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Nearly 100 Sites Quietly Being Removed From Landmarks Consideration

By Jeff Mays | December 1, 2014 12:20pm
 Preservationists are criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio for a lack of transparency after uncovering a shadowy plan by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to remove almost 100 sites and historic districts from consideration for landmark status. It's a move many fear clears the path for the possible destruction of dozens of potentially architecturally, culturally and historically significant buildings in neighborhoods across the five boroughs.
LPC Considering Removing Historic Buildings
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MANHATTAN — The Landmarks Preservation Commission plans to remove almost 100 sites and two historic districts from consideration for landmark status without formal public input, despite most being on the agenda for decades, officials say.

It's a move preservationists fear clears the path for the possible destruction of dozens of architecturally, culturally and historically significant buildings in neighborhoods across the five boroughs because it removes the preliminary protection that they were afforded while under consideration.

Among them are the iconic Pepsi sign in Long Island City, Union Square Park, the Bergdorf Goodman building in Manhattan and the more-than century-old Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

"It's going to be death by bulldozer. That's what people who want to take these buildings off the calendar want to do," said Susan Nial, a board member of Landmark West, a group dedicated to preserving buildings on the Upper West Side.

Critics of the plan say Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration is being less than transparent because the move will be made at the LPC's Dec. 9 meeting without a hearing to allow for public input.

Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for the mayor, said the process is aimed at helping LPC function better by clearing its "backlog" of items, many which have languished on the LPC's calendar for decades.

All of the sites and historic districts have been on the LPC calendar since at least 2010.

Of the 95 sites and historic districts, 31 have been calendared for 40 or more years, 25 have been under consideration for 30 to 40 years and 24 have been up for consideration for 20 to 30 years. Fifteen items were calendered between five and 20 years ago.

"Cleaning up that backlog will ensure the LPC can much more effectively fulfill its mission of responding to the landmarking issues of today in real time," Norvell said.

Under the city's landmarks process, a building or historic district can be nominated by the LPC or the community for consideration. Once the LPC staff studies the request and meets with the building's owners, the building is placed on the calendar and a hearing is held if the property or district is deemed worthy.

If no decision is made after the hearing, the project is considered to still be "calendered."

Being on the LPC's calendar provides the building with a modicum of protection because the Department of Buildings notifies the commission if building or demolition permits for a site with such a designation are requested. The commission then has 40 days to make a decision on a site's landmark status.

Landmarks Preservation Commission to Remove Almost 100 Sites From Consideration

But often, due to political pressure, the buildings remain in limbo on the calendar with the commission never voting, sometimes for decades.

LPC spokeswoman Damaris Olivo said the removal of the sites and historic districts is an attempt to "streamline" the much criticized process.

The sites and historic districts are being issued "no action" letters, meaning they can be nominated again.

"It depends on the community support for the site," said Olivo.

The LPC made a list of the sites available Wednesday evening after calls from DNAinfo New York requesting the information and after a Nov. 25 letter from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to LPC chair Meenakshi Srinivasan requesting the information be made public.

Among the sites and historic districts which will be removed from LPC's calendar are the Con Ed subway power plant on 59th Street and 12th Avenue in Manhattan, which has been on the calendar since 1979. The Beaux Arts building was built in 1904 to power the original subway and designed by the the prominent architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, which also designed the old Penn Station.

Also to be removed are:

-Manhattan: Bergdorf Goodman building at 754 Fifth Ave., Union Square Park, the Harlem YMCA at 135th Street between Lenox and Seventh avenues, as well as Loews 175th Street theater in Washington Heights.

-Brooklyn: the 478 acres of Green-Wood Cemetery at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street. It had been on the calendar since 1981.

-Queens: the iconic Pepsi Cola sign, calendered since 1988 and the Douglaston Historic District Extension, calendered since 2008, will also be removed.

-The Bronx: the Immaculate Conception Church Complex and the Samuel D Babcock House on Independence Avenue.

-Staten Island tops the five boroughs with 25 properties and the Snug Harbor Historic District being removed.

The critique of what advocates say was a secretive process leaked out through word of mouth and comes days after a report from the Department of Investigation found that de Blasio's office improperly banned reporters from a public meeting with union officials.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a preservation group, called the move "terrible public policy."

"Previous landmark commissions voted that these sites should be considered as landmarks so they deserve their day in court," said Bankoff. "They are second guessing decisions that have already been made and that can set a dangerous precedent."

Brewer said her office was only recently notified of the plan and is more concerned about the way the commission is going about this action than what they are proposing.

"I can't say whether all of these are worth taking off the list or keeping on but you do need enough time to tell people," Brewer said. "This doesn't seem to us like enough time."

In her letter, Brewer requested that 30 days notice be given prior to any hearing or decision by the commission on the 95 sites.

"I know they are trying to start with a clean slate but people should be able to testify at a minimum," said Brewer.

Michael Henry Adams, an historian who is an expert on Harlem architecture and the author of "Harlem Lost and Found was recently arrested for protesting the demolition of the historic Renaissance Casino in Harlem after the Abyssinian Development Corporation sold it for $10 million.

That structure was on the LPC's calendar for 16 years before being removed a few years ago but is now being torn down to make way for 134 mixed-income residential units.

"If the LPC removes 100 calendared buildings from the docket then there will be 100 Renaissances," said Adams.