By Andrew Berman
The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has proposed a broad set of changes to its rules governing how applications for changes to landmarked properties and properties in historic districts are decided. The proposal would take many such applications out of the public review and approval process. Now, these applications come before local community boards, and the public is notified and has the opportunity to testify or submit comments or evidence about the applications and why they should or should not be approved. If this new proposal passes, there would be no public notification, and no opportunity for the public to comment upon, provide evidence about, or even know about many of these applications. They would instead be decided behind closed doors at “staff level” by the Commission—a process tightly controlled by the LPC Chair.
From our earliest conversations with the Commission about this proposal, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has indicated that we believe strongly that the planned rules changes are the wrong thing to do, and will undermine transparency, public participation, good government, and preservation. By cutting the public out of the process for landmarks applications which currently come before the Commission, the proposed changes will produce worse outcomes, not better; generate more friction between the public and the Commission, not less; and breed distrust, not cooperation.
The current public review process benefits from the voices and opinions of all interested parties, and most importantly, benefits from the information they can provide. Most applicants to the LPC do their best to offer complete and accurate information. Some unintentionally fall short. Other purposely leave out information, skew diagrams, or selectively cherry pick data or comparisons. In the public hearing process, such shortcomings can be addressed or corrected. Behind closed doors, in the proposed staff level approval process, there is no opportunity to do so. Isn’t it better for the Commission to receive as complete and accurate information as possible before a decision is made, rather than after, when it is often extremely difficult correct or undo?
Neighbors, block associations, community boards, elected officials, and preservation groups can and do provide valuable information and perspective which should continue to be part of these applications. No one expects the Commission to agree with every piece of public testimony it receives. But they should at least hear it, so the public knows it was considered, before a decision is rendered.
GVSHP’s opposition to this proposal is not based upon a belief that Commissioners always make the right decision, or that staff always make the wrong ones. We are all fallible, and that is why continuing to keep these important kinds of landmarks applications, which hundreds of people comment upon each year, in the public view is so critical. We would be just as opposed to the proposed changes if Commissioners were still making the decisions, but the public was no longer allowed to view or comment upon the applications, as is currently proposed. It is the secrecy of the proposed process, its lack of transparency, and its impermeability to additional information or perspective that we find so troubling and disturbing. We should be making this a more open system, not a less open one, where more information and perspectives can be considered.
To send a letter to the Mayor and the Landmarks Preservation Commission opposing the proposed rules changes, go to www.gvshp.org/lpcrules.