November 2017
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Testimony re: Intro 775

Testimony given by Christy MacLear, chair of MAS’s Preservation Committee

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on a bill that we believe will have a lasting negative impact on our city. I am Christy MacLear, member of the Municipal Art Society Board of Directors and Chair of the organization’s Preservation Committee. MAS is a non-profit membership organization that advocates for intelligent urban planning, design, and preservation. I am joined by architects Judith Saltzman and Charles Platt who have over 75 years combined expertise building and restoring landmark buildings.

The 120 year-old Municipal Art Society was the organization that lead the charge to create the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the 1960s, one of the most far reaching in the nation, after the devastating loss of Penn Station. We are a group of civic leaders and proud New Yorkers who want to ensure that we will continue to protect buildings and districts that are of value to our great city.

MAS supports efforts to bring greater transparency and accountability to LPC’s work, but we do not support the legislation being discussed today.

To understand the proposal being discussed today, one must first understand the existing landmarking process: LPC staff reviews applications and decides whether to “calendar” a proposal. The act of “calendaring” indicates that the LPC has evaluated a building or site, and determined it to be eligible for landmark designation. Calendaring also triggers a public hearing and a vote by the commissioners of the LPC. Over the years, LPC has calendared items, but not proceeded with a designation decision, leaving properties in limbo for years. For example, LPC currently has 96 properties that have been calendared for 5 years or longer.

Intro 775 would impose time limits for review of applications before the Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC). It would require LPC to hold a public hearing within 180 days for individual buildings that have been calendared, and another 180 to make a final decision about the designation, effectively putting a one-year time limit on LPC review of applications. Historic districts would have to be reviewed and designated or dismissed within two years. If no action is taken, then the application would be automatically dismissed. In all cases, properties that were not designated would receive a 5- year ban where resubmission would not be allowed. All items calendared at the time the law goes into effect must be designated or dismissed within 18 months.

While we have concerns about many elements of the bill, the most dangerous section is the proposed five-year moratorium on reconsiderations of potential landmarks. The original 1965 version of the landmarks law had a moratorium provision which Ada Louise Huxtable, in a New York Times editorial, called the law’s “weakness” and “an extraordinary joker in the final revision.” She goes on to say: “…this extremely questionable solution is no more than an ironic guarantee of speculative destruction as usual – under protection of the preservation law itself.”

In 1973 the City Council itself recognized that the moratorium was antithetical to the ideals of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and amended the law, and the moratorium provision was eliminated. Inserting a new moratorium into the law today will only go backwards in time and endanger the very intent law. We strongly advise you to remove the moratorium provision from consideration.

As you move forward, we urge the Council to consider a set of agency rules, rather than legislation, to improve transparency and move applications more swiftly through LPC. Or, you could draft legislation that sets a framework for new LPC policy, rather than dictating the policy itself.

We look forward to working with the Council and LPC on such a set of rules, and hope they will consider the following recommendations as conversations continue:

The deadlines in the bill are too short. LPC should be given two years or longer to review and designate or dismiss individual applications, rather than a year, and specific time periods of 6 months for each step of the designation process are unnecessary. For historic districts, LPC should have at least 3 years for review of historic districts. In fact, an analysis by Landmarks West showed that nearly 40 districts would not have been designated with the language in the proposed legislation.

We believe that automatically dismissing properties if no action is taken undermines the Landmarks Law, and should be withdrawn from consideration. This dangerous proposal could allow property to “run out the clock” on applications. MAS is equally opposed to a five year ban if a property is not designated. In fact, we believe this is a dangerous step backwards, since the Landmarks Law used to allow dismissal with prejudice.

MAS opposed LPC’s proposal to clear its backlog of calendared items without holding public hearings, and we are pleased that the agency will now review the applications through a series of public hearings. We have reviewed all the proposals and look forward to commenting in more detail at the hearings.

We urge the Committee to work with LPC to continue to improve its website. We applaud for the changes LPC made over the past year to bring greater transparency to its website, and hope more changes are on the way. For example, application presentations should be online at least two weeks before a hearing is held and agendas for each meeting should link directly to presentation materials.

Regarding Intro 837, an online database seems like a fine idea, but we ask that the Council work with LPC to ensure that the database is not too far reaching, and doesn’t impose an undue burden on the agency.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Download testimony (PDF)