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Skimping on History in Morningside Heights?
Landmarks under fire for diminutive Upper West Side historic district
Critics claim that some distinguished but smaller-scale row houses in Morningside Heights are getting short shrift by the LPC's latest proposal.
Emilio Guerra

At a meeting late last month with local property owners in Morningside Heights, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) presented its long-awaited proposal for a historic district—only to be sent back to the drawing board by objections that the proposed boundaries were too narrow. That move followed another recent—and widely applauded—LPC proposal to expand five pre-existing historic districts to encompass 745 new buildings along West End Avenue.

By contrast, the Morningside Heights proposal is small, consisting of 65 buildings between Riverside Drive and Broadway from 110th to 119th streets. All residential, and mostly now owned by Columbia University, they were built largely between 1903 and 1911, and are notable for their Beaux Arts, Gothic, Renaissance, and Colonial ornamentation. But the district comprises a minority of the entire Morningside Heights neighborhood, which extends from Riverside Drive to Morningside Drive, between 110th and 125th streets.

“They released a miniscule footprint of a district,” said Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, who has made the issue a major focus since he took office in 2003. “The fact that you’re creating a historic district of Morningside Heights and not putting Morningside Drive in it is a little ridiculous.” In O’Donnell’s opinion, the district should extend the entire width of the neighborhood, from Morningside to Riverside.

The LPC has argued that the architectural styles are not sufficiently cohesive across that width to merit a single historic district. “Broadway is this dividing line, in terms of architectural continuity and continuity of character,” said LPC spokesperson Lisi de Bourbon, citing the smaller scale of the row houses to the east of Broadway, in comparison with the taller buildings to the west. “For historic districts there needs to be a certain degree of cohesion,” she added. “Broadway disrupts that rhythm.” O’Donnell called that claim “just plain wrong,” saying, “I challenge anyone to stand on 111th and Amsterdam and look west, and tell me that street is not one coherent whole.”

In response to community sentiment, the LPC will table the plan until it has surveyed a sufficient number of buildings east of Broadway to determine whether the boundaries need to be redrawn. One possible compromise on the table: two historic districts. “That could be an option,” de Bourbon said. “You could have a Morningside Heights West and a Morningside Heights East. That is something we’ve done in the past.”

Julia Galef