(Photos: Cecilia Nowell)

Tensions ran high at a Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing this morning as local activists and book lovers clashed over whether the building that houses Strand Bookstore should be designated a historic landmark.

The sides were unexpected: the Strand has come out strongly against landmark designation, arguing that government regulation will threaten its ability to do business. Even before the hearing began, bookstore employees outside of it wore bright red shirts reading “Protect the Strand. Already a landmark,” and distributed buttons and pins to Strand customers who had turned out in support of the much-loved bookstore.

But the Strand wasn’t the only presence outside the hearing-room doors. Members of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation distributed fliers about the history of landmarking and a tech hub set to go up near the Strand.

Nancy Bass Wyden (center) with supporters.

When the doors opened just before 9:30am, Strand employees, councilmembers, business owners, lawyers, artists, and writers spilled into the room.

The hearing began with the LPC itself speaking, explaining its reasoning for earmarking the Strand for landmark status and trying to dispel concerns from the last public hearing. Then, the LPC opened the floor for testimony.

City Council member Carlina Rivera, whose district includes the Strand’s building at 826 Broadway, argued on behalf of landmark status. She acknowledged the Strand’s reputation as the “last vestige of the former book world” around Union Square, and said that landmark status would protect its building. She also spoke about her support for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which she believed would benefit small business owners like the Strand.

The Strand’s owner, Nancy Bass Wyden argued firmly against the landmark designation. She spoke emotionally about her grandfather Benjamin Bass, a Lithuanian immigrant who founded the Strand in 1927, and her father Fred Bass, who moved the Strand to its current location in 1957. She described the Strand’s legacy in Union Square South, as a hub for artists and writers, and explained how landmark status would threaten the bookstore.

“No business wants to be an easy target for needless bureaucracy,” Bass Wyden said. “We want to write more chapters about the Strand’s success story, not its obituary.”

Bass Wyden proposed an alternative to landmarking the Strand, suggesting that the LPC consider a preservation easement for the Strand. A preservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement which restricts development on a property to preserve its historic character. In order to enter into a preservation easement, the owners of the Strand would donate the property to a nonprofit organization which would administer care of the building’s exterior.

826 Broadway in 2005 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Various Strand employees came forward after Bass Wyden, describing the challenges that landmark status would pose for the Strand: the time and cost of attending government meetings, the red tape of receiving LPC approval for changes to the Strand’s exterior, and the already thin margins of operating a local bookstore in the age of Amazon.

At the same time, preservationists and former committee members argued that landmark status was not nearly as drastic as it seemed; the Strand would maintain full agency over decisions to its interior and government approval would only be required for changes to its exterior.

The sentiment in the room seemed unanimous: everyone wanted to protect the Strand. But tempers surged over how exactly to do that.

Today’s drama followed a Dec. 4 hearing regarding landmark status for seven buildings in Union Square South. At the previous hearing, the LPC argued that these seven buildings, including 826 Broadway, deserved landmark status as classic examples of Renaissance Revival architecture and part of the historic garment district.

An LPC statement says 826 Broadway is “significant architecturally for its intact Renaissance Revival facade that stretches around a corner site and for its steel-frame skeleton construction, features that exemplify the stylistic character and technological advances in skyscraper architecture at the time it was built.”

Historic preservationists were especially keen on seeing the area landmarked after the City Council’s Zoning Subcommittee and Land Use Committees rezoned 120 East 14th Street, nearby, for a tech hub last August.

Although the other six buildings in question on Dec. 4 accepted the LPC’s decision to landmark them, 826 Broadway and the Strand protested and requested a second public hearing.

As speaker after speaker addressed the LPC today, the atmosphere in the hearing room grew more tense. An attorney for the Strand stated that “there will be political hell to pay” if the LPC landmarks the Strand. A small business owner detailed her past negative experience with city council oversight. And, as the LPC attempted to end the hearing, a woman interrupted to record herself asking the committee whether they were reading comments on Twitter and where she could submit a comment.

In the end, the LPC did not make a decision either way. The committee admitted that it was less-than-keen on the Strand’s proposal for a preservation easement, but suggested that it would revisit the topic.

For now, the status of the Strand remains far from decided.