I know this happens. I know of two examples. But I don’t know exactly how a developer can fill a landmarked church exterior with condos, even though it’s been done. Do you have knowledge of this?
I am writing an article for WestView on the conversion of St. Veronica into a concert hall. The exterior, but not the interior, is landmarked. Thus, a developer could grab it, gut it, and fill it with condos, right, just like other former churches I know of? This is an interesting subject in itself.
I want to alert people to this danger so that we can save it as a concert hall.
Thanks, Carol Yost
The simple answer is that landmarking does not affect use (i.e., a landmarked church can become residences, a landmarked bank can become a community center, a landmarked factory can become office space, etc.). Also, yes, landmarking does generally only apply to the exterior, not the interior of buildings. Among the 35,000 or so landmarked buildings in NYC, just a few hundred are also interior landmarks, which generally applies to only certain parts of those spaces. To qualify for interior landmark status, a space must have some special architectural and/or historic significance, and it must be customarily open to the public. However, there is one caveat—The space must NOT be a place of religious worship. So, while St. Veronica might qualify for consideration in other respects, it is disqualified for that reason.
Why? As with almost all rules of law, there are limits upon the power of the state to landmark and to regulate and restrict through landmark designation. For example, by law, there must be a “hardship” provision for any private property owner who is landmarked. This means that if the owner cannot make a “reasonable return” on his/her property under landmark regulation, he/she must be relieved of the burden of the landmark designation. This is one of the reasons why landmark designation does not regulate use. So, if a landmarked factory can no longer turn a reasonable profit as a factory, it has the ability to turn a profit with some other use. That’s how SoHo, which is all landmarked, went from being a manufacturing area to a residential neighborhood and all those buildings were still preserved.
The reason why the interiors of houses of worship cannot be landmarked is because of our very strong protection of freedom of religion. Imagine if government were in the business of regulating the way that the insides of churches, synagogues, mosques, or temples looked. Imagine if you had to get approval from the government to change how that statue of Christ or Vishnu looked, or where the Torah scrolls were placed, or whether or not you could add an inscription of the Ten Commandments, etc. It’s one of the strict limits of what landmarking can or cannot do. In fact, even the exteriors of religious spaces are treated differently from non-religious ones because of the imperative to protect freedom of religion. While private property owners must prove that they cannot make a modest profit in order to be relieved of landmark regulation, religious institutions need only prove that landmark designation is interfering with their ability to fulfill their mission. So, if a church can prove that it wants to create a soup kitchen, and it cannot do so without altering or even demolishing its existing building, it must be allowed to do so.
I hope this answers your question.
Andrew Berman, Executive Director
Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation