Intro 775-A provides new decision timelines for the designation of landmarks. The law gives the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) one year to landmark or pass up calendared individual, scenic, or interior landmarks. The commission has two years to decide on historic districts. If action isn’t taken on an item, the law stipulates that it must be de-calendared.
When the law takes effect, any item on the LPC’s calendar has to be voted on within 18 months, or it will be de-calendared. A one-year extension may be granted with permission from the property owner.
Intro 775-A is a response to the 95-item backlog on the LPC’s calendar. LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan explained at a September 2015 public hearing that the commission will streamline its process if the bill became law, but that they would strongly prefer to establish procedure internally. Critics of the commission pointed out that some items had languished on the calendar for years, sometimes decades. In response, the LPC is in the process of voting on older calendar items.
In the days leading up to the City Council vote in early June, preservation groups, including the Historic Districts Council (HDC), Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, MAS, Landmark West!, and Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, came out forcefully against the bill.
The timeline, opponents say, could limit the designation of challenging items or items with difficult histories. The LPC prepares a dossier on each item, and some items, like historic districts, can contain hundreds of individual structures. It can take many months to negotiate a district’s boundaries, and time to do quality research. The new law, critics say, puts negative pressure on these activities.
“In many instances these designations required time for the Landmarks Commission to reach out to the widest possible community and perform the in-depth research necessary to properly regulate the area,” the HDC said in a statement. “In other cases, external schedules such as municipal elections and changes in city administration affected the agency’s ability to expeditiously consider designations. Landmark designation is a permanent change in legal status and there are many examples where allowing the agency extra time to complete its process (if necessary) makes sense in helping to ensure equitable and transparent decision-making.”
Then there’s the money question. A landmark can be expensive to maintain: Owners who privilege cost considerations over cultural patrimony could refuse to have their item re-calendared, and the item could lose out on landmark designation. Sometimes the commission works with the owner to secure maintenance funds, but deadline pressure could eliminate this crucial assistance.
Except for the paid chair, LPC commissioners are volunteers who meet weekly. The law asks commissioners to do more work in less time with no additional resources. Today, HDC released a somewhat glum statement announcing the new law and thanking members for their efforts in opposing it:
HDC wishes to thank the preservation community for its vigilance in opposing this legislation, and for reaching out to your City Council representatives. It is important to remember that it is only through the efforts of the hundreds of individuals and organizations who raised their voices that the worst part of this bill, the 5-year moratorium on designation (included in the original Intro. 775 bill in 2015), was removed when this bill resurfaced.