NEW YORK CITY—For the July 2015 Nelson Report, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mike Slattery, the Senior Vice President of REBNY, to discuss the New York City Landmarks Law.
JAMES: Can you give us a background on why the NYC Landmarks Commission was formed?
MIKE: The Landmarks Law was enacted in 1965 to preserve the City’s architectural, cultural, and historical properties, in reaction to the demolition of Penn Station. It serves a vital and useful purpose to the City so that we can protect those properties and those areas of the City which are most valuable, most historic, and most significant and distinctively significant.
JAMES: How much of New York City does Landmarks now cover?
MIKE: It is about 120 historic districts and over 30,000 properties. We have seen a significant concentration of landmark designated properties, particularly in Manhattan, where close to 30 percent of the borough is a landmark primarily through historic district designation. In some communities, over 70 percent of the community is designated a landmark. The issue we have raised with that is the impact of those designations on housing production. Landmark designation seems to be a deterrent for new housing production, particularly affordable housing. We conducted a survey from 2003 to 2012, and found that only five new affordable housing units were created during that time in historic districts in the borough of Manhattan. It effects new development because of the significant land use regulations that it imposes on property owners.
JAMES: What do you propose for properties that have been calendared, but not yet landmarked?
MIKE: When a property is calendared, it is put under the protective control of the Landmarks Commission so that any changes or alteration that would be proposed for that property has to be reviewed and approved by the Landmarks Commission. The concern that we have had is that properties are calendared, and that they are never acted upon, there is no definitive decision made about whether or not they should or should not be designated. We have seen that there were over 3,000 properties that have been calendared, but not acted upon, and some of those properties go back to 1966. We think that is not the proper use of Landmarks Law.
JAMES: Has REBNY been watching the time is takes to get Landmarks approval for doing work to a property?
MIKE: You hit on a real significant issue, in that retail stores in particular have a real concern with landmark designation. Retail is a public face on the street, and as a public face it has to be deemed appropriate with the landmark that the store is in. The concern that we have always had is that too many of these districts that have been created did not provide any real guidelines to property owners. Guidelines would be particularly helpful for retail stores so that key features are known, and what is needed to work and get approval. That would make the process go more quickly, and be less expensive for the store owners.
JAMES: What is REBNY doing about the recommendations to make the landmarks approval process run more efficiently?
MIKE: One would be to have guidelines in historic designations. It seems to us that when a district is designated, they know what the key features are that make that district distinctive. They should put together a list of points to share with property owners to give a guide that is specific to their location. SoHo is not that same as the Upper West Side, so what is appropriate for SoHo may not be for the Upper West Side and vice versa. The second issue is that when you do designate a property, we ask that when the property is calendared that it move with some kind of timeframe through a process or review, and determination. Lastly, to make it more interesting and important for the public to know, and to make is more transparent, designation reports, which articulate the reason for the designation and the particular merits of individual properties and how they fit into the district, should be given to the public well before they act. This way the public can actually review the basis for the designation, can raise questions if they own property in that district, or for organizations like REBNY to raise questions about the appropriateness of the designation, and whether all properties that are being proposed should be part of that district.