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City Council Bill Could Limit NYC’s Landmarking Power

Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, one of the sites on the Landmarks Preservation Commission backlog (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, one of the sites on the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s backlogged list (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

At a public hearing next Wednesday, New York City Council’s Committee on Land Use will consider a bill that would majorly impact landmarking in the city. Introduced in April by Council Members Peter A. Koo and David Greenfield, Int 0775-2015 would limit the time for sites to be considered by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to one year for individual landmarks and two years for historic districts (there are currently no limits); once decided upon, these sites could not be reintroduced for five years. The bill is intended to streamline the LPC, but many local historic and preservation organizations see it as degrading the power of the commission and the Landmarks Law, which this year is marking its 50th anniversary.

“We have profound fears that landmark designation and the designation of new historic districts would, if not cease, greatly diminish,” Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, told Hyperallergic. “Essentially, the bill acts as a pocket veto for the designation of new historic districts.”

The gate to Calvary Cemetery in Queens, one of the sites on the LPC backlog
The gate to Calvary Cemetery in Queens, one of the sites on the LPC’s backlogged list (click to enlarge)

The LPC is currently working through a backlog of around 95 places calendared prior to 2010, along with sites added for consideration in the past five years. Any building can be added to the LPC calendar, and there’s currently no restriction for how long it can stay there, which can mean decades. Last December, the LPC considered scrapping the backlog, but the plan was withdrawn after public and preservationist outcry. The LPC now has a backlog initiative and is working through the calendared places in the coming months.

“This bill will be a huge barrier to people seeking protection for their neighborhoods — I can’t be clearer than that,” Bankoff said. “It takes years to work on these things, and this bill basically punishes the LPC for taking its time and encourages the commission to not look at larger neighborhoods.” He added that “under this legislation, the Empire State Building would not have been designated, or the Woolworth Building,” as “those particular buildings took a year and a half.” The Empire State Building had its first LPC hearing in 1979 but wasn’t designated until 1981; other significant sites, such as Rockefeller Center, the Seagrams Building, and the Alhambra Apartments, similarly took longer than the time frame the new bill would enforce.

An August 26 letter to city council members authored by the Historic Districts Council, Landmark West, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts — and signed by 52 additional organizations — states that the bill “would do nothing to expand the resources of the Commission, New York City’s smallest agency charged with regulating more than 33,000 structures.” The bill would “also encourage an owner who is strongly opposed to designation to seek delays in the process in the hopes of ‘running out the clock’ and avoiding landmark designation,” the letter argues.

The organizations note that since the passing of the Landmarks Law 50 years ago, 38% of the historic districts “would not have made it through the proposed timeline.”

In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, Council Member Koo said: “[The] Landmarks Law needs a predictable timetable that provides reasonable expectations for both the community and property owners. Introducing this legislation is the first part of a larger conversation about landmarks reform, and I look forward to continuing this discussion in the future.”

Union Square Park, one of the sites on the LPC backlog
Union Square Park, one of the sites on the LPC’s backlogged list

Having a building on the LPC calendar doesn’t protect it entirely, but it does require another level of city approvals for owners who want to alter or tear down properties.

“If something has been calendared, it means that the LPC is going to consider it, and at that time there is an agreement with the Department of Buildings that they will pass any permit application over to the LPC for their review,” Tara Kelly, executive director of the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, told Hyperallergic. “The commission can choose not to act and allow whatever the application is to move forward, but there’s a nominal threshold of review that is really important compared to being entirely unprotected.”

Kelly added that for each historic district, it’s “a thoughtful and nuanced process — there’s community outreach, engagement with property owners, extensive research, and there are just any number of reasons why that effort would take more than the very rigid timelines.” She emphasized that there’s “no purpose in” the proposed five-year moratorium, as “there is not a single building that they’ve denied that has come back to be heard and designated. It’s a fictitious problem, and the solution is incredibly detrimental.”

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