A Quiet War on Landmarks, or Fixing the Problems with the Preservation Commission?

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To the uninitiated, that would have been the likely conclusion from a hearing held at the City Council today. Eleven different pieces of legislation addressing myriad issues at the commission were debated. Nearly half of the council’s 59 member made an appearance, grilling officials from the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Buildings over problems perceived, parochial and patrician at the city agencies.

The city is under assault from a nanny state stuck in the past seemed to be the clear message.

For the large crowd assembled in protest for what turned out to be a four hour meeting, the case was quite the opposite: It was the city’s daring Landmarks Preservation Commission, keeper of the soul of the city, that was under assault. Of the 54 people who signed up to give testimony before a joint session of two council committees all but one spoke out against the vast majority of the bills.

The panic started on Friday, when a few of the preservationist groups were notified of the hearing. They were alarmed to learn that such a large number of bills, many of which they had never seen, were suddenly being taken up all at once by the council. “This is an unprecedented assault on the Landmarks Preservation Commission,” Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said. A call to action went out—at least a half-dozen, in fact, over various email lists and blogs.

But was this really a shadow campaign against the Landmarks Preservation Commission, one orchestrated by Big Real Estate, to hit back at preservationists following the creation of the controversial Downtown Brooklyn Skyscraper district? In that effort, groups like the Real Estate Board of New York saw a commission overreaching, “saving” buildings they viewed as unfit for the recognition. And many of the bills presented yesterday seemed to address some of those concerns. On their face they made sense, in a perfect world, but in the eyes of the commission they amounted to unfunded mandates.

“All of these processes—surveys, reviews, research, report writing and designation—require judgment, time and expertise,” Jenny Fernandez, director of intergovernmental and community relations at the commission, said. “The chair and executive staff must set priorities based on a number of factors, and the fact is that our resources are limited and setting these priorities is crucial.”

The big issue for council members was a bill that would establish a timeline of roughly 33 months for proposed landmarks to be considered. “Everyone had deadlines, there is no reason you should be exempt,” zoning committee chair Leroy Comrie scolded. Landmarks subcommittee chair Brad Lander invoked his preteen son, who has a willful disregard for timeliness. Councilman Robert Jackson of Harlem raved about a building it Harlem that had languished for 25 years on the commission’s calendar. “That is a lifetime,” he said. “You are stifling development.”

Ms. Fernandez countered that while it would be nice to make such determinations within the alotted amount of time, the commission lacked the resources and would be forced to abandon hundreds or even thousands of properties a year, considering the commission would be required under the new bills to either agree to consider the project—within a number of months, as required by yet another bill—or agree never to consider it again. Ms. Fernandez pointed out that the commission’s portfolio had grown considerably over the past decade at the same time that its resources have been cut (by the mayor, not the council, as everyone was quick to point out).

[Update: A reader points out that in fact Landmarks’ budgets have increased considerably under the Bloomberg administration, up 60 percent from $3 million in 2003 to $4.8 million this year. Staffing has risen 40 percent, to 60 full-time employees.]

“This is an end-run on landmarks masquerading as concern for the community,” Paul Graziano, a Queens preservationist, told The Observer. “While these are legitimate community concerns, they know the commission cannot afford to do this, and in the end, if the bills are passed, they will only benefit the real estate interests.

The two bills everyone seemed to agree on was one that would halt any construction work on a building as soon as it was calendared for landmarks consideration, preventing landlords from damaging their property as their value is debated. New permits may not be filed, but in some cases existing ones were executed. The other bill would extend protections for historic buildings near construction sites. Currently, properties within 90 feet must be given special attention when nearby work takes place, and the bill would extend that perimeter to 150 feet.

What had preservationists most incensed were two bills that had been newly introduced and that they saw as severely undermining the purpose and spirit of the Landmarks Law. Mr. Bankoff was quick to point out that these two bills were largely ignored by the council members.

The first big problem was a bill that would grandfather in current building materials. A good example would be a wood-framed or brick house that had vinyl siding put up in the intervening years. Any renovation would require the restoration of the original material. Preservationists and the commission argue this restores a neighborhood closer to its original character and is one of the chief purposes of creating a historic district. Landowners and some council members countered that this creates onerous requirements for owners and even ignores the intervening history. “Technology for aluminum siding has gotten very good,” Councilman Comrie quipped.

By far the biggest concern was a requirement to craft an economic analysis for any proposed landmarking. “For too long now, landmarking has been misused to address quality of life, neighborhood and development issues where zoning would be more appropriate,” Michael Slattery, executive vice-president at the Real Estate Board, said during his testimony.

Speaker after speaker insisted that economics was far from the first concern where landmarks were concerned. “The bottom line is that such buildings provide more tax revenue and sell at a premium over unprotected buildings,” historian Michael Henry Adams said, reading testimony on behalf of State Senator Bill Perkins, a former council man.

“Aesthetic issues are equally, or even more important, than economic ones where landmarks are concerned,” Andrea Goldwyn, a representative of the Landmarks Conservancy said. “These buildings serve a higher purpose.”

The concern about these bills may have been misplaced. Mr. Bankoff said that he feared any of them could come to a vote now that a hearing has been held, but according to officials at the council, and repeated assurances by committee members during yesterday’s hearings, no votes on the newest bills will be held until future hearings are held to discuss them further. The flood of bills was simply meant as a way to clear the council’s legislative queue, considering all landmarks bills that had been languishing as well as any other relevant issues presented in the new bills, Councilman Lander told The Observer.

“The idea here was to provide an opportunity for people to look at and comment on a diversity of bills and we’ll go from there,” Councilman Lander said. “A lot of the pertinent issues in these bills still have to be addressed.”

Still, preservationists are not entirely comfortable with these assurances. “Few bills under consideration today will advance the cause of historic preservation in any way,” Cristobel Gough, secretary of the Society for the Architecture of the City, said. “Several arc calculated to undercut  existing protections, eliminate necessary checks and balances and cripple the Landmarks Preservation Commission.”

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC

A Quiet War on Landmarks, or Fixing the Problems with the Preservation Commission?