Certificate of Appropriateness Testimony

Testimony for the LPC Rules Amendment Hearing on March 27, 2018

The below text is the testimony delivered by HDC staff at the Public Hearing on March 27, 2018.  HDC’s full written testimony submitted to the LPC may be found here.


When dealing with historic properties, one must think about the effects of regulations not over years, but over decades. Therefore, HDC closely considered the potential long-term ramifications of this proposed change to the rules, and, while we believe that in some instances the proposed changes will have the desired effect of increasing efficiency and transparency, others should be approached with caution. We have also analyzed these rules with the foreknowledge that once adopted, they will most likely serve as a standard or specification for applicants proposing work on designated properties. In the interest of time, we will focus our testimony on those issues of which we feel the Landmarks Preservation Commissioners should be aware.

We have broken down our concerns into four categories, one statement for each: Unclear and Shifting Standards of Regulation, Substitute Materials, Major Changes and Visibility, and Miscellaneous Concerns.


Unclear and Shifting Standards of Regulation

The LPC is an agency of immense but limited power. On the one hand, it has the power to regulate private property at its own discretion and to its own self-ascribed standards. On the other hand, it can only regulate designated properties, which constitute 3.5% of the total properties in New York City. HDC is concerned about a drifting standard of regulation being inserted into the proposed rules, which actually diminishes the agency’s authority to oversee those rare properties it does regulate. Specifically:

 “Contributing” language: There are several instances of language, such as “if the building contributes to the landmark or historic district,” which is damaging to the integrity of the Landmarks Law and introduces a sliding scale of regulation. HDC surveyed the designation reports and found 717 buildings within all existing historic districts and extensions that are specifically listed as “no style” or “non-contributing” – roughly 2% of all landmark properties. There is no need to introduce ambiguity into all regulation in order to account for these few outliers. Furthermore, HDC understands that some buildings will be considered “non-contributing” if deemed so in previously-issued Certificates of Appropriateness. This would compound the sliding scale of regulation and further obscure the public’s understanding of the landmark regulation process. If this practice is instituted, and we strongly recommend that it is not, it needs to be properly defined, and a public method of determining the status of these buildings must be created.

“Characteristic of the Specific Historic District”: This language, which is used with reference to additions (p. 68) and fire escapes (p. 108), is an additional weakening of the Landmarks Law, especially in its lack of definition. Specific lists of which historic districts are characterized by certain features should be created, much the same way the historic districts with historic sidewalks and paving are listed.


Substitute Materials

Nationwide, practitioners agree that the best practice is to retain historic building materials or replace in kind, not just for aesthetic purposes, but for the physical preservation of buildings. This ethic is enshrined in the U.S. Secretary of Interior Standards for Preservation, Rehabilitation, Restoration and Reconstruction. While the LPC is not required to hew to those standards, it is imperative that the LPC requires the highest standard if it plans to forgo the guidance of the Commissioners. This is unfortunately not the case in many instances proposed in the rules. The only instance where HDC might countenance substitute materials would be the replication of a lost architectural feature proposed to be restored, excepting elements of a restorative program mandated by a Modification of Use or Bulk.

Concerning architectural elements (p. 27-28), we are opposed to the installation of substitute materials above the sixth story for masonry buildings, above the second floor for discrete elements on cast-iron buildings, above the sixth floor for other elements on cast-iron buildings, and to the use of fiberglass in place of sheet metal and iron above the sixth story and as a replacement for elaborate wood cornices above the second story. In-kind replacements should be the standard; these locations would be too visible from the public way; and sheet metal cornices are readily available, lightweight, and more durable than fiberglass.

Concerning windows (p. 58-60), the proposed would allow sweeping replacement of wood windows with aluminum on smaller buildings, even though it is well-established in preservation practice that aluminum windows are an inferior and short-performing product compared with wood. If removed, there will no longer be a precedent for wood windows to ever return. For larger buildings, windows may be replaced if they match in configuration, operation, details and finish, but materiality is omitted. HDC is concerned that large buildings with steel casement windows or other specialized windows endemic to an architectural style will be allowed to replace them with inferior windows, resulting in the loss of crucial historic details and profiles.

Concerning sidewalks (p. 89), if a sidewalk is missing some of its bluestone pavers or some are beyond repair, an applicant may consolidate the usable stone and install tinted concrete in the remaining area. Bluestone or granite curbs in need of repair may also be replaced with concrete. This rule would remove all incentive for applicants to ever replace in-kind. Looking to the future, as these historic materials inevitably deteriorate, historic paving would be a thing of the past. Vault lights (p. 91), a defining feature of former manufacturing districts, would also be in grave peril, as staff may approve the removal of up to two panels of exposed vault lights that are deteriorated, if no other vault lights exist on the block, and replace them with diamond plate steel or concrete/granite. For covered vault lights that are deteriorated, applicants can either replace them with new vault lights or remove them altogether. Given the cost differential, the public would now have to rely on the owner’s discretion to safeguard this feature. HDC believes this should fall within the mission of this public agency.


Major Changes & Visibility

As this Commission knows, landmark properties are constantly being altered. it is important, however, to be aware of the public perception that changes to landmarks are not permitted, and if they are, they are minimal. This perception, while not quite accurate, helps to temper expectations and deters applicants from proposing massively inappropriate changes. Setting a high standard that additions be invisible reinforces public expectations and encourages public faith in the security of historic buildings. Unfortunately, many of the proposed rules loosen oversight over historic properties in allowing more visible change to happen.

Concerning rear yard additions (p. 71-72), increasing the scope of permissible construction in the rear will have a substantial impact on historic blocks. Under the new rules, a rear yard addition would be permitted for blocks where the “majority” of buildings include els or additions, and cannot project deeper or taller than those existing accumulations. We suggest that the staff base its decision about a new addition on the configuration of historic els and LPC-approved additions, not grandfathered ones. Also, allowing construction to cover an entire rear yard with the exception of five feet is an enormous building footprint directly at odds with the LPC’s criteria of “does not substantially diminish the presence of a rear yard”. A block’s interior is an important quality-of-life issue for residents, many of whom choose to live in a designated area for the historic rear yard amenity, so the neighbors should not be cut out of the review process.

Concerning storefronts (p. 35), the proposed states that new storefront infill is allowed if the design is based on historic “prototypes.” HDC believes that such prototypes should be based on historic photographs that reveal the original storefront’s configuration. In cases where photographs cannot be found, the features of historic storefronts should be codified in the rules, such as requiring the presence of bulkheads, transoms, and a recessed or splayed entryway.

Concerning window openings (p. 64), HDC is concerned about the rules providing a prescriptive design for rear façade treatments. We firmly believe that properties under LPC regulation generally benefit from public and Commission comments, with better-designed outcomes for proposed work. Creating a loose design blueprint may encourage repeated, banal interventions. Similar to our critique of the storefront prototype, HDC suggests creating more parameters or prototypes for rear facades, or doing away with this basic one.

Concerning HVAC units (p. 102), the proposed would allow staff to approve through-wall HVAC equipment centered below window openings on primary facades of large buildings in historic districts. This means that a tenant in a large apartment building – a very common typology – may apply to punch a hole beneath their window without public review, even if it is visible from the public way. HDC believes that such incursions, even if no decorative or significant features are damaged or removed, should not be allowed without a hearing. At the very least, applicants should be required to apply for a Master Plan to avoid a pock-marked effect on the building, and such installations on primary façades should be limited to the upper stories.

Miscellaneous Concerns

Excavations and Archaeology: One of the few sweeping powers of the LPC is its authority as the local lead agency for archaeological matters. Archaeology is an important tool for understanding our history and can illuminate aspects of our city’s development that would otherwise be invisible and forgotten. Currently, archaeological supervision is only activated by publicly-funded excavation projects. However, excavation of private property, undertaken by private entities, is equally likely to impact potentially significant buried cultural resources as projects utilizing public funds. With this goal in mind, HDC suggests the following ideas be incorporated into Section 2-16 (p. 73):

  • Private properties within historic districts should be subject to all historic preservation laws including archaeological guidelines.
  • With regard to archaeological resources that may be exposed during any excavation, their potential significance is not known until they are exposed. Private properties that are subject to consideration of architectural preservation standards and guidelines should also be subject to consideration of potential archaeological resources during excavation-related activities.
  • If archaeological resources are exposed during the excavation of private properties, the property owner should be required to inform the LPC. In turn, the LPC should develop guidelines to make an assessment of potential significance and documentation of the exposed resources.

Permit Renewals (p. 123): The proposed would allow a Certificate of Appropriateness to be extended for three years after its initial term of six years – for a maximum allowance of nine years. CofAs originally had no expiration date, which led to unfortunate situations such as the Plaza Hotel, where permits for alteration of the dormers issued in the 1980s were still valid 20 years later, despite changes in ownership and programmatic use. As the NYC mayoral term is limited to eight years, this would mean that all CofAs would perforce outlast the Commission that issued them. This is not the most accountable practice, to either the public or the Commissioners. We strongly recommend omitting this change.

Public Notification: There is broad concern about lack of public involvement in the LPC’s permitting process. We are fully aware that bringing the more than 13,000 permit requests the agency receives annually to public hearings would paralyze the agency and cause undue hardship for applicants. But because people who have an interest and are invested in New York City’s landmarks and historic districts wish to know what is being proposed, we strongly encourage the LPC to make staff-level permit applications available in some way for public review. While this might sound like a bridge too far, this service would have the added public benefits of increasing understanding, encouraging participation, and strengthening investment in the landmarks process. We suggest that the LPC look at how the Department of Buildings deals with these types of permits through the Development Challenge Process, which provides an opportunity for the public to review submitted plans before approval and challenge them if felt necessary. This triggers a further review by DOB staff and, if necessary, the Building Borough and First Deputy Commissioners. Obviously this system would need to be adapted to the Landmarks Permitting Process, but it would be a worthwhile avenue of consideration.


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