New York Times Preservationists Fight Bill Setting Time Limit on Landmarks Decisions in New York by Matt Chaban

New York Times
New York Times
Preservationists Fight Bill Setting Time Limit on Landmarks Decisions in New York
Matt Chaban
09/01/2015

What if Grand Central Terminal, the Empire State Building and the theater at Radio City Music Hall were not New York City landmarks?

Civic groups and preservationists are now fighting a proposed City Council bill that they argue will weaken the city’s historic Landmarks Law — a bill that, had it been in effect in the past, would have jeopardized some of the city’s most beloved buildings.

The bill’s sponsors, as well as local business and real estate leaders, argue that it simply brings much-needed responsibility and transparency to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the agency that oversees all landmarks. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Sept. 9.

Currently, the commission can place any building on its calendar, which indicates that it is considering the building for designation as a landmark or as part of a historic district. But there is no limit to how long a building remains on the calendar. In some cases, it can be for years or even decades.

In the meantime, owners must go through additional approvals from the city to alter or demolish their properties. “The problem is it’s open-ended and indefinite if your building is calendared,” said Michael Slattery, senior vice president for research at the Real Estate Board of New York, an industry group. “If you want to sell your building or develop it, it makes that very hard. Property owners deserve to know what is in their future.”

The bill would institute new timelines for reviewing properties for possible landmark protection. Individual prospective landmarks could be under review for no more than 360 days before the commission acted, with a hearing required within the first 180 days. Decisions on historic districts, which can include hundreds of properties, would be required within two years, with a hearing in the first year.

If the commission did not act within those time frames, the buildings under consideration could not be reconsidered for at least five years.

The recommendations of the bill have been contemplated in various forms since they were first proposed by the Charter Review Commission of 1989, but they have not been adopted. With a current backlog of 95 buildings, some of which have been languishing on the commission’s calendar for decades, frustrated constituents are increasing their push for time limits.

Opponents of the bill argue that the current commission is addressing the backlog and that there is no need for a new law.

Councilman David G. Greenfield of Brooklyn, the chairman of the Council’s Committee on Land Use, and the bill’s co-sponsor, argued that the commission does not deserve special treatment from any other government body.

“We have timelines at the City Council, City Planning, the Department of Buildings,” Mr. Greenfield, a Democrat, said. “If we can do it, the Landmarks Commission can do it, too.”

A spokeswoman for the commission declined to comment on the bills before the hearing.

The Council arrived at its timelines by studying the past 17 years of approvals and found that roughly 90 percent of buildings and historic districts were considered within the time frames the bill stipulates.

Both sides have pointed to this statistic to bolster their case.

“It’s not good enough to say it’s only 10 percent; I think it’s good government to get to 100 percent,” said Councilman Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn, a Democrat and chairman of the Housing and Buildings Committee.

Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the pro-preservation Historic Districts Council, said that if a vast majority of buildings were being addressed in a timely fashion, the bill was not needed.

“Clearly the commission knows what it’s doing,” Mr. Bankoff said. “These are complicated issues that require lots of research and outreach to property owners, elected officials and community members. You can’t rush that.”

According to his own research, Mr. Bankoff found that, over the course of the commission’s five-decade history since the 1965 Landmarks Law, nearly 18,000 buildings in historic districts took more than two years to be approved. That is over half of the 33,742 landmarks in the city.

And because of owner opposition and other factors, landmarks such as Grand Central Terminal and the Empire State, Woolworth and Seagram Buildings took more than a year to be approved.

“We don’t want to create a situation where landlords can game the system and run out the clock,” said Councilman Ben Kallos, a Democrat from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, who is a member of the Landmarks Subcommittee and an opponent of the bill.

Still, some preservation advocates feel the bill could be a boon, by forcing the commission to take swifter action on properties they support.

Peg Breen, president of the private Landmarks Conservancy, which works to preserve historic buildings, said she would support the bill with modifications. “Timelines provide predictability and, as we all know, deadlines help get things done,” she said.

Business interests, including the Partnership for New York City, the service workers union 32BJ, the Rent Stabilization Association, the Building and Construction Trades Council and the Manhattan and Brooklyn Chambers of Commerce, support the bill, as does the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

On the other side, more than 60 preservation groups signed a letter sent to the Council last week opposing the bill, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Separate letters of opposition were sent by the Municipal Art Society, as well as chapters of the American Institute of Architects in each borough.

“We see this as empowering the commission, not weakening it,” Councilman Greenfield said.

A version of this article appears in print on September 2, 2015, on page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: Preservationists Fight a Bill Setting a Time Limit on Landmarks Decisions.

Issue: 
Affordable Housing