Volume 16 • Issue 54 | June 4 - 10, 2004


Landmarks needs funds to do its job

As an article by Charles Hack in this week’s issue details, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is both seriously under-funded and under-staffed.

The city’s smallest agency, Landmarks’ budget has been slashed to its 2001 level. And Landmarks has just one enforcement officer to protect all New York City’s more than 22,000 landmarks.

Landlords are making violations and getting away with it with nary more than a slap on the wrist, if even that. The agency seems unable to keep up with the amount of vigilance and enforcement needed to protect buildings that have been designated and does not have the wherewithal to check that developers renovating landmark buildings are following the approved plans. Illegal signs often go up in Downtown’s landmark districts and on buildings and it is impossible for the staff to keep track of the ones in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks away from their office in the landmark Municipal Building, let alone the outer boroughs.

Meanwhile, the staffing problems have probably prematurely slowed the number of new buildings being designated as manpower at Landmarks has been cut, leaving the remaining staff stretched thin and having to process more applications than possible.

What can be done? Obviously, the issue is money, increasing the funds going to Landmarks. We hear the permit application fees proposed by Landmarks are close to being adopted. Some preservation groups opposed these fees, feeling they would discourage owners of landmarked properties from filing applications for approval for planned work. Yet, even if the permit fee structure is adopted, the revenue will not go directly to Landmarks, but towards balancing the city’s budget deficit.

One Landmarks commissioner said privately that if revenue from the new permit fees surpasses a given amount that the revenue should start being directed back to Landmarks. That seems like a fair deal and an excellent way for Landmarks to increase its budget and staffing. What’s more, if landlords are being asked to pay more, then they’ll expect staffing to go up at Landmarks so that applications and permits are turned around faster.

Another idea is to add a minimal assessment to landmarked properties, such as $50 or $100 a year. This would be painless to landlords, yet would have a big payoff in allowing Landmarks to increase its staff and provide better, faster service. Since landmarking has been shown to increase the value of neighborhoods and buildings, this would merely constitute a very small tax on added value.

A perfect example of that is Tribeca – home to four historic districts and some of the most expensive residential real estate in the city. It is not a coincidence. Landmarking is good for building owners.

Then there is the private sector. An organization like the Central Park Conservancy, but for preservation, could have enormous benefit. There is an existing organization, Landmarks Foundation. However, it could be doing much more and needs to be energized.

Several years ago, the New York Nightlife Association did a study to show the economic benefit of nightlife to New York City. Perhaps, landmarking could benefit from a similar study to show the amount of income generated by tourism and business by historic preservation.

One thing is clear, under the status quo, landmarked buildings and districts — as well as those that are candidates for designation — are threatened. The buck stops at City Hall — which, of course, itself is an exterior and interior landmark, in a historic district.

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