LPC Votes to Approve St. Vincent's Hospital Hardship Application

On October 28th the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted on the hardship application of St. Vincent’s Medical Center to demolish the O’Toole building. (For HDC’s testimony on the application, click here.) The vote was a close one – six commissioners in favor, four opposed, and one not in attendance.

Chair Robert Tierney began the vote noting that while the demolition of the O’Toole building was inappropriate as an application for a Certificate of Appropriateness, he felt St. Vincent’s had met the standards to do so under a hardship. Tierney noted that the charitable mission of a hospital is a “highly regulated and complex one.” He expressed his feelings that New Yorkers “deserve the best medical care than can be rendered in this city” and that the hospital’s present physical conditions are restrictive and will only get worse with time. The O’Toole site is the only feasible construction site, Tierney said, and is preferable to building on the east side of 7th Avenue where older hospital buildings would have to be demolished.

Joan Gerner was the next to vote. As the Executive Vice President of Design Construction and Capital Planning for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, she felt that a new building for St. Vincent’s, the only level one trauma center on the west side of Manhattan below 115th Street, is a matter of life and death. She felt St. Vincent’s had met the hardship requirements

Roberta Washington was the first commissioner to voice opposition. An architect with a specialty in hospital and health care design, she found the alternative plans to have not been fully thought out or presented. Washington believed that more options at other sites existed and needed to be fully studied.

Margery Perlmutter also voted against the hardship application. Perlmutter, a former hospital planner and a land use lawyer whose clients have included large hospitals, accused St. Vincent’s of assuming that they would be allowed to build on “O’Toole’s ashes” and so made only “half-hearted” attempts at alternate plans. She rebutted arguments that alternative sites are not zoned for a large hospital noting that the O’Toole site will need zoning variances. While other sites identified by the city’s Economic Development Corporation may be larger than what the hospital needs, the extra space could be used to generate income. In response to the reasoning that the hospital needed to be within a certain distance from St. Vincent’s cancer unit, Perlmutter questioned how the location of 75,000 square foot rental space could be allowed to drive the development of the rest of the institution. If a mid-block hospital on the East side of 7th Avenue were the only other option, she said she would prefer the loss of the Nurse’s building to the demolition of O’Toole. Perlmutter stated that the argument of inadequacy of the current facility was an afterthought once the Certificate of Appropriateness application was not approved, rather like in the St. Bartholomew hardship case (one which the church lost.) Finally she noted, “There is no hardship.”

Diana Chapin voted in favor of the hardship. She noted that she worked for the Department of Environmental Protection at the time of the World Trade Center attacks and felt that New York City, still a major target, needs adequate trauma facilities. Although St. Vincent’s case is based on physical, not economic, hardship, she thought there were no other feasible options but to build on the O’Toole site.

Roberta Gratz said began that this was the “most disturbing challenge to the Landmarks Law I have witnessed since the Grand Central Case.” She remarked that the O’Toole building was “a one of a kind landmark” and that approving its demolition through hardship would set a “disastrous precedent”.  The full text of her remarks is here.

Libby Ryan voted in favor, briefly noting that St. Vincent’s had proved that its existing buildings can not fulfill the hospital’s charitable mission and that there are no other viable options.

Christopher Moore also voted to approve the hardship stating that St. Vincent’s had met the hardship test and that the demolition of the O’Toole building is the “only financially viable option.”

Stephen Byrnes voted against the hardship claim calling the application the “most difficult and complex case I have encountered.” He stated that St. Vincent “wishes to wreak havoc on the historic district” and that it was his “job as a Landmark’s Commissioner” to protect the district. Like Gratz, he was wary of the serious precedent this case would set. If the hospital’s present facilities are outmoded, Byrnes stated they must look elsewhere. He was not convinced that alternative sites were fully studied and felt that their presentation was skewed by consultants hired by the applicant

Fred Bland cast the final vote to approve the application. He noted that “to balance the needs of modern healthcare on the back of preservation” was a difficult proposition. Under normal circumstances, Bland considered the demolition of a contributing building in an historic district to be “heresy”, but in this case the hospital had no other possible alternative.

The vote doesn’t mean we won’t be hearing more about the project. The Commission has not yet approved the design of the new hospital building to replace O’Toole. Protect the Village Historic District is planning to appeal the case. Whatever the final outcome, the case will certainly be brought up in future hardship applications. In more than one way, it is a landmark case.

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