By Caroline Benveniste
Much has been written about Intro. 775, a bill proposed by City Council Landmarks Chair Peter Koo and Land Use Chair David Greenfield which ostensibly streamlines the landmarking process. For those who have not been following, the salient points of the bill are that once a landmarks application has been calendared, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) would have one year to decide for individual landmarks and two years for historic districts. An application that was not acted upon within the time limits would fail to receive landmark status, and a 5 year moratorium would be imposed during which the case for landmarking could not be re-opened.
The stated impetus for this bill is a backlog of buildings and sites under consideration for landmark designation by the LPC. Of these properties/sites, 95 were calendared before 2010, and 85% were calendared over 20 years ago. Under its new chair, Meenakshi Srinivasan, the LPC finally decided to address this backlog. Initially, they proposed removing all 95 properties from the docket which would certainly have fixed the problem.
However, after an outcry by preservation groups and help from Borough President Gail Brewer, a new proposal was made: the LPC committed to resolve all 95 cases in the next 18 months using an expedited process whereby groups of properties, rather than just a single property, would be addressed at hearings.
Ironically, the plan for eliminating the backlog had the effect of bringing the backlog into the spotlight and this gave the pro-development members of the City Council the opening they had been waiting for. A bill along the lines of Intro. 775 had been on the real estate industry’s wish list for a while.
But Intro. 775 is not necessary. While a backlog is undesirable, the LPC has crafted a proposal to deal with it, and is also addressing ways to prevent a new backlog from forming. Moreover, while the pro-development lobby continually stresses that it is a severe hardship for building owners to have buildings in this sort of limbo, in reality, the situation is not that grim.
If there exists an application for a building or site or district that has been calendared but not decided, and the landlord of the building applies for a building permit, the LPC will have 40 days to review the permit. During that time, if the LPC believes the proposed work would harm the site, they can move ahead with designation, and this would require the permit to go through the landmarks approval process. However, the LPC can, and has in some cases simply let the permit be issued. In many of the backlog cases, the applications were essentially forgotten about because there was no pressure from either side to do anything.
So it is exceedingly unlikely that because of the backlog, numerous landlords have been unable to do anything with their buildings. But by using this scary scenario, the pro-development lobby has portrayed a crisis that does not exist, and has proposed a solution which furthers their own agenda.
This proposal is pernicious and would have the desired (by the proposers) effect of considerably weakening the Landmarks Law. In response to the strong showing by the public against Intro. 775 at a public hearing on September 9th, the bill’s chief sponsors have made it clear that they are now considering amendments to the bill. But it is possible that the amendments will do nothing more than extend the time limits or shorten the moratorium. That is why it is critical for concerned citizens to continue to write to their Councilmembers and elected officials to let them know that they oppose this bill which will severely hamper the Landmarks Law which many fought so hard to pass.