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Proposed Landmarks Rules Worry Preservationists

By DNAinfo Staff on February 7, 2011 7:19pm

A woman rallies to preserve a nearly two-century-old property on Cooper Square by having the Landmarks Preservation Commission designate it a historic landmark.
A woman rallies to preserve a nearly two-century-old property on Cooper Square by having the Landmarks Preservation Commission designate it a historic landmark.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Hedlund

By Jill Colvin

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MANHATTAN — Every month, community boards and advocacy groups across the city weigh in on changes to landmarked buildings: whether a new door is too modern, a new staircase too wide, or a proposed addition strays too far from the original design.

But as the overloaded Landmarks Preservation Commission attempts to streamline its operations with proposed new rules to be debated from next week, some local preservationists are warning the changes will mean more decisions made behind closed doors and less say from residents and advocates about what happens in their neighborhoods.

"We have a fundamental concern," said Kate Wood, the executive director of Landmark West!, a non-profit preservation group based on the Upper West Side. "It takes an important layer of transparency and public input out of the process," she warned.

Members of Midtown's Community Board 5 and the Upper West Side's Community Board 7 have also expressed similar concerns.

Under the new rules, more decisions would be placed in the hands of staffers instead of coming up for public vote before the full commission. The changes apply to a slew of alterations, including new windows, heating and air conditioning equipment, rooftop additions and storefront signs.

Part of the problem, Wood said, was that decisions made by staffers were not subject to the same public review process, which meant that residents have no way of knowing that something was happening before the scaffolding went up.

But according to Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokeswomen for the Commission, the new rules were intended to streamline the review process and would be limited to "certain types of work which are restorative, have no effect on significant architectural features, or have been consistently approved by the Commissioners."

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, which has not yet taken a formal stance on the rules, said that while the changes were extensive, most looked "extremely reasonable" and put into writing decisions that were already being made anyway.

He noted that the vast majority — about 90 percent of the 10,000 permits that the Commission issued every year — were already issued by staff, who were well trained in the commission's rules.

However, he did raise concerns that some of the new rules' language was ambiguous, such as rules governing "minimally visible" rooftop additions and signs that must be kept "proportional" to a landmarked storefront.

To try to help residents sort through the legalese, the Landmarks Preservation Commission's chief legal council will be presenting an overview of the new rules at 8:30 a.m. Mon. Feb 14, at the Historic Districts Council’s offices at 232 East 11th Street.

A public hearing on the changes is then scheduled for March 1 at 9:30 a.m. on the 9th floor of 1 Centre Street downtown.