Undoing Historic Districts Report
Undercutting the Landmarks Law:
Comments on the proposed rule changes
Submitted by the Society for the Architecture of the City
At the Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing, March 27, 2018
It would be hard to bring about an immediate and total repeal of the landmarks law. But the regulated industries—construction, finance, real estate—know better than to attempt that, while the political door is open to incremental change.
To promote efficiency and transparency, packaged in a hundred and thirty-one pages of mind-numbing bureaucratese, the Landmarks Preservation Commission is offering us a complete revision of their rules, to be approved by the commissioners sometime after March 27th. Among other things, these rules govern the issuance of staff level permits for alterations, additions, excavations, material substitutions, and partial demolitions in landmarked sites, buildings, parks and neighborhoods. Those permits are called “staff-level” because they will be approved without public notice or review by the commissioners.
Do the new rules, like rust, woodworm or acid rain, have the potential to corrode the beauty and authentic character of landmarks and historic districts we thought were well protected?
Worse, will these new rules introduce procedural changes that affect certain balances of power under the law—interagency and intergovernmental relations, media coverage, and the ability of both staff and commissioners to act to protect landmarks? Does the general structural “reorganization” and “consolidation” that swells the proposal into a 131 page document serve to de-emphasize some new initiatives that might have attracted more skeptical attention had they been presented alone?
The Landmarks Preservation Commission tells us that preservationists will support their proposed new rules, because those rules will enable an increase in landmark designations, “And that’s what you want, isn’t it?”
Any port in a storm—the storm being the blitzkrieg of rezoning for the demolition that New York is experiencing. After all, people may dream of saving the world they live in and saying no to some nightmare future New York composed of nothing but chain drugstores and bank branches and glassy high-rise towers.
But with the new rules, we can assume that there is no price to pay for the promised future increase in landmark designation: designation is designation, right? Buildings will be saved?
Yes, up to a point. However, this is New York, and there will be a price, in this stark equation: more landmarks will mean less landmark regulation. That, paradoxically, will be the effect of the proposed expansion and multiplication of the landmark rules: to reduce public review, limit the jurisdiction of the commissioners, and reduce unfiltered advance notification available to the media—but streamline and greatly expedite the issuance of permits for alterations. The text of the new rules gives every indication that approvals will become not only faster but less mindful of important distinctions and very much more permissive.
The fight for preservation only begins with designation. Without proper regulation designation becomes a nullity. Here, “efficiency” becomes the enemy of “transparency,” since it involves secrecy. The more applications that are resolved behind closed doors, the more the public review calendar shrinks, the faster the applications are processed, the less holistic the examination of the proposals, the fewer eyes on the prize, the greater the opportunities for a slow erosion of the architectural and cultural values that made a landmark worth preserving in the first place.
Reading 131 dense pages of proposed rules is a commitment that not everyone can or will make. The agency has given a great deal of time to drafting this proposal, and at present no crystal ball is forecasting the denial of any part of it. Nevertheless, evaluating the damaging provisions seems necessary, if only to create a public record of what will be lost from a policy standpoint, if and when it is enacted.
Probably only future historians will care to judge the present priorities of City Hall. The deregulation of landmarking and the blitzkrieg of rezoning come to us as a paired initiative, a quasi-military pincer operation for surrounding the territory to be appropriated, that territory being the historic city. Among the displaced will be those who have loved and admired their historic city, and called parts of it home.
Community consultation. Before the statutory public notice and publication of the text, the agency sponsored a series of meetings with preservation advocates, thus establishing what is sometimes called a record of community consultation, during which the agency’s stated objectives were described orally and with Power Point by members of the staff. There was no copy of the amendment text, and one advocate, a retired litigation partner in a major law firm, growled, “Where’s the redline?” The executive director responded that she thought it would be “easier for you” to look at the pictures on the screen.
What are the arguments for changing the existing rules? The new rules are supposed to increase transparency and efficiency, avoid administrative overload, and co-ordinate with the policies of other branches of government, while clearing the way for increased landmark designation.
Interagency co-operation. Obviously, any perceived need “to bring the Commission’s rules up to date with Commission approvals concerning compliance with a wide variety of other governmental codes and criteria, including barrier-free access, energy codes and resiliency mandates” could be accomplished in a far less invasive fashion. In these rapidly evolving fields, some involving new technology, the plan to remove these applications from commissioner review may be premature. We can see no logical reason why design review should cease for “resiliency mandates” and application of “energy codes” involving alterations or new structures proposed for landmark sites and districts.
“Transparency” is probably safe for City Hall to say, based on an educated guess that few voters or homeowners will be able to face a close reading of the 131 page document, if they even know it exists, and so, there may be no overwhelming wave of complaints. For experienced professionals, the new rules make explicit what changes to landmarked buildings can be made quickly and privately, for as the architect Stanton Eckstut once remarked in an interview in New York Newsday, (June 30, 1988):
…private developers will do almost anything you ask, as long as they know the rules and nobody changes them. Because what that provides is certainty, which in the redevelopment process, is gold.
“Efficiency,” if that is defined as streamlined production of potentially ill-considered permits, yes. The new rules will expedite approvals, and make life easier for certain applicants, who for some years have been regarded as “clients” of the commission. Customer service for applicants can be important but it is not the mission of the agency, and need not be privileged above the best protection that can be given to historic districts and individual landmarks and those great parks we call scenic landmarks. The public interest merits consideration, as much as any applicant. “One -size-fits-all” measures of agency efficiency published in the Mayor’s Management Report are derived from industry, and should be only one part of a much bigger governmental picture. Whether or not the agency achieves those performance standards, meant for problems like getting the hamburger onto the bun, into the bag and out the drive-in window as fast as possible, will not tell you whether the Landmarks Preservation Commission is doing its job upholding the law.
Everyone can see that New York has changed since 1965, when the landmarks law was enacted. A well-documented transfer of wealth has reconfigured residential and commercial demographics, and people in control of landmarked properties now have names like Nora Jones and Steve Roth and Stephen A. Cohen, and they have their acolytes, their representatives, their trade associations, and their public relations spinners. That does not change the rationale stated in the law:
. . . many improvements, as herein defined, and landscape features, as herein defined, having a special character or a special historical or aesthetic interest or value and many improvements representing the finest architectural products of distinct periods in the history of the city, have been uprooted, notwithstanding the feasibility of preserving and continuing the use of such improvements and landscape features, and without adequate consideration of the irreplaceable loss to the people of the city of the aesthetic, cultural and historic values represented by such improvements and landscape features. In addition, distinct areas may be similarly uprooted or may have their distinctiveness destroyed, although the preservation thereof may be both feasible and desirable. (§25-301(a). Our emphasis.)
Giving an applicant for a permit a brief and happy experience may be reasonable or not depending on what he wants to do to his landmarked property, but the primary mission of the agency is to protect that property, not to accommodate that applicant. The proposed changes to the Landmarks Commission’s rules are shifting the balance of power from preservation to accommodation, while waving the flag of designation to distract the worried but inattentive New Yorker. “. . .the people of the city” do have a stake in the just administration of the law, and their interests merit consideration.
Overload. The agency cites a possible impending procedural problem: the agenda for meetings where commissioners review new applications, that is, the public hearing calendar, could be overwhelmed if present trends continue: anticipated new designations could increase the quantity of applications beyond the agency’s ability to process them using current methods. This, we are warned, could lead to a halt in potential designations.
The agency’s analysis of the problem depends on the projection of statistical curves: such an administrative collapse has not yet occurred. For instance, since January 2017, the commissioners have been meeting to review applications about three times a month. Counting the number of items actually heard (including the return of “no action” items to public meetings and the consideration of reports on projects from other government agencies, but not including withdrawn or laid over items listed in the preliminary calendars issued provisionally to meet the statutory notice deadline) the average number of items per hearing has been about a dozen, making possible adjournment at the end of the normal working day in most cases, and often considerably earlier, near lunch time, if none of the public hearings are contentious. Contrary to what has been suggested, at present there may be latitude to address the same number of agenda items in fewer meetings.
According to the Mayor’s Management Report there was not a significant increase in applications between fiscal 2016 and 2017, although the general five year trend was upward. In reality, there seems to be no compelling need to address the issue of potential administrative overload immediately, in March of 2018, because the perceived future overload is conjectural.
In terms of designations, it is equally arguable that over the last 50 years the majority of eligible landmarks have already been located and most eligible large historic districts designated, so that the rate of designation might well taper off instead of swelling, even if there were adequate recognition of neglected cultural landmarks and buildings that reach the required age of 30 years going forward, and even allowing for the evolution of our appreciation of historic architectural styles.
Looking back, however, it is true that the landmarks law was never intended to provide protection for so much of the city. When it was created, in 1965, there was hope that the new commission could have had a more limited role in protecting what the framers of the law called “the noble accomplishments of the past.” Some of the founding advocates anticipated good government, a City Planning Commission that would join in advancing a balanced view of land use, in part through its newly minted Urban Design Group with its Special District initiatives. The history of those happier times is recounted in Anthony C. Wood’s book, Preserving New York, how Harmon Goldstone was appointed to the City Planning Commission, while his friend and ally, Geoffrey Platt became the first head of the Landmarks Commission, and how they worked together, before Goldstone followed as second chair. In 1978, Goldstone said:
What actually happened is quite different from what was expected to happen. At the December 3, 1964 hearing before the City Council, when the landmark bill was still under consideration, James Van Derpool testified that he thought that the commission might ultimately designate about 1000 individual landmarks and perhaps three or four historic districts—Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village and perhaps a Cast Iron District were all that anyone had seriously considered. (“The Future of the Past” in Village Views, Vol. IV, No. 3.)
James Grote Van Derpool was the Avery Librarian, but left Columbia University to become the first executive director of the Landmarks Commission. Today, there are more than 30,000 protected buildings in New York City, so certainly it is arguable that a time could come when one more historic district climbing on board sinks the lifeboat, and the mechanism of government is overwhelmed.
But it is comforting to recall that the prospect of such disaster was first raised back in the 1990s, when alarms about the agency’s capacity for conducting enough public hearings led to a trial of what we then dubbed the “Two Ring Circus” approach. The commissioners divided into two teams, each of which heard half of the day’s calendar, meeting afterwards so that the whole commission could blindly provide legal ratification for the minority decisions. At this time, the commission was housed in the Old Police Headquarters Building at Old Slip, where space was in short supply, and initially one half of the commission met in a room which was used to store discarded office furniture. Astonished lawyers and landowners had literally to climb over the arms of old leather sofas and stacks of chairs to reach the table and make their presentations. For whatever reason, the process proved so unwieldy that it was abandoned despite dire predictions of administrative collapse.
Meanwhile the 1988 Charter Revision had opened the door to a different approach. Revision brought us the City Administrative Procedures Act, and the Giuliani administration took advantage of it to enact rules that would enable commission staff to take more responsibility for some frequently recurring applications, notably certain window replacements. So what is new about rules delegating approvals to staff? Surely this has been going on for decades?
Undercutting the structure of the law. The enactment of the law whose protections we seem to value so little today would have been impossible without broad support—political, scholarly and social. It is not unreasonable to take the findings and statement of purpose in the opening sections of the law as a serious analysis reflecting that widespread support and belief, and the intricate checks and balances that follow, as well calculated. The administrative structure as originally laid out acknowledged that some changes to designated buildings were inconsequential, and these were to be regulated through permits issued by staff without the supervision of the commissioners, specifically Permits for Minor Work (PMW) or Certificates of No Effect (CNE). But Certificates of Appropriateness (CoA) for more significant changes would have to be approved by the commissioners, who would find the work appropriate, or not. “Appropriateness”—a term that still leads to discussion and dispute—was to be determined through the intellectual consensus of a diverse group of commissioners voting on the merits of each case. In legal terms it was a discretionary decision which the commissioners were empowered to make, when acting in a public forum, with statutory notice given. Those one thousand precious buildings of James Grote Van Derpool’s imagination—bearers of the weight of civilization—were to have all the protection that deliberation and thought and varied expertise could forge for them.
Of course, in administrative law, the counterpart of the discretionary decision is the ministerial decision. It is a decision which does not admit of any exercise of individual judgment because it is authorized by explicit and binding rules. Such rules are to be followed by agency staff when issuing permits. The rules adopted under the Giuliani administration generally met that standard. But that is about to change.
Now the old rules are being reorganized and rewritten so that the staff will have to make multiple judgment calls, discretionary decisions behind closed doors. Under such circumstances, unfortunately, problems could arise. For one thing, the staff could be subjected to what one former staff member has elegantly called “extraneous” pressures, that is, political pressures to expedite approvals that are in conflict with best preservation practice and the stated aims of the landmarks law. At the same time, some of the wording in these rules potentially restricts the staff’s ability to advise applicants against thoughtless design decisions, and help them make better choices, a key practice for protecting landmarks. In one instance, §2-14 (h)(1) (i) describes what the staff “will” (not “may”) approve:
(i) LPC Staff will approve a new window or door in an existing opening, provided the window or door being removed is not a special window or special door, except that if the “Special Window” is limited to distinctive glazing, the glazing can be removed and installed in a new window and in a new location on the façade;
This rule apparently would apply no matter that the old door or window might be of superior quality and materials, and could be restored or refinished instead of being trashed. The almost universally used “staff will” formula should at least be replaced by “staff may.” Seeing the amount of discretion staff is given, in our view improperly, to make private judgments about what we see as potentially damaging alterations, surely they should not simultaneously be prevented from trying to avoid loss of historic fabric, a generally recognized preservation goal. We suppose the purpose of the “will” formula is to remove any doubt from the minds of applicants about what they can do to their property, before they have considered alternatives. This is the bias we have noted toward providing speedy service, at the expense of thoughtful decisions and best preservation practice. It is no surprise if some property owners are unfamiliar with the possibilities of preservation architecture and are working with contractors who are equally in the dark, or with suppliers or consultants who are not disinterested. Good free advice instead of a rubberstamp approval of an inferior solution should continue to be an agency policy, but cannot, if the “shall” and “will” language used in this revision is approved.
But while the staff is potentially hampered in their work, the commissioners are given a reduced role in the decision making process, relieved of many of their statutory responsibilities to judge the appropriateness of proposed alterations. One benefit of commissioner review is the sophisticated suggestions that architect members of the commission may make to improve unsuitable designs. And at public review, issues of architectural and social history can be brought to the table, potentially affecting determinations. No existing or proposed rule can mandate such consideration, as staff decisions made under rules provide no forum for discussion, and no opportunity for public awareness of issues that might arise, in contravention to the newly announced policy of increased consideration for cultural and historic landmarks. Indeed, contact between the general public and the staff of the preservation department is discouraged, and has sometimes been forbidden.
But perhaps the greatest benefit of public review—a benefit that will be reduced—has always been the notification, publication of the calendar, so that elected officials and the media can weigh in, sometimes joining crowds of angry citizens and property owners, and affecting outcomes, either by swaying votes, or by causing applicants to think again.
Despite the increased role for staff in decision making, no attempt has been made to codify internal procedures for staff approvals, or for that matter, staff reports on CoA applications. At various times, it has been customary to hold preservation staff meetings, or meetings of informal committees of preservation staff, to consider items on the calendar and arrive at some consensus, while also giving more experienced staff members an opportunity to communicate with the newly hired. Historically, staff decisions reached through this cooperative process have been treated with more of less respect under different administrations. However, in the absence of any procedural parameters, it is always possible for politically generated determinations to be represented as decisions of the professional staff when that is not the case. We agree that the courts have found there is no requirement for agency rule-making in this area, nevertheless it is a consideration of some interest under the circumstances.
The New York City Landmarks Law is widely regarded as one of the best in the nation. It has been in a leadership position for half a century. The present initiative to alter it through deregulation probably stems from an external contrarian ambition to remake the city without the interference of existing checks and balances, without what the contrarians would characterize as “red tape,” and above all without “nostalgia,” which is nostalgia for what the law calls “the city’s historic, aesthetic and cultural heritage.” From the standpoint of historic preservation, as defined in existing law, there is really no compelling reason to enact this proposed rule revision immediately, and we see a need for extensive revisions of the revision. It has been noted by others that in these proposed rules, historic preservation and the original mission of the agency are never recognized as goals, a criticism we can only call understated.
The Summary. Unfortunately, relying on the summary of changes provided by the commission would be a mistake. The summary occupies pages one through eighteen of the public notice required by the City Administrative Procedures Act (CAPA). This portion of the 131 page document does not and will never have the force of law, and it repeatedly entertains ideas that differ from what is found in the actual amendment, that is, the underlined revisions, which are the only part of the document that matters. This is “transparent” only to those experienced in the ways of government. Thus, although the summary retains a reassuring patina of preservation language that might signal good intentions, in the amendments, concepts familiar to preservationists are turned upside down to create a new structure of reduced protection.
For instance, on page 10, the summary of policy for rear yard and rooftop additions reassuringly describes a “criterion” that will be applied, “not detract from significant architectural features”:
In addition, the criterion that an addition not detract from any significant architectural features or call undue attention to itself would be determined in relation to specific factors, such as the distance it is seen [sic], whether it is seen from limited vantage points or an oblique angle, or is visible in combination with other additions or structures.
The amended text §2-15 (a)(4)(ii) reads
(ii) . . .In determining whether an addition does not call attention to itself or detract, LPC Staff will consider the following factors:
(A) The addition is partially visible at a significant distance;
(B) The addition is partially visible from limited vantage points, including through alleyways, yards, or similar open portions of sites which are not building sites;
(C) The addition is partially visible from an oblique angle;
(D) The addition is partially visible in combination with other existing additions or structures that share a similar level of visibility; or
(E) The specific historic district is characterized by visibility of similar structures.
How is this language twisted? Here, subsections (A) through (C) describe visibility angles an applicant is now expected to document and map in an application for a Certificate of Appropriateness which, under existing policy, is to be reviewed by the public and the commissioners at a public hearing. They represent factors that might make an application unacceptable, and lead commissioners to require a change in size, set-back or massing of the addition, while (D) and (E) can serve as a justification for allowing the visible addition at all, based not on how “The specific historic district is characterized” but rather on photographs of the immediate area including the mock-up of the new structure. We would be interested to see how and where any historic district was ever “characterized” by the visibility of its rooftop additions. Where are the designation reports that make any such claim? The characteristics of a district are normally virtues that inspire designation. No district was designated because of the number and prominence of its rooftop additions. The grammatically odd locution “determining whether an addition does not call attention to itself” certainly suggests that if “the addition is partially visible” etc. then it does not call attention to itself and can be approved unmodified, by staff. That would be a policy change posing as an accepted “criterion”.
Language like that in §2-15 (a)(4)(ii) also reflects clichés found in the routinely drafted staff reports that can serve as a basis for commissioner resolutions to approve. But those tentative resolutions frequently end up being part of modified approvals requiring changed size, set-back or massing of the addition, even though some of the boilerplate draft wording may have been retained in the resolution as read into the record. Taken separately from the evidence of the hearing video, some such resolutions could be adduced as evidence that the commissioners habitually approve additions visible under the definitions (A) through (E), although the approvals were in fact approvals of modifications to even more unacceptable applications, with changes dictated by context as presented in photographic evidence.
Using words to destroy protections. The vocabulary and phraseology of the new rules are an exercise in Orwellian newspeak. Although the City Administrative Procedures Act (at §1043(a)) calls for the use of plain English in drafting rules, the agency seemingly cannot avoid dazzling us with terms of art and preservation jargon, while failing to offer any definition at all of some dangerous and superficially misleading new terminology. There are seven separate sets of Definitions, three of which explicitly relate only to the section where they appear, while the scope of the remainder is undefined, and there is no single definitions section for the rules as a whole. Even if nothing is to be done about such fragmentation, the following terms require further discussion or amendment for the sake of clarity and the protection of landmarks: “undue attention,” “recall,” and “standard characteristics.”
Undue attention. For instance, that irritating nostrum which assures us some newly minted architectural feature “will not call undue attention to itself” has morphed. Ordinarily found in resolutions where the commissioners are approving something one might hope they would not, such as an over-sized and visible rooftop addition—which, however, “will not call undue attention to itself” because it is seen against a background of other buildings—that is a discretionary decision on an individual item that the commissioners are entitled to make.
But now these strange hypothetical demands on our attention have become criteria for staff level approvals. Rules are meant to be explicit and unambiguous to enable to staff to make ministerial decisions. Perhaps that is why the formula “will not call undue attention to itself” is never used in the existing rules. But in the proposal it is used 28 times, a key factor in approval of everything from garbage enclosures to chimneys. Leaving aside the interesting semantic question of how an inanimate object can call or refrain from calling, what “undue attention” is supposed to mean is deeply ambiguous. It defies objective measurement or logical analysis.
Take §2-11(d)(2)(i)(B) found on page 27 of the proposal, which authorizes staff level permits for the use of Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic (FRP) as a replacement for sheet metal cornices in certain circumstances.
(B) Fiberglass may not be used to replace original or historic sheet metal, cast and wrought iron, and other ornamental cast or extruded metal at the sixth story or below, except if limited to a small number of discrete elements and painted on site. Above the sixth story, fiberglass may be used. Notwithstanding these considerations, elaborate sheet metal cornices above the second story may be replicated in fiberglass provided molds are taken and joints are concealed to the greatest extent feasible and the joints do not call undue attention to themselves.
“Undue attention”? Either the joints will be visible, or they will not. What concrete steps can be taken to conceal or minimize the joints? Nothing is specified, and we are left to assume that the result will depend on the skill and good will of the contractor. If the joints turn out to be prominent after the cornice is installed, what next? Apparently a wish and a prayer that nobody notices, or at least that nobody notices “unduly.” Absent is any way to determine in advance whether the joints will be visible, or a requirement to dismantle the work if they are, much less any concrete or objective standard to determine whether they attract that so-called “undue attention” that is forbidden. Because the outcome of the work apparently cannot be determined in advance and is subject to interpretation once built, this language is absolutely useless as a stipulation in rules.
In the existing rules, §2-19(a), a “minimally visible” rooftop addition is defined as being in the line of sight by not more than 12 inches, and must not call attention to itself (at all!). But in the new rules, above 60 feet, there can be a 24 inch projection, see §2-15(a)(4)(i). Suddenly we have moved from the very vague to the very specific, a cut-off line enabling a measurement of 61 feet to double the amount of permissible visibility, provided the addition does not “call undue attention to itself”. So here the “undue attention” formula is clearly back-sliding: the agency in effect admits that the new taller thing may be noticeable, but in a manner made famous in Kafka’s The Castle, simply decrees that staff may decide it doesn’t matter, an unseen hand can rubberstamp approval, and ours is not to reason why. Agencies are expected to demonstrate a rational basis for their actions, perhaps that basis is lacking here. There is not even a formula for measuring the 60 foot height, no defined starting point.
On 43 separate occasions, we are told that new work or synthetic materials are approvable if they “recall” original or historic architectural features. Here again, there is no definition, perhaps because definition is impossible? What substitute might trigger a memory of the real thing is a very elusive concept, subjective at best, and can only become more so with the passage of time. Does Reddi Whip ”recall” whipped cream? What could it recall to a child who had never experienced cream? As real metal and stone and wood are replaced with alien substances in renovations of designated landmarks, as moldings square off and lose their ovolos and cavettos, joinery is replaced by Phillips screws on metal extrusions, windows lose their original divisions and dimensions, and stone is covered with cementitious coatings, historic building techniques will indeed drift toward being a memory, and the historic streetscape will become more and more devalued, even when there is in fact no economic hardship driving the change. We are leaving the realm of the real for the realm of the virtual, where ever more vaporous impressions of the thing replace the thing itself.
Constitutional issues make it impossible to designate private interiors in this country, and it has long been a troubling consequence of gentrification in historic districts that the buildings tend to become false fronts as a result of interior demolition and modernization. As streetscapes increasingly become more like film sets, it may be especially important to retain some material reality, to replace in kind and use traditional building techniques. Encouraging the use of an array of synthetics by expediting permits for their use, as these rules do, is questionable policy. An earlier approach to staff level permits was to issue them for best preservation practices, in hopes that applicants would do the right thing if they could do it immediately. Permits for some substitute materials in façade restoration might better be treated as CoAs until the substitute materials have been shown to meet the test of time, and their castings and application techniques sufficiently tested and refined from an esthetic standpoint.
It is not necessarily unwise to be skeptical about the characteristics of new products. Recently in London, government and the real estate industry rushed to use inadequately tested new cladding materials, resulting in the notorious Grenfell Tower fire, where 71 people were killed. Subsequent investigations identified more than a hundred other buildings where this dangerous aluminum and polyethylene cladding had been used, available due to modified fire safety regulations. The economic damage is huge. This is a worst case illustration, but it has implications for us.
Rather than expediting the use of sometimes dubious new materials, the LPC could remember the possibility of a leadership role in the development of better restoration materials by creating demand. LPC has a large and prosperous area of jurisdiction. Requiring high standards and serious consideration of alternatives can raise the bar for available commercial products, to the benefit of all. We have seen this in the improved products the window replacement industry has created in response to restoration demand over the last 20 years.
“Standard characteristics.” §2-11(b)(3) discusses those characteristics as follows:
(3) Standard characteristics of materials and features. In all cases, except where noted, the repair, restoration, replacement or re-creation must match the original or historic materials and features in terms of its standard physical and aesthetic characteristics, including design, detail, profile, dimension, material, texture, tooling, dressing, color and finish, as applicable.
This is not a definition section, and it is unclear whether this description (such as it is) should be regarded as defining a term either here, or when used in §2-19(a)(1)(i). However, its use in §2-11 is curious. “. . . design, detail, profile, dimension, material, texture, tooling, dressing, color and finish, as applicable” is exceedingly vague and general for a specification. What are the standard characteristics of “material”? It remains mysterious what those characteristics could be or how, when or by whom they became standardized, if ever. However, such questions should not detain us because they are made irrelevant by three little words, “except as noted”. The bravado of the beginning, “repair, restoration, replacement or re-creation must match the original or historic features” is a sham. It soon becomes clear that Chapter 2 in fact contemplates extensive use of what are delicately referred to as “substitute” materials in restoration, to be approved, of course, privately, without interference from any skeptical commissioners. We see that “Standard characteristics” can dance with “recall historic features,” without, of course calling “undue attention”. Standard characteristics manage to be invoked 17 times without formal definition or adequate clarification of what they are. It is a question, to what extent the many sections in which the term is used are enforceable.
The focus on ”work-types” as an organizing principle creates multiple difficulties. In Chapter 2, countless sections, subsections and subdivisions are combined into one great mixed salad of approvable practices for working on your building. Renovation, repair, restoration, routine maintenance? It’s all there, ready to go, getting to yes. Presented as a convenience, this approach can also be seen as an obstacle to a rational administration of the law. Landmarks are various, and their complex differences are spelled out in the charter and the code. We are looking at historic districts, individual landmarks, individual landmarks located in historic districts, parks located in historic districts, paving and street furniture in historic districts, scenic landmarks, structures in scenic landmarks, and applications for Special Permits under §74-711 of the Zoning Resolution, bearing in mind that all historic districts are designated for their special character, which is distinctive, and that they include individual buildings of hotly disputed status, those called “no-style” or “non-contributing” in some (but not all) designation reports, and certain permits, as well as those later so categorized, all of which, historically, have been regulated in varying ways.
When classification and approval are based on the nature of the requested work—the “work-type”—and not on the nature of the landmark, its unique qualities, or its legal and physical context, especially in such a hugely expanded program, problems will inevitably arise. This means that the entire structural formulation and the ideological basis of the revised rules remains questionable. The problems here are not limited to the lowering of certain standards and the reduction of public and commissioner review.
The existing rules include chapters where the landmark, not the work-type, is the primary consideration. Such chapters carried forward un-amended are: Chapter 4: Designated Broadway Theaters, Chapter 6: Proposed Alterations and New Construction in the Riverdale Historic District, Chapter 8: Proposed Alterations and New Construction of Storefronts in the Jackson Heights Historic District, and Chapter 9: Alterations to Designated Bank Interiors. These are valuable examples springing from successful negotiations that have preserved landmarks important to the city.
As opposed to a staff level permit, review triggered by a CoA application is inevitably site specific and focused on the designation classification of the landmark—individual landmark, building in a historic district, scenic landmark—as well as on other important factors such as the architect, the style and the date of construction, and not least, the unity of the whole and its architectural design. But in the new rules, to a great extent, a door is a door, a window is a window, a cornice is a cornice, and a vast array of changes are approvable by staff with little or no reference to context. The concept of appropriateness, central to the administration of the law, cannot well survive in the climate that will be produced by a huge expansion of “work-type” based approvals. If something is appropriate, it is appropriate in a particular context, which cannot be ignored.
“Work-type” driven formulation blurs former hierarchies and definitions of character. The new rules, together with other policies, are great levelers: for instance, they counter the old belief that individual landmarks are inherently important civic monuments deserving our respect, and perhaps even our affection: we should care that they receive excellent maintenance and repair and appropriate re-use. But in the new rules their preservation is either thrown in together with everything else in Chapter 2, that aforementioned mélange of approvable practices, or appears somewhere down the chain of subdivisions as an exception.
Sometimes the “work-type” approach is hard to sustain, and the need for exceptions is addressed in proliferating subsections, in the format, you can or can’t do this, except, except, except, and even the exceptions have their subsets of exceptions, but “notwithstanding” the above, you can in fact do it in certain circumstances, if it “does not call undue attention to itself” or an alternative is not “feasible”—discretionary decisions unsuited to a staff level permit. Some amateurs may dream of Hansel leaving a trail of breadcrumbs through the forest to help find the way back through the multiple pages of subdivisions and subsections to the section where it all started.
There is no way to view all of the subsections devoted to regulation of individual landmarks together, to get a broader picture of what can or cannot be done at staff level, including some controversial proposals about the regulation of individual landmarks in historic districts. Similar problems of fragmentation occur in other categories, such as buildings in scenic landmarks, and restoration reports for ZR 74-711 applications.
The amended rules do not consider that fragmentation could raise issues of segmentation, of breaking up an application into approvable segments when the total impact might call for commissioner review. One instance of such fragmentation did occur under existing rules, but will perhaps never occur again, as the new rules propose to authorize the destruction of original cast iron vault lights in the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District at the discretion of the staff, if they are thought to be deteriorated, §2-19(d)(3)(ii). Under existing rules that is a commissioner decision, but in one recent case the staff obligingly issued a permit for “temporary” removal, which became permanent when the vault lights did not survive work conducted without proper supervision or preliminary testing, causing the item to turn up at public hearing as a violation, which was legalized. Numerous multi-national corporations in SoHo will probably celebrate when they learn that their unwanted vault lights can now be “disappeared” without the inconvenience of a public hearing.
The back garden question. A troubling instance of disregard for the distinct character of historic districts arises in connection with the treatment of back gardens. For instance, on the upper east side of Manhattan, many blocks that were once lined with rowhouses from the 1860s, and so once enclosed garden centers, are by now almost solid with additions. Should historic districts there be regulated under the same standard as some almost intact garden centers surviving in blocks in Cobble Hill?
In response to public protest, there has been an attempt to apply a mathematical analysis to the problem, although perhaps a better alternative would have been to create district-specific rules. Applicants have been required to provide a map of their block showing the height, bulk and location of existing rear yard additions, to be counted and averaged out in various ways. There have been modified commission approvals that use these maps to take account of the potential damage to central garden spaces. Those spaces are precious to homeowners and neighbors, who are enraged by new incursions. Counting the existing additions and limiting expansions accordingly is a concept that has survived into the new rules in a typically reduced and ambiguous form. Rear yard additions everywhere are approvable by staff under §2-15(f) Rear Yard Additions (5), if
(5) Except as otherwise permitted, the depth and height of the proposed addition is not deeper than the predominant depth or taller than the predominant height of additions or els on buildings of a similar type. . .
“Predominant” is not a defined term. In the ever more frequent speculative renovations, where the square footage will drive the selling price, the pressures for expansion are intense. “Except as otherwise permitted,” to the layman, has an uncertain application, does it invoke all of the other sections of §2-15, and if not, what? None of this addresses the issue of preserving intact historic gardens. The argument against their preservation is entirely applicant-centered: how can the applicant be denied an extension when someone else already has one? The resulting question is, how can the garden be preserved otherwise? As we read it, there is nothing in the text to prevent the following scenario: there are four houses with existing twenty foot two story additions in the center of a block where otherwise some 50 houses are in original condition. Those four are the “predominant” additions, as there are no others. Therefore every one of the 50-odd unaltered houses can have a twenty-foot two-story addition through a staff level permit; the immediate neighbors will learn of it when the construction crews start; surrounding districts, probably never. In one block, the potential loss of garden space would ultimately be measured in the tens of thousands of square feet, and the buildable square footage gained, twice that. Consider multiplying an average number of buildable garden sites per block by all the protected brownstone blocks in Brooklyn, and perhaps it will become clear why this is an interesting opportunity. §2-15(h) Cumulative impact of additions does not address the problem discussed above, but rather forbids huge rooftop and rear yard additions to be built on top of each other and the house itself with a staff level permit. This is of course a useful section: there is a need for it in today’s New York.
Clinging to a curious classification of facades, lacking broad applicability. Rules that depend on classification of facades into primary, secondary, or secondary with street frontage are problematic for several of our historic districts; now that they are to be used to weaken protections for original design, historic fabric and historic building techniques, they are a problem everywhere. This classification of walls creates pretexts for unsuitable changes, and removes the hope that visible walls will be regulated to an adequate standard. The thinking dates back to a time when historic districts were still groups of town houses or commercial buildings standing side by side. When the Riverdale Historic District was proposed there was considerable anxiety, because the freestanding buildings of the suburban district created new visibility issues. The problem was never fully resolved, because already the policy of leaving applicants the option to demolish the backs of their buildings was entrenched, a capitulation to expansion demands that could be defended in terms of visibility from the street. The suburban districts, Riverdale, Douglaston, and Fieldston, were problematic and each has received special treatment. But in the new rules, there is even a failure to guide applicants to such old rules, manuals, and masterplans as will still exist, or call out special features of individual historic districts, like Greenwich Village, where rear walls are often visible because of the history of cutting avenues through the old street pattern.
A missed opportunity. In the new rules, there is a missed opportunity to offer guidance about the special character of individual historic districts. By failing to provide any systematic consideration of the differences among historic districts that theoretically are designated because of their special character, or calling out architectural features that are characteristic to certain districts, like say the studio windows in Greenwich Village, or the embedded rail tracks in Dumbo, the new rules may encourage homogenization, already too evident in the widespread formulaic restoration of townhouses remodeled to be flipped by investors. In the 1980s there was much discussion of creating separate rules for every individual historic district, but such rules were never produced, because of a lack of resources. Now we see extensive resources applied to a rules revision that does little to advocate for the uniqueness of historic districts.
The Chapter 6 enigma: the elusive “List of District Masterplans.” §2-15 Additions (a) (2) notes:
(2) This section does not apply to any building already subject to a District Master Plan that includes criteria for additions. (See Chapter 6 for a list of District Master Plans.)
Chapter 6 of the existing Rules does not contain any such list, and is not undergoing revision: the LPC is “proposing both new rules and amendments to existing rules in Chapters 2, 5, 7 and 11 of Title 63” and does not include Chapter 6 in the (untitled) chart of revisions on page 3. Existing Chapter 6 is not even a district master plan in itself, but rather the “Rules” (as stated in §6-01) for the Riverdale Historic District, rules which were enacted before District Master Plans were codified. Chapter 12, also not to be revised, defines District Master Plans (§12-01). Subsections 12-02 through 12-07 are implementation rules for six districts or portions of districts, three relate to storefronts only, the others are Stone Street, Douglaston and Fieldston. Chapter 12 could be regarded as a list, perhaps, but not one exhaustive or relevant to concerns about additions, since implementation rules are there to authorize the creation of masterplans, and nothing else. The actual masterplans, according to §12-01(b), are approved as CoAs or other permits, not CAPA rules, and therefore are not published as such. Since the last implementation rule in Chapter 12 dates from 2006, one may wonder what became of this initiative, but more to the point, there is no information for the public on where or how to find the masterplans for Stone Street, Douglaston or Fieldston, or any other master plans that might include “criteria for additions.” There is no indication that some district plans were adopted as rules before masterplans were codified, and there is no mention of the Sunnyside Manual, a third type of district plan which would be relevant. In fact, the amended document refers to but does not include a list of existing district master plans, gives no directions for locating district masterplans, and does not indicate that two district plans were adopted in the past as rules, not masterplans. Google, more helpful than these rules, would assist the applicant in his search, but surely the rules are meant to be self-contained. Also, it is not resolved whether §2-15 Additions (a)(2) would apply to plans that are rules, or are described as “manuals”, like the Sunnyside Manual, not masterplans. Such imprecision is what has been described as making “the regulatory process more efficient and transparent for applicants, neighbors and the public.”
Lack of clarity about parks. “Work-type” organization has caused buildings in scenic landmarks to be lumped in with historic districts. In the new rules, multiple types of alterations to windows and doors in §2-14 are staff level approvals for buildings in scenic landmarks. Scenic landmarks by law are located on property owned by the city, and all are city parks or parkways. Where are the scenic landmarks that include “Large residential and commercial buildings” that are seven stories or more in height or have a street frontage of more that forty feet? or for that matter the “small residential and commercial buildings” six stories or less with street frontage of less than 40 feet—or any street frontage at all? Because buildings in scenic landmarks to which the stated “applicability” conditions could apply perhaps do not exist, or are very few, any damage from the new rule should be minimal. However, we do not support further reducing public review of items brought forward by the Department of Parks. Old buildings in parks are architectural fantasies not suitable for rigid solutions under rule-making—buildings like the Belvedere, the Dairy, the Boathouse. Seen in the round in a landscape context they are ineligible to be regulated as if they were the historic district buildings that make up streetscapes. Buildings in Scenic Landmarks should not be included alongside historic districts in §2-14.
Losing the scope of research in the original Restoration Rule. At present, we have a compact §2-17 usually referred to as the Restoration Rule. At the time it was enacted, under Mayor Giuliani, the rationale was to make it easier for owners to undertake an evidence-based restoration of their properties to an earlier historic or original condition. There were detailed specifications for the research required to create an eligible application: instructions and requirements for searching for images in various museum and library collections were included as Appendix A of Chapter 2. In the proposed new rules that requirement for broad based research has been removed, omitting Appendix A, though the new §2-11(f) (1) cites “photographic evidence” as one possible source for recreation of missing façade features, it does not identify collections of images to be searched. Already, in CoA applications, we are often seeing only the relatively recent and quick-to-obtain city tax photos as evidence of historic conditions, sometimes in inadequate Xerox copies. It is ironic that this rule modification comes just when NYPL and MCNY have made digitized historic image collections available to the public, widening opportunities for more comprehensive research in major collections.
“Codifying existing practice?” The agency has claimed that the new rules are based on the usual approvals granted in commissioner review at public hearing. This reassuring assertion is offered with no documentation, and to the degree that it has a basis in fact, it may misrepresent a complex reality.
A recent accusatory Daily News opinion piece (“De Blasio vs. NYC’s Historic Buildings,” by Eric Uhlfelder, February 25, 2018) alleges that “A recent study commissioned by the New York Landmarks Conservancy showed the Landmarks Commission in a typical year approved more than 99.5% of all applications in historic districts.” We do not endorse this analysis, which betrays unfamiliarity with the history of procedure at the agency, and is presumably conflating staff level permits with appropriateness decisions for the sake of rhetorical effect. But the “approval” issue is relevant here.
In the 1980s, the Real Estate Board of New York had a policy of complaining about LPC permit denials, which in their view were ruining the economy of New York. Seeing that evasive action was called for, the agency gamed the denial statistics in a simple way: they did not always deny inappropriate applications, but neither did they approve them. Thus the “no action” item was born. Originally, if an item was denied, for the applicant to return with a modified version involved a new application which could not be heard without statutory notification, and depending on various factors, could lead to a delay of several months, whereas a “no action” item can remain pending, be modified, and return a Public Meeting much sooner.
Because of this practice of limiting outright denials, “approvals” can be the outcome of split votes and vehement arguments, not the routine consent that is invoked. Usually applications subject to “no action” have to be substantially modified before the necessary six votes to approve can be obtained, and compromises are made. It should be noted that given the voting composition of the commission, this can occur without the assent of any of the architect members, whose knowledge and experience in certain areas, such as those involving substitute materials, may exceed that of other political appointees. Recall that by law, the mayor appoints three architects, one landscape architect or city planner, one architectural historian, one realtor, and one resident of every borough to the agency. It should also be remembered that the commissioners are given discretion to shape their approvals to the circumstances.
Underlying the assumption that public opinion doesn’t matter, and need not be heard, even if based on esthetic or cultural concerns, is the theory that if there have been decisions to approve in cases perceived as a comparable work-types, it is predictable that every future commission would take the same action, no matter what or where the building, without concern for its place in history, why it is a landmark, or anything else. This is a radical mistake. Commissioners are not interchangeable programmed robots, at least not yet.
Further, the agency concedes that its record keeping is not categorized in such a way as to provide data-based evidence of how often commissioners approve certain work-types. And indeed creating such a data base might be impossible. It would entail considering all the variables involved in commissioner judgments, many of which, to use a real estate industry term, are “intangibles.” But an anecdotal approach to what commissioners “do” is not really sufficient to justify the broad policy changes we are seeing, especially if recent decisions under this administration were to be privileged over longstanding policies.
Instead of anonymous voices proclaiming an undocumented record of decisions to be used as a basis for predicting the future actions of commissioners, possibly with a cloudy crystal ball, perhaps it is the commissioners who should identify the agenda items that could have been resolved at a lower level, and propose rule changes addressing specific situations they have experienced, providing a more concrete basis for determining the need for delegation to staff. As monitors, we know that commissioners do sometime ask, why is this before us? Ultimately, it is up to the commissioners to review the validity of such an extensive re-classification of permit applications.
Why these rule changes are proposed now. The question arises, why did the Real Estate Board of New York put their shoulder to the wheel for these new rules? John Banks, the president of REBNY, has published a statement in the Real Estate Weekly, March 22, 2018:
The proposed measures are a win-win for all stakeholders involved in the process. Property owners will benefit from a speedier, more ministerial process for routine applications that currently are lengthy and expensive for taxpayers. This will in turn, free up more of the Commission’s time, allowing LPC to devote more energy to evaluate which buildings warrant landmark designation—a win for the preservation community.
Perhaps the primary purpose of these rule changes from the real estate point of view is the potential for commodification of townhouses and townhouse districts in New York, though they also provide useful accommodations for “luxury” renovations in downtown Manhattan. Renovation permits available quickly and certainly, without publicity, would probably be seen as a benefit, and the changes permitted would no doubt appear “routine,” as many of them would respond to familiar conventional renovation formulas.
Landmark townhouse prices are now counted in the millions. All over New York, investors are buying them to flip, and today we see them at public review. To these investors it is indeed “routine” to destroy the garden center of a rowhouse block with a plethora of rear yard additions, pile their party rooms with wet bars, elevators and powder rooms onto the roofs of dignified old houses, dig down just a little deeper in the basements for their swimming pools, wine cellars, lobster tanks and dog grooming rooms. Such “routine” alterations are often accompanied by a private interior “gut renovation”, filling dumpsters with fine old woodwork, and tearing out partitions and floors and staircases and fireplaces, which of course the landmarks law does not prevent.
Allowing almost everything one might need to satisfy the cravings of the marketplace, the new rules will remove many such investment projects from scrutiny. Public awareness of their destructiveness will become more difficult to achieve, and the possibility of changing attitudes and policies, more remote.
So why this should be considered a “win” for the preservation community is unclear. There are distinct losses from the point of view of the original mission of the Landmarks Preservation Commission—some of the balance between preservation and development that was intended when the landmarks law was enacted is being lost. Thirty-five years ago, our group, the Society for the Architecture of the City, published this observation in our periodical, Village Views (Vol. I, No. 1, Introduction.):
Preservation policy is made and unmade according to definite, if often tacit, philosophies and principles. The public needs to know what the principles and policies are, to take part in debate over them, to join in formulating them. They affect our city, and thus all of us.