Landmarks says: “We Don’t Have the Power” Court says “Yes You Do”

By Austin Regan

It’s all about how a clock ticks. The new owners of 346 Broadway wished to convert the rooms that housed the mechanical equipment that ran a historic clock into a Penthouse apartment. The building, formerly owned by the City, is undergoing a transformation into luxury condos. A prominent piece of the exterior of the building is it’s four faced clock tower which has overlooked Broadway since the late 1890’s. To keep the clock running, a 1,000 pound counterweight must be hand cranked periodically. Like other large clocks of that era, there are sizable gears and mechanisms that must be maintained. Not only is the exterior of this building a Landmark but the spaces that house the mechanism were declared an interior Landmark in 1987.

The Commission approved a scheme that gutted the clock’s inner workings and replaced them with electronic controls. This allowed the space to become part of the proposed penthouse apartment. At the time of the public hearing that was held, Landmarks council was of the opinion that they could not dictate how the clock worked only. They were limited to determining the appropriateness of how the clock would appear from the exterior.

As described in a Friday April 1st NY Times article,  a NY State Supreme Court Justice disagreed. Since the space was designated an interior landmark and the mechanical mechanisms operating the clock were integral to it, Landmarks did have the right to force ownership to maintain the mechanism. The judge based her reasoning on the Landmarks law’s definition of an interior landmark which states in part that an interior landmark is “customarily open to the public, or to which the public is customarily invited.”

The interesting question that this issue raises is whether the restriction to access that sometimes occurs to interior landmark spaces, such as office building lobbies and the great early 20th century bank halls that still survive is permitted.

As more of these spaces become part of a building’s conversion to more private uses, such as luxury residences and exclusive event spaces, is the corresponding restriction of public access to these spaces legal? In the past decade such spaces as the interior lobby of the Woolworth Building have gone from being open to the public to only accessible to a select few. Whether this new ruling affects such changes to access remains to be seen.