BY MICHELE HERMAN | Those who have been watching the recent decisions of the Landmarks Preservation Commission with dismay verging on disbelief got some hope in August from the New York Appellate Court.
Preservationists and their allies have long felt that under its current commissioner, Meenakshi Srinivasan, the L.P.C. has been behaving more like a green light for real estate development than like a preserver of landmarks. In particular, L.P.C. has made a regular practice of declaring the smaller, more workaday buildings within a designated historic district “no-style style,” allowing developers to replace them with much larger buildings in styles that don’t always follow the spirit of the original designation and sometimes flout it.
Last year, a coalition of neighbors and preservationists called Save Gansevoort, along with the Historic Districts Council, took the L.P.C. to court over a particularly disturbing decision to allow a single developer to “curate” an entire block-long row on Gansevoort St., smack within the Gansevoort Market Historic District, which was designated in 2003. The L.P.C. gave its seal of approval, known as a certificate of appropriateness, for the plan by Aurora Capital and Gottlieb Real Estate.
This includes some serious tampering with prototypical low-rise market buildings, exactly the kind of structures that led the L.P.C. to create the market district in the first place. The one-story building on the corner of Washington St. would be torn down and replaced with an 80-foot-tall faux-warehouse. And the two-story row immediately east would get a three-story addition on top of it.
Save Gansevoort filed an Article 78, the mechanism for challenging the determination of an administrative agency. One of the main arguments centers on this question of “no-style style.” Note that nowhere in the city’s Landmark Law can you find the term “no-style style” or its synonym “noncontributing.” What IS in the law is a list of nine factors that the L.P.C. “shall consider” (note the mandatory verb “shall” rather than the optional one “may”) before issuing declarations of appropriateness: aesthetic, historical and architectural values and significance, architectural style, design, arrangement, texture, material and color.
The lower court ruled against Save Gansevoort. But that’s not the end of the story. Save Gansevoort filed an appeal and the Appellate Court granted a motion for a stay. This prevents the developer from doing any exterior work on the threatened Gansevoort properties until the court issues its ruling.
The stay is a big deal — the Appellate Court grants them in only about 5 percent of cases, when it believes the case has enough merit for a possible reversal of the lower court decision. Save Gansevoort’s attorney Michael Hiller said that he has won five of the last seven land-use, zoning and preservation cases he was involved in and senses a possible shift in the legal landscape. The courts, he said, “are considering the cases on the merits instead of rubber-stamping what the city wants.”
Hiller will file Save Gansevoort’s final brief on Oct. 2. This will be followed by a round of replies, followed by a court date, likely in December. Save Gansevoort is putting out the call for a huge public turnout.
Meanwhile Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, explained that his organization, according to its internal documents, will or may get involved in legal cases when there’s potential for precedent setting beyond the specific issues.
“In this case,” he said, “we felt pretty strongly that Landmarks really did overreach with regard to its interpretation of appropriateness. We’re pleased that the judge feels there’s validity to the argument… . ‘Noncontributing’ is a term from the national Historic Preservation Act, but it doesn’t exist within the city’s law. There are no written rules that say you can knock down ‘noncontributing’ buildings.”
The precedent would be huge because of the hundreds of other vulnerable buildings within historic districts.
Bankoff believes that L.P.C.’s pro-developer bias stems in part from a truism promulgated by the influential Real Estate Board of New York.
“They say that [landmark] designation causes affordability to disappear,” he said. “That’s a lie. What causes it to disappear is their attack on rent controls.”
I also spoke to two longtime L.P.C. insiders — a current commissioner and the former head of research — to try to understand what’s behind this drastic shift of focus from protector of landmarks to friend of developers. After all, the city already has a panoply of entities looking out for the interests of the real-estate industry — which looks out for itself pretty well — but L.P.C. is the only one charged with designating landmarks and protecting both the individual landmarks and historic districts it has already worked extremely hard to create.
Jay Shockley retired recently after a 35-year career on the staff of the L.P.C., most recently as its senior historian. He wrote the Gansevoort Historic District Designation Report, which is 307 pages long and packed with history. He seconds Bankoff’s theory about this administration’s reluctance to designate individual landmarks and historic districts. The real-estate industry, he said, jumped on the theme that the L.P.C. was the sole entity preventing affordable housing from being built.
“They concocted this theory and hammered it home,” Shockley said.
What’s more, he said, it’s crystal clear the L.P.C. has no idea how to regulate the Gansevoort Market district.
“It’s one of the few areas in Manhattan that didn’t get wholesale replaced with purpose-built buildings,” he said. “If you were blindfolded and dropped in, you’d know immediately where you were.” But now, he said, “They are creating faux history and they are obliterating the market site. Landmarks has properly regulated the Tribeca and Soho historic districts, but it’s fair game for anything at Gansevoort; it’s totally ad hoc and doesn’t respect the reason it was designated. In the West Village every single building that’s not high style is getting obliterated.”
He’s just as horrified by staff turnover and attrition.
“The staff is so demoralized that it has the highest turnover of any city agency,” he noted. “It’s hard to keep staff with preservation integrity.”
Mike Devonshire is a professional preservationist and academic who has served as an L.P.C. commissioner for three years beyond the end of his term because the mayor has not appointed a replacement for him and several of the 10 other commissioners in the same position (a common phenomenon in many administrations).
“I’m very happy being there,” he said. “I feel it’s very important for me to be there. I’m the only one with a degree in historic preservation and the only one working in a firm that does exclusively historic preservation work.”
This is not to say that Devonshire is happy with the way things are playing out.
“For me, the sad tale is that little by little preservation of this city and its historic districts and individual landmarks is getting eaten away,” he said.
Devonshire added that the previous L.P.C. chairperson, Bob Tierney, like others before him, would let each commissioner make comments before weighing in with his own opinion and taking a vote. Hearings are videotaped and available online, and show clearly that a different procedure is now in effect: The chairperson states her opinion first and expects everyone to fall in line and all votes to be unanimous.
Those close to the proceedings report that commissioners are no longer allowed to confer regularly with the staff of professional preservationists and researchers. And at least two other commissioners are also chafing at the changes in process and priorities.
Attorney Hiller, whose business card has an image of David with a slingshot in his hand, said, “If the court were to sustain our position, it would mean the Landmarks Law would be enforced the way it’s written. We’re not asking them to change the law; we’re asking for the court to require L.P.C. to comply with it.
“This case and others like it raise a deeper question regarding what New York City is going to be,” Hiller said. “New York is one of those rare municipalities that has taken real care to preserve its neighborhoods. Think of Las Vegas or Shanghai. They have no neighborhoods, no pocket parks, no brownstones. This is about losing a real part of New York City’s soul.”
In addition to the possibility of overturning the original ruling on Gansevoort, there’s another bright spot for the preservationists and other activists who unfailingly show up and speak out at L.P.C. public hearings and wonder if it makes any difference.
“I can only speak for myself about the impact of public testimony,” said Commissioner Devonshire. “It means a great deal to me. I’ll do my homework, go visit a site if it’s tricky or controversial. If there’s testimony from a large group of people (if anything happens in the Village, he stressed, those people are on it), it supplements my will to state my opinion and fight if necessary.”
To find more information, contribute or get notice of the next court date (likely in December), visit www.savegansevoort.org