Advocates for Historic Clock Say Developer Puts 'Thumb in Eye' of Court

The elaborate 19th-century machinery of the tower clock at 346 Broadway is enclosed in a wood-and-glass cabinet. The bell, which used to ring hourly, is in a room above. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

Dec. 11, 2017

Preservationists are celebrating a big victory in their legal battle to protect Tribeca’s landmark 1898 clock atop 346 Broadway, where a developer is converting the clock’s tower into a multi-level penthouse.

But a new court fight over the timepiece may lie ahead.

This month, in a 3-2 decision, a state appellate court upheld a lower court ruling against the developers who want to disconnect the building’s historic clockworks in order to electrify it. The decision also prevents them from permanently removing—for the first time in the city’s history— an interior landmark from public view. The clock, still manually wound, is one of the few still-functioning tower clocks of its kind.

“This majestic clock, and its historically significant functioning mechanism, is a perfect example of the very reason the Landmarks Law exists…” Judge Ellen Gesmer wrote for the majority.

The plan pits the clock’s advocates against the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the developer, Civic Center Community Group Broadway, LLC, who argue that the commission cannot mandate public access to the clock in a private residence, or prevent the owner from electrifying the machinery. The lawyer for the clock’s protectors, which includes several preservation groups and horologists, is charging that the developer appears to be ignoring the court’s decision, misrepresenting the apartment to prospective buyers and, he believes, making unauthorized alterations to the clock.

“The developer just doesn’t care what the outcome of its lawsuit is,” said the lawyer, Michael Hiller.

Hiller points to a section of the offering plan that gives the buyer the option of electrifying the clock. It reads: “…the clock faces may, at the election of the [condominium sponsor], be operated by electronic or other alternative means rather than by the designated historic mechanism contained therein…” (In another section of the document, the developer discloses the lawsuit.)

In addition, the apartment layout shown in the offering plan does not match the one approved by the Landmarks Commission. Among the differences, the prospectus shows a wall around the spiral staircase that leads to the clock machinery in one of the landmarked rooms. “They’ve built an apartment in the middle of the clock tower suite, around the foot of the circular stairs and cordoned them off.” Hiller also said that the clock’s weights would be sealed off in the apartment so that they cannot be maintained if the clock is allowed to run again.

“LPC has not approved this plan,” Zodet Negron, a spokeswoman for the commission, said in a statement after the Trib sent her a copy of the prospectus layout plan. The commission, she added, cannot discuss a proposal that is pending or not before it.

The preservationists also suspect that work on the clock, barred by the court, has already begun. The hands have been painted, which is allowable, but that has meant moving them. “According to the Clock Master of the City of New York," Hiller said, "there’s no way to move the hands without disconnecting them from the driveshaft of the mechanism or stripping the clock's gears.”

The city's Clock Master, Marvin Schneider, helped to restore the clock in 1980. Along with Forest Markowitz, he has been winding and maintaining the clock for years and both men are among the preservationists who are part of the suit. (Schneider referred questions about the case the Hiller.)

Hiller offered the free inspection services of Schneider and Markowitz and was turned down.

“LPC did not approve work to the clock mechanism and, as of this time, we have no reason to believe any such work was done,” Negron said in a statement. “We have asked the owner to hire a clock expert to inspect the clock and report back to us.” The work on the clock’s exterior, Negron said, is part of the approved building-wide restoration project.

“The developer is not respecting the Landmarks Law or the court’s decision,” Hiller said. “It’s a thumb in the eye of the preservationists who brought this lawsuit, it’s a thumb in the eye of the commission and it’s a thumb in the eye of the courts.”

“If we do not receive a satisfactory response from the developer and the commission,” Hiller added, “we will be bringing an order of show cause for contempt against the developer for violating a court order and judgement.”

Jeffrey Braun, the developer’s lawyer, declined to respond to questions about Hiller’s assertions. In a statement, he said he would appeal the state Appellate Division’s split decision to the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

“We simply do not believe that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has the power to require a building owner to continue to allow the public to enter its building’s interior spaces," Braun said. "And certainly the Commission itself never has believed that it has that power. We also believe that electrifying the clock would perpetually guaranty that the public will be able to enjoy an illuminated clock.”

A spokesman for the city’s Law Department said the agency has yet to decide whether to join the appeal. “The court was divided in its ruling, 3-2.  We are evaluating next steps,” he said.

Proposed work on the clock tower is part of a complex restoration and residential conversion of the McKim, Mead & White landmark building, now underway. Representatives from the partners in the development, the Peebles Corp. and the Elad Group, did not respond to requests for comment on the recent court decision.

In October, 2014, as developers were pursuing approvals for 346 Broadway, the Trib visited with the city's Clock Master, Marvin Scheider, and Forest Markowitz, who were continuing to wind the clock after electricity had been cut to the tower. Below is the video that came from that visit.