In 1965, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was established, ushering in a new era of architectural conservation. The agency is empowered to designate landmarks and historic districts, and to then regulate additions or changes to them. And while the LPC is understaffed and underfunded, the public is more than welcome to get involved in the process.
“New York is very fortunate to have a well-informed and engaged citizenry who care about historic buildings and neighborhoods, and the built environment of their communities,” says LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan. "Public participation is an important part of the Commission’s process."
Any work on a landmark or construction in a historic district needs the approval of the LPC—even items as small as replacing a window or putting planters on the sidewalk (which the commission has ruled both for and against). Some small items or general restoration plans can be approved at what is called the LPC staff level.
But the bigger stuff, such as major modifications to existing buildings or the construction of new buildings in historic districts, goes before the full commission—and that’s where the public can get involved.
Here’s how it works: Every application will get a public hearing during the LPC’s meetings, which happen most Tuesdays at the Manhattan Municipal Building. Timed agendas are usually published on the LPC’s website the previous Friday (tentative schedules are often published weeks in advance, but those are fairly unreliable). Look for actual times next to the items, then check the presentation materials to see proposed projects. If one of the items on the agenda sparks your interest, you can testify in person (or submit testimony digitally.)
When it comes to the times on the agenda, the LPC is not a well-oiled machine: Though each item has a scheduled start time, the commission regularly runs an hour or more behind schedule. When you arrive, there will be public testimony forms available, which you’ll fill out if you want to speak. When an item comes up, the applicant will first present their plans, and the commissioners will ask any questions they may have. Then, it’s time for public testimony.
When you’re called to speak, simply step up to the podium, state your name for the record, and speak your mind. Everyone gets three minutes, and you can bring visuals to distribute to the commissioners (though most people don’t). Remarks don’t need to be lengthy or detailed; it is important, however, that you address issues over which the LPC actually has jurisdiction. If you think that a proposed new building in a historic district is hideous and out of place, that’s totally their thing; if you think a rooftop addition proposed for an outdoor bar will result in too much noise, that’s not. The LPC doesn’t govern how a structure is used, just what it looks like.
“If the public testimony is not thoughtful, from a commissioner’s point of view, it doesn’t count for a lot,” says Harry Kendall, a partner at BKSK Architects, which has lots of experience designing for historic districts and landmarks. According to Kendall, knee-jerk responses or unrealistic suggestions for what should happen to the landmark or historic district will not go over well with the commissioners.
But public opinion definitely matters when it comes to the LPC's decision-making process. “Public testimony can definitely be compelling at times to members of the Commission and affect the outcome,” notes Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. It’s especially useful, Berman notes, when commissioners are not in complete agreement on a particular proposal.
And no, you don’t need a background in historic preservation or architecture to have your voice count. “It’s especially important for non-professionals to testify, as it humanizes the issue to the commissioners, who can become somewhat inured over the length of their years-long service to the real-world consequences of their decisions,” explains Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, which represents hundreds of small preservation groups across the five boroughs.
It’s a point that HDC’s Kelly Carroll, who regularly delivers testimony, concurs with. “Often testimony can change the course of the Commission's discussion, resulting in dramatically different projects at the end of the process,” she notes. “I've noticed that buildings and neighborhoods that have a lot of people behind them advocating often get a better outcome … than neighborhoods where no one is standing watch.”
After public testimony, the commissioners will discuss the proposal. If they approve the project, that’s that. (Sort of—if you feel the approval is not above board, you can always file a lawsuit against the LPC.) However, the commissioners often don’t approve a proposal on the first go-around; they rarely vote against something and instead usually take “no action,” which gives the applicant a chance to tweak the proposal and return before the commissioners.
When that happens, it’s part of what is called a public meeting. Though members of the public are encouraged to attend, no oral testimony is allowed (written testimony can be submitted digitally), since the commissioners have already heard remarks on the initial proposal. They’ll take that into account when ruling (or not ruling) on the revised one.
But attending meetings isn’t the only way to get involved in the landmarking process. If work on a landmark building or district has been done without a permit, the LPC has the power to enforce its undoing. “Members of the public often alert the Commission to work on designated properties that has taken place without LPC permits, and the agency’s Enforcement Department investigates these potential violations and works with property owners to ensure they are in compliance,” explains Srinivasan. If you think you’ve found illegal work, call 212-669-7951.
Finally, you can actually initiate the process of designating new landmarks through a request for evaluation (RFE). Once an RFE is received and reviewed, the LPC will determine whether or not it's worthy of consideration. That's a tactic that Christian Emanuel, a preservation-minded real estate agent with Sotheby's, took in 2015. He submitted an RFE that led to the designation of the former Bank of Manhattan Building in Long Island City. “Our approach was to get as many people around us on board,” says Emanuel. That meant getting 1,500 signatures from community members, as well as support from elected officials and plenty of media coverage.
The building would go on to be declared a landmark that May. “It felt like such a relief and such an accomplishment,” Emanuel says. “My family had done so much advocacy and outreach to the media, and when everyone (including strangers and the developer) came to testify, it felt like we had really accomplished something great. It was a little moment of peace and harmony, and bliss, on the ninth floor of 1 Centre Street.”
The more people who care, the better preserved and more beautiful New York City will be—a thought shared by BKSK’s Kendall.
“[When] you live in a city … you see certain buildings where you begin to sense there was no reason to make [it] that detailed or that thoughtful, except for a sense of social responsibility—I call it a social compact,” says Kendall. "One always has a tendency to glorify the past, but I feel like there was a time when the social compact of shared responsibility for the city fabric was more widespread. What we see at Landmarks now is the strongest vestige of that social compact.… If people in the community think of it as the opportunity to reinforce the fact that they care … then that social compact is a graceful one.”