Volume 17 • Issue 34 • Jan. 14 - 20, 2005


City and neighbors discuss construction in historic districts

By Hemmy So

On a busy night of meetings for community activists, a ten-person hodgepodge of concerned residents, historic district representatives and city agency representatives exchanged ideas on ameliorating the problems caused by construction in historic districts.

Councilmember Alan Gerson, who organized the meeting at Pace University, began by highlighting the fact that construction in historic districts such as Noho, Soho, Tribeca and the Seaport area has recently accelerated and that his office has fielded a number of complaints on the matter.

Though participants touched on issues such as noise complaints, protection of adjacent buildings and construction insurance, the bulk of the discussion focused on clarifying the separate roles of the Department of Buildings and Landmarks Preservation Commission and developing ways to enforce construction restrictions.

Two representatives from the D.O.B., Laura Osorio, Manhattan borough commissioner, and Corrine Lindo, deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, explained the department’s role in the construction process. In particular, they described the D.O.B.’s role in issuing permits, its system of clarifying the code through technical policy and procedure guidelines and its duty to conduct final building inspections. But community members made clear their dismay at Buildings’ reliance on developers to complete projects properly and the self-certification process.

But with that notion in mind, some community residents suggested ways to provide more notice to developers that their construction is in or near historic districts.

“Maybe the Department of Buildings can tell contractors what the plans are for a block, street or lot, so they’re aware of adjacent property,” said Zella Jones, chairperson of the Noho Neighborhood Association. Jones expressed particular concern about the effects of construction in non-historic districts on adjacent historic districts or landmarked buildings. That situation recently arose in Noho, where construction at 25 Bond St. negatively impacted nearby landmarked Shinbone Alley.

Representatives from both agencies also welcomed the suggestion that their computer databases flag properties in and next to historic districts. Diane Jackier, L.P.C. director of community and government relations, said that the commission is currently working to provide a building identification number system that indicates whether specific buildings have been landmarked. Currently, the public can search the D.O.B. Building Information Search system to see whether a particular lot has landmark status.

The BIS system has its kinks, however. Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, pointed out that some landmark designated properties were not captured by the system.

“Over time, these things happen. We know we inputted it but a year later it’s dropped off,” L.P.C. general counsel Mark Silberman said. “The BIS system is constantly being merged with the department of finance, planning, and other systems. That’s when it happens.” To constantly maintain the system would be a big project, and the L.P.C. does not have enough staff to support that, he said.

Jackier assured town hall attendees, however, that upon notification of such errors, the L.P.C. cures them.

Community members also hoped for stronger enforcement of restrictions upon developers who engage in construction in historic districts. D.O.B. and L.P.C. representatives both made clear that they have no oversight over noise control. Osorio and Lindo emphasized the D.O.B.’s role in enforcing developers to work with the appropriate permits. In addition to the department’s power to stop construction, it can also levy large fines against a contractor working without a permit.

The L.P.C.’s jurisdiction, however, only extends to historic districts, Silberman said. While it has a role in the approval process for new buildings in historic districts, the L.P.C.’s enforcement role is a reactionary one. After a landmarked building has suffered damage, the L.P.C. may send an inspector to assess the situation and seek civil fines for violations of its regulations.

Although the resolution of many issues will depend on increased sensitivity and cooperation by developers and contractors working in historic districts, there was discussion of changing a few city laws. Those included making the Buildings Dept.’s technical guidelines law and proposing legislation to impose liability insurance requirements on developers.



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