Public Rips Proposed Changes to Landmarks Rules in Contentious Public Hearing Tuesday

Houses in the Crown Heights North Historic District


    A majority of people spoke against the Landmark Preservation Commission’s proposed rule amendments at an unusually crowded and contentious public hearing Tuesday, arguing the proposed changes will make the landmarking process less transparent — exactly the opposite of what the agency claims.

    First announced in January, the adjustments will codify, consolidate, alter and add to the commission’s existing rules — changes the agency argues will streamline the application process.

    Since the announcement, preservationists have claimed the rule changes will decrease transparency in the landmarking process and allow alterations that were previously prohibited, and said the motives behind the proposed changes appear to be to pave the way for development at the expense of historic preservation.

    landmarks commission rule changes

    Renovation in Brooklyn Heights

    That sentiment was strongly felt yesterday. Stretching two hours over the allotted time to make room for all the speakers, the hearing was packed and heated. People were almost spilling into the hallway, and boos were heard from preservationists when somebody spoke in favor of the proposed rules.

    Unusually, two police officers were stationed in a corner for the first half of the hearing. More than 60 people testified. Fewer than 11 speakers came out fully in favor of the proposal; about 10 were ambivalent.

    Because of the amount of testimony, the commission voted to extend the period for written testimony another six weeks. The new deadline is May 8, after which point the commissioners will discuss the proposal, LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said.

    LPC General Counsel Mark Silberman opened the hearing with remarks stressing the commission’s view that the rule amendments are transparent — contra many of the public’s complaints — and will not increase the workload of the staff. He added that most of the existing rules are being retained, implying that what is being amended is only a small fraction of the commission’s overall rules.

    Most who testified were opposed to at least some aspect, if not all, of the proposed rule changes. The arguments, for the most part, were broad — speakers mostly took issue with the commission’s plan to deal with an increased number of alterations on a staff level instead of via public review and the effect they said it would have on landmarking.

    “We want to continue to be part of the public review process,” said Patti Hagan, a resident of the Prospect Heights Historic District, who quoted the musical “The Music Man” during her testimony and teared up as she spoke. “Do not undermine decades of New York City public participation in the Landmarks Preservation Commission.”

    Jeremy Woodoff, a preservationist who was on the commission staff for over 20 years, brought up issues with some of the language in the proposed amendments. “A problem throughout the rules is a lack of definitions,” he said during his testimony. “Terms like ‘will not detract from,’ ‘will not call attention to itself’ and ‘recalls’ can lead to inconsistent and arbitrary actions based on extraneous factors. Likewise, terms such as “no style” can confuse lack of style with lack of significance.”

    The Historic Districts Council, the Municipal Arts Society, Landmarks West and other preservation advocacy groups testified against the rule amendments, sometimes with staff members each presenting a portion of a group’s testimony in an effort to stay under the three-minute per person time limit.

    landmarks preservation commission rule changes

    A wood frame house undergoing restoration on Dean Street in the Crown Heights North Historic District

    Not all were against the amendments. In addition to a number of organizations like the Downtown Brooklyn Alliance and the American Institute of Architects, who both provided testimony supporting the rules changes, an “owner of a small building” in the Crown Heights Historic District also spoke in favor of the amendments, from the point of view of homeowners.

    “Homeowners pay dearly in this process,” she said, adding that she had to pay $500 to go in front of the LPC during her last hearing. “The new rules are more pragmatic, and property owners can balance the desire to restore beauty and modernize.”

    A number of former commissioners also provided testimony, including Sherida Paulsen, who was chair of the LPC from 2001 to 2003. She was in favor of the amendments. “I do not see anything in these rules changes that are intended to limit, in any way, public comment,” she said. “Reorganizing [the rules] and making them clear is essential.”

    Alterations in Prospect Park South

    Alterations in Prospect Park South

    Some in the audience were not happy with what they felt was a conflict of interest. “Your position is not surprising,” a man snickered loudly as Paulson was walking back to her seat.

    Amid what preservationists say has been a decline in the quality of recent decisions made by the LPC, some made comments directly addressing Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan.

    A representative for Human-scale NYC, a coalition of community groups and civic organizations focused on planning, development, public space and preservation issues in all five boroughs, called for a new chair with the “professional competence and education in the academic field of preservation, as well as one with greater willingness to defend the commission from the constant assaults from the Real Estate Board of New York.”

    landmarks preservation commission rule changes

    Construction on Montague Street in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District

    This was in line with an open letter the organization recently sent out, which went into greater detail regarding their desire for Mayor de Blasio to appoint a new chair of the commission.

    But most who spoke at the public hearing said they simply want the commission to uphold the landmarks law, and keep their decisions part of a public conversation. They agreed with the claims the public will lose more than it will gain under the guise of efficiency.

    Jeffrey Kroessler, a historian and preservation advocate, summed up the general feeling in the room.

    “We want it to be right,” he said. “Not expedited.”

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