Friday, June 10, 2016

A series of NYC mayors have collaborated on taking the "preservation" out of the Landmarks Preservation Commission


Already lost to the deadly combination of neglect and redevelopment greed is the beautiful, onetime neighborhood-anchoring East New York Savings Bank at the corner of Pennsylvania and Atlantic Avenues. The site lies within the now-mostly-low-rise section of Brooklyn's East New York designated for redevelopment at the urging of the de Blasio administration -- with, apparently, no protection to be hoped for anytime soon from the increasingly toothless NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission.

by Ken

Last year New Yorkers celebrated the 50th anniversary of the creation of our Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), and the irony was widely noted: As we celebrated, everybody knew that the LPC is at a toothless low point, offering increasingly token opposition to the developers who see the very idea of "preservation" as an affront to their God-given right to squeeze every squeezable dollar out of every snatch of property they can get their hands on.

Like so much that's evil, the neutering of the LPC can be said to have started with Rudy Giuliani, the patron NYC mayor of greedy and crooked developers, but the job of neutering the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission was continued in much more systematic and encompassing fashion by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and has continued with little let-up under Bill de Blasio. Rudy seems to have functioned like flypaper to swarming scuzballs. On their behalf he turned the LPC over to a monumentally unquallified developers' stooge, and moreover made it clear that he was perfectly prepared to flout laws to turn any available scrap of land over to lowlifes standing ready to disfigure it with crappy construction that both blighted neighborhoods while walking roughshod over the legitimate interests of the community.

Now it's important that we not think of "development" itself as evil, because obviously the prosperity of a community is tied to use of its land resources. But land is a nonrenewable resource, and communities have not only a right but an obligation to factor in common interests where they may conflict with simply allowing developers to maximize their short-term financial interests. "Mayor Mike" clearly had a more sophisticated understanding of this than did Rudy, but his sophistication mostly took the form of enabling developers as engineers of prosperity. By the time he left office, I'm told, his adminstration had overseen the rewriting of a huge swath of the city's zoning regulations, with many of the changes kicking in over a period of decades, like time-release drug capsules, ensuring wide-scale transformation with a minimum of public scrutiny.

Minimizing the scourge of "public scrutiny" has turned out to be a priority of the de Blasio administration. Last year the administrative string-pullers were taken aback by the uproar provoked by the attempt to deep-six those hundreds of in-the-pipeline landmark applications. The firestorm caused by an announced change in the law that would have permanently decalendared hundreds of proposed landmark sites that had been caught up in years' worth of delays. The response was so intense that the city had to back down, and devise a system for giving proper hearings to all those applications.

Ironically (our masters do have a flair for irony, don't they?), the administrative load added to the LPC's already massive work backlog provided a partial pretext for the latest, far more open assault on its work. City budgeters have already made sure that the LPC has nowhere near the resources it needs to do the job it's suppposed to. Now, without even a hint of increasing those resources, the string-pullers have by might and by stealth shoved through the City Council a law called Intro 775, which essentially sets a one-year limit for LPC consideration of applications it accepts.


East New York, a large area in Brooklyn, is so large that it can't be talked about monolithically. In the decades since it was first mapped out, it has popped up periodically as a target for developers' bulldozers; now it's officially in the crosshairs. In the present state of NYC development, the area's distance from the city centers matters less than it once did, and portions of the are have reasonable subway access. So the area has become a target for wholesale high-rise redevelopment, with the enthusiastic support of our "progressive" Mayor Bill de B. During the primary process in which he emerged as both the front-runner and the Great Progressive Hope, there were people familiar with his political career who warned about his historic coziness with developers, and he seems to have come into office with a ready-to-go rezoning plan for East New York, which now been approved by the City Council.

Last week's walk, organized by the invaluable Historic District Council, was in the rezoned-for-development portion of East New York, as part of HDC's wonderful "Six to Celebrate" program. Each year six under-protected, potentially endangered areas of NYC are chosen for attention including walking tours. The East New York one was led by a pair of energetic activists from the local group Preserving East New York (PENY), Farrah Lafontant and Zulmilena Then, who gave us a feel for the neighborhood and introduced us to a number of beautiful buildings now put at risk by the impending arrival of high-rise development.

In this three-minute News12 Brooklyn clip, budding architect Zulmilena Then talks about the response of the grass-roots group Preserving East New York (PENY) to the threat posed by rezoning of part of East New York. On last week's Historic Districts Council-sponsored walk, Zulmilena told us that the LPC has indicated that, in view of its massive existing work backlog, East New York can't hope for near-future consideration.

PENY's cause is eminently worthy and reasonable, and one wishes them the best. What remains to be seen is whether they can have much impact if developers see Big Bucks in the East New York rezoning. Could the area benefit from economic revitalization? Of course. But if development takes hold, it's not going to stop there, and if the Big Bucks people get dollar signs in their eyes, well, it's going to be tough going, all the more so without help from the LPC.


Gone but not forgotten: one of NYC's truly
epic buildings, the original Penn Station

Even with LPC involvement, the chances of withstanding pressure from greedy developers wouldn't have been good. By now even many non-New Yorkers are familiar with the history: how New Yorkers were rudely awakened by the seemingly sudden, unexpected demolition of McKim, Mead and White's original, monumental Pennsylvania Station, and how the shock of that loss energized a public response that led to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which teamed with a coterie of activists including Jackie Onassis when the same fate seemed poised to overtake Grand Central Terminal, whose salvation then hinged on legal proceedings that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The LPC has certainly changed the face of NYC -- or at least preserved many important pieces of its historic faces. Over the years, however, it has not surprisingly shown itself to be increasingly disinclined to stand in open opposition to what we might call the forces of Big Bucks. So while a naive onlooker might think the application time limit proposed by Intro 775 represents an attempt to increase the commission's efficiency, its real intent is hardly even disguised. It's clearly designed to ensure that the commission will rarely have the time or resources to properly evaluate applications. And this time around, the Big Bucks string-pullers seemed better prepared for possible public outcry.

Here's how the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation's tireless crusader Andrew Berman described the action in a GVSHP e-mail yesterday headed "Two Big Blows to Preservation, and Some Hope":
Today the City Council voted 38 to 10 to approve the amended Intro. 775, an unnecessary and harmful bill which would make landmark designation harder and demolition of historic properties easier.  It would for the first time impose “drop dead” deadlines for the designation of individual landmarks and historic districts by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  If the LPC fails to act within the prescribed timeframes, the buildings or districts would be removed from consideration as potential landmarks and demolition permits could be immediately issued.  No testimony was allowed at the Council’s Land Use Committee meeting and vote on the legislation yesterday, though GVSHP and allied community groups were there with signs urging the committee members to vote no, and the prior day held a press conference on the steps of City Hall urging rejection of the measure.
Clearly the public hoopla cut two ways in the struggle. While it threatened to impede the passage of Intro 775, it also alerted the people pushing for it to the need to do whatever they had to to promote passage, like barring testimony at the Land Use Committee and pushing the full council vote up a day.

In keeping with the "two big blows"-"some hope" theme of Andrew Berman's e-mail, here's his reckoning of the "bad news" about the Intro 775 actions:
By automatically deeming a building or district not landmarked if the LPC does not vote within one year on proposed individual landmarks and two years on proposed districts, the bill encourages powerful developers to delay and try to run out the clock, and discourages the Commission from considering or moving quickly to calendar (and provide preliminary protections for) complicated, controversial, or larger designation proposals.  More than half the buildings designated by the LPC over the fifty one years of its existence took longer to designate than Intro. 775 would allow.  Once the deadline for designation passes, the proposed historic building or site is automatically removed from the calendar, or consideration for landmark designation.  While the LPC can reconsider the building or site for designation, the process of adding a building or district to the “calendar” must, under the law, take several days; during that time a developer can file for demolition permits which would pre-empt any subsequent attempt to landmark the site, thus ending the possibility of designation.
So what's the "good news"?
Following our turning out hundreds to the City Council public hearing on the measure last September and generating thousands of letters to City Councilmembers in opposition, the bill was amended to remove one of its most odious provisions – a five year ban on reconsidering any building or district for potential landmark designation if the deadline is not met.  And eloquent and impassioned critiques of the bill were given by City Councilmember Corey Johnson, Rosie Mendez and Ben Kallos.  Councilmembers Johnson, Mendez and Kallos have been working tirelessly with us to try to address preservationists’ concerns about the bill, and joined us for and helped organize Monday’s press conference about the bill. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.
What's more, Andrew wrote, "there is some very important additional good news."
Conversations between preservation organizations and the LPC indicate that the LPC believes that it can, if necessary, get around the “drop dead” provisions of Intro. 775’s deadlines and keep buildings or districts under consideration for designation without any gap in coverage which would allow demolition permits to be issued.  The LPC has indicated that they believe they have the option to de-calendar and re-calendar a proposed individual landmark or district contemporaneously before the deadline is hit. This way there would be no gap in coverage (as opposed to passing the deadline, having the site automatically de-calendared, and then beginning the process of re-calendaring), and the clock on the one-to-two year deadlines would be re-started.  The LPC indicated that they believe that if necessary they can repeat this process.
Andrew added: "It would require vigilance and extraordinary action on the part of advocates and the Landmarks Preservation Commission to ensure that this happens."
But it would be an important and in some cases necessary way to circumvent the pro-demolition provisions of Intro. 775 and prevent historic properties worthy of consideration for landmark designation from being lost.  

Of course the City Council should have scrapped Intro. 775 altogether, or amended it as proposed by preservation organizations including GVSHP to require the LPC to vote within a prescribed timeframe on all proposed designations, but allow the Commission to vote yes, no, or to continue to consider when more time is needed.  The sponsors of the legislation refused to consider this reasonable option.


As I explained Wednesday (in a post devoted to two great New Yorker cartoonists, the late William Hamilton and the still-very-much-with-us Roz Chast), Howie persuaded me to try a Wednesday-Friday-Sunday schedule. We'll see how it goes.

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At 4:53 PM, Anonymous ap215 said...

Yeah I saw this on a FB group page it's sad what gentrification is doing to NYC my beloved hometown & no one is stepping up awful.


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