The Landmarks Preservation Commission wants to speed up its approval of certain building modifications by eliminating public hearings, but preservationists argued yesterday that the move would silence New Yorkers concerned about the historic fabric of their neighborhoods. At a hearing replete with criticism, pleas, hissing, and head-shaking, the crowd spilled out into the hall, brandishing signs that read KEEP YOUR PRESERVATION HATS ON and DON’T CUT THE PUBLIC OUT OF THE PROCESS.
The LPC wants to give staff members the sole discretion, under a variety of conditions, to approve routine changes to historic buildings involving the installation of awnings, ramps, AC units, fire escapes, signs, and replacement doors and windows. In what is perhaps the most controversial proposed change, staff members wouldn’t need to take public opinion into account while considering rooftop and rear yard additions, so long as they were minimally visible.
Some have said these changes would lead to a lack of transparency, since they cut out the recommendations currently made by community boards. But Mark Silberman, chief counsel for the LPC, argued that the proposed changes would enable more straightforward applications to be streamlined and easily approved; only items that had a minimal effect on buildings would be delegated to the staff. The idea is that by making its expectations clearer (new doors would have to “match or recall the historic doors,” for instance), the LPC’s approval process would be easier for developers and landlords to adhere to.
“Making approvals subject to rules is very transparent,” Silberman said. “Everyone knows what can be approved by the staff and what criteria are for obtaining an approval.”
A number of people voiced their support of the proposed rules change, including homeowners, real estate executives, the New York Center for Architecture, and even an archdeacon. But the majority of voices heard were those of disapproval. Many took the time to express how essential public discourse is in correcting inaccurate information submitted by a client or highlighting concerns held by those who actually live in the districts discussed.
“Specificity of the rules is not transparency,” argued Jay Adolf, a board member of Community Board 7.
“We are all fallible,” said Andrew Berman, Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “And that is why continuing to keep these important kinds of landmarks applications, which hundreds of people comment upon each year, in the public view is so critical.”
The GVSHP has opposed controversial rooftop additions in the East Village as well as Jared Kushner’s proposal to add a penthouse to the historic Puck Building, which was ultimately approved in 2011 after four months of rejections and redesigns.
Berman noted that more than 1,500 people had sent letters to the commission in opposition of the rule changes through the GVSHP website alone. David Mulkins, president of Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, fervently echoed Berman’s concerns. “This is not Moscow,” Mulkins shouted. “Issues of public interest that impact our communities are not supposed to be handled behind closed doors.”
Linda Jones, a member of Community Board 3, argued that rooftop and rear-yard additions both destroy the historic fabric of the building and surrounding area and cause neighbors to lose their view and previously-enjoyed space. “I realize that’s not your purview,” Jones told the committee, “but they sure care.” She also mentioned the (possibly) unintended consequences surrounding affordable housing. “We have rent stabilized apartments in these buildings and then when the owners are done, luxury housing.” Jeffrey Kroessler, representing the City Club of New York, said the change in protocol was “not for the community living in the historic district, it’s for the new home owner who needs to excavate for his new squash court.”
Other members of the public underscored the amount of distrust currently in the city regarding real estate development, saying that this is the worst possible time to further diminish public participation. “It seems to be a trend of the current administration to conduct business behind closed doors,” said David Achelis, a Landmark committee member of Community Board 5. “What the city needs is more involvement from its citizens, not less. I think the LPC would be crazy to turn its back on the expertise, the hard work, and the experience of their local community boards.”
The LPC has extended the period for individuals and organizations to submit commentary until May 8th. They are then expected to announce a public hearing in which to discuss those submissions.