Joint Meeting of the City Council Housing and Land Use Committees: HDC Testimony

Statement of the Historic Districts Council

Joint Meeting of the City Council Housing and Land Use Committees

May 2, 2012


The Historic Districts Council is a nonprofit community service organization that works with over 500 neighborhood groups to preserve New York City’s historic buildings and communities. Since 1971, we have worked with, for and against the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to achieve this goal. We have been directly involved in the designation of over half of the 107 historic districts currently designated as well as countless individual landmarks and we regularly monitor and participate in every public meeting and hearing of the agency. It is fair to say that outside of the agency staff, HDC probably spends more time thinking about and interacting with the Landmarks  Commission  than any other group in New York City.

To the extent it has been possible, HDC has studied the multitude of bills currently before City Council and assessed them with the goal of encouraging the best preservation practices possible for New York.  The 11 bills currently being contemplated by the City Council, if passed as written, will greatly change the workings of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

HDC supports Intro 20, which empowers LPC to intercede in cases where unused Buildings permits are still active on Landmark buildings.  This is a bill which was originally proposed in 2007 to help remedy two unfortunate situations where owners of individual landmarks were dead-set on destroying their buildings regardless of community and Council opposition.  In the five years since this bill was introduced, there have been numerous instances where the process it defines would have proven incredibly useful, most recently at 339 West 29th Street at the Underground Railroad House and 315 East 10th Street, both instances of LPC being stymied by existing building permits after landmark designation.

HDC supports Intro 80 which requires better monitoring of construction near landmark buildings, although further discussion of how exactly this would be enforced would be welcome.

HDC questions if Intro 220, requiring LPC to maintain a survey department, is especially necessary. Many of the departments within the agency are not mandated by law and since there is no guaranteed funding for the department, we are concerned that a mandated department might lead to a phantom limb scenario where the agency’s work is actually impeded by the requirement of a department for which has no resources.

HDC does not support Intro 357, which allows more flexibility in regulating “green” rooftop mechanicals on landmark buildings, since we believe that  all rooftop mechanicals on landmark buildings should be positioned to be as minimally visible as possible.

HDC questions whether Intro 533, which requires LPC to maintain an online list of energy-efficient windows deemed acceptable for use in landmark properties, is truly appropriate. While well-intentioned, such an action could be perceived as a municipal agency endorsing specific products.  This information could be disseminated in a more general way through other, more appropriate venues.

The current timeline proposed by the combination of Intros 222A, 532A, 849 and 850 would seem to answer the long-standing complaints about lack of attention to community requests.  In truth, if these bills are adopted in tandem as written, it would risk overwhelming the LPC scant resources. Currently, there are literally thousands of buildings in potential historic districts across the city including:

Bainbridge Avenue Kew Gardens
Bedford Stuyvesant  Madison Square North
Boerum Hill  Morningside Heights
Broadway Flushing Moshulu Parkway
Bruckner Boulevard Mount Morris
Carroll Gardens  Murray Hill
City Island  Park Slope
Clinton Hill  Parkway Village
Crow Hill Richmond Hill
Crown Heights North Ridgewood
Far Rockaway  Riverdale
Fort Greene the Bowery
 Fort Hill the Grand Concourse
Greenpoint the Upper East Side
Greenwich Village  the Upper West Side
 Inwood Victorian Flatbush
Jackson Heights Wave Hill
 Jamaica Estates Westerleigh

to name only the ones which spring immediately to mind.  Imagine if the LPC HAD to make decisions and designate all those districts in 33 months – they couldn’t even if they wanted to. This would result in thousands of buildings being rejected based on a mandated schedule rather than merit. One must keep in mind that it is easier for a city agency to do nothing than take a positive action and this proposal, as written, seems ensured to produce negative results. It is also important to note that there is no funding attached to this scheme and it would be incredibly difficult for Council to guarantee such funding would be delivered.

If this proposed timeline was currently in place, one could easily imagine that Crown Heights North, the Park Slope Extension, the Grand Concourse, Douglaston Hill, Murray Hill NoHo,  and Dumbo would have never been designated since all of those designations took longer than 33 months to complete. This is clearly a case of an attempt to legislate around a concern where the cure is much more damaging than the problem.

Intro 845 and 846 are deliberate attacks on the Landmarks Law. They are aimed at making the LPC ineffectual and providing faulty intellectual rationales for the Council to evaluate landmark designations.

Intro 845, the Replacement Materials Bill, undermines the basic benefit of LPC oversight in helping to gradually return areas to a more historically-appropriate condition.  With the advent of new material technologies and the increasing availability of local skilled building artisans, it is easier and cheaper than ever before to replace failing building materials with appropriate replacements of high quality.  This bill would result in the endless replacement of white vinyl windows in designated historic districts with more of the same.

Intro 846, the Economic Argument Bill, deliberately misconstrues the economic value of landmark designation by emphasizing the false value of “property strictly as development” .  By enabling the sole criteria of economic value to be the highest use of a site, the bill strives to denigrate the economic value of landmark designation to property value. The most highly valued and most desirable property in New York City falls within historic districts. There are a number of factors why these areas are so successful and one of them is their landmark protection.  People want to live where there is certainty and protection.  Under this bill, the recent Park Slope extension could be found to have an negative economic effect on the neighborhood because it could potentially affect the FAR of rowhouse blocks, whereas commonsense and actual real world data will show the opposite to be true. If an economic analysis of landmark designation is truly deemed necessary, then it must be a robust one which takes into account all the costs and benefits of designation, such as increased property values, tax incentives for rehabilitations and development, added flexibility under the Zoning Resolution, increased ability transfer development rights, accessibility to public and private funding for development and maintenance and the like.  Otherwise, this is just a pig in a poke.

When the Landmarks Law was drafted and adopted by City Council in 1965, it was intended to “stabilize and improve property value; protect and enhance the city’s attractions to tourists and visitors and the support and stimulus to business and industry thereby provided; and strengthen the economy of the city”.  This is how Landmark designation worked in 1965, and it’s how Landmark designation works today.

The Historic Districts Council urges the City Council to reject these damaging proposals.

Posted Under: landmarks law, testimony

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