Community Boards

C. Virginia Fields Modifies Stance On

St. John the Divine Landmarking

While Morningside Heights preservationists and Community Board 9 continue to lobby against Columbia University’s proposed development on the property of St. John the Divine, activists and board members have their immediate sights trained on an unlikely target: Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields.

Until late September, those who opposed the cathedral’s plan to allow modern construction on its property-known as the Close-regarded Ms. Fields as an ally in the ongoing debate. But at a contentious Sept. 23 City Council committee hearing on the matter, many were shocked to learn that Ms. Fields had revised her position nearly 10 months earlier and now supported new development within certain areas of the Close.

Now, community activists and some Board 9 members want explanations from Ms. Fields about her change of heart, and also why they weren’t told about it sooner.

In an interview with The Observer , Dan Willson, a spokesman for Ms. Fields, confirmed that the Manhattan borough president changed her position on development within the Close after a winter 2002 meeting with St. John’s leadership. He rejected community accusations that the shift was clandestine, however, saying that Ms. Fields’ revised statement was on record with the Landmarks Preservation Commission for all of 2003.

Carolyn Kent, a Board 9 member and a founding member of the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee, told The Observer that Ms. Fields should have come before the board and community activists months beforehand to discuss her new position. That the opponents of development found out about her change of heart in such a roundabout way marks a low point in the relations between Board 9 and the Manhattan borough president’s office, whose interests, according to Ms. Kent, have always dovetailed on preservation issues.

“This goes to the heart of what is the relationship between a borough president and her community board,” Ms. Kent said.

The landmarks commission and preservationists have long called for the landmarking of St. John’s, the country’s largest church, the world’s largest cathedral and a tourist mecca in the city. Church leaders have consistently opposed the designation, arguing that the economic burdens would worsen the organization’s tenuous financial standing. The leaders also said a landmark status would make it more difficult for the church to finish construction on its facilities, as only three-fifths of the buildings called for in its nineteenth-century plans were actually completed during a century’s worth of intermittent construction.

When church leaders finally capitulated on the issue in 2002, they did so with the request that a landmarks designation allow them to complete existing structures and lease empty portions of the Close to an outside organization in a bid to improve the church’s finances. The latter request infuriated local preservationists, who called it a crass economic move and insisted that the entire Close be landmarked, preventing any construction on the 11.3-acre tract aside from the incomplete structures called for in the original plans.

When Ms. Fields testified before the landmarks commission on Nov. 12, 2002, she said she supported the preservationists and the unanimous Board 9 resolution calling for the entire Close to be landmarked.

But after meeting with the church’s leadership shortly afterward, Ms. Fields faxed a letter to landmarks chair Sherida Paulsen on Dec. 13, 2002, in which she wrote that St. John’s “substantial financial duress” could only be relieved if the commission allowed for new leasable development on the site.

“I would like to modify my previous recommendation for landmarking of the development sites,” Ms. Fields wrote. “It is clear that the Cathedral has embarked on this development endeavor with careful consideration and extensive planning. Therefore, if the Landmarks Preservation Commission concedes that the Cathedral’s development volumes and restrictions are adequate, I am more than willing to support this decision.”

On June 17, 2003, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to landmark only the main cathedral building and another structure on the site, not the entire Close. But development opponents didn’t learn of Ms. Fields’ letter until Sept. 23, 2003, during a City Council committee hearing to approve the commission’s decision.

During the hearing, Councilman Bill Perkins, whose district includes St. John’s, grilled Landmarks Preservation Commission representative Diane Jackier about the fact that she had cited Board 9, preservationists, Ms. Fields and others as supporters of the limited landmark designation. Ms. Jackier later conceded during testimony that many of those groups actually favored landmarking the entire Close, but produced Ms. Fields’ letter supporting some development on the site.

“In general, the board is outraged by this whole business,” board member Walter South told The Observer . “[Ms. Fields' new position] wouldn’t have come out if it hadn’t been for the hearing.

“We’re talking about what to do next,” Mr. South said. “Certainly [St. John's] has the right to do whatever they want. They may get a building, but they’re certainly going to get a black eye.”

Mr. Willson, Ms. Fields’ spokesman, insisted that there was nothing underhanded about the revised recommendation.

“After meeting with the cathedral, they made a very powerful case on behalf of their fiscal needs and their ability to develop more of the site,” Mr. Willson said. “There was no attempt to hide our position …. The essence of our position is that these two main buildings be preserved, and that has not changed.”

Ms. Kent of Board 9 questioned, however, whether Ms. Fields’ recommendation would hold any sway with Councilman Perkins and the other subcommittee members, given Councilman Perkins’ attacks on the landmarks commission during the Sept. 23 hearing.

The Daily News reported on Sept. 24 that Councilman Perkins had suggested at the hearing that a “corrupt practice” was involved in the landmarks commission’s decision on St. John’s, and that committee chairman Simcha Felder tabled a vote on the matter until later this month.

“If [Ms. Fields] honestly believed … that the commission was right, that this was the great opportunity to improve a landmark, then for heaven’s sakes, go and publicly campaign for it,” Ms. Kent told The Observer. “But this was not a public position she took. It was providing a favor in a letter.”

-Brandt Gassman

Oct. 8: Board 6, New York Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, Classroom A, 7 p.m., 212-319-3750.

Oct. 9: Board 5, Fashion Institute of Technology, 227 West 27th Street, Building A, eighth floor, 6 p.m., 212-465-0907.