Preservationists Rally Against Landmarks Bill, Intro. 775

Council Members Ben Kallos, Rosie Mendez, and Corey Johnson join members of the preservation community at City Hall on Monday, June 6, 2016. Photographs by the author

This morning, the City Council’s Land Use Committee is slated to vote on a bill called Intro. 775-A. The legislation was introduced last year by Council Members David Greenfield and Peter Koo and it would impose a set of restrictions and deadlines on the Landmarks Preservation Commission. To say preservationists and the public are unhappy with it would be an understatement and, on Monday morning, a rally against it was held on the City Hall steps.

When the Land Use Committee held a public hearing on it in September, it lasted six hours. It lasted so long that it had to be moved to another room because the Council Chamber was already booked for subsequent event. About 56 people testified, and only about 10 of them supported the legislation.

What is Intro. 775, and what has changed since it became Intro. 775-A?

One deadline would be on individual landmark designations. From the point a site is calendared, the commission would have 180 days to hold a public hearing and another 180 days to hold a vote. That timeline has been extended in Intro. 775-A to a total of one year. Another deadline would apply to historic district designations. From the point a district is calendared, the commission would have one year to hold a public hearing and another year to hold a vote.

If those deadlines are not met, the items would be removed from the calendar. The originally proposed legislation would have a five-year moratorium on reconsideration of an item, during which time the property or properties in question could be demolished, even though perhaps just a little extra time could have meant its or their preservation.

The updated Intro. 775-A removes that moratorium and allows for an extension beyond the deadline for individual designations, but only with the approval of the property owner. If property owners had a vote when it comes to landmark designations, many properties would never end up being preserved.

Lastly, the bill gives the commission 18 months to deal with items already on the calendar. The LPC is already making great progress dealing with its nearly 50-year backlog of items from 2010 and earlier.

LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan admits that the commission could be more efficient. However, she, as well as her executive director and general counsel, agree that the way to achieve that is through internal rules and not through rigid legislation. One might complain about how long it takes for a historic district designation to make its way to a vote, but consider that many view the LPC as an understaffed and underfunded city agency. Then consider the fact that one of the four historic districts designated in 2015 – the Bedford Historic District in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn – contains 824 buildings. The designation report contains at least a paragraph on each one of those buildings.

Since this legislation is essentially an unfunded mandate, it’s no surprise that preservationists are furious over it, but they’re not alone. Council Members Rosie Mendez, Ben Kallos, and Corey Johnson all joined them at City Hall, hoping the bill could become one for which they could vote.

“Last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of our landmarks law with fanfare, with proclamations,” Kallos said. “…just as those same people were plotting against it.”

Johnson said he has been in discussion with Greenfield, who he said would be open to some changes. “Some of the worst parts were taken out,” Johnson said, referring to the moratorium. “But we are still very very concerned that if the Landmarks Preservation Commission, for individual landmarks, is not able to come to a conclusion in a year’s time, whether it be through obstacles that are being thrown up by the owner or further research that needs to get done, we want to ensure that at the end of that year period, when the one year expires, or for historic districts the two years expire, there is no gap between when the LPC can come back and go to re-calendar the item, so that the district or the individual landmark stays protected.”

Mendez spoke of how it was well over 25 years ago that she joined the fight to get Brooklyn’s McCarren Play Center, with its famous pool, designated a landmark. It wasn’t until 2007 that the designation took place, but it did take place. “There is a balance between 20 years and what this bill proposes to do in one year,” she said. “We have to find that balance.”

“Yes, we do need some change, and we are fine with timelines, but those timelines have to… adequately reflect what’s going to be a fair process,” she said.

As the council members were speaking, Mayor Bill de Blasio walked up the stairs, but ignored the boos and other chants sent in his direction.

Mayor Bill de Blasio ascends the City Hall steps on Monday, June 6, 2016

Mayor Bill de Blasio ascends the City Hall steps on Monday, June 6, 2016

As for the preservationists, Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation said, “We are here to say to the City Council [that] unless this bill is substantially changed, vote no. This will be, in its current form, incredibly harmful to preservation efforts in New York City, incredible harmful to New Yorkers who wish to hold on to the character of their city, the character of their neighborhoods.”

“In its current, Intro. 775-A is unacceptable,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. “We need a situation where there is the possibility for flexibility for the Landmarks Commission to be nimble and not held to an artificial and false timeline.”

“Every day, we learn of a new case of unjustified, quid pro quo land use decision making that puts another nail in the coffin of our neighborhoods,” said Kate Wood, president of Landmark West!. “We can only hope that the ongoing investigations get to the bottom of the disease that plagues [us].”

“Intro. 775-A has been proposed to resolve concerns about the efficiency and transparency of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and these are concerns that we ourselves have shared,” said Rachel Levy, executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts. “However, we fear that setting strict timelines without the ability to extend the period of LPC consideration will significantly and irreversibly hamper the ability of the LPC to carry out its mission. If enacted in its current form, Intro. 775-A will weaken community-driven preservation efforts across the entire city.”

Tehmina Brohi of the East Village Community Coalition, Zack Winestine of Save Gansevoort and the Greenwich Village Community Task Force, and Claudette Brady, who fought to help get the Bedford Historic District designated, also spoke at the rally.

It’s worth noting that the Land Use Committee’s action has been scheduled on a Tuesday. Tuesday is the one day a week that the Landmarks Preservation Commission meets. You might be aware that all of the commissioners with the exception of the chair, serve in a volunteer capacity.

Stay tuned.

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