News
05.03.2012
Battle Landmarkia
New York City Council seeks to revamp business as usual at the Landmarks Commission.
New proposals by City Council would curtail Landmark's powers.
Ari Burling

A sudden flurry of bills introduced yesterday at a City Council hearing sought to revamp the way business gets done at the Landmarks Preservation Commission. While the eleven bills deal primarily with procedural issues, a sentence in one zeroes in on the essence of the preservation versus development battle. According to Intro Bill Number 846, new guidelines would require City Planning to review Landmark Commission designations in economic terms to “analyze the impact of the designation” and “specifically consider the relationship between the development potential of all properties affected by the designation, both public and private.” The bill would provide City Council a rationale by which to deny landmark designations by pitting long-term planning goals against individual or district landmarking.

Preservationist Theodore Grunewald, who sued Landmarks and Vornado last year to stop renovations at the Manufacturers Hanover building, said that the new measures represent the “gelding” of the Landmarks law. “Taken together, most of the 11 proposed bills will effectively hollow out the Landmarks Law from the inside out,” he testified.

The implication emanating from several Councilmembers at the hearing was that they feel that Landmarks is an agency gone rogue. Councilmember Jessica Lappin wanted to know why some Requests for Evaluations (RFE) filed at Landmarks ended up going “into a black hole,” while Councilmember Robert Jackson fumed about twenty-five year-old RFEs still pending. Two bills directly touch on the RFEs by mandating organizational standards and setting time frames for designation decisions, ranging from 21 to 33 months, whereas now the process is open ended.

Another bill would limit the commission’s oversight of materials used on landmarked buildings. A new survey division at Landmarks was proposed to conduct periodic assessments of historic buildings. The division would also recommend districts and buildings for designation. Community boards and borough boards would be able to mandate certain RFEs to be reviewed, a decision that is currently the sole proprietorship of the Commission’s chair. Another bill extends protections of historic buildings from nearby construction projects, while yet another facilitates the addition of green infrastructure. Landmarks rebutted each of the eleven bills, with Landmarks council Jenny Fernandez pointing out that they "would significantly alter the discretionary, flexible, and nuanced process.”

But it was above-mentioned Intro Bill Number 846 that would, she said, “fundamentally change the way buildings are landmarked,” not least because the new regulation would require a detailed report on a historic structure or district to be drawn up before calendaring a hearing. As it stands now, Fernandez said, an endangered building can be “calendared” to be heard in ten days, allowing the Landmark staff time to prepare the report before the hearing.

But it’s the proposed economic impact analysis by City Planning that’s the real body blow to Landmarks. The measure would provide council with the tools necessary to deny wholesale redistricting, like the recent landmarking of Downtown Brooklyn, which critics claimed cast too wide of a net, saddling lesser buildings with unnecessary regulatory constraints.

In her opening statement, Fernandez fought back, taking direct issue with the bill: “If the council decides to explore expanding and specifying the scope of analysis, we would request that the benefits of landmark designation, including heritage tourism, increased property values and taxes, and use of historical areas for film and the arts be analyzed as well. As currently drafted, the inquiry is too focused on available floor and area development.”

It’s just such reasoning that Mike Slattery senior vice president at the Real Estate Board of New York rejects. “I never saw such a distortion of a bill in my life,” Slattery said in a telephone interview after the hearing. “We keep hearing about the value that a landmark districting creates and yet economic impact is not supposed to be a consideration.” 

Before the hearing, Historic District Council’s Simeon Bankoff said an impact review by City Planning would surely undermine preservation efforts, “This insertion of economic data has nothing to do with landmarks,” he said. “They don’t take into account the positive effects to property value or tax breaks. They’re looking at the commercial loss as to raw square footage development and using that as intellectual ammunition to shoot down designations.”

After the passage of Brooklyn’s Downtown Historic District several preservationists warned that larger battles loomed and that REBNY would be gearing up for a fight over development near Grand Central. In a prehearing email to the press, Grunewald called the pending legislations “the 'greased rail' to the destruction of Midtown which is now in the works—it's the underlying reason for the sudden and effective dismantling of the Landmarks Law.”

With preservationists eyeing Midtown upzoning and developers gearing up to revamp Park Avenue (SOHO China is working with Vornado; L&L is running an architecture competition for 425 Park), it would seem that the testing ground for the eleven bills might play out at the heart of the city. Not since the battle to save Grand Central has the area seen such heated debate. Indeed, as officials from L&L have pointed out, a new office tower hasn’t be built on Park since the 1980s.

“That preservtionists are against rezoning of Midtown East is clearly an antidevelopment fear,” said Slattery, indicating that REBNY is expecting a showdown. He added that significant buildings deserve protection, but that landmarking has morphed into an antidevelopment tool wielded by NIMBY zealots. “No one is looking to modify Lever House or the Seagram Building, but at one point there was a proposal to designate all of Park Avenue. Could you imagine what that would do to the heart of the office district?”

Columbia University’s professor of real estate Vishaan Chakabarti more than concurred with Slattery, though he was careful to distinguish the residential area from that of the commercial district near Grand Central. “This conversation about Park Avenue is extraordinarily dangerous, to landmark our business district would create a global financial shock,” he said. “In London, they made very judicious decisions to develop the central business district near the City of London. We can do that or we can go the route of Paris and loose hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
 

Tom Stoelker