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Landmark plan finds few friends at City Hall

With a controversial bill inspiring dissent from community groups, local politicians and even the Landmarks Preservation Commission itself, the prospect of a new law altering the city’s landmark process is starting to grow dim.

Critics say that Intro 775, which seeks to set time limits for determining whether a property should have landmark status, weakens the city’s 1965 Landmarks Law, which, in turn, jeopardizes some of the city’s historic buildings.

Councilman Mark Levine
Councilman Mark Levine

According to Council Member Mark Levine, the bill, which aims to cut down the evaluation time for prospective landmarks to 360 days, with the additional requirement of a hearing set within the first 180 days, is unlikely to move forward in the chamber.

“I do feel that the text, in its current form, probably would not go any farther,” he said. “I assume, at this point, there will be a number of changes made to the text of the bill. I think all of us are waiting to see what kind of changes would be made.”

Levine is not alone in his skepticism.

During a public hearing for the bill held last Wednesday, a number of City Council members took turns bashing the proposal. Council Member Rosie Mendez, who is part of the subcommittee on landmarks, public siting and maritime uses, said that the plan is “way too restrictive and oppressive.” Meanwhile, Council Member Margaret Chin said that she was “not a fan” of the bill.

Currently, the LPC can place any property on its calendar, with no limits on how long a decision can be reached. This has resulted in some properties being on the books for decades. The plan seeks to cut down the process to under a year.

For historic districts, which involve evaluating hundreds of properties, the process would be cut to two years. If no decision is reached within the time limit, the properties would be barred from assessment for landmark status for five years. Currently, the LPC has 95 properties in its backlog, which includes the Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan.

Peter Koo and David Greenfield, the main sponsors of the bill, defended their proposal, arguing that other major cities have deadlines for their landmarks process.

“Timelines are part of the landmark designation process in many other jurisdictions, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. These jurisdictions all require a final decision on designation within, at most, 90 days of the public hearing — significantly less in some cases,” the two wrote in an op-ed published in Crain’s.

Koo and Greenfield have strong allies in trade unions and real estate groups. A coalition led by the Real Estate Board of New York, property service workers union 32BJ SEIU and the New York State Association for Affordable Housing support the bill, which they describe as “a set of new common sense measures.”

“Bringing timelines to the landmarking process is a sensible and overdue measure that will add predictability to the way we designate tomorrow’slandmarks and ensure that the same diligence carried out by the current LPC will be continued by future administrations,” said REBNY President John Banks.

Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of non-profit organization Partnership for New York City, echoed Banks’ comments, saying: “Landmarking has become a highly political process that can leave building owners in limbo for years, potentially resulting in deterioration of the very properties that advocates are seeking to preserve. This bill would impose some discipline on the Landmarks Commission that is only fair and reasonable.”

Andrew Berman
Andrew Berman Photo GVSHP

Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, disagreed with comments from Banks and Wylde, calling the plan “an unnecessary bill granting enormous advantage to demolition-minded developers.”

“The reality is very few buildings remain under consideration for landmark designation for extended periods of time without designation.” Berman testified in the landmarks hearing.

“These twin boogey-men of huge backlogs and overburdened property owners are being used to justify a draconian, overreaching measure which will gut one of New York’s most successful laws.”

He pointed out that had the bill been in effect over the last 50 years, many beloved structures may not have survived including Grand Central Station, the Woolworth Building and the historic districts of Greenwich Village and Park Slope.

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.

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