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Proposed Bill a 'Deliberate Attack' on Landmarks Law, Opponents Say

By Jill Colvin | May 2, 2012 11:20am
The new Downtown Brooklyn historic district includes Brooklyn Borough Hall.
The new Downtown Brooklyn historic district includes Brooklyn Borough Hall.
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NEW YORK — A proposed law would water down city landmarking rules by forcing officials to weigh potential lost revenue from a new development before designating a landmark, preservationists said.

The legislation, which is set to be discussed by the City Council during a hearing on nearly a dozen bills Wednesday, would force the Department of City Planning to consider the economic impact of designating a landmark.

So, for the first time, the profit lost from barring development would be taken into consideration, instead of focusing solely on a building’s historic and aesthetic worth.

“It’s really trying to establish an off-switch for landmark designation,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive Director of the Historic Districts Council.

“This is a deliberate attack on the landmarks law.”

The move comes as developers have voiced growing frustration over the recent push to establish and extend historic districts, including the recent designation of the Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District, covering 21 buildings in Downtown Brooklyn, and a push to extend three historic districts on the Upper West Side.

Preservationists say the changes, which have staunch support in the real estate industry, would be a major blow to their efforts, undermining the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s power.

But Michael Slattery, senior vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York which supports the legislation, said the new rules would add important new checks on what he described as growing efforts by some to use landmarking as a tool to prevent development in entire neighborhoods, such as the Upper West Side.

“It has become a neighborhood preservation tool and not a landmark preservation tool,” said Slattery, who has long complained about the economic burden that landmarked building owners face.

Another of the proposed changes, which has also raised alarms, would limit the LPC's power to regulate renovations and upgrades to landmarked buildings, critics said.

As it stands, when landmarked building owners want to rmake repairs and replace features, the LPC encourages them to switch to materials that are more in line with the original design of the building.

Under the proposal, owners would be permitted to use newer and typically cheaper materials, eliminating a “significant burden on property owners,” Slattery said.

“When a property or an historic district is designated, what’s landmarked is what’s there at the time of the designation,” he argued, adding that the effort was meant to stop the city from using its landmark laws to “create historic properties instead of protecting them.”

Many see the bill as a direct response to the fight over the Brooklyn Skyscraper district, where owners had voiced concerns about the cost of window replacements.

Queens City Councilman Leroy Comrie, who introduced the two most controversial bills and chairs the council’s powerful Land Use Committee, which is holding the hearing, did not immediately comment on the legislation.

A spokeswoman for the LPC, Elisabeth de Bourbon, also declined to comment before the hearing.

Among the other bills is a proposal to post more information about landmarked buildings online, as well as a bill sponsored by City Councilman Brad Lander which would establish a time limit on how long LPC can take to consider designation requests.

While preservationists agreed that there is a pressing need to cut down wait times, they warned that setting a time frame (eight months for individual landmarks and 18 months for historic districts, in this case) threatened to overwhelming the small agency, potentially leading to thousands of landmarks being rejected out of hand, Bankoff said.

Another point of contention has been the way the bills were introduced. Many only found out about the most controversial proposals late Friday afternoon, leaving them little time to fully consider their implications, said Cristiana Pena, director of preservation at the pro-landmarking group Landmark West.

“An enormous package of legislation that could have an enormous impact on landmarking, [has been proposed] with relatively little discussion with stakeholders, and relatively little time to examine the limitations," agreed Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.