A Feather-Ruffler Bites the Dust at City Hall

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, January 30, 1987

As surely as nature abhors a vacuum, bureaucracies are uncomfortable with individuality and outspokenness by its members. Thus, the Koch administration is dismissing Anthony Tung.

Tung is a 39-year-old design and art education consultant with a degree in architecture from Cooper union who has served for nearly eight years as an unpaid member of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

He has a reputation for being independent, for asking tough questions, for making himself meticulously knowledgable about all the proposals that come before the landmarks body. His record shows him to be a captive of no particular constituency — neither the preservationists nor the real estate developers, for he has voted against both on occasion.

Tung is also articulate and persuasive, and he believes that on controversial issues, it is debate, rather than silence, that is golden.

The chairman of the 11-person commission, Gene Norman, who is the only paid member, has praised Tung highly for his contribution. He did this as recently as last month, when Norman, an architect, went before the Mayor’s Committee on Appointments to recommend that Tung be reappointed to another three-year term.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Norman withdrew that recommendation and Mayor Koch told the screen committee to forget about Tung.

What had Tung done? He had committed the sacrilege of trying to stir a public debate and win support for the Landmarks Commission’s position that a restaurant should not be built in Bryant Park that would obscure the New York Public Library’s very special Beaux Arts rear facade. Both the library and the park behind it are designated landmarks.

On Jan. 6, by a unanimous vote, Norman included, the commission had adopted a motion saying it would consider “absolutely untenable” any structure that it would make it difficult for the public to view the unusual back wall of the library, which adjoins Bryant Park. The restaurant building, as presently contemplated, would be a longish two-story structure that would run near and parallel to the wall and would stand 30 or even 40 feet high.

The restaurant is a project long favored and pushed by the Koch administration. The commission’s vote did not block the plan, because unlike its rulings on private developers and landlords, which are legally binding, it has only advisory status on municipal projects.

Even so, City Hall was angered by the public act of dissent — commission chairman Norman said after the cote, “We’re attempting to make sure that the deep concern the commission feels is recognized” — and, according to several sources, the mayor’s men conveyed their displeasure to Norman.

Meanwhile, Tung, who had led the discussion at the commission meeting, was seeking to generate wider public interest in the issue so that the commission’s efforts would be more than academic. He submitted an opinion piece to The New York Times.

A day later, he told Norman about this. The commission chairman, already under pressure, was extremely upset. According to Tung, Norman told him it was disruptive and wrong for members to be speaking out individually on sensitive issues rather than speaking through the chairman as a unified body.

Tung called Norman back a few minutes later and told him he understood his concerns and had called the Times and withdrawn the piece.

This, however, did not save Tung. After what he says were “two sleepless nights,” Norman set in motion the steps to stop Tung’s reappointment.

Norman says Tung had showed similar “bad judgement” in the past “about how the commission’s decisions should be presented to the public.” He doesn’t think commissioners should talk to the press on their own. “Stepping out of line” with the opinion piece, Norman says, was the final “straw.”

Tung says he understands that “on any ship, you have to have a captain. But at the same time, a fundamental rule of democracy is involved here. All officials are accountable. We have to talk to the public — and to the press, too. Gene cannot be the only spokesman in this sense. We are not city employees; we are people giving out time for free because we care about the community.”

Preservationists and other civic groups are now trying to get Norman and City Hall to reconsider their dumping of Tung — not because he has always agreed with these groups, for he has not. “We have all disagreed with him at one time or another,” says Anthony Wood, president of the Historic Districts Council. “But his removal creates a major vacuum. This speaks to his quality and integrity. He’s a gutsy guy. He’s not afraid to irritate important people — people who want to push through projects with few questions asked. But he gives everybody a fair shake. He listens. He has no private agenda.”

It would appear that the Landmarks Commission, once a fairly obscure body that was too unimportant to be the object of political pressure, is now no longer immune, as real estate values and booty have soared in this city.

Norman — whom no one paints as a villain acting on his own — insists that in dropping Tung, “it was not my intention to discourage outspokenness.” Nonetheless, intended or not by Norman, that is one of the messages that this episode has delivered.

Anthony Tung is not the first ruffler of powerful feathers that this City Hall has moved to smother. He spoke out. He was a catalyst. He energized people. So the word is given: Get rid of him. Find someone who will get on the team and play ball. 

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