Many Turn Out to Both Support and Register Concerns about Landmarks Rules Revisions

Revisions would see delegation of some work, including certain rear yard and roof top additions, to staff for review and approval. On March 27, 2018, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing on a proposed overhaul of the agency’s rules, found in Title 63 of the Rules of the City of New York. The proposed amendments were published in the City Record on January 30, 2018. Landmarks has made a PowerPoint presentation available online.

The amendments would reorganize the rules in an attempt to make them more intuitive and user-friendly. The rules would codify certain staff practices, and delegate certain determinations currently reviewed by the Commission to staff. The codifications of staff practices were intended to provide consistent guidance to both staff and applicants. The amendments would also address certain administrative concerns, such as providing for expedited Certificates of No Effect, simplifying the process for as-of-right permit renewal, and establishing rules and time frames for reinstating an expired permit. The proposal is also intended to maintain a manageable workload for the all-volunteer Commission as the number of designated districts and landmarks increases.

The amendments were presented by Mark Silberman, the agency’s Counsel, and First Deputy Director of Preservation Cory Scott Herrala. Silberman noted that the vast majority of application received by Landmarks are handled at the staff level. In 2017, 440 out 14,000 applications received by Landmarks went before Commissioners as Certificates of Appropriateness, or as Binding or Advisory Reports. He said the amendments were intended to serve preservation by making Landmarks’ processes both more efficient and transparent. The rules would provide clarity to property owners, and are intended to mitigate the time and expense of obtaining permits. Silberman noted that rules had undergone sixteen amendments through CAPA since their adoption in the 1990s following the revision of the City Charter.

The amendments would make staff practices explicit regarding the repair, restoration, and recreation of historic building materials, and the use of substitute materials. They would also codify staff’s oversight of work such as the reconstruction of secondary facades, installation of access ramps, and rear yard decks, and the covering of damaged vault light s with diamond plate.

The amendments would delegate certain “straightforward” applications to staff that are currently reviewed by the commission and approved routinely. Such work includes the extension of time periods for temporary signage, the reconstruction of primary facades taken down in the interest of public safety, installation of storefronts in “no-style buildings,” changing the materials of wood windows to metal or fiberglass in some circumstances, installing wheelchair and platform lifts, and installing barrier free access ramps at entrances. Staff would handle permits repairing and replacing sidewalk materials in kind, the installation of some minimally visible HVAC equipment, and the modification and installation of building-code-mandated fire escapes.

Staff would be able to approve occupiable rooftop additions minimally visible over secondary facades, allow the extension of visible elevator bulkheads in some districts, and issue permits for the construction of minimally visible additions on individual landmarks below seven stories. Certain rear yard additions would also be permitted at the staff levels, as would modifications to fenestration on secondary facades. As more buildings and districts are designated, the more work the all-volunteer Commission reviews: the delegation of certain work away from the public review process would help maintain a manageable calendar for the Commission.

Silberman argued that the rules would serve to enhance transparency, where “everyone knows what the criteria are for approval.” He noted that the changes would not affect the staff’s workload, as they already thoroughly review all applications, including those that go before the Commission. Silberman estimated that the rules would affect ten to twenty percent of applications that currently go before the Commission. He said the rules would serve to eliminate some routinely approved applications from the Commission’s calendar, and simplify some more complicated ones, where more elements could be handled at staff level.

Before opening the hearing, Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, stated that, due to the large amount of public interest, and at the urging of elected officials, the comment period would be extended. Landmarks will accept written testimony on the proposed amendments until May 8th.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer voiced a commitment to help Landmarks achieve its goals in improving efficiency, but also expressed concern about the loss of input from the public and community boards in decisions delegated to staff. A joint statement issued by State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Richard Gottfried stated that “eliminating public hearings on landmarks applications will remove an important check on dishonest building owners,” particularly regarding rear and rooftop addition and excavations not going through the public review process. A representative of Council Members Keith Powers and Carlina Rivera recognized the needs the amendments were intended to address, but worried they would “undermine the power of community boards to act as a voice for the public.” Assembly Member Deborah Glick’s office said rear and roof additions should not be delegated to staff.

A representative of Council Speaker Corey Johnson read from joint statement with Council Members Rafael Salamanca and Adrienne Adams, in opposition to portions of the proposed rules that would “diminish opportunities for public input and delegate discretionary functions away from the Commission to staff.” He asked that that the sections of the proposal be eliminated before promulgation, as they would reduce transparency and were not an appropriate solution to a workload problem. Johnson vowed to work with Landmarks to ensure necessary funding and staffing so that Landmarks could pursue its work without relinquishing Commissioners’ oversight.

Representatives of Manhattan Community Boards 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 expressed concern about reduced public review and input, particularly regarding rear and rooftop additions. If Landmarks were to promulgate the rules, Community Boards asked that the agency publish pending applications on its website, and alert the boards when items were added. Jay Adolf of Community Board 7 argued that “specificity of rules is not transparency; transparency is being able to observe and review how those rules are interpreted and how those rules are applied.” Adolf said more Landmarks applications should undergo public review, not fewer.

Former Commissioner Richard Olcott, representing the Municipal Art Society, urged Landmarks to commit to hiring more staff, and expressed concern about language surrounding “no-style” building in the rule as failing to recognize the evolving interpretation of history. MAS also requested that “minimum visibility” be defined “in terms of either distance or dimension.” Representatives of the Historic Districts Council asked that Landmarks make stricter the rules for permitting substitute materials, maintain high standards for visible additions, and apply archaeological guidelines to private properties, among other recommendations. The Society for the Architecture of the City’s Christabel Gough opposed the amendments’ adoption out of concern for the “erosion of standards for restoration, the reduced power of the commissioners, lost opportunities to comment by the public, and the reduce notification of the press.”

Jason Zakai, attorney for Hiller P.C., said the amendments would violate the Landmarks Law, which requires that agency hold a public hearing on every Certificate of Appropriateness, but the rules would allow projects that currently require C of As to be approved with no hearing. He said to approve the rules would be to abdicate the agency’s responsibility for professional discretionary oversight. Zakai said the amendments did not recognize evolving perceptions of building in historic districts, which may not have been considered noteworthy at the time of designation, contained ambiguous language, such as: “onto calling undue attention to itself.” Lynn Ellsworth of Human-Scale NYC said Landmarks should adjourn the revisions, “and the process of modifying LPC rules given total reboot by the City Council,” as the agency had lost the public’s trust in its ability to withstand “constant assaults” from the real estate industry.

Architect and former Landmarks Chair Sherida Paulsen, said the amendments would “clarify the rules and standards by which this commission operates,” without limiting public comment. They would make the bases of review clearer and more comprehensible to both applicants and bodies that comment on applications. Bob Tierney, who preceded Srinivasan as Commission Chair, spoke in favor of the “careful, incremental” proposal that would slightly relieve the burden on commissioners and provide more guidance to staff. Tierney noted that it had been approximately ten years since the rules were last amended, and that they benefited from periodic review and amendment. Kramer Levin attorney Valerie Campbell, who once served as Counsel to the agency, said the rules were currently burdensome on home owners and small business owners pursuing routine work, and the amendments would help “level the playing field.”

Suzanne Mecs, of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said the amendments would codify current best practices, reduce conflict between preservation goals and other regulatory processes, and help applicants avoid the “expensive, time-consuming and complicated” public review process, and make the rules “more intuitive and practical.” Joseph Rosenberg, from the Catholic Community Relations Council of the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn, said the rules would reduce “financial strains” on churches, by allowing for substitute materials and the renewal of permits without necessitating public review.

A representative of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums supported the amendments as way to facilitate and streamline necessary work, and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce attested that the proposed amendments were “common-sense changes that address modern design, while respecting the historical properties of the architecture.” Basha Gerhards, Vice President of the Real Estate Board of New York, said the amendments were “practical and necessary” and would reduce burdens on all stakeholders.

Chair Srinivasan said Brooklyn Community Board 8 and Queens Community Board 3 had communicated concerns about the rules to the Commission, and State Senator Brad Hoylman expressed his opposition to any rules that would reduce transparency. The State Historic Preservation Office also lodged concerns.  The agency received communications in support of the amendments from Hunter College President and former Commission Chair Jennifer Raab, the New York Building Congress, and the New York City Bar Association, among others.

Srinivasan stated that staff would compile and analyze the testimony. She said the public’s input and suggestions were an integral part of the process, and would impact any revisions to the rules.

LPC: Public Hearing and Opportunity to Comment on Proposed Amendment to Landmarks Preservation Commission Rules (March 27, 2018).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law.)

One thought on “Many Turn Out to Both Support and Register Concerns about Landmarks Rules Revisions

  1. It is incredible that as the number of landmarks and historic districts increases, there has been no corresponding growth of LPC staff nor any talk of paying the volunteer commissioners. This benefits the Real Estate Board, who can complain about an interminable process but any backlog is a problem entirely of the City’s creation.

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