The Landmarks Preservation Commission is considering sweeping changes to its own rules that will streamline the process of making changes to historic buildings for property owners, but will also remove much of it from public scrutiny. (If you need a refresher on how the process works, read this.)
The proposed changes would give LPC staff more authority to issue permits for work on landmarked properties without the need for a public hearing, which makes everything more lengthy and costly for property owners. Mark Silberman, general counsel for the LPC, says the changes would make the landmarking process more “transparent, efficient, and user-friendly.”
“It will streamline the application review and permitting process for everyday work on designated properties and set clear criteria that will ensure predictability and transparency for approval of various work types,” he says.
The LPC has presented these changes in three ways: a 45-minute video from its February 13 session, a 28-page presentation that accompanied that session, and a 131-page official notice; everything will be discussed at the LPC’s weekly meeting on March 27.
But if you want the TL;DR version—and what it means for New York’s historic buildings—read on.
Applications to the LPC fall under two categories.
The first is known as Certificate of No Effect or a Permit for Minor Work, which can be approved by LPC staff. This is work that doesn’t affect a property’s historic features—most interior work, replacements of windows or doors, or restoration with in-kind materials falls under this category.
The second, Certificate of Appropriateness, includes anything that doesn’t satisfy existing rules that allow for staff approval. These applications need to go before the full commission and have a public hearing.
According to Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, the LPC issues approximately 13,000 permits each year, with only 500 to 600 falling under the latter category. The Municipal Art Society has produced maps for each category that offer some insight into what is currently up for review—and provide context for this debate.
The changes would make the process more user-friendly for applicants.
The LPC’s rules would be reorganized to make them easier for property owners and other stakeholders to understand. For example, the rules for awnings and storefronts would be placed in the same section, since applications regarding the two often go hand-in-hand.
The rules would also be expanded, giving applicants more detailed criteria for staff approval. The idea is to codify what often happens at the full commission level and make alterations—such as the addition of barrier-free access ramps, which typically receive unanimous approval from the full commission—easier to execute.
Developers and property owners are on board.
For property owners, the process of going through a public hearing (and subsequent meetings, if the initial application isn’t approved) can be lengthy and costly, and may still end in an application being rejected. The proposed changes would reduce how often these owners need to go through that process; they would also know exactly what’s needed to guarantee staff-level approval.
“The proposed measures are a win-win for all stakeholders involved in the process,” says John Banks, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York. “Property owners will benefit from a speedier, more ministerial process for routine applications that currently are lengthy and expensive for taxpayers.”
The Downtown Alliance is also on board; its president, Jessica Lappin, says, “Allowing this sort of work to proceed with a staff review as opposed to time consuming full commission review will ultimately lessen the burden on staff, while promoting appropriate stewardship of the city’s historic buildings.”
But preservationists aren’t so sure.
“There’s nothing empirically wrong with this,” HDC’s Bankoff says, noting that Tuesday’s hearing is the result of months-long outreach to the preservationist community. Still, there are concerns.
Chief among them are transparency and public scrutiny. “The proposed changes cut the public out of the process, whether it’s neighbors, community boards, elected officials, or just concerned New Yorkers,” says Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
When an application requires a public hearing, the LPC strongly encourages the applicant to first go before the appropriate community board—which doesn’t happen with staff-level permits. “Hundreds of applications for substantive changes … would suddenly only be considered behind closed doors, with the public not even knowing about [them],” Berman says. Removing public scrutiny also increases the possibility of inaccuracies in the applications.
Specific concerns for Bankoff include rooftop additions (which he says should need a hearing if there’s any visibility at all), rear yard additions (which he says should always require a hearing), and substitute materials. He says that requiring in-kind replacements creates a market for those materials, making them easier to find, and actually drives down their price. “This is coming from practitioners—I’m not just making that up,” he says.
Sean Khorsandi of Landmark West! also notes that older landmarks would be particularly hurt, since their designation reports are usually extremely short and missing details regarding the architecture or cultural significance.
“These rules are written to make alterations easier; they don’t take the long-view of a landmark existing in perpetuity,” says Khorsandi. “The proposed rules will create classes of landmarks—alterations to individual landmarks will receive greater scrutiny than landmarks within historic districts, which will receive a less arduous review, and be held to a different standard.”
Meanwhile, not everyone even thinks the rules changes will make the process more user-friendly. “The Landmarks Conservancy understands that the goals of the amendments are enhanced transparency and efficiency, and there’s been a thoughtful process, but we’re concerned that the amendments will not meet those goals,” says Andrea Goldwyn, director of public policy for the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “The rules need to be available in plain English so the public can use them. We’ve heard from local groups and community boards that they fear public input will be shut out in the future. We hope that both of these issues are addressed before the new rules are implemented.”
What happens next?
Bankoff says there’s no problem with the idea of setting specific rules so more work can be approved at the staff level, but the standard in the rules needs to be higher. “You don’t want to skimp on things,” he notes. “You want to think long-term.”
Rachel Levy, executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, says her comments on Tuesday will focus “on constructive changes to the proposed rules that we believe would enhance the clarity of intent and preservation philosophy behind the rules.”
“At its most basic level, historic preservation is about ensuring that the physical traces of our collective history endure as part of the city’s built fabric to benefit the public,” says Levy. “It’s hard to see how cutting the public out of the process will benefit the very public for whom landmarks exist.”
In the end, changes will be made, but the public can have a real impact on which ones will be implemented—to make your voice heard, head to the LPC (on the 9th floor of the Manhattan Municipal Building) at 9 a.m. on March 27.