The Landmarks Law, enacted in 1965 to preserve the city’s architectural, historical and cultural resources, contains few standards about what merits designation and few rules governing the process. This has resulted in broad brush designations that are of questionable significance and that are impeding the City’s larger planning, economic development, and housing efforts. It is time to amend the Landmarks Law to bring designations more in line with other city policies, provide more timely information on potential designations, and earlier guidance on design options for historic districts.
The Law has enabled the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to protect a wide range of noteworthy properties, such as Grand Central Terminal and Lever House, as well as a collection of buildings that represent a distinct section of the city, such as Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights. The Law has also been used to landmark properties that have no architectural or historical merits, such as vacant lots, parking lots, and significantly-altered buildings. Needless to say, these are not properties of what the Law envisioned protecting when it was established nearly 50 years ago.
The lack of clear, objective standards and the absence of a meaningful process that evaluates the impacts of preservation on the city’s future needs have resulted in the designation of large expanses of the city. Indeed, a recent study by REBNY found that 28 percent of properties in Manhattan are designated landmarks—with 93 percent of these landmark properties in historic districts. In Manhattan Community Boards 2 and 7 the percentage of landmarked properties exceeds an astounding 70 percent. Further troubling are the findings from a more recent study of new housing activity by REBNY that found that only 5 units of affordable housing have been built on landmarked properties in Manhattan over the past 10 years. Preservationist groups, civic organizations and local neighborhood associations have taken advantage of the loose standards and rules governing the process to control the scale of entire neighborhoods and, in many circumstances, block the development of individual sites. What was once a laudable tool to preserve distinct examples of NYC’s history is now being used to undermine the zoning of these neighborhoods, impose financial burdens on owners whose property lacks merit, and limit our city’s capacity to address our housing needs and make its building stock more energy efficient.
An example of this problem can be found in the designation of the SoHo Extension. Nearly half of the properties inside the Extension area included vacant sites, significantly-altered, and non-contributing buildings. Many of these properties are on the perimeter of the Extension and could have easily been excluded. Most recently, the West End-Collegiate Historic District included 13 non-contributing, no-style buildings. Despite the recommendation of two commission members to exclude two buildings on the perimeter, they were included in the designation.
Another troubling example of the absence of applying meaningful standards is the designation of “federal style” buildings on Dominick Street. The three most identifiable features of a “federal style” building are: two and a half stories, dormers and a pitched roof. However, on Dominick Street the LPC decided to designate two buildings without any of these features and labeled them as “federal style” buildings. At the same time, they decided not to designate the neighboring building that was nearly identical to the other two that were significantly altered. In this matter, the visible, objective standards which defined the “Federal Style” building were lacking, and yet the two of the three significantly altered buildings were designated.
In addition to issues related to meaningful standards, there are also serious concerns about how the law is being implemented. The LPC has repeatedly ignored administrative codes that limit its purview. The New York City Administrative Code explicitly states that the Landmarks Preservation Commission is not authorized to “to regulate or limit the height and bulk of buildings,” yet there have been numerous cases where the Commission refused to approve applications unless the proposed height of a building was reduced. A recent offense can be found at 74 Grand Street, where the applicant was forced to return to LPC hearings over a period of 6 months until the applicant finally agreed to reduce the height of the building. Not only does this undermine the City’s zoning regulations, but it also unfairly restricts an owner’s right to develop fully—using the landmarks law as a sword instead of a shield.
The Landmarks Law and how it is applied needs to be reformed in a way that adheres to the spirit of the law. Here are four ways the next administration can achieve this:
1. Place LPC under the authority of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development so that historic preservation is more appropriately aligned with the City’s planning, housing, and economic development efforts.
2. Require that a draft designation report be released on the date an individual landmark or an historic district or historic district extension is calendared. This will improve transparency and provide property owners and the public a fair opportunity to review the basis for the designation and to prepare an appropriate response to the proposed designation.
3. Require Design Guidelines for each Historic District at the time of designation.
4. Prohibit the designation of vacant lots, no style, non-contributing and significantly altered buildings that are on the perimeter of the district, and prohibit the designation of a historic district or historic district extensions in which 25 percent of the properties are in these categories.
Now is the time for the City to take a more responsible approach to historic preservation—one that improves transparency, clearly defines standards, and carefully analyzes impacts on the creation of housing, schools, jobs, and tax revenue.
Steven Spinola is President of Real Estate Board of New York.