REBNY: Improve the City’s Landmarks Designation Process

Steven Spinola, president of REBNY

The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s (LPC) process for designating New York City historic districts is being used more and more to take the place of zoning.  The designation of historic districts has been pursued to promote many different agendas: to address issues of height and scale, to stop new development and to limit development on vacant or near-vacant sites by purposefully including these sites within the boundaries of historic districts.  These objectives are contrary to the intent of the NYC Landmarks Law and touch on actions specifically disallowed by that law, such as limiting the height and bulk of buildings and other characteristics governed by zoning regulations.

This continuing drift toward misusing the landmarks law as a planning tool to limit change across entire neighborhoods is evident in the remarks by Otis Pearsall, a noted preservationist, at the 2011 Fitch Forum symposium on the history of preservation law:

But no one had the foresight to envision the flexibility of this law and its utility not only to
preserve buildings and districts but entire neighborhoods. The neighborhood preservation idea came into vogue with Beverly Spatt, she was the one who first saw the potential here to use it as a planning tool…With 110 going on to 250 historic districts,one has step back a little bit and wonder just what exactly it is we are trying to achieve and what we are doing. Are we cheapening the brand or is this the correct thing to be doing? Until there is a mechanism here in the city to preserve neighborhoods, other than the landmarks law, the landmarks law is the name of the game and we’re going to have to go charging ahead with the preservation of valuable neighborhoods through the historic districting mechanism.

The number and size of many of the historic districts that are now being designated, expanded, and proposed are indicative of this attempt to use the landmarks law to accomplish purposes for which it was not intended.

The impacts on the owners of property as well as the community as a whole are not adequately discussed or analyzed during the LPC designation process. For example, the current practice of the Landmarks Preservation Commission is to issue designation reports shortly before or even after designation. The late issuance facilitates the misuse of landmarking by providing insufficient time for property owners and interested parties to evaluate the basis of the designation and to prepare effective testimony before the LPC Commissioners at a public hearing.  Also missing from the report are any guidelines describing the types of alterations that would be considered appropriate in the new district. Accordingly, we support the provision in City Council Intro 846 that would make a draft designation report publicly available at the time when the proposed district is placed on the LPC calendar. This would provide crucial information about the proposed designation to the property owners, elected officials and the public, and allow an owner a reasonable amount of time before the public hearing to evaluate the impacts on his or her property.  It would also allow owners to update or correct any information in the report about their building.  The current practice of releasing the designation report just prior to or after designation is too late for the public or owners to request changes or corrections because the designation decision has already been finalized.

A clear case of where the designation report revealed the faulty basis for designation was the 2010 extension of the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District, which included properties on the west side of West Broadway, as well as Crosby, Lafayette, and Centre Streets.  LPC drew the new district boundaries to incorporate a gas station and other vacant sites on the perimeter.  The inclusion of these sites had nothing to do with preserving our historic and architectural heritage and everything to do with controlling the future development on the sites.  As a result, LPC now can control what would be built on these sites. After the SoHo extension was designated, owners learned from the designation report that 67 properties in the extension fell into one or more of the following categories:  a gas station, a vacant site, a “no-style” building, or a building that had been significantly altered.  These 67 properties comprised 50 percent of the properties in the historic district extension.  This information should have been available well in advance so that the owners of these 67 properties could submit testimony to the Commission contesting the overall rationale for the proposed district extension.  One may reply that the Commissioners were aware of this information at the time of the designation.  If so, then we believe this shows the questionable standards being used for designation.

It is time to open up the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation process.  A good first step would be releasing a draft designation report prior to calendaring to encourage more public discussion and participation in the process and to help prevent the improper use of the landmarks law.

Steven Spinola is president of the Real Estate Board of New York.

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