Top preservation groups back St. Vincent’s lawsuit


By Albert Amateau 

The Municipal Art Society and seven other civic groups last week filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of a March 5 lawsuit challenging the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s approval of St. Vincent’s Hospital’s plan to demolish the quirky-looking O’Toole building to make way for a new hospital.

The New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Preservation League of New York, The Brooklyn Heights Society and Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District joined M.A.S. in the Nov. 4 amicus curiae brief.

The civic groups’ brief supports the original lawsuit filed by Protect the Village Historic District — a group organized last year to fight the hospital project — to overturn the L.P.C. approval last October of the St. Vincent’s hardship application to demolish the O’Toole building. The building was designed by Albert Ledner and built in 1963 for the National Maritime Union on the West Side of Seventh Ave. at W. 12th St. St. Vincent’s seeks to replace it with a 278-foot-tall new hospital tower.

The lawsuit, filed by Albert Butzel, attorney for P.V.H.D., and other groups, contends L.P.C. did not follow U.S. Supreme Court precedents on landmark issues. The suit notes that St. Vincent’s acquired the building in the 1970s after the Greenwich Village Historic District was designated and that the hospital should have been aware of restrictions on demolition.

In addition, the lawsuit contends that the L.P.C. decision in October to consider the O’Toole demolition separately from the approval of the new hospital tower proposed to replace it was in error. The suit says the demolition and the new hospital tower should have been considered together.

The M.A.S amicus brief says L.P.C. granted the hardship application to exempt O’Toole from the landmark district ban on demolition based on St. Vincent’s campus on both the east side of Seventh Ave. and the O’Toole and the green triangle and maintenance building on the west side of the avenue. M.A.S. contends that the campus basis of the exemption is an “invention [that] flies in the face of U.S. Supreme Court precedents.”

The amicus brief, filed with State Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman by Michael S. Gruen, attorney for M.A.S., and John J. Kerr Jr., attorney for New York Landmarks Conservancy, also charges that the L.P.C. hardship ruling was arbitrary and capricious and that the commission failed in its duty to protect a building that is within Greenwich Village Historic District.

Tom Molner, a founder and chairperson of Protect the Village Historic District, said of the brief, “We are gratified that the leading voices for preservation in New York City have joined with the Municipal Art Society in support of our view that the decision to allow the demolition of the O’Toole building reflects an erroneous view of the landmarks law and represents a dangerous precedent.”

He went on to say, “The fight to reverse this decision is not only about preserving the historic character of Greenwich Village, but also about the integrity of the landmark preservation process in New York.”

Lawyers for the city declined to comment on pending litigation.