Renovations by Vornado Realty to the Manufacturers Hanover Trust building were brought back into the spotlight Wednesday after a New York Times article quoted an email exchange between a former Landmarks commissioner Meredith Kane and Landmarks staff. Kane is now legal counsel for Vornado. The article was mentioned during court proceedings before State Supreme Court Justice Lucy Billings. Last Friday in court, Maria T. Vullo, Vornado’s rep, suggested that a request for more correspondence between Vornado and Landmarks was akin to a “fishing expedition.” She added that all correspondence pertinent to the case had already been provided to Michael Gruen. the lawyer representing the petitioners in the case, the Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation (CECPP).
The court case has been limping along since July when Justice Billings issued a stop work order for the landmark at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street. As the CECPP was unable to produce a required $370,000 bond, the work continued unabated. But the cloak and dagger implications put forth by the preservationists suggested back-room dealings between commissioners and developers. It’s an implication that made the city’s legal counsel “apoplectic,” said city counsel Virginia Waters. “Accusing the chair of the commission is beyond the pale.” The lawyer went on to compare Gruen’s claim to conspiracy theories in the Kennedy assassination.
Mark Silberman, counsel for Landmarks, explained the separation of Landmark commissioners from landmark staff. As it’s not quite church and state, they do meet in the same office after all, Silberman laid out the process by which applicants consult with Landmarks staff after building plans are rejected by the commissioners. This back and forth begins almost immediately after changes are rejected and is based upon the commissioner’s comments during hearings. The staff advises developers and their architects on how to proceed with designs more likely to be acceptable.
It is not unusual for the process to include email exchanges such as the one from Kane cited in the Times article. The preservationists secured the exchange through the Freedom of Information Act. Kane sought reassurance from Landmarks for her client Steve Roth, the chairman at Vornado. Now the preservationists are asking for more correspondences, but Judge Billings seems disinclined to open that Pandora’s box, unless it has direct bearing on the case in front of her. Her decision on the matter is expected later this week.
Alluding to the press coverage, Vullo was succinct. “These petitioners have a different agenda,” she said. “They can’t win this case so they’re off into other realms.” For her part, Justice Billings said she didn’t read the Times article and that there was nothing out of the ordinary in the former commissioner lobbying on behalf of her current client “like many of us have surely done for clients.” She added, “Her clients were very smart in retaining her because of her experience with the commission.”
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