Mendez's "Landmark Loophole" Legislation
March 25, 2007
New York Up Close: Preservationists’ Rallying Cry
By JEFF VANDAM
When preservationists in Greenwich Village were pushing in 2003 for landmark protection for the meatpacking district, they noticed something strange. Several building owners had suddenly asked for permits to modify their properties, knowing, perhaps, that even if the buildings became landmarks, they could still alter them if they already had the permits.
“There was sort of a mini-rush,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
The exterior of one low-slung brick building on Gansevoort Street, for example, which is currently a nightclub, was adorned with wide strips of wood paneling, adding a Polynesian feel, or perhaps that of an American basement in the 1970s. Despite the building’s new protected status, according to Mr. Berman, the actual effect of the landmark designation became nil.
To prevent such last-minute flurries, the City Council is considering a bill, introduced by Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, whose district includes the East Village, to close what supporters call a landmarks loophole.
In its present form, the bill would require the Department of Buildings to suspend previously issued permits for structures that are given landmark protection, and to permanently halt any work on such buildings that is not yet too far along. The bill would also direct the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Buildings Department to communicate with each other about properties under consideration for protected status. In effect, they would be required to give each other a heads-up when new permit requests arrive or when newly considered historic buildings and areas are studied.
Ms. Mendez and the bill’s 19 co-sponsors say they hope for a hearing on the bill within a month.
But Lisi de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the landmarks commission, played down the problem. “Permitted demolition or stripping rarely occurs on landmarked buildings,” she said. Ms. de Bourbon also noted that the city already requires the Buildings Department to hold permits for 40 days for “calendared” properties — those currently under landmarks consideration — so the commission has a chance to designate them.
Mr. Berman sees the situation differently. In his opinion, the problem is not rare, and he contends that the pending bill would apply to the many situations, not addressed under current city policy, in which the permits are obtained before the building is put on the agency calendar.
Some preservationists say that structures like the Dakota Stable on the Upper West Side and Public School 64 in the East Village would have been preserved if the Council bill had been law.
“It doesn’t make logical sense for one city agency to say, ‘This building is important enough to be preserved,’ and another city agency saying, ‘Well, but they already have the permits,’ ” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council.
Mr. Berman agreed. “Right now, it’s a huge loophole,” he said, “a loophole so big you could drive a bulldozer through it.”