Council Member Jessica Lappin on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Site Safety

Jessica Lappin

Council Member Jessica Lappin represents Community District 5 in Manhattan, which includes parts of Midtown and the Upper East Side. She also chairs the Council’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting & Maritime Uses. A New York native and graduate of Stuyvesant High School and Georgetown University, Lappin was raised in a landmarked house in Gramercy Park. Well-regarded by preservation advocates, she has garnered accolades from the Friends of the Upper East Side and the Historic Districts Council for her proactive stance towards the protection of historic neighborhoods and buildings. During her tenure as Chair, the City has designated 67 individual landmarks and 11 historic districts. She has also crafted legislation in response to recent crane collapses, mandating additional safety measures at construction sites and training for crane operators.

On the landmarking process. When fellow council members elected her to Chair, Lappin was more than happy to accept since “the budget and land use are the two big, meaty issues that the City Council deals with,” and because it provided her with an opportunity to “have a real role in terms of shaping our landscape in New York City.” While she states that not all of her predecessors at the helm of the Subcommittee could be considered landmarks advocates, Lappin believes she comes from a position of real appreciation for preservation, looking at every item before the Subcommittee fairly and objectively. Lappin states the importance of continuing to evolve and grow as a City, but she is quick to add that we must always keep our character and history, and be mindful of our architectural jewels. When asked about whether an end to the construction boom will have an effect on the prioritization of landmark designations or protection in the City, Lappin responded that historic preservation, ideally, lies outside such considerations, and that “landmarking should not be used as an anti-development tool or as an alternative to zoning.”

While she says that the Subcommittee generally defers to the research and expertise of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Lappin believes that the burden is on the Council to consider issues of use and politics. She also believes it is important to have a public discussion at the Council level, which is “more political and community-based” than Landmarks, and makes “property owners feel like they have more say in the process.” Lappin states that Landmarks has been understaffed and underfunded for much of its history, necessitating a greater role for Council, and points with pride to the additional $250,000 she helped secure for the Commission in the City’s budget, which she hopes will allow Landmarks to process permits more efficiently and perform designation research.

Beyond Landmarks. While the Subcommittee is usually associated with landmarking issues, Lappin has made an effort to extend the Subcommittee’s influence over the spheres of public siting and maritime uses. She believes that an oversight hearing on the South Brooklyn Working Waterfront changed the course of the City’s vision for the area, which is shifting from luxury housing development to maritime commerce.

The siting of schools is among the most important and contentious issues with which Lappin deals with as Chair. Though new schools are generally received positively at a macro level, community members are often leery of a new 500-seat high school in their district, and difficulties are presented in the form of legal wrangling such as the recent lawsuit filed against the School Construction Authority for allegedly failing to ensure proper remediation of a brownfield site that will house a new $230 million school campus.

While siting is particularly difficult in Manhattan, development throughout the City has made siting public facilities more difficult than in years past. Lappin sees part of her job as publicizing these issues, bringing communities into the discussions and causing officials to rethink their approach. Lappin thinks the future of public siting will include siting schools, libraries, and senior centers in large scale developments during the planning process as opposed to after construction is complete.

Looking ahead at construction site safety. While praising the new Department of Buildings commissioner, Lappin thinks that endemic problems will require an ongoing effort since Buildings has “a long history of a corrupt culture.” Lappin is currently working on a bill that would put safety monitors on problematic job sites, but is having trouble defining the focus, because, as one of her colleagues stated, bad job sites are “like pornography, you know it when you see it.” She views construction site safety as a multi-pronged operation, involving unions, owners, engineers, contractors and developers, which she hopes to bring together for a common cause.

With a full plate of initiatives to see through, Lappin insists that in terms of her future, she is only looking forward to running for reelection to another term at Council. — Jesse Denno

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