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How to Turn Your Block Into an Historic District

By Nikhita Venugopal | October 28, 2014 8:22pm | Updated on October 31, 2014 5:36pm
 The Sunset Park Landmarks Committee is hoping to turn 15 blocks in Sunset Park into historic districts, the group said.
Sunset Park Landmarks Committee
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SUNSET PARK — The surge of future development in Brooklyn has made a group of Sunset Parkers think about its past.

When local residents realized the neighborhood’s notable brownstones could be lost to redevelopment, they banded together to save the buildings through a historic district status.

“Sunset Park is in danger of losing its sense of place,” according to the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee’s website.

To help preserve the neighborhood’s architectural history, the committee is hoping to turn roughly 15 blocks into several historic districts. Some of the blocks are clumped together, which would count as one district, but some are scattered throughout the neighborhood, making it necessary to create a separate historic district.

The historic districts will be a collection of landmarked buildings designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The commission is responsible for protecting the city’s “architecturally, historically, and culturally significant buildings,” according to its website.

The LPC conducts its own surveys of the city to determine potential landmarks but the agency also accepts requests from community members.

Sunset Park’s push for preservation isn’t new.

Community members advocated to have the neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s, said Lynn Tondrick, a core member of the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee, which formed over the last two years.

“A lot of these homes have been passed down from generation to generation to generation,” Tondrick said. “There’s an incredible pride of place.”

Much of Sunset Park's history is associated with the diversity of its residents. First populated by the Dutch in the early 1800s, it later became home to locals of Irish descent, followed by Scandinavians, Poles and Italians.

After World War II, the neighborhood started to build a strong Latin American population, including Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. In the 1980s, Asian immigrants began to settle there, giving it Brooklyn's first Chinatown along Eighth Avenue, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Historic Districts Council.

While the neighborhood successfully won that bid to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it did not provide protection for the buildings. Only the historic designation from the LPC can do that.

The LPC must review major construction to landmarked buildings and regulate development to ensure the changes are “appropriate to the character of the historic district,” according to its website.

This often poses a problem to developers and property owners who must seek approval from LPC and the local community board for all projects, said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, an advocacy group for the city’s historic neighborhoods. 

“Historic districts are desirable,” Bankoff said. However, “you are giving up your unfettered right to paint your house purple.”

DNAinfo New York has compiled a basic guide to seeking a historic district designation for your neighborhood:

Draw Historic District Boundaries

For a block or area to be considered by the city’s LPC, it needs to carry “a distinct sense of place” with historic, cultural or architectural merit, Bankoff said.

Architectural styles, material and scale differ from neighborhood to neighborhood so historic district boundaries will depend on what feels distinctive and unique to the place.

“You need a certain level of historic integrity,” he added. Buildings that have been greatly altered from their original designs may not often get qualification as landmarks. 

The Sunset Park Landmarks Committee, for example, focused on Brooklyn brownstones that were built in the 1800s and early 1900s, Tondrick said.

Blocks within a boundary being considered for a historic district must also be contiguous. That means a building in the middle of a block or area cannot be excluded — another important reason to have support from property owners.

According to the LPC, there are 111 historic districts and 20 historic district extensions in the five boroughs.

► Get Your Community Involved

Having support from property owners, local residents, elected officials and the community board is key when applying for historic district status.

Tondrick and other members of the committee went door to door seeking support from locals. They hosted information tables at street fairs and continue to organize walking tours of the neighborhood.

“It’s an incredible amount of work,” Tondrick said.

Opposition to historic districts isn't uncommon. The debate over designating Sunnyside Gardens in Queens in 2007 turned vitriolic after some property owners said it would increase their maintenance expenses, according to previous reports.

Home alterations, such as replacing windows, can become more costly, as the LPC can require that home owners use more expensive "historically appropriate" materials. But advocates argue that those materials often last longer and may serve to raise a home's resale value. 

Another reason for local pushback is the requirement that major construction and alterations in historic districts must be reviewed and approved by the city.

"Nobody likes government telling them what to do," Bankoff said. 

► Gathering Information and Documentation

To be considered by the LPC, the neighborhood must submit a “Request for Evaluation.” That can include old and current pictures, original documentation like deeds, maps and sales brochures and any information that will support your case.

The more documentation you submit, the more likely you are to bolster your application, Bankoff said.

Check out DNAinfo's guide to finding historical information, deeds and photographs of your neighborhood's buildings here.

► Be Prepared to Wait

LPC is experiencing a high backlog of applications and even swift cases can take three to five years, Bankoff said.

After the request for evaluation is submitted, the city agency will continue its investigation by researching, evaluating and reviewing the application. Once it clears those steps, a public hearing is scheduled.

The LPC’s research department will then write a detailed report for the properties, which the commission will review and use, along with comments form the public hearing, in making its decision.

According to the LPC’s website, within 10 days of the Landmarks Preservation Commission making its decision, it has to send final reports to the City Council and City Planning Commission.

The City Planning Commission has 60 days to review and submit its own report to the City Council about the impact of the historic designation on zoning and other city planning projects. (The City Planning Commission doesn’t vote to approve or reject the application.)

The City Council has 120 days from when the LPC files the report to modify, affirm or disapprove the designation.