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LPC Comes Out Against Controversial Bill to Eliminate Backlog

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On Wednesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission officially came out against proposed legislation that would radically change its processes. This occurred at City Council hearing on bills that would impose deadlines on the commission and mandate more public disclosure. The entire first floor of the City Council chamber was filled, largely with people who also oppose at least the former bill, if not also the latter. The meeting was an incredible six hours long, and many members of the Land Use Committee left the City Council Chamber as soon as their interaction with LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan was complete; by the end of the day, only the committee's chair, City Council Member David Greenfield, remained. Some members of the public who'd signed up to speak never got to do so (because the hearing ran so long)—but about ten testified in favor of Intro. 775, and many more spoke out against it.

The most controversial bill, Intro. 775, authored by Council Members Peter Koo and Greenfield, would impose deadlines and a moratorium on the LPC. For designating landmarks, the commission would have 180 days from calendaring to public hearing and then another 180 days from public hearing to action. For designating historic districts, those periods would be one year each. It would also give the LPC 18 months to deal with its backlog of nearly 100 items (some of which have sat there for decades) and any items not acted on would automatically be de-calendared. Finally, it would impose a five-year moratorium on consideration for any item that fails to achieve designation.

The second bill, Intro. 837, authored by Council Member Daniel Garodnick, would mandate that the LPC publish a database of all properties designated as landmarks or historic districts or under consideration for designation.

LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan testified before the City Council's Land Use Committee that she opposes the legislation, particularly Intro. 775. She said she embraces the improving the efficiency and expediency of the commission, but by internal rules rather than a law. Her greatest concern is the five-year moratorium, but she also noted that the two-year timeframe for historic districts was untenable, though a three-year timeframe might be achievable. She also argued for "flexibility," as there are innumerable factors that can come into play and delay action by the LPC. When it comes to the LPC backlog, Srinivasan noted that they already have a process in place to deal with it: a series of hearings, organized by borough.

As for Intro. 837, Srinivasan said it would be "burdensome," that the LPC would need additional staff, and that the organization is already working on more transparency. That said, Council Member Garodnick said they are working on refinements to the bill, such as only needing to post items requested by community boards, that would make it less of a burden on the LPC.

Greenfield called his bill "common sense good government" and added that he would like to see the LPC get more resources (but this was not a budget hearing). In his remarks, he seemed to suggest that, while he trusts Srinivasan to work in the best interests of preserving the city, it may be highly likely that future LPC chairs wouldn't be as trustworthy. He even asked if developers control the LPC's agenda. (Srinivasan, of course, answered in the negative.) He expressed concern that homeowners in the Douglaston section of Queens have been waiting years for action on a possible extension of that historic district. But Srinivasan said that the average time for action on historic districts is 634 days (within the two-year timeframe). She said that most items are acted on within the bill's timelines, but legislation mandating them is unnecessary.

When it comes to the members of the City Council Land Use Committee who did not author either bill, support was mixed. Council Member Andrew Cohen, in expressing support for Intro. 775, asked how items could be calendared for 40 years. But Council Member Mark Levine noted that it is sometimes a lack of support from a member of the City Council that can slow down the process. Council Member Inez Dickens said she agrees with the spirit of the legislation, but wants the timeframes adjusted. And among other things, Council Member Ben Kallos said he was opposed to the ex post facto nature of what the bill would impose when it comes to items the LPC started considering before this legislation was drafted. He also asked all who were in the room to oppose Intro. 775 to stand up. Nearly everyone in the audience did so.

"I strongly believe that our City's Landmarks Law can be improved, but we need to be very careful that in an effort to make it more efficient we don't weaken it," testified Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon said Intro. 775 would only exacerbate existing problems, and a representative of Assemblymember Deborah Glick also spoke out against the proposed legislation. Manhattan Community Boards 2, 7, and 12 all have registered their opposition to the bill.

Among those testifying against it included the Historic Districts Council (which represents literally hundreds of organizations from across the city and testifies more regularly than anyone else at Landmarks Preservation Commission hearings), the Municipal Art Society, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, Landmark West!, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter (also representing the AIA chapters in the outer boroughs), the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Queens Preservation Council, the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, Historic Park Avenue, the Society for the Architecture of the City, Tribeca Trust, the City Club, Save Chelsea, the West End Preservation Society, the Brooklyn Heights Association, and the Victorian Society. In addition, there were many people who simply spoke as individuals.

Those who spoke in support of Intro. 775 included the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, Local 32BJ of the SIEU, the New York State Association for Affordable Housing, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, the New York Archdiocese, and a group of homeowners from Douglaston.

When the hearing (which had to relocate part-way through because the City Council Chamber had been booked for another event), Council Member Greenfield told Curbed NY that the bills will likely be changed before the Land Use Committee votes on them. Stay tuned.—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.
· All Landmarks Preservation coverage [Curbed]