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Queens Councilman Says Building Owners Need Protection from Landmark Laws

By Jill Colvin | May 9, 2012 8:58am
The new Downtown Brooklyn historic district includes Brooklyn Borough Hall.
The new Downtown Brooklyn historic district includes Brooklyn Borough Hall.
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CITY HALL — A Queens councilman is standing behind his proposal to weaken city landmarks laws, even as critics slammed the plan as a "deliberate attack" on protected landmarks.

Councilman Leroy Comrie defended his plan after a City Council hearing last week, where he came under fire from dozens of preservationists and advocates who said his proposals would severely undermine the city's efforts to protect historically important buildings.

Comrie said he was driven by growing concern from property owners about the economic impact of landmarking, especially as the city has ramped up its efforts to designate buildings and historic districts in boroughs outside of Manhattan, including Queens.

To relieve some of the financial pressure landmarking puts on property owners, Comrie recently proposed two bills: One would require the Department of City Planning to consider the economic impact of designating a landmark, instead of focusing solely on a building’s historic and aesthetic worth, while the other would allow owners of landmarked buildings to replace fixtures — like windows, roofing or siding — with newer, cheaper materials rather than the materials that were part of the building's original design.

The City Council's Land Use Committee listens to testimony on the proposed legislation.
The City Council's Land Use Committee listens to testimony on the proposed legislation.
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"We want to keep these buildings as affordable as possible," said Comrie, chairman of the Council's powerful Land Use Committee.

“I think that there’s a lot of conversation that needs to be had about how we can protect the history of New York but also protect New Yorkers as well."

But staff at the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission and many elected officials spoke out against the legislation at last week's hearing.

Jenny Fernandez, director of intergovernmental relations for the LPC, said the bills would prevent the city from improving landmarked buildings over time and would “perpetually grandfather inappropriate or unsightly conditions on historic buildings."

Queens State Sen. Tony Avella was also extremely critical of the legislation and slammed Comrie for introducing the bills just days before the hearing, with no input from advocates. Avella said the bills were "extremely detrimental" to the city and called the process "undemocratic."

“Clearly, several of these bills were directly influenced by developers and the powerful real estate lobby that are looking to destroy the ability of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to do its job: to protect the architecture and heritage of the City of New York,” Avella said.

Comrie is widely believed to be mounting a run for Queens Borough President, but had raised just $9,000 as of the latest filing period. That's significantly less than rival Peter Vallone Jr., who had raised more than $1 million, including large contributions from members of the real estate industry.

The new legislation comes on the heels of a major push by the city to create historic districts, including the recent designation of the Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District, covering 21 buildings in Downtown Brooklyn, and efforts to extend three historic districts on the Upper West Side.

The push has drawn fire from the real estate industry, including the Real Estate Board of New York, which says that landmarking is now being used as a tool to prevent development in entire neighborhoods, such as the Upper West Side.

Comrie said that as the LPC extends its reach into lower-income neighborhoods, the city needs to be clear upfront about what the costs of designating and maintaining a landmark will be.

“I think what needs to be considered is the overall economic impact on neighborhoods,” he said. “We need to get serious about making those assessments before we just impose landmarks on people.”

Comrie also denied allegations that the bills were being rushed through at the behest of developers without adequate discussion. He said the hearing was intended as a starting point for further discussions with all sides.

“All of these bills came out of listening to the preservationists and listening to the community,” he said.