HDC: Proposed Legislation Would Undermine the Landmarks Preservation Commission

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council

Since its adoption in 1965, the New York City Landmarks Law has been amended several times. In 1973, the Landmarks Preservation Commission was allowed to designate landmarks as part of its regular schedule rather than having to wait three years between designation hearings, as had previously been the case, and also gained the ability to designate publicly owned parks and publicly accessible interiors as landmarks. In 1997, the agency gained the ability to enforce the law with civil fines, and in 2005, this ability was extended to cases of demolition by neglect. All these amendments extended the powers of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and strengthened the agency. The same cannot be said of the many reforms proposed by the City Council earlier this year.

On May 2, 2012, the City Council held a joint meeting of the Housing and Land Use Committees to deliberate on eleven previously introduced and brand new bills, ranging from the benign to the emasculating, all related to the workings of Landmarks. The hearing lasted almost five hours and over 50 people from neighborhoods across New York testified on the bills, almost unanimously in opposition. The only people testifying in favor of the bills were representatives of the Real Estate Board of New York, who had recently organized the “Responsible Landmarks Coalition,” a gathering of real estate and development interests whose “Proactive Policy Agenda” closely mirrors the most damaging of the reform proposals. For the purposes of summation, I have divided the eleven bills into three sets.

The first set includes bills which were previously proposed and have been sitting in committee for a number of years. They are as follows:

Intro 20 (Council Member Rosie Mendez, lead sponsor) empowers Landmarks to intercede in cases where unused permits from the Department of Buildings are still active on Landmark buildings. This bill has the potential to be a powerful tool for Landmarks to protect buildings after designation. While this seems like a once-in-a-blue-moon instance, at least three high-profile cases of this situation have arisen in the past 18 months, each one damaging the public’s faith in Landmarks being able to protect landmark buildings and setting a terrible precedent in newly-created historic districts.

Intro 80 (Council Member G. Oliver Koppell, lead sponsor) requires better monitoring of construction near landmark buildings. This is a minor amendment putting into law and extending what is already Department of Buildings operational policy regarding the monitoring of construction adjacent to landmark structures.

Intro 220 (Council Member Jessica S. Lappin, lead sponsor) requires Landmarks to maintain a survey department. This bill is not necessary, as many of the departments within Landmarks are not mandated by law and there is no funding necessarily attached to it. CM Lappin admitted as much in her remarks at the May 2 hearing (during her tenure as Landmarks Subcommittee Chair, Lappin successfully campaigned to get more resources to the agency which allowed them to re-establish their survey department).

Intro 357 (Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, lead sponsor) specifies that “green energy” devices be considered in the definition of “mechanical equipment” on landmark buildings. This bill is largely unnecessary since Landmarks would continue to judge the actual visibility of rooftop structures, regardless of purpose, based on their impact on the protected historic appearance of the landmark structure.

Intro 533 (Council Daniel R. Garodnick, lead sponsor) requires that Landmarks make publicly available a list of energy-efficient windows. While well intentioned, it would seem that this bill would, in effect, require a City agency to create a “preferred vendor list”, which would be inappropriate and possibly illegal for an agency to do.

The second set includes four bills which taken together seek to impose a strict timeline on Landmarks’ deliberation of potential landmarks and historic districts.

Intro 222A (Council Member Lappin, lead sponsor) requires Landmarks to respond to Requests for Evaluation (RFEs) within a maximum of 180 days (six months).

Intro 532A (Council Member Garodnick, lead sponsor) mandates a publicly accessible online database of RFEs and dictates language for Landmarks’ responses to requests.

Intro 849 (Council Member Brad S. Lander, lead sponsor) creates an appeals process for denied RFEs.

Intro 850 (Council Member Lander, lead sponsor) creates a 21/33-month maximum timeline for individual landmark and historic district designations.

These bills would seem to answer longtime public complaints about lack of attention to community requests. In truth, if these bills are adopted in tandem as written, they would risk overwhelming Landmarks’ scant resources and could result in potentially deserving buildings being rejected for landmark status with at best a cursory review. Currently, there are literally thousands of buildings within the boundaries of dozens of proposed historic districts across the City. If Landmarks HAD to decide whether to designate all those districts in 33 months, it would probably result in thousands of buildings being rejected for landmark status based on scheduling rather than merit. Additionally, there is no guaranteed funding to actually provide for the staff necessary to enact this scheme, nor is it possible for the Council to provide such a guarantee. This plan is almost ensured to create terminal paralysis at the agency.

If this timeline were currently in place, one could easily imagine that historic districts and extensions of historic districts in Crown Heights North, Park Slope, the Grand Concourse, Douglaston Hill, Murray Hill, NoHo, and DUMBO would have never been designated since all of those designations took longer than 33 months to complete. This is clearly a case of an attempt to legislate around a concern where the cure is much more damaging than the problem.

Finally, there are two bills which seek to inhibit Landmarks’ powers to designate or regulate properties.

Intro 845 (Council Member Leroy Comrie, lead sponsor) curtails Landmarks’ abilities to require the use of certain materials for replacements on landmarked buildings.

Intro 846 (Council Member Comrie, lead sponsor) mandates that the City Planning Commission must analyze the economic impact of designation on the development potential of proposed landmarks and instructs the City Council to strongly regard this analysis in their deliberations. The bill also requires Landmarks to issue very detailed draft designation reports early in the public hearing process and promulgate rules for historic districts immediately after designation.

Intro 845, the Replacement Materials Bill, undermines the basic benefit of Landmarks oversight in helping to gradually return areas to a more historically appropriate condition. With the advent of new material technologies and the growth in skilled building artisans, it is easier and cheaper than ever before to replace deteriorating building materials with appropriate replacements of high quality. What this bill would result in would be the endless replacement of white vinyl windows in designated historic districts with more of the same. It would also lessen the jobs created in the building trades by the need to improve the conditions and materials of landmark buildings.

Intro 846, the Economic Argument Bill, deliberately misconstrues the economic value of landmark designation by emphasizing the false value of “property strictly as development.” By enabling the sole criteria of economic value to be the highest use of a site, the bill strives to denigrate the economic value of landmark designation to property value. The most highly valued and most desirable property in New York City falls within historic districts. There are a number of factors why these areas are so successful, and among them is their landmark protection. People want to live where there is certainty and protection. Under Intro 846, the recent extension of the Park Slope Historic District could have been found to have a negative economic impact on the neighborhood simply because it could limit building expansion and the bulk of new development on some rowhouse blocks, whereas commonsense and actual real world data will show the opposite to be true.

Intros 845 and 846 constitute deliberate attacks on the Landmarks Law, which was intended by its drafters to “stabilize and improve property value; protect and enhance the City’s attractions to tourists and visitors and the support and stimulus to business and industry thereby provided; and strengthen the economy of the city.” These bills would fundamentally undermine how the landmark designation process has worked since 1965.

Simeon Bankoff is the executive director of the Historic Districts Council.

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