Preservation Issues

City Council Approves Time Limits on Landmark Designations


-New York City Hall

UPDATE
June 8, 2016

The City Council has passed Intro. 775 into law today, by a vote of 38-10. The new law will set deadlines for the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to designate individual landmarks and historic districts. For individual landmarks, the deadline will be one year from the date that the item is placed on the Commission’s calendar, with an option to extend the process for another year with written consent from the owner. For historic districts, the timeframe will be two years, with no option for extension. In all instances, the LPC would be able to re-calendar and reconsider the items at the end of the deadline.

The LPC responded to the vote with the following statement,

“We appreciate that that the City Council has made changes to the legislation based on our testimony and suggestions… We believe the legislation as drafted will provide the flexibility necessary for the Commission to fulfill its mandate.”

Following the bill’s introduction last year, the Conservancy worked with its sponsors in the Council to improve it. We raised objections to the most onerous aspect, a moratorium which would have prevented LPC from re-calendaring items for five years. The Council removed the moratorium from the bill’s final version. Other improvements included greater flexibility within the one- and two-year deadlines, and the extension for individual landmarks. The Commission will have a deadline of 18 months for items that are currently on the calendar; that provision now also contains a one-year extension option with owner consent.

We suggested additional modifications that would have allowed for some form of extension in the deadline for historic districts. The sponsors were considering that extension and other concessions and we are disappointed that last-minute negotiations yielded no agreements. We appreciate that the sponsors were willing to compromise.

When the Conservancy testified on the bill last year, we did not object to deadlines. Prior to 775, we had worked with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to craft proposals for LPC reform legislation that included deadlines. We surveyed colleagues around the country, and found that most landmarks commissions do have deadlines.

The LPC has said that it can work within the deadlines. Now that the bill is law, we will carefully monitor designation activity to ensure that this is the case, and if it is not, we will go back to the Council to request further modifications.

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June 6, 2016

The City Council will be voting on a bill to place deadlines on the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation process at a hearing tomorrow, June 7. The bill, Intro. 775, has been revised and improved since it was first introduced last year.

When the Conservancy testified on the bill, we did not object to deadlines. Prior to 775, we had worked with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer to craft proposals for LPC reform legislation that included deadlines. We surveyed colleagues around the country, and found that most landmarks commissions do have deadlines. The deadlines in Intro. 775 are one year for the LPC to vote on individual landmarks once they have been calendared and two years for historic districts.

We did raise objections and appreciate the changes the bill’s sponsors made. The original bill had a moratorium that would have prevented the Commission from bringing back a proposed designation for five years if it was not completed by the deadline. The moratorium is gone. We also asked for some flexibility in the deadlines to allow for additional research or community outreach, or if an owner or Council member just needs more time. The revised bill has a six-month extension for individual landmarks, assuming both the LPC and building owner agree. The wording is similar to landmark laws elsewhere. There is no extension provided for the two-year deadline for historic districts.

We told the sponsors that we believe some extension for historic districts is reasonable and would improve the bill. If the bill is passed as is, we will carefully monitor to see how LPC addresses designations within the two year deadline.

The Council is also preparing other bills calling for greater cooperation between the City Planning Department and LPC, and strengthening protection for buildings that LPC is in the process of calendaring. We think these measures will be helpful steps forward in the goal of preserving New York’s significant architecture.

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August 26, 2015

Join the Conservancy in testifying on a City Council bill that would limit the Landmarks Commission’s ability to designate landmarks and historic districts. On Wednesday, September 9 the Land Use Committee will hear Intro. 775, a bill that would change the designation process. We sent our suggestions for improving the bill to the Council in this letter, and all five of New York’s AIA branches joined together to issue a memo, outlining their concerns.

The bill would set deadlines for the Commission, and if the agency is not able to complete a designation within the time frame, it could not consider the building or district again for five years, with no exceptions, even if there is new research, a new owner, new Council representation, or if there is an emergency, such as Superstorm Sandy.

The Conservancy is not opposed to a deadline framework that would create a transparent and consistent designation process. Many other cities have similar deadlines, although they also provide for the exceptions that Intro. 775 does not. The LPC is already instituting its own policy changes by setting the date for a vote at the conclusion of public hearings on designations. We applaud Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan and her staff for this initiative, and believe that the LPC should be allowed to formalize this policy on its own terms.

The Council bill limits the Commission to one year for designating landmarks and two years for historic districts. We think they should have more time – from at least an additional year to the five-year timeframe which the Conservancy and preservation advocates developed with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. These timeframes would allow the agency the flexibility that it needs and create more predictability. We would not have historic districts in Mott Haven, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Hamilton Heights or Jackson Heights under the timelines the Council has proposed.

We are also concerned that the deadlines in Intro. 775 may result in an equity problem in what the Commission chooses to pursue. While neighborhoods of all demographics across the City are interested in historic district designation, some are able to raise funds to hire consultants to start the extensive research process. Many other communities are not able to do this. So the Commission may prioritize areas where this research has been done. Neighborhoods that are not as wealthy or organized could fall back in the queue.

The five-year ban against reconsideration could create incentives for delay and disruption of the clear and transparent process that is the underlying goal of this legislation. There is no other apparent example where the New York City Council has prevented an agency from fulfilling one of its stated core missions. In Los Angeles, the only other city we found with a moratorium, restrictions are aimed at advocates to prevent multiple requests where the Commission has already turned down a building.

Requiring the LPC to clear its calendar in 18 months goes against goals of public input and transparency. The agency has put forth a plan to hold hearings and votes on all buildings currently on the heard, but not designated list for more than five years. If timelines are instituted, this backlog cannot occur again. The LPC should be able to address the buildings after the initial 95 are cleared in the same manner, requiring hearings and public input, instead of forcing them to drop off the calendar.

The Conservancy appreciates the Council’s interest in the Landmarks Commission and its work, but we believe that this bill, as written, would limit the Commission’s ability to execute the Landmarks Law. The hearing will be on Wednesday, September 9, at 11:00 in the City Hall Council Chambers. We invite you to join us to speak out for preservation in New York.

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July 2015

The City Council has introduced a bill that would set time limits for the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to designate individual landmarks and historic districts and prevent the Commission from acting on buildings for five years if the deadlines were missed.

Co-sponsors, Councilmember David Greenfield, Chair of the Land Use Committee and Councilmember Peter Koo, Chair of the Landmarks Subcommittee, invited the Conservancy and preservation colleagues for a briefing on the bill, Intro.775, which will have a hearing in September. The Councilmembers said the bill offered simplicity and predictability and that most designations in recent years fell within the proposed timeframes.

We appreciate the outreach from the Councilmembers and agree that steps should be taken to provide a designation timeline, but we are concerned that the bill would remove flexibility that is necessary to the process and could endanger potential landmarks. Intro. 775 would set one year to hear and vote on individual buildings (180 days for a public hearing and 180 days to vote) and two years (one year each to hear and vote) for districts. If the vote was not taken by deadline, the designation could not be reconsidered for five years. The bill would also require that the LPC vote on any sites already on the calendar within 18 months of the date that the bill becomes a law or they too would be barred from reconsideration for five years.

The Conservancy believes that these strict guidelines would force the LPC to disregard real-world events, such as new ownership, or a change of Councilmember. The five-year recess would give ample time for significant alterations, additions, loss of historic fabric, or demolition. We are also concerned that these rigid timelines would prevent the LPC from setting its own priorities and allocating its own resources. Our colleagues at the Historic Districts Council have provided research showing that the designation of nearly one-half of all historic districts would not have met these deadlines and that dozens of neighborhoods would be unprotected had this law been in place.

Earlier this year, the Conservancy worked with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and preservation advocates to develop timelines that would be more appropriate and give LPC the flexibility it needs: a requirement to hold a hearing within five years, followed by a six-month period to vote, and the option of a three-year extension. This timeframe would create transparency and certainty, but allow the LPC to adjust for the unexpected, without placing historic buildings and communities at risk.

The LPC itself has taken steps to address timeline issues. The agency has long recognized that leaving buildings on its calendar for unspecified lengths of time is not good policy. Prior Commissions have acted to address the “calendared but not heard” list. After stepping back from plans for a wide-scale decalendaring, Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan has worked with the preservation community to develop a strong proactive approach to resolve the backlog. (It should be noted that the backlog itself represents only a tiny percentage of thousands of buildings the agency has designated). The Chair has also set a standard to provide the date for a public hearing when a site is placed on the calendar and a date for the designation vote at the hearing. Combined, these policies should clear the backlog and ensure that new designations are completed within a reasonable time frame. And the guidelines proposed by the Borough President would provide a failsafe to prevent the backlog from building up again.

Councilmember Greenfield asked for input. We hope that the Council will seriously consider the concerns that will be voiced at the hearing and will keep you informed as the hearing date for Intro. 775 approaches.