A year ago today, the horrible Intro. 775 was heard, later passed

With a raft of demolition permits in the air, it reminds us that a year ago today one of the most anti-preservation pieces of legislation was first heard at the NYC Council Land Use committee. Intro 775 had a purported goal of protecting landmarks, but that notion was downright Orwellian to anyone familiar with the bill. Unfortunately, Intro. 775 became law in June of this year, but not before our coalition advocacy efforts secured important changes from the initial draconian version of the bill.

Not a good movie this one.

This one with Greenfield and Koo could have been worse.

Described as “a solution without a problem,” Intro 775 was introduced by City Council Landmarks Subcommittee Chair Peter Koo and City Council Land Use Committee Chair David Greenfield.

Intro. 775 would have prohibited the landmark designation of any property under consideration by the LPC for more than a year or any district under consideration for more than two years without a final decision by the Commission.  The property or district would automatically be ruled ineligible for designation without the possibility of reconsideration for a period of five years — allowing resistant property owners or developers to demolish or alter their properties.

If Intro. 775’s provision had been in effect since the adoption of the landmarks law in 1965, more than half of our city’s landmarks would not have been designated. In our area, this includes the entire Greenwich Village Historic District,MacDougal Sullivan Gardens, the St. Mark’s Historic District, SoHo, and Westbeth, as well as districts as diverse as Bedford-Stuyvesant and the Grand Concourse, Jackson Heights and Park Slope.  Without landmark designation, many of these sites and neighborhoods might have been lost.

The Real Estate industry was firmly behind Intro. 775, which would greatly benefit demolition-minded developers. Under the guise of promoting efficiency and timeliness, Intro. 775 would actually encourage powerful real estate interests to obstruct the process and run out the clock in order to avoid possible landmark designation.  The bill would also place a chilling effect upon the consideration of landmarks and historic districts which might be deemed too controversial or complicated to get done in the proscribed timeframes.

At the hearing, the bill’s authors, Land Use Chair David Greenfield and Landmarks Chair Peter Koo, announced that in response to concerns raised by opponents of the bill, they would change some of the bill’s provisions, though they did not say what.   Read GVSHP’s follow up letter about potential changes to the bill here.

 

GVSHP mobilized at initial September 9, 2015 hearing on Intro 775

GVSHP mobilized at initial September 9, 2015 hearing on Intro 775

The bill’s supporters clearly felt the heat.  Several dropped off as sponsors, the initial hearing was postponed, GVSHP alone generated 70,000 letters to City Councilmembers in opposition, and we turned out over a hundred people in opposition at the City Council hearing on September 9th.  Opponents easily outnumbered supporters by more than ten-to-one at the hearing (pictures here), which lasted over six hours.  Read GVSHP’s testimony here.

As we then pointed out, the LPC is the city’s smallest agency, with the fewest resources and smallest staff, in spite of the fact that it has oversight over more than 33,000 properties, and is charged with evaluating historic resources and potential landmarks throughout the entire city.  The law as passed provided the LPC with no additional resources to ensure that designations take place within the proscribed timeframes or to conduct more outreach and initiate further studies to evaluate potential districts in every part of our city.  As we and others pointed out, many of our city’s most historic districts were not landmarked in the timeframe capriciously required by Intro. 775, including Mott Haven in the Bronx, Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, Greenwich Village in Manhattan, and Jackson Heights in Queens.

In the course of this effort GVSHP and a coalition of preservation groups met with the bill’s authors to express our concerns and encourage them to rethink or amend the legislation.We also mobilized thousands of emailed letters and rallied hundreds of people to attend hearings at City Hall.  And then the bill sat… for nine months after that process started on September 9th of 2015.  In June of this year it was then sped through the Land Use committee and approved by the full Council.

To their credit, our local Council Members Rosie Mendez and Corey Johnson led the campaign in the Council, and they ultimately voted against this terrible legislation, with fellow champion on this issue Ben Kallos.  We recognize their efforts again today.

GVSHP Executive Director speaking at rally at City Hall opposing Intro 775.

GVSHP Executive Director Andrew Berman speaking at rally at City Hall opposing Intro 775 this year.

After the bill sat in limbo for nine months, in June of this year the City Council finally released a revised bill, which was quickly scheduled for a final vote. And while some of the worst aspects of the bill were removed, some remained. The five year prohibition on reconsideration was removed from the bill, but it still imposed deadlines of one year for considering individual landmarks and two years for historic districts. If the LPC failed to act within that timeframe – because more time is needed, because a well-connected developer or institution has managed to delay the process, or because the proposal is complicated or controversial, and requires more study – the site is automatically not landmarked, after which time a developer can simply get demolition permits which would make landmarking impossible.  GVSHP and allied community groups were at the vote (no additional public hearing was held) with signs urging the committee members to vote no, and the prior day held a press conference on the steps of City Hall urging rejection of the measure.

In the end, the City Council voted 38 to 10 to approve the amended Intro. 775.  By automatically deeming a building or district not landmarked if the LPC does not vote within one year on proposed individual landmarks and two years on proposed districts, the bill encourages powerful developers to delay and try to run out the clock, and discourages the Commission from considering or moving quickly to calendar (and provide preliminary protections for) complicated, controversial, or larger designation proposals.  More than half the buildings designated by the LPC over the fifty one years of its existence took longer to designate than Intro. 775 would allow.  Once the deadline for designation passes, the proposed historic building or site is automatically removed from the calendar, or consideration for landmark designation.  While the LPC can reconsider the building or site for designation, the process of adding a building or district to the “calendar” must, under the law, take several days; during that time a developer can file for demolition permits which would pre-empt any subsequent attempt to landmark the site, thus ending the possibility of designation.

Eloquent and impassioned critiques of the bill were given by City Councilmember Corey Johnson, Rosie Mendez and Ben Kallos, who also worked tirelessly with us to try to address preservationists’ concerns about the bill.

In a surprise twist, conversations between preservation organizations and the LPC after the vote indicated that the LPC believes that it can, if necessary, get around the “drop dead” provisions of Intro. 775’s deadlines and keep buildings or districts under consideration for designation without any gap in coverage which would allow demolition permits to be issued.  The LPC indicated that they believe they have the option to de-calendar and re-calendar a proposed individual landmark or district contemporaneously before the deadline is hit. This way there would be no gap in coverage (as opposed to passing the deadline, having the site automatically de-calendared, and then beginning the process of re-calendaring), and the clock on the one-to-two year deadlines would be re-started.  The LPC indicated that they believe that if necessary they can repeat this process.

It would require vigilance and extraordinary action on the part of advocates and the Landmarks Preservation Commission to ensure that this happens.  But it would be an important and in some cases necessary way to circumvent the pro-demolition provisions of Intro. 775 and prevent historic properties worthy of consideration for landmark designation from being lost.

Of course the City Council should have scrapped Intro. 775 altogether, or amended it as proposed by preservation organizations including GVSHP to require the LPC to vote within a prescribed timeframe on all proposed designations, but allow the Commission to vote yes, no, or to continue to consider when more time is needed.  The sponsors of the legislation refused to consider this reasonable option.

Our final line is from an article with more on this issue by Ruth Osborne: “Buildings – both old and new ones – have character and heart to them, and if we forsake that, then will we even recognize our city anymore?”

 

 

 

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Harry Bubbins