Preservationists oppose landmark deadline bill

By Sabina Mollot

A bill pending in the City Council that would impose strict deadlines on applications for property landmark status has drawn concern from preservation groups who are blasting it as having a “do or die” policy. This is because any projects that aren’t decided upon by deadline would be barred from reconsideration for five years.

The bill, known as Intro 775, had a hearing in the Council on Wednesday with many speakers scheduled, but there wasn’t a vote on it. If passed, the Landmarks Preservation Commission would have to hold a public hearing on any potentially landmarked property or scenic landmark within 180 days of it going on the calendar and then make a decision on its status within 180 days of the hearing.

Historic districts up for designation would have to be discussed at a hearing within a year after being put on the calendar, with the LPC given a year after that to come to a decision.

Any items already on the calendar would have another 18 months to be designated or rejected. In all cases, if LPC fails to make a designation, the item gets taken off the calendar for five years.

Councilmember Peter Koo of Queens

Councilmember Peter Koo of Queens

Councilmember David Greenfield of Brooklyn

Councilmember David Greenfield of Brooklyn

The sponsors of Intro 775 are Council Members Peter Koo of Queens and David Greenfield of Brooklyn. A spokesperson for Greenfield didn’t respond to a request for comment by T&V’s deadline, while a spokesperson for Koo didn’t issue a comment in response to preservationist concerns, instead referring to a press release announcing the bill in April. The press release noted the goal of the legislation, which is to clear the current backlog of projects and keep applications from remaining in landmark limbo for years or even decades, as some have.

“Since the creation of the landmarks law 50 years ago, many potential landmarks have languished on the LPC calendar for as long as 49 years with no end in sight,” Koo said at the time. “In a city that takes enormous pride in its history, architecture and neighborhood character, such inaction is unacceptable. Clearly the landmarks law need a predictable timetable that provides reasonable expectations for both the community and property owners.”

Damaris Olivo, a spokesperson for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the entity tasked with approving and rejecting landmark designations, declined to comment on the bill. She explained that the LPC couldn’t comment prior to testimony to be given at the hearing, which was ongoing as of T&V’s print deadline.

However, preservationist groups have been far more vocal, saying five years of a property being exiled from the LPC’s calendar gives property owners — who are often against landmarking their properties — plenty of time to demolish and redevelop a historic location.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation blasted Intro 775, saying, in a letter, that it “would actually encourage delays and stalling tactics, and result in sites which merit serious consideration for landmark designation being demolished.

“It would in essence create a ‘pocket veto’ for landmark designations,” the GVSHP added on its website, in a sample letter that it is encouraging members of the public to use to testify against the bill. “(It) forces the Landmarks Preservation Commission to act on a ‘do or die; schedule, but does nothing to provide additional resources or other assistance to ensure that the Commission will always be able to complete a designation in the mandatory timeframe allotted.”

Richard Moses, an architect and president of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative (which covers the area from East 14th Street to Chinatown), is also opposed to the bill.

“The devil is in the details and the details have to be right,” he said to T&V. He noted that certain landmarked districts, including Greenwich Village, wouldn’t have been landmarked under such constraints, considering that even the most passionate preservationists usually have day jobs.

“Our concern is that because of the complexity these days of landmarking historic districts it often does take more time to get a designation through,” said Moses (who’s no relation to the urban planner Robert Moses). “It’s complicated politically and because of the resources involved. It’s a massive task and hopefully the Council will see that,” he added.

The Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association — which eventually hopes to see ST/PCV landmarked — also seemed doubtful about the legislation.

Susan Steinberg, president of the ST-PCV Tenants Association, said she is “very concerned” about 775.

“I think that the first problem is that the Landmarks Preservation Commission doesn’t have enough resources, enough people, enough money,” said Steinberg. As a result, landmark designation applicants “are essentially being punished. This legislation has to be looked it.”

Marie Beirne, who’s been involved in an effort by the Tenants Association to landmark ST/PCV by co-producing a documentary about the complex, said she is opposed to Intro 775. “It takes away from people their right to due process,” she said.

Not all preservationists are against the legislation though — at least not entirely.

Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which has a mission of preserving and revitalizing architecturally significant buildings, said she’s not opposed to the whole concept although the Conservancy does have a number of concerns about the bill.

Breen said she would like to see the deadlines for a designation increased by at least a year, and that the Conservancy outright objects to the five-year ban from the calendar.

“We don’t think it’s good idea,” she said.

The Conservancy, on its website, notes that a similar moratorium only exists in one other city; Los Angeles, and the purpose there is aimed at keeping advocates from making multiple requests for designations that have already been denied.

As for the proposed deadlines, Breen said that currently, the legislation doesn’t allow for any exceptions even in the case of disasters.

Councilmember Dan Garodnick Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Councilmember Dan Garodnick (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

“We would extend the timeline for a year,” Breen said. She’d recently discovered similar policies in other cities, but they, she added, allowed for some exceptions. “Stuff happens, as I’m sure the Council is aware,” she said. “Everyone wants to clear the backlog so everyone agrees with the goal. Maybe they need another month, two months (for a designation). You just don’t want them so swamped that they can’t do their normal work.”

On its website, the Conservancy also mentions that the bill, if implemented, could lead to some inequity with lower-income communities not necessarily being able to advocate for a project, which sometimes involves hiring consultants to do research.

Council Member Dan Garodnick, who recently sponsored a bill that would require the LPC to create a public database on all the buildings up for consideration as well as those that have been considered, also questioned the 180-day deadline.

“Preservationists and building owners largely agree that requests shouldn’t sit in limbo for decades,” he told T&V. “That said – the six months, as proposed, may not be enough time for advocates to build a compelling case for landmarking, and we need to make sure that all of our historic resources are given fair consideration before the Commission.”

His landmarks legislation, which was co-sponsored with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in June, was also set to be discussed at the hearing on Wednesday.

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