Perhaps one of the most frequent questions we here at GVSHP get from the public regarding landmarked sites or sites within designated historic districts is “what can they do here?” Sometimes it’s a neighbor wondering what might happen to a newly-purchased piece of property nearby. Sometimes it’s an owner or prospective owner wondering what they can do with their property. Oftentimes people seem to think the answer is one of two extremes; either “they can’t do anything” because it’s landmarked, so no changes can ever be allowed, or “they can do whatever they want,” as if landmark designation is a theoretical state of mind with no practical effect on private property rights.
The reality is perhaps best described as somewhere in between these two extremes — between “they can’t do anything” and “they can do whatever they want.”
Actually, the simplest and probably most accurate answer to this question is “whatever the Landmarks Preservation Commission says they can do,” and that, of course, is not necessarily always easy to predict. But there are some easy ways to gain at least some insight into what that might be.
First, if a property is landmarked or located within a designated historic district, other than in cases of emergencies (when authorized by the Department of Buildings or Fire Department, for example), no changes can be made to the exterior of the property without the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). In fact, structural changes cannot be made to the interior of the property without the LPC’s approval either, though in cases where it does not affect the exterior of the building, all that is required from the LPC is a “certificate of no effect,” meaning the LPC has agreed that the interior work will have no effect on the exterior, which they regulate (the very rare exception is the case of an interior landmark, of which there are very few in New York City and which can only apply to spaces which are “customarily open to the public,” excluding houses of worship, in which case the LPC must approve the interior changes as well).
So what sort of exterior changes will the LPC allow? It depends upon the site and what the LPC considers significant about it, and how they view what sort of an impact the proposed change would have upon those significant features. At one end of the spectrum are those cases where the LPC will only allow “in kind” updating and repair — repainting a facade the same color, replacing a deteriorating window with a new one of the same design, repairing and replacing brick with the same sort (it is a misconception that the LPC will in some cases not allow a window or brickwork or other features to replaced if needed, though they will often require that the original window or bricks be maintained or repaired rather than replaced if they are historically significant and still well functioning). At the other end of the spectrum are cases where the LPC will allow significant or complete demolition or alteration of an existing building, and a large new addition or an entirely new building in its place.
So how do you know when it will be one extreme or the other, or something in between? In most cases it’s impossible to know for sure (and in truth the answer probably changes over time — what the LPC might not have allowed ten years ago they might allow today, and something which they may have allowed in the past they may now be less willing to approve). But educated guesses can be made.
The important criteria will be how significant the existing site is. While overall a historic district must have some level of recognizable historic significance, not every site within that district necessarily contributes to that significance, and some sites contribute less, and some may contribute in a way that would still allow changes to take place without compromising that significance.
For example, there are sometimes parking lots or open lots in historic districts, as well as small utilitarian buildings (garages or gas stations, for instance), or new buildings that have no particular connection to the historic character of a district. In these cases, the LPC will often allow (if an application is filed) demolition and/or replacement with a new building. However, the LPC will always have oversight over what the design of the new building will look like, and should only approve new designs which would also contribute to the character of the district (this is of course a subjective criteria open to interpretation, and in some cases the LPC will allow buildings of a modern design which they feel are appropriate for the district).
In some cases, the LPC will even allow significant additions to individual landmarks, which by their definition are buildings which the LPC originally determined of great individual significance. However, in the case of, for example, the Brooklyn Museum and the Morgan Library, the LPC allowed very visible and substantial modern additions to these buildings. In perhaps the most extreme case, the LPC allowed a 50-story glass tower to be erected atop the 4-story former Heart Headquarters at 8th Avenue and 57th Street. This is, however, a bit of an anomaly in that the building was originally designed to be the base of a never-built skyscraper, so the owners had an unusually strong argument that allowing a tower to be erected on top was “appropriate” and consistent with the historic significance of the building (though in this case the very modern, Norman Foster-designed structure which was approved was a far cry from what was originally planned for the site in the 1920’s).
More typically, however, the LPC will only allow fairly modest visual changes, if any, to individual landmarks. Within historic districts, there are also buildings which the LPC will only allow very modest if any visual changes to, whereas others may fall farther along the spectrum. The best way to determine how the LPC would view proposal to change a building in a historic district is to look at the designation report — the document created by the LPC when they designate a historic district. It tells you what is significant about the district, as well as information about each individual building. This provides clues as to what, if anything, about a particular building would be found to be historically significant, and therefore unlikely for the Commission to allow to be changed.
However, even here, there are broad variations in what the designation report will tell you. Designation reports from the early days of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, 1965 to around the mid-1990’s, tend to have conversational narratives about each building, without a lot of definitive information about what is or is not significant about the building. However, designation reports from the mid-1990’s on tell the “style” of each building, or say “no style” or “utilitarian,” which more or less means the LPC does not consider the building significant. In the most recent designation reports, which parts of the exterior of the building consist of historic material and which do not is specified, providing further clues as to what the LPC considers significant and what they don’t, and what they will be more likely to insist is maintained and preserved about a building, and what they might feel less strongly about.
Of course no matter what the LPC deems appropriate, changes must conform to zoning regulations and building codes. There are a very small number of circumstances in which one can get waivers from certain zoning restrictions based upon the building being landmarked; but these are relatively rare, must go through an elaborate public hearing process, cannot result in a building having more square feet than the zoning allows, and must be premised on showing that the deviation from the zoning serves some “preservation purpose.