Gregory Dietrich, Principal of Gregory Dietrich Preservation Consulting, works as one of the small number of privately practicing historic preservation consultants. His vocation brings him into close contact with regulatory bodies, developers, land use agencies, advocacy groups, non-profit organizations and more. This gives him a unique perspective, and requires a wide range of expertise he continues to broaden. In conversation, his intellectual versatility becomes readily apparent, as he discussed his work, his background, and his thoughts on development and preservation in the City.
As one of the small number of preservation consultants, Dietrich is hired by property owners or organizations to draft nominations for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, either for recognition, or because listing will allow an owner access to grants and other economic benefits. As part of environmental impact studies or other planning reports, he identifies and evaluates historic resources and assesses the potential effects of redevelopment upon them to satisfy local, state and/or federal regulatory requirements. He assists owners and developers of historic properties in obtaining tax credits and also assists them in securing approvals from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. He may also be hired by a community organization or a coalition of preservationists to produce expert testimony to safeguard a historic property from inappropriate redevelopment.
Dietrich moved to New York in 1994, after completing his undergraduate work at UCLA, where he studied English Literature. In New York he worked as a research assistant for author Donald Spoto, known primarily for his biographies. Dietrich assisted in the research for biographies on entertainment icons such as James Dean and Liz Taylor, and even journeyed to Sweden for research on the life of Ingrid Bergmann.
Dietrich’s interest in historic preservation was piqued by research he did for a biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: first, by her work in restoring various interiors of the White House, and later, by her advocacy to protect Grand Central Terminal from a massive office tower addition.
Before entering graduate school at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Dietrich sought hands-on experience in historic preservation as an intern in a grant program at the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Shortly after he arrived, the director of the program left on maternity leave, and he was offered the position of acting director. He deferred his enrollment at Columbia to accept the position which he says gave him insight into the workings of the agency, and exposed him to a wide variety of historic resources in all five boroughs.
Dietrich ultimately obtained master’s degrees in both Historic Preservation and Real Estate Development. Between his first and second years, he was commissioned by an Upper West Side preservation advocacy organization to write the National Register Nomination of Lincoln Center under the supervision of his professor, Andrew Dolkart; later, he completed his thesis to satisfy both programs one year in advance of graduating from the programs.
While in graduate school, Dietrich took a position with a New Jersey-based firm, Cultural Resource Consulting Group, primarily working on cultural resource studies to satisfy environmental requirements in the tri-state area. Later, he headed up the New York office for the company. In 2009, Dietrich founded his own firm and joined the small cadre of preservation consultants in the region.
Some aspects of Dietrich’s work as a preservation consultant entails assisting clients in their applications for federal and state tax credits for rehabilitating historic properties and securing grants for their rehabilitation. As he has learned, the criteria for capturing grant funding can change, as it did with the initiation of the New York State Consolidated Funding Application grant program, whose predecessor program based its awards on significance, need and an organization’s charitable works, but now encompasses economic development as well.
Dietrich says he often draws on his English degree and work as a literary researcher. The wide varieties of disciplines with which Dietrich must grapple are evident in a comprehensive report he contributed to for the creation of a public space memorializing the site where British Lieutenant General John Burgoyne surrendered to American Major General Horatio Gates at Saratoga in 1777, a pivotal moment in the Revolutionary War. The report encompasses such diverse fields as archaeology, landscape design, horticulture, crowd management, and the best ways to memorialize history,
When retained by a developer with an application before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Dietrich regards his role as that of an expert who, when he can make a case, will make the best case possible. Dietrich will only work in situations where he believes in the defensibility of a position, either on behalf a developer or an organization opposing a proposal. For developers unfamiliar with Landmarks’ processes, his role is partially one of an educator, and, he says, that there is often a steep learning curve.
Dietrich also regularly teaches an undergraduate class on historic preservation at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he takes his students into the field as often as possible. He called New York the “greatest learning laboratory for historic preservation.”
Dietrich thinks highly of the City’s Landmarks Law, and its comprehensively delineated processes for guiding development in historic districts and identifying and protecting historic resources. He is critical of the debates surrounding the law. He believes that a building or district that displays the requisite standards for significance should be designated or protected. He worries that recent legislation imposing deadlines on the designation process will make it more difficult for the Landmarks Commission to create large historic districts such as the recent extension of the Park Slope Historic District.
Asked for final thoughts, Dietrich reflected on the appreciation for law he has gained as a preservation consultant who works on both sides of the table. Working alongside attorneys has helped him formulate strategies and make compelling cases. It is important for the public to understand how the law has served to protect our historic resources.
By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law)