Statement on the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Proposed New Rules and Amendments to Existing Rules in Chapters 2, 5, 7 and 11 of Title 63 of the New York City Rules

March 27, 2018

Joint Testimony by State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried
Before the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
We offer this testimony to express our reservations about many of the new rules and amendments to Title 63 of New York City Rules proposed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). We are opposed to proposed rule changes that would remove a significant percentage of landmarks applications from public review by eliminating the requirement for public hearings or that the outcomes of such applications be determined at the Commissioner level, affording greater public review. Were many of the proposed rules to be adopted, an unacceptably high number of applications would instead be largely decided at the staff level, leading to minimal or even zero participation by the citizenry of New York City – resulting in a less transparent, open, and accessible City government. While imperfect, the current process allowing for ample public review of landmarks applications gives members of the public the opportunity to express their opinions, marshal facts, and provide context to the members of the LPC before they rule on an application. This process is symbiotic: it can provide valuable insight and perspective to the Commissioners, while also educating the public on aspects of a given application and offering them different perspectives, as well. It serves to increase the sense of public participation in the governmental landmarking process while also minimizing second-guessing of the LPC and its work, an unfortunate outcome that is all but inevitable were many of the new Rules and Amendments to be adopted. A high degree of public participation in landmarking decisions also serves to minimize bureaucratic confusion. As we have seen very recently, often one government agency is unaware of actions or decisions being made by another. This has occurred several times in recent years in the districts that we represent when property owners have filed fraudulent applications with the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) “self-certifying” untruthfully that their buildings in housed no rent-regulated tenants, something that DOB should and could have verified with other departments in City or State government. Eliminating public hearings on landmarks applications will contribute to the expansion of this unfortunate pattern in the regulation of our city’s historic structures and districts. Unscrupulous applicants, knowing that decisions on applications will be subject to little if any public oversight, will have even less incentive to provide accurate and truthful date to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, doing a disservice not only to the Commission, but to citizens of New York City whom it serves. An additional negative consequence of the proposed Rules and Amendments would be that the blame for any rulings issued by the Landmarks Preservation Commission later discovered to have been based on an inaccurate or fraudulent data or applications would be lodged solely with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, its newly less transparent process, and its staff. We also express our strong opposition to proposed rules that would allow even more rooftop and rear yard additions to structures on historic blocks while limiting public review of such applications. The LPC should follow its stated criterion that such construction “does not substantially diminish the presence of a rear yard.” In the districts that we represent, there are many historic row houses with back yards whose architectural and historic significance would be fundamentally diminished with such changes. In the past, such “additions” to historic structures, such as the oldest house in Chelsea at 404 West 20th Street – which was almost completely rebuilt except for its façade thanks to a Commission approval of an application that stated, “application is to construct additions and excavate the rear yard.” Imposing further curbs on public review of similar applications in the future will lead to heightened public suspicion of the Commission and to ever louder charges that its members are tacitly condoning “façadism” that undermines the very spirit and intent of the agency’s mission. We join important community-based organizations such as Save Chelsea and Manhattan Community Boards 4, 5, and 8 in standing unalterably opposed to any rules or amendments that would loosen standards for applications that entail rooftop and rear yard additions to historic structures or diminish public review and input on such applications. We are opposed to proposed rules changes that would relax preservation standards that have been in place for years or that would allow increasing numbers of applications to be decided at the staff level, without Commissioner or public review. Applications involving questions that are critical elements of landmarking and historic preservation, such as approval of substitute building materials, window replacements, or sidewalk and curb replacement, should provide for public review and should largely be decided at the Commissioner level. Public review plays a critical role in the landmarking process. Even when a LPC ruling conflicts with the public sentiment expressed on a given application, there is still significant value in allowing the members of the public to express their opinions at public hearings, and this process helps underpin continuing public support for the LPC and its vital mission. Such public participation is in fact a basic element of our democracy. Thank you for affording us the opportunity to submit this testimony.