In a Kid-Glove Neighborhood, a Call for Clenched Fists



THE bottles of pinot grigio and cabernet sauvignon stood at attention on the bar, each with a napkin knotted at its neck. A man in a black bow tie played a Steinway in the marble rotunda. It was April 29, and Defenders of the Historic Upper East Side, a new preservation group, was having its inaugural celebration at the Kosciuszko Foundation, an East 65th Street town house that once belonged to Mrs. John Jacob Astor 3rd's socialite son-in-law.

 Elizabeth Ashby, a preservationist who founded the group with Teri Slater, gave the first toast. ''We're here to protect the Upper East Side from bad ideas,'' she said. She ended with a call to arms: ''We want you to be part of our army.'' 

  Michael Gotkin, a landscape architect who is on the board of Defenders, added: ''Everyone here is really dressed up. But this is about fighting.'' A fund-raising letter from the group underscored the point. ''Our neighborhood is too important to be compromised,'' it read. ''What is at stake demands that we hold firm to our principles and not give in to calls to be 'reasonable.'''

 Defenders is coming into a neighborhood that is rich with preservationists but increasingly divided over whether it is wiser to be warlike or nice. The issue is not just theoretical.

 In recent years, the neighborhood has been the scene of such high-profile development disputes as the expansion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the construction of a residential building over a Citibank branch at 91st Street and Madison Avenue, and the plan by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to put a 420-foot research tower on 68th Street. Amid these battles, some local residents charge that existing preservation groups have become too timid and too rich. Others worry that an emerging radical fringe will ultimately harm the preservation movement.

 One of the more established preservation groups is Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts. Founded in 1982 to safeguard the then-new historic districts in its neighborhood, Friends has never been the leading party in a lawsuit.

 ''We're not afraid to be in lawsuits, but we're finding we have a very effective voice with the Landmarks Commission,'' said Lisa Kersavage, the executive director. ''We're sort of quiet, behind the scenes, getting a lot of nuts-and-bolts preservation work done that makes a big difference in the future.''

 Franny Eberhart, a board member of Friends, added, ''It would be too bad if people begin to think of preservation wars.''

 Defenders, meanwhile, has an ambitious agenda. Ms. Ashby and Ms. Slater envision their group as a grass-roots consultancy, a place to which ad-hoc community groups can turn for expertise and assistance. ''Every time a community group forms,'' Ms. Slater said, ''people are shocked there is a terrible project about to be built on their block, and they don't know where to turn.'' She emphasized that Defenders was created to complement, not compete with, existing groups. ''Our philosophy is, the more the merrier,'' she said.

 Both Ms. Slater and Ms. Ashby have deep roots in the East Side preservation community. While it is too early to tell how Defenders will go about its defense of the neighborhood, the group is amply stocked with veterans of the neighborhood's high-profile, high-combat operations.

 Ms. Ashby was instrumental in suing Memorial Sloan-Kettering over its research tower. Pat Nicholson, a member of the Defenders advisory board, is also the founder of the Metropolitan Museum Historic District Coalition, which sued the museumover its expansion plans.

 And the CitiNeighbors Coalition of Historic Carnegie Hill, whose three co-chairwomen are all on the Defenders advisory board, waged, with Woody Allen's help, a six-year fight against the construction of the building above the Citibank branch. It was primarily this issue that drove a wedge through the preservation community.

 ''From day one, CitiNeighbors really had a problem getting what you would anticipate would be the typical supporters into our corner,'' said Jane Parshall, a co-chairwoman of CitiNeighbors. ''A lot of people in the preservation community who really care about preservation were dismayed to find that the logical support, who would have been in there at the barricades 10 or 15 years ago, had lost sight of their mission. The reason is, if you look at the boards of these organizations, they all have notable architects and developers on their boards of directors. This means there's a little tiny backslapping among these people.''

 One such notable architect is Charles A. Platt. His firm, Platt Byard Dovell White, designed the building that CitiNeighbors fought, and he also serves as co-chairman of the preservation committee at the Municipal Art Society. The society opposed the original design of the Citibank building but did not resist a shortened version.

 Kent Barwick, the president of the Municipal Art Society, said that whenever there was a conflict of interest, board members recused themselves from consideration of the issue -- as Mr. Platt did from the vote on the Citibank building. More generally, Mr. Barwick added, the Municipal Art Society has a record of opposing projects of its directors, including those of architects like David M. Childs, who designed the Time Warner Center.

 OUR view is you want people on the board who are in the life of the city, who are knowledgeable and not monks,'' Mr. Barwick said. ''I don't think it's possible to have a board that doesn't have an interest. Don't the people who live next door to a site that's being developed have an interest?''

 In 2002, CitiNeighbors sued the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which ultimately approved the building, and the developer, the Tamarkin Company, to block construction. The Municipal Art Society, Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, along with five other groups, filed a friend-of-the-court brief against CitiNeighbors. They feared that the suit would make routine approvals by the Landmarks Commission subject to onerous environmental review, which would hamper preservation efforts.

 ''I think you have to remember what you're fighting for,'' said Ms. Kersavage, of Friends. ''If in your fight, you end up damaging the whole movement, you're going too far. That's what happened with the Citigroup lawsuit.''

 Ms. Parshall called that argument ''hogwash.'' In March, the state's highest court ruled that the lawsuit was irrelevant because the building was nearly completed.

 How warlike or how nice Defenders ends up being remains to be seen, but Mr. Barwick said he welcomed the new group. ''It's always good to have people coming along and keeping people honest,'' he said. ''It was probably better for Macy's when there was a Gimbel's.''