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Controversial Bill Could Wipe Out Landmarks Backlog

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A bill making its way through the City Council would impose deadlines on the 50-year-old Landmarks Preservation Commission in regards to designating landmarks and historic districts. While its sponsor says the bill is supposed to make things more efficient and help the commission deal with its backlog, advocates are concerned that it would hamstring the LPC, and eliminate dozens of items that are being considered as landmarks.

Before getting into the details of the bill, here's the gist of how landmarks and historic districts are designated. Once a formal request for evaluation (RFE) is submitted, in order for the designation process to go forward, the LPC has to vote to calendar the item. Then a subsequent public hearing can be scheduled on the matter. Once that public hearing is held, the commission can then vote on the matter. That vote is usually held on a future date, but sometimes, such as the Stonewall Inn, the vote to designate is held on the same day as the public hearing.

Intro. 775, authored by Queens Council Member Peter Koo and Brooklyn Council Member David Greenfield, would impose deadlines on this process. For individual and interior landmarks, the commission would have 180 days to hold a public hearing once an item is calendared and then another 180 days to take action (vote to designate or vote not to designate) once the public hearing is held. For historic districts, it would be one year from calendaring to public hearing and then another year from hearing to designation vote.

The bill, which goes before the council on September 9, also aims to deal with the nearly 100 items (94 buildings and two districts) backlogged at the LPC. Eighty-five percent of these items have been calendared for more than 20 years. Earlier this year, the LPC had proposed de-calendaring all of the backlogged items, but, unsurprisingly, that was met with much public disdain. Instead, the commission backed off and devised a schedule to deal with those items at public hearings organized by borough. The bill would give the LPC 18 months to deal with the entire backlog, but any backlogged items not addressed during that time period would be automatically de-calendared.

There's one more provision in the bill. If the commission fails to designate an item, be it a landmark or a historic district, the property in question would be barred from reconsideration for five years.

The LPC would not comment directly on the issue, only telling Curbed that "the legislation is currently under review by the Commission."

In a statement published by CityLand, Council Member Koo called designation "an arduous process that has kept many properties in a state of perpetual limbo, unable to reap the benefits of an actual landmark designation."

Meanwhile, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) says the bill "presents a serious threat to landmarking and preservation efforts in New York City by hamstringing the Landmarks Preservation Commission and providing resistant property owners and developers with an out to prevent and prohibit landmark designation of their properties." GVSHP points out that, despite overseeing more than 33,000 properties, the LPC is the city's smallest agency with the fewest resources and smallest staff. It adds that 80 percent of designations already take place within the proposed time frame. "The bill swats a fly with a sledgehammer," it said.

It's worth pointing out that once the LPC designates a landmark or historic district, it then has to manage said landmark or historic district. The commission holds a public session on most Tuesdays and the majority of the time is spent reviewing what are called "certificate[s] of appropriateness." It's when someone wants to modify a landmark or a structure in a historic district, demolish either, or construct a new building in a historic district. While a lot can be handled at the commission's staff level, most of these issues have to be handled at a public hearing and heard by the commissioners. That can range from replacing a single window to changing the Four Seasons restaurant's interior to replacing the signs at the top of 70-story-tall 30 Rockefeller Plaza. All of the commissioners except Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan serve the city without pay.

Is the landmarking process predictable? No. However, there are innumerable factors that can affect a designation timetable. Just one is exactly what is being designated. When a landmark is designated, it isn't just the building (or object) that is designated. It is a defined geographic area. If development is proposed at a site, then negotiations do sometimes take a long time. But if the process is given an arbitrary deadline, that could mean the loss of a piece of history.
—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· Intro. 775 [official bill]
· Landmarks Preservation Commission [official]
· Landmarks Commission Announces Plan to Deal With Backlog [Curbed]
· All Landmarks Preservation coverage [Curbed]