Morningside Heights may be on its way to having its own historic district, and local residents want it stretching as far as possible.
The fight to officially landmark a large chunk of Morningside Heights has been a series of fits and starts since 1996, and the plans have never yet made it past the initial stage. Now, the plans are finally making some progress. The historic status would protect the area from modern changes to existing buildings, something that many say is necessary to preserve the architectural spirit of the neighborhood.
At a public meeting on Monday night, officials from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission said that they agreed and wanted to move forward—though audience members questioned many of the plan’s details.
The district’s proposed boundaries run from 110th Street to 119th Street along Riverside Drive. It would have an uneven eastern boundary that only reaches Broadway at two points, 116th Street and 110th Street. The majority of the district would end mid-block between Riverside and Broadway—something local Judy Thomas described as “gerrymandering.”
To the surprise of many expecting a “not in my backyard” fight, the controversy seemed to concentrate on expanding the proposed district, not limiting it.
But residents disagreed on which parts of the neighborhood should be included. The district didn’t include any buildings on Broadway or the blocks between Broadway and Morningside Drive, and at least a dozen locals consider this to be a glaring omission.
“Some of the hallmarks of the neighborhood are east of this district, the defining buildings,” said Michael Gotkin, who lives on 104th Street.
Officials disagreed, and maintained that many of the buildings on Broadway are either new or damaged. The street doesn’t have the “sense of place” that the rest of the neighborhood does, they argued.
Community members pushing for the inclusion of buildings along Morningside Drive said that the proposal overlooks the “heights” that give the neighborhood its name—the cliffs of Morningside Park.
“Morningside Drive, that promenade along the park, has just as much of a sense of place as Riverside Drive,” said Brad Taylor, a Community Board 9 member who lives along Morningside.
Columbia demolished three brownstones on 114th Street between Amsterdam and Morningside Drive over the summer, which residents said underscored the importance of including those blocks in the historic district. But while many seemed eager to use the district to curtail Columbia’s development, LPC officials made it clear that this was not their agenda.
“We wouldn’t just include vacant lots [in the district boundaries] just to stop development,” said Kate Daly, executive director of the LPC. She was quick to say that the research staff was solely responsible for the boundaries, not any negotiations with Columbia. Though the LPC never considered including Columbia’s campus in its historic boundaries, Daly said that 43 of the 63 buildings included in the potential district are owned by the University, a reflection of Columbia’s huge real estate presence in the area.
Still, historic districts aren’t universally popular because they dramatically increase the bureaucracy for owners of protected buildings. Any change that a property owner wants to make beyond basic maintenance needs a separate approval from the LPC, including acts as simple as changing the paint color on a front door.
Some were left unconvinced that the commission was being completely transparent. “I’m concerned about the process. I think what’s lacking is sitting down with the players and deciding on the boundaries, rather than the Landmarks Preservation Committee coming in with a presentation,” said CB9 member Walter South.
Daly promised that researchers will be sent out to the properties residents asked to be included, and that more meetings will be convened.
“We have a lot ahead of us,” Daly said.