Analysis: How do the Mayors stack up?

Setting the agenda for a new Landmarks Chair

As regular readers are aware, Mayor de Blasio is currently on the hunt for a new Chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

There is much discussion about the qualities a Landmarks Chair should posses:  demonstrable commitment to historic buildings, good understanding of city government, respect for the public process, infinite patience – to name just a few. In a rare but much appreciated move, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson weighed in, requesting that the Mayor select someone with “a record of supporting our city’s historic heritage.”

As Mayors are the final legal arbiters of landmark designations, we thought it would be illustrative to examine how the LPC has functioned under different Mayors to see what patterns might emerge. HDC strongly believes that more of our city’s historic properties should be protected and regulated by the LPC. Our hope in doing this analysis is to answer the question: how and when is that going to happen?

It is important to stress that historic district designations are only one aspect of the work of the LPC. This data does not account for the designation of individual landmarks or the immense work of regulating these properties, both of which are critical functions for the agency. However, since over 99% of the properties protected by the LPC fall within designated historic districts, we believe that an examination of how that inventory came to be is a worthwhile task.

On to the data!

The methodology we used for this study was to tally historic district designations over the past 53 years by Mayoral administration. As the Mayor must affirm every historic district designation, he is credited with each designation, as opposed to Landmarks Chairs, who should be credited with officially proposing (“calendaring”) designations regardless of their success. These numbers reflect the final size of HDs that were amended after calendaring (e.g. Riverside-West End II) and do not reflect HDs that were rejected by City Council (e.g. Steinway Street) or declined for designation by the Commissioners (e.g. Harrison Street). It should also be noted that the LPC was established in April of the final year of Mayor Wagner’s administration, which limited his ability to affirm designations.

Obviously, Mayor Bloomberg hits it out of the park in terms of total number of HDs.  One interesting aspect of this chart is the near-consistent ratio of Manhattan to non-Manhattan designations; Bloomberg, Koch, Giuliani and de Blasio all designated approximately twice as many HDs in Manhattan as outside it – despite much promise from most of those administrations to focus on the outer boroughs.

It’s important to keep in mind that beginning in 1969 (if not earlier), the Landmarks Law’s constitutionality was under question and was eventually litigated, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Penn Central v. New York (1978), which affirmed its legality.  It makes sense that this would slow designation activity during the Beame administration; however, it did not stop Mayor Lindsay from exercising his preservation powers. It’s also interesting to note that even though he’s only just started his second term, Mayor de Blasio comes off quite well compared to some of his predecessors.

The Bloomberg administration designated many small historic districts, while Mayors Dinkins and de Blasio seem to favor fewer, larger districts.

It should be noted that in 1973 under Mayor Lindsay, the Landmarks Law was amended to allow for faster agency action. The statistical rate of designations by and large increased over time, culminating in Mayor Bloomberg’s remarkable designation rate. This begs the question of why, in 2016, the City Council felt the need to create “do or die” deadlines for LPC designation of historic districts.

Looking to the Future

Mayor de Blasio is in a good position to equal or better his predecessors in protecting and preserving New York City’s historic buildings. In order to do this, the Mayor’s pick for the next Landmarks chair must improve on his administration’s already admirable designation practices. Benchmarks are important for public policies – he should instruct the new Chair to continue, if not improve, the rate of non-Manhattan designations to better the administration’s commitment to all of New York City’s neighborhoods. More to the point, the Mayor should look at the numbers; if his new LPC Chair can designate three Historic Districts encompassing an average of 400 properties each year before the end of his term in 2021, Mayor de Blasio would surpass Mayor Lindsay in numbers of historic districts designated, and Mayor Bloomberg in overall properties protected. That would be a landmark legacy to be proud of.