HDC’s Simeon Bankoff Talks About Life on the Preservation Front Lines

The temperature was in the 90s the day Simeon Bankoff met with City- Land. Mr. Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council, a prominent city preservationist organization founded in 1971 as part of the Municipal Art Society, and operating independently since 1986, had just returned from a demonstration on the steps of City Hall. While most would have wilted, the charming and voluble Mr. Bankoff animatedly discoursed for over an hour on the Historic Districts Council, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the future of preservation in the City.

Raised in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, and a graduate of Stuyvesant High School, Mr. Bankoff has only left the city for the four years that he attended Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester County. After a series of positions with preservation- oriented organizations and as one of HDC’s first paid employees, Mr. Bankoff became its executive director in 2000.

Advice for the Uninitiated. Mr. Bankoff described HDC’s work as tripartite: education, advocacy, and community outreach. In addition to his ubiquitous presence at Landmarks, City Council, and community boards in support of preservation, HDC hosts lectures and tours, often in response to requests from civic groups. Mr. Bankoff likes to bring together civic groups with government representatives from Landmarks, Buildings, and Council, providing the agencies with an opportunity to meet communities in a neutral situation, and the communities with different perspectives on the designation process.

Mr. Bankoff advises civic groups and community boards on how to effectively advocate, especially in presentations and arguments. Groups often naively believe that if they send a letter to Landmarks requesting consideration, Landmarks will “roll in and make them a historic district.” Mr. Bankoff advises that people often get “trapped in the details of their proposal” and excessively tied-up in research, when, “at the end of the day, Landmarks is going to have to redo all your research anyway.” Mr. Bankoff suggests that communities contact their Council member “early and often,” conduct postcard and letter campaigns, and mount a visually attractive campaign consisting of lots of photographs.

Pros and Cons of Landmarks Law. While Mr. Bankoff calls the City’s landmarks law “a really good one and a really strong one,” it is not always ideal for serving the desires of communities: though designation “is the best tool, it shouldn’t always be the only tool.” Many other cities have neighborhood preservation mechanisms other than landmarking, which offer varying levels of protection, and varying levels of review for new construction. In Staten Island and Queens, according to Mr. Bankoff, there are many areas with interesting development histories, with a unique sense of place, but where the majority of houses have undergone a series of renovations since their inception, lack an “integrity of historic fabric,” and are unlikely to qualify as historic districts. While politicians occasionally propose less restrictive or more encompassing alternatives to the City’s landmarks law, Mr. Bankoff said it’s unlikely to be instituted in New York.

Advancing Slowly. Mr. Bankoff said that the budget allocation received from Council in the past two years greatly enhanced Landmarks’ capacity to research potential designations while still performing its regulatory duties. To Mr. Bankoff, this proves “that if you give Landmarks more money it will do a better job.” HDC is now pushing “Bloomberg to step up to the plate,” and increase LPC’s baseline budget. When that happens, it will be time to start studying what it is responding to, and how it makes its decisions, “which is a mystery to everyone.” He recalled reading a Mayor’s Management Report that stated Landmarks received 290 unique requests for evaluation, and designated 16. Currently, there is no way to know the status of the other 274, something Mr. Bankoff aspires to change.

Unpublished Wish Lists. There is a fear among preservationists that if a building appears on a list of potential landmarks, owners will immediately seek to demolish the building, or strip it of its historic elements. Council Member Rosie Mendez has proposed a bill that would temporarily freeze prior-issued building permits when a building is landmarked. Though it “does close a loophole,” Mr. Bankoff would like to see the law strengthened, including audits of issued permits that have not been acted upon. The real problem is that “building permits are treated as a God-given right, when in fact they’re not.”

A Tough Sell. “In this development atmosphere, nothing is adequately protected.” Mr. Bankoff states that even in Manhattan, the most-landmarked area of the city, he sees historically and aesthetically important buildings being demolished constantly. On the recent push to landmark industrial architecture, such as the Estey Piano Factory in the Bronx, Standard Varnish Works in Staten Island, and Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory, Mr. Bankoff said “people still have a real problem” accepting such buildings as worthy of landmarking. “The point is it’s historically important, the point is it’s visually arresting, the point is we shouldn’t lose it; not that it’s pretty.” — Jesse Denno

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