Community Vigilance Is Key To Landmark Designation
By Fred Pisciotta
Residents of a community may believe that a building, a bridge, a cemetery, a tree, or even an entire neighborhood is a landmark due to its architectural, cultural, or historical significance. However, to protect in perpetuity what is believed to be a landmark from the wrecking ball, designation as a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) of that object or neighborhood is required.
In most cases, however, the LPC will not take it upon itself to designate a landmark. According to a panel of experts that convened at Bohemian Hall in Astoria on Wednesday night, October 22 to provide insight and strategies regarding the landmark designation process to Queens residents, it is incumbent upon the community to be extremely vigilant in making its case to the LPC to get the landmark designated.
Panel Member Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said that his organization’s effort to get landmark designation for the Gansevoort Market, which includes the heart of the Meatpacking District at 14th Street on the west side of Manhattan, required an enormous coalition of residents, property owners, merchants, and civic organizations working together to get the message out to elected officials and the media that designating the Gansevoort Market as a landmark was essential. "The more you can demonstrate the breadth of your coalition, the more you will get the ear of the Landmarks Preservation Commission," Berman told the gathering of some 100 people.
Berman added that the coalition inundated the LPC with thousands of postcards in favor of the Gansevoort Market designation, which became official on September 9, making it New York City’s 81st historic district.
The Historic Districts Council, an advocate for New York City’s historic neighborhoods, sponsored the evening’s public information meeting in partnership with the Greater Astoria Historical Society. Other panel members included Simeon Bankoff, Historic Districts Council executive director; Gene Norman, architect and LPC chairperson from 1983 to 1989; Jeffrey Kroessler, Queens representative on the board of the Historic Districts Council; Kevin Wolfe, architect and resident of Douglas Manor, a designated historic district, and Paul Graziano, Queens Civic Congress land use and zoning chairperson.
According to Bankoff, the LPC does not have a fully functioning public information office, so the Historic Districts Council has assumed the public information role for the LPC and periodically conducts information sessions such as the one held in Astoria. "This is an important thing to do," Bankoff commented.
The public information sessions are important because the LPC will pay much more attention to a landmark application that has extensive community support. In addition to community consensus, community board and local elected official concurrence for the designation—a direct result of community activism--carries a lot of weight as far as the LPC is concerned. And since the LPC is a mayoral agency, its decision-making process will invariably be affected by administration plans and policies that may be counter to a particular landmark’s designation—all the more reason for a community to get its message out to the media and local elected officials.
Kroessler illustrated a landmark designation in Queens that the public was not directly involved with and which may have opened the door to the point of view of some Queens residents that the LPC is hostile toward designating landmarks in Queens.
The Steinway Row Houses received landmark designation in the 1970s without public or political involvement. The late Donald Manes, former Queens borough president, according to Kroessler, was an anti-preservationist and pushed for overturning the designation, thus making the LPC "gun-shy" about making designations in Queens. If the public was involved in the designation process, Manes might have had second thoughts about seeking to overturn the Steinway Row Houses designation. "There has to be a climate of support in the community and politically," Kroessler said.
A property or object is eligible for landmark status when at least part of it is 30 years old or older. Landmark designation not only protects and preserves and prevents eyesores from superseding architectural treasures, it also boosts property values, especially when the designation involves an entire district, because the landmark status seems to bring with it a contagious feeling among residents to better their neighborhood.
Wolfe said that in the six years since Douglas Manor has been designated, community members have gotten on the bandwagon and altered more than 150 buildings to restore the feel of the neighborhood. "It’s a restorative process," Wolfe said.
In addition to pursuing landmark designation, Graziano said that a community can protect itself from unsightly development by pursuing two other avenues: deed restrictions to control alterations to individual properties, and rezoning to change area zoning to what the community wants. As with landmark designation, these other routes require broad community consensus and involvement to succeed.
Although a property may be listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, it is still not fully protected against demolition, although that listing would go a long way toward protecting the property. Ultimate protection comes from LPC designation. Once a landmark is designated, the community’s involvement does not end; it remains incumbent on the community to be the "eyes" of the LPC to ensure that future alterations to the landmark, if any, are in accordance with LPC regulations and performed in accordance with LPC-approved plans.
After a community makes the proper effort and pushes all the right buttons to get a landmark designated, the possibility exists that the LPC may still reject the application. Residents sought landmark designation for a section of Richmond Hill, but the application was rejected with apparently no explanation. Richmond Hill residents present at the meeting questioned LPC accountability and what other avenues are open to them. Norman said that although there is no appeals process written into the Landmarks Law, progress is made through elected officials. "Start with the mayor," Norman said. "Don’t despair."n