A developer’s plan to silence one of the last great mechanical tower clocks in New York City — an officially designated landmark, at that — has been thwarted.
Justice Lynn R. Kotler of State Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission had a power that the commission says it did not have: to require the owners of the Clock Tower Building at 346 Broadway to maintain the 19th-century mechanical works at the heart of the four-faced clock that overlooks the civic center in Lower Manhattan.
The imposing E. Howard & Company timepiece at the building’s summit was restored in 1980 by Marvin Schneider, who was subsequently appointed the city’s official clock master, and his colleagues. Ever since, Mr. Schneider, Forest Markowitz and others have faithfully rewound the half-ton weight that drives the clock’s hands, in two-second pulses governed by elaborate gear works at the heart of the tower.
Last year, the landmarks commission granted a certificate of appropriateness to a plan by the Peebles Corporation and El Ad Group to convert the clock tower into a private apartment. The clock faces were to be preserved, restored and protected, as was the physical mechanism. But the works were to be electrified, eliminating the need for Mr. Schneider — or anyone else — to come trooping through the apartment.
Justice Kotler annulled the certificate of appropriateness.
“It’s just a huge, huge win,” said Michael S. Hiller, a lawyer for opponents of the clock tower conversion who filed the lawsuit against the city. They included Mr. Schneider and Mr. Markowitz; Save America’s Clocks, led by Tom Bernardin; the Historic Districts Council; and the Tribeca Trust.
A spokeswoman for the landmarks commission said it would not comment on the decision.
Should the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio decide to appeal, it might find itself in the awkward position of arguing that the landmarks commission was effectively powerless to stop the privatization of interior landmarks.
In 1987, when 346 Broadway was owned by the city, the landmarks commission took the unusual step of designating parts of the 13th and 14th floors, including the clock machinery, as an interior landmark, defined by law as a space “customarily open or accessible to the public, or to which the public is customarily invited.” At the time, the Clocktower Gallery operated in the space.
But the gallery is now closed. The city sold the building in 2013 to Peebles and El Ad, which plan to convert it into “luxury condominium residences” — extremely expensive apartments, in other words — under the name 108 Leonard Street, an alternate address for the building. The suite of rooms in the clock tower would become a single, spectacular private dwelling. And the clock would run electronically.
“There’s nothing in the landmarks law that requires or gives the commission the power to require that this mechanism remain operable,” Mark A. Silberman, the commission’s general counsel, said at a public hearing in 2014. “Whether it’s electrified or someone is allowed to wind it, that is not something the landmarks commission can require.”
Justice Kotler disagreed.
“There can be no dispute that the internal mechanism by which the clock operates is a significant portion of the clock itself,” she wrote in her decision, “and if the commission can issue a violation for its removal or alteration, the Legislature intended to give the commission the power to compel the owner to maintain the clock’s mechanical operation.”
Justice Kotler took further issue with Mr. Silberman’s assertion that the commission had no power to require owners to keep interior landmarks publicly accessible.
“The general provisions of the landmarks law vest the commission with the power to regulate an interior landmark,” she wrote. “That power must include the ability to direct an owner to maintain public access, since public access is a specific characteristic of an interior landmark.”
A spokesman for the city’s Law Department said it was reviewing the decision. The Peebles Corporation said it had no comment. El Ad did not respond to a request for a comment.