building changes subject to commission approval are typically handled expeditiously by the commission’s staff.
“The Strand, like hundreds of thousands of other businesses and designated buildings before it, will be able to change lighting, signage and awnings,” said Andrea Goldwyn, speaking on behalf of The New York Landmarks Conservancy. “The agency has been quick to respond to disasters, such as fires, floods and hurricanes.”
As an alternative to landmark designation, Wyden and her lawyer, Alexander Urbelis, suggested a preservation easement on the building’s façade, which is a voluntary legal agreement between the building owner and a nonprofit that would give preservationists the right to inspect and approve material changes to the outside of the building — though preservationists present argued that this proposal could place even more strain on the Strand than landmark designation through additional restrictions and rigid rules introduced by the easement.
Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation (GVSHP), also spoke at the hearing, arguing that the commission ignored more at-risk properties and accused it of “cherry-picking” the Strand building and others as a “token gesture” in response to the tech hub development in the area.
“There is no denying that 826 Broadway is historically, architecturally and culturally significant, and thus worthy of landmark designation, but there is also no denying that there are literally dozens of equally, if not more significant, buildings on these blocks south of Union Square,” said Berman, who, along with the GVSHP, pushed for 193 buildings in the area to be designated as landmarks last September.
Berman called on the commission to ensure the protection of the area’s most vulnerable buildings with a more comprehensive landmarking plan.
While the commission did not reach a final decision about how to proceed during the hearing, Wyden’s lawyer testified that they will continue to fight the landmark designation with legal action if approved. A vote to determine the status of the proposal will occur at a future date.
Top Image: The Strand Bookstore. Photo: Brianne Sperber.