Volume 18 • Issue 14 | August 26 - September 01, 2005

Council looks for input before historic demolitions

By Albert Amateau

City Councilmember Bill Perkins last week introduced a bill to require the Landmarks Preservation Commission to calendar landmarks designation hearings on individual buildings or historic districts declared eligible for listing on the State Register of Historic Places.

The bill, introduced Aug. 17, would also allow the City Council, by a majority vote, to require the Landmarks Preservation Commission to calendar designation hearings for eligible properties.

Downtown preservation advocates said this week that the bill, Intro 705, presents possibilities for expanding landmark protection to buildings in Tribeca and Soho that are on the State Register of Historic Places but are not designated city landmarks.

“The bill focuses on the question of how the Landmarks Preservation Commission works, how it decides what should be calendared and what shouldn’t be,” said Hal Bromm, owner of a Tribeca art gallery and member of the board of the Historic Districts Council.

“The truth is, [L.P.C.] works on the squeaky wheel principal, so it would help if the City Council could say to the commission, ‘Hey look, here’s something you missed.’ But the dilemma is that the commission is the city’s most chronically under-funded agency,” Bromm added.

Perkins, a Democratic primary candidate for Manhattan Borough President who represents Central Harlem and heads the council’s governmental operations committee, said, “This is a simple bill that says ‘Let there be a hearing.’ It’s the result of several committee hearings and a report on opportunities to review, reflect and reform after 40 years of landmarks legislation. It does not require the L.P.C. to designate the properties.”

The L.P.C. currently has the sole discretion, most often in response to preservation groups and owners, to calendar hearings for buildings or districts. A spokesperson for L.P.C. said this week that the commission is evaluating Intro 705. But the agency’s negative response to an earlier bill that also requires a review of properties eligible for listing on the State Register of Historic Places makes it clear that Intro 705 is not likely to get commission support.

The earlier bill, 317A, introduced in February, would provide an automatic delay on demolition permits for buildings 50 years and older. Intro 317A has 27 council co-sponsors and more than 70 preservation groups, lead by the Historic Districts Council, on a list of supporters.

“It has broad support but we’re disappointed that Councilmember Perkins has not signed on yet as a co-sponsor,” Bromm said.

Intro 317A would require the Department of Buildings to notify the Landmarks Commission whenever an owner applies for a permit to demolish a 50-year-old building. Within 15 days, L.P.C. would have to make a quick written determination whether the building is significant.

If L.P.C. determines the building is not significant, the Buildings Department could issue the demolition permit. If Landmarks finds the building is significant, the commission would hold a hearing on whether the property should be “preferably preserved.” Any building eligible for inclusion in the State Register of Historic Places would automatically qualify as significant and become the subject of a “preferably preserved” hearing.

If the L.P.C. determines the building should not be “preferably preserved,” Buildings could permit demolition. If the property is found to be “preferably preserved,” no demolition could be issued for 12 months unless L.P.C. agrees. At the end of 12 months, if the L.P.C. has not calendared the property for a designation hearing, the Department of Buildings could issue a demolition permit.

A spokesperson for L.P.C. last month said the intent behind Intro 317A was “laudable,” but the commission would not support the bill as currently written.

L.P.C. has a problem with reviewing buildings eligible for listing on the Register of Historic Places. “The commission consists of a body of experts that is vested with the authority to decide which buildings should be designated New York City landmarks,” said a written city response to a Historic Districts Council member.

Landmarks also noted that the legislation would only apply to demolition permits and not to “Alt. 1” alteration permits that allow radical changes that could be equivalent to functional demolition. Determining the age of many buildings might also entail a review of thousands of demolition applications, according to the L.P.C. The resulting increased workload on the agency was another concern.

Perkins said this week that he recognized that his bill would increase the L.P.C. workload and indicated that he would call for adequate funding for the agency. Simeon Bankoff, executive director of H.D.C., a prime supporter of Intro 317A, known as the demolition delay bill, also acknowledged that more funding would be needed for the additional work.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said the society support for both bills is condition on adequate funding for the Landmarks Commission to perform the additional work.

Properties in Tribeca and Soho that are eligible for listing or are in the State Register of Historic Places would benefit from the two bills. “The Historic Districts Council has been trying for years to get the city and the state to speak the same language about preservation but politics get in the way,” Bromm said.

The Soho-Cast Iron Historic District listed on the State Register of Historic Places is larger than the city-designated Soho-Cast Iron District.

The city district extends between Houston and Canal Sts. from the east side of West Broadway to the west side of Crosby St., while the state register district extends from the west side of West Broadway and includes the east side of Crosby St between Broome and Howard Sts.

The state register also includes several buildings that are not in the city district in the block bounded by Lafayette and Howard Sts., Broadway and Canal St.

In Tribeca, the requirement for Landmarks to review properties eligible for the state register could extend protection to buildings on the south side of Chambers St., according to Roger Byrom, head of the Community Board 1 landmarks committee.

In addition, the area of Meat Packing District eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Place is larger that the city designated Gansevoort Market Historic District. The Chelsea Market, the former National Biscuit Co,, complex between 15th and 16th Sts. is eligible for the register but is outside the city district. South of 14th St., buildings between West and Washington Sts. are not in the city Gansevoort District but are eligible for National Register listing.



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