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Don't Tell Owners Their Buildings Are Set for Landmarking: Preservationists

 A new report details buildings that were lost due to 11th hour demolition or renovation permits when owners were told they were on track to be considered for landmarking.
Historic Buildings Report
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GREENWICH VILLAGE — Preservationists are pushing the city to do a better job of protecting historic buildings that are on the verge of being landmarked.

More than 20 buildings across the city have been demolished or substantially changed over the past 12 years after city officials tipped off the owners that the city was considering landmarking them, according to a report commissioned by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

Examples include an East Sixth Street townhouse dating back to 1852, which actor David Schwimmer demolished in 2011 after receiving two notices from the city that it was being considered for landmarking, according to reports.

Now, Andrew Berman, GVSHP's executive director, is calling on the city to stop giving landlords advance notice about landmarking, so owners won't be able to squeeze demolition permits under the wire.

"Unfortunately, [historic buildings have] been lost as a result of the system allowing too many chances for buildings to be destroyed before they can be considered for landmark designation," said Berman, who plans to present the report to the city this week.

"Some of them are by world-famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright," Berman added. "Others are just important pieces of the fabric of historic neighborhoods."

The public usually doesn't find out that a building is being considered for landmarking until it is put on the Landmarks Preservation Commission's calendar. At that point, building owners are not permitted to make changes to the building until the commission decides whether it should be protected.

But GVSHP's new report shows that in many cases, the Landmarks Commission has notified building owners weeks or months before the building is put on the public calendar.

The commission is not legally required to do so, and preservationists are calling on the city to wait to notify building owners at the same as the public is notified, when it's too late to make big changes.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission noted that the buildings in GVSHP's report represent a tiny fraction of the thousands of buildings that the city has landmarked over the past 12 years.

"Owner outreach and public involvement is of paramount importance to the commission, and the commission's successful record of landmark designations can be attributed to our efforts to ensure that all stakeholders are aware of, and help build support for, historic district designations in their neighborhoods," Meenakshi Srinivasan, chairwoman of the LPC, in a statement.

"The commission will continue to expedite our review processes where possible as part of our transparent, community-based outreach efforts to garner support for historic preservation."

The mayor's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Sometimes owners who are told their buildings may be landmarked quickly get permits to destroy the parts of the building that made it historic, weakening the argument for its landmark status, preservationists said.

This happened with the Dakota Stables at 342 Amsterdam Ave., which dated back to 1894 and was being used as a parking garage at the time of its destruction in October 2006, according to reports. The owners obtained a permit to destroy "exterior projections" including cornices and roof parapets and did so days before the building's Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing.

LPC went ahead with the hearing, but as Simeon Bankoff, head of the Historic Districts Council, told New York magazine, "it was pointless." There was nothing historic left on the building that would justify its preservation, Bankoff said.

The change that Berman and other preservationists are requesting could be done within the Landmarks Preservation and would not require approval by the City Council, Berman said.

"What the LPC has been doing is entirely extralegal, i.e., not in any way required by or even mentioned in the law," he said.

In the aftermath of the destruction of the Dakota Stables, members of the landmarks commission themselves told The New York Times in 2008 the system needed to be reworked.

"There is a standard of honor I wish the developers would follow," said Christopher Moore, the commission's historian.