By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
Meenakshi Srinivasan, chairwoman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) since 2014, has announced her resignation as of June 1, 2018. Published comments in recent weeks from a few of the dissatisfied public reflect the controversies surrounding historic preservation laws that have existed since their American introduction in the 1960’s. The context has changed dramatically since the agency’s beginnings; at that earlier post-war time, anything old was considered by most as obstructions and disposable, of little or no value.
Today, building owners have criticized the LPC’s slow and esoteric process, which can easily take six or more weeks to do something simple, due to presentations to the community board and sometimes other city agencies. “There is no good reason for the time, expense and delay of requiring a public hearing for making minor alterations that have nearly always been approved in the past, “ said Mark Silberman, general counsel for the LPC.
What is the LPC?
The LPC is responsible for designating the City’s landmarks and buildings in historic districts, and regulates changes to designated buildings, since being formed in 1965. Eleven Commissioners and 80 staff, including architects, architectural historians, restoration specialists, planners, and archaeologists, and other personnel, work to fulfill its mission.
The LPC wants to make their work more efficient, but also more transparent, by simplifying the process to approve routine applications as part of a proposed overhaul of its governing rules, according to LPC chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan. Compliance with a wide variety of other governmental codes and criteria, including barrier-free access, energy codes and resiliency, are included in LPC’s mandates.
What are the new rules?
The LPC leaders have given public presentations of the new rules, which they say would be supported by long-time preservation pioneers, since they do not in any way change the original Landmarks Law, said Mark Silberman. The rule changes would allow many routine applications to avoid the public-review process by being reviewed and approved by the preservation staff under strict written guidelines. Codifying some of the commission’s current practices will clarify rules for routine procedures dealing with the LPC. The agency’s technology includes digital application filings and review, and on-line access to application data and decisions, so the public can view actions. Comments are available at www.nyc.gov/nycrules. Major alterations, new construction or more complex work will continue to follow full public-hearing procedures of the full commission.
Preservation groups have published statements against the Rules changes. The Historic Districts Council (HDC) on March 28, 2018, posted several opinions that bear consideration, such as, “encourage the LPC to make staff-level permit applications available in some way for public review” since “we are fully aware that bringing the more than 13,000 permit requests …. to public hearings would paralyze the agency and cause undue hardship for applicants.”
HDC also suggests “for the physical preservation of buildings. …the U.S. Secretary of Interior Standards for Preservation, Rehabilitation, Restoration and Reconstruction” should be adopted.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), have protested the avoidance of the public-review process. Yet a quick survey of the GVSHP website seems to indicate that the applications receiving their protests were not routine work items and would have gotten public review hearings even under the proposed rules.
It would be foolhardy to think rule changes will change the types of controversies created by the Landmarks Law, such as, what is “appropriate” or “contextual” for new construction in an historic district, or, what historic period should a restoration aim for? Rule changes improve the process but will never entirely resolve the aesthetic questions and differing opinions. This is a democratic, representative agency that will continue to struggle with that, and with the capacity of future public hearings and meetings to review an increasing number of applications. Whoever the new chairperson is, clarifying the rule of law will be a most important topic.
Brian J. Pape is an architectural consultant in private practice, serves as Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects New York Design for Aging Committee, and as WestView News’ Architectural Editor. He is also an officer of the health consultancy firm EnJOY Life!
Meenakshi Srinivasan serves as both chair and commissioner of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is the largest municipal preservation agency in the United States.Photo provided by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.