City rethinks landmark rule changes

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Revisions to earlier LPC plan address many of preservationists’ chief concerns


  • Preservation advocates opposed a set of proposed changes to Landmarks Preservation Commission rules on that grounds that the revisions would have reduced opportunities for public input on applications to perform work on landmarked buildings, such as these on West End Avenue. Photo: Steven Strasser

  • Meenakshi Srinivasan, who resigned as chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission June 1, said revisions announced May 29 to a controversial earlier rule change proposal reflected “rational and responsive” receptivity to public comments. Photo: NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has backed away from a controversial set of proposed rule changes in the face of forceful opposition from preservationists, who claim that the revisions would have cut the public out of the review process for certain types of changes to landmarked buildings.

The changes, initially proposed in February, would have shifted responsibility for approving certain applications currently reviewed in public hearings by the full 11-member commission to LPC staff members, including some types of additions to rooftops and rear yards visible from the street.

The LPC said the changes would codify existing agency practices, streamline the approvals process for certain types of applications, and increase transparency and efficiency. But preservation advocates, as well as a number of community boards and elected officials, were quick to voice opposition to the suggested changes

In response to the concerns, the LPC on May 29 outlined significant changes to the initial proposal, with many of the most controversial aspects of the proposed rules removed or revised, including most changes to the regulations on rooftop and rear yard additions. Other proposed changes were entirely scrapped, including a provision regarding the removal of cast iron vault lights (the metal panels inset with glass lenses commonly found on SoHo and Tribeca sidewalks to let daylight into basements) and another regarding windows on secondary facades of landmarked buildings.

Preservation advocates were largely pleased with the amended proposal, but reserved final judgement pending the release of the revised text of the proposed rule changes, which LPC staff will draft in the coming weeks.

“The devil is in the details, and just a few words can have a huge impact,” said Sean Khorsandi, executive director of Landmark West!. “Once they issue the rules, we’ll be going through with a fine-toothed comb.”

Tara Kelly, vice president of policy and programs at the Municipal Art Society, said she was “very encouraged” by the LPC’s presentation, which “seemed to address many of the most significant concerns.” She continued with a caveat: “However, we really need to see the text to see how they’re addressing the concerns.”

“For example, they say they’re removing ‘most’ of the new rules around additions, but we don’t know which — so the most problematic could remain, or they might not,” Kelly said. “We just don’t know.”

The May 29 LPC meeting marked the last public hearing headed by the commission’s departing chair, Meenakshi Srinivasan, who announced her resignation in April, shortly after nine of the city’s most prominent preservation groups penned a joint letter urging her to withdraw the original rule change proposal, writing that the proposed rules would “create more uncertainty for the public and bargain away the future of our landmark buildings to save time during the application process.”

At the meeting, Srinivasan characterized the proposed revisions as “rational and responsive” to public comments, and said that the rulemaking process is “about making sure that people know what agencies do and that it’s transparent.”

“There’s this general comment that we heard that this will create more closed-door activity,” she said. “But in fact that’s not the case, because by putting our rules on paper where everybody can see them it actually shows how decisions are made by the commission or the commission staff.”

“I think it’s kind of ironic that they tried to frame this as a transparency proposal,” said Andrew Berman. executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “It was very much an anti-transparency proposal. Ultimately, it really just couldn’t bear the weight of scrutiny.”

Srinivasan, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014, was a frequent target of criticism from some preservation advocates. Berman characterized Srinivasan’s tenure as “stormy” and “challenging” for preservationists, adding that she placed a “greater emphasis on greasing the skids for developers and allowing for greater changes and development in historic districts that in the not-too-recent past would have been considered unimaginable.”

Commissioner Frederick Bland will preside over LPC hearings until the mayor appoints a new chair, who must be approved by the City Council. GVSHP has launched a letter writing campaign calling on de Blasio to nominate, and the City Council to approve, a “true preservationist” as Srinivasan’s successor.

Khorsandi articulated a concern frequently voiced by preservationists regarding what they view as de Blasio’s priorities: “I’m concerned he’s going to pick someone who’s not necessarily preservation-minded, but more aligned with his agenda, which is very pro-development.”

The next LPC chair will have significant sway over the direction of the commission, including the fate of the revised rule changes, which, once released, will be voted on by the commission at a later date. The LPC will hold meetings to discuss the revisions with preservation groups, community boards and other stakeholders in the weeks to come. Preservation groups have called on the LPC to open a new round of public comments on the revised text before a vote takes place.

Michael Garofalo:

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