Cinema Owner Fights Landmark Status

Posted on 20 November 2008

During his attorney’s first arguments last Wednesday, it was difficult to discern whether Sag Harbor Cinema owner Gerald Mallow believed having his iconic theatre deemed historically significant would make it harder for him to sell the building or bring in possible buyers.

However, one thing was certain — Mallow was not pleased with the concept. He was uncertain what designating the façade of the theatre as historic would ultimately accomplish and cited a battle over the replacement of the Sag Harbor Cinema sign four years ago as the impetus for his concern.

On Wednesday, November 12 the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees held a public hearing on whether or not to landmark the façade of the Sag Harbor Cinema. In August, the historic preservation and architectural review board (ARB) asked the trustees to consider designating the façade as a historic landmark. Shortly after Mallow listed the commercial building for sale for $12 million.

Attorney Diane Leveriere, representing Mallow, argued to the board that the ARB made no rationale for why it would want the village to designate the cinema as a historic landmark.

“It’s arbitrary,” she concluded.

In the minutes of the August ARB meeting where that board passed a resolution asking the board of trustees to consider the designation, the board cites the cinema as “an important feature of architectural character of the village” and calls the façade “of historical interest and worthy of preservation.”

But a more pressing issue for Mallow, according to his attorney, was that the chairman of the ARB, Cee Scott Brown, is the senior vice president of the Corcoran Group, the only listed broker for the Sag Harbor Cinema sale. Leveriere said this posed a potential conflict of interest and that as such Brown should have recused himself from the resolution as he could stand to benefit from the cinema’s sale.

“Is it your position that the designation benefits the property or is a detriment to the property,” asked village attorney Fred W. Thiele, Jr.

Leveriere countered it was her position that if there is any benefit for Brown in the sale of the property it should be disclosed.

“Maybe I am missing something here,” said Mayor Greg Ferraris. “What is the concern here? Are you worried there will be an adverse economic impact?”

“Yes, that is a concern,” said Leveriere.

Leveriere outlined a section of the village code that states property owners must seek ARB approval for any construction, reconstruction, demolition, or to move the structure, but Thiele was quick to point out that applies not only to historic landmarks in the village, but also structures in the historic district, like the cinema.

“I think what we are stating is there is no additional standards that would apply to a landmark as opposed to a historic district,” said Ferraris, later adding it was his view that landmark status would enhance the value of the property.

Leveriere countered it was rare that landmarked buildings saw an enhanced value to their property as they come with limitations.

“I am not aware of any limitations at this point,” replied Ferraris.

Generally, the addition of a landmark status to a façade or structure simply provides greater protection for that feature, but according to Thiele there are also differences in the standards the village holds for a façade in the historic district and a façade that has been designated a landmark. Unlike a façade in the historic district, for a designated façade there is no default provision if the ARB fails to act on an application. For all applications in front of the ARB, if that board fails to act within 45 days of reviewing an application, the application is automatically granted in favor of the applicant. This does not occur if the façade or building is landmarked. Also, said Thiele, there is a lesser variance standard for the zoning board of appeals to weigh for landmarked buildings, meaning it’s easier to get variances to make improvements or changes on a landmarked building.

Regardless, Mallow said he was “a little upset” and “suspicious,” recounting how residents gathered to save the Sag Harbor Cinema sign after he sought to have it replaced in 2004. Residents, led by the efforts of Brenda Siemer-Scheider, held fundraisers to have a replica of the iconic sign made after it was discovered Mallow intended to replace the sign with one that was not identical to the art deco original. Mallow also cited Brown’s position on the ARB and as a Corcoran realtor as another concern, despite stating moments later that landmarked properties that he has dealt with are generally sold at below their original value.

Lastly, Mallow read a statement saying he would be willing to talk with town officials and community leaders about working out a way to retain the theatre.

While another public hearing is likely to be held in December, Siemer-Scheider noted she likes to think the attention garnered in 2004 over the cinema sign was a boon for both Mallow and the theatre.

“With pride I will say we already designated it,” she said, adding a group was forming in the village to find a way to keep the theatre in Sag Harbor.

On Friday, Ferraris said the board of trustees would send a letter to the ARB asking they review their recommendation and seek only to have the cinema sign itself designated as a landmark, as that is the feature he believes is more iconic on the structure. Should the village designate the sign as a landmark it would not be able to be moved or replaced without ARB approval.

As for the issue of Brown and a potential conflict of interest, Ferraris said the village attorney was looking into the matter.

“We are certainly not going to do anything that would harm Mr. Mallow economically,” he said. “That is one thing I wanted to be sure of and in discussing this with counsel and in my own research, I do not believe there is any adverse economic effect to this designation. And if there is, I would love to be informed about it.”




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