By the mid-1960s, the soul of the city was under assault. Penn Station was about to fall. Robert Moses had declared both Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights slums to be bulldozed and wanted to build an expressway through the SoHo warehouse district.
In 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Law was passed, a model copied across the country.
It protected landmarks and historic districts from indiscriminate destruction, without trying to freeze history in its tracks. Equally important, it established a public process to review proposed changes and explore alternatives to demolition.
Sadly, at a moment when a rapidly growing city more than ever needs a thoughtful, well-established process of public review, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has been, for four years running, less intent on protecting the city’s historic fabric than at any time in memory.
Under the leadership of Meenakshi Srinivasan — who mercifully left earlier this month — and ably assisted by longtime staff counsel Mark Silberman, the commission issued meaningless designations after alterations had been made (as with the Coney Island Boardwalk), permitted destructive alterations to incomparable icons (Manufacturers’ Trust Company on Fifth Ave.) and ignored the threat to undesignated landmarks that, at minimum, deserved a hearing.
Meantime, historic district designations are filled with exemptions, such as Sullivan-Thompson in the south part of the Village. When it came to the rezoning of the architecturally rich 90-block swath of Midtown East, the commission extended protections to only 12 buildings.
With Srinivasan gone and her successor not yet tapped, here’s finally hope we can turn a corner, and finally return to preserving New York City’s architectural and cultural treasures.
We’ve gone wrong in so many ways. The consent of owners has become a de facto precondition for designating a building. The commission now privately pre-negotiates alterations owners want to make, or otherwise cedes its power to regulate key aspects of protected buildings.
The landmarks law purposely does not mention owner consent. Deference to the developer community is not new at the commission, but it has been most blatant under the de Blasio administration.
The law did more than try to save historic buildings and neighborhoods. It established a process of public participation — which a recently promulgated set of reforms offered by the commission would have drastically diminished.
Under the guise of efficiency, a long list of changes listed in a 112-page document would have been resolved at staff level out of public view.
Some rear-yard extensions, rooftop additions and a vast assortment of materials changes would have no longer been subject to public comment from neighbors, block associations, community boards and preservation advocates.
Commission hearings have long been a textbook example of thoughtful public testimony before appointed, unpaid commissioners who listen seriously to the public voice. Under those changes, this remarkable democratic process could be dramatically compromised.
The Real Estate Board of New York endorsed the sweeping changes. A coalition of some 20 preservation and civic groups, including a dozen community boards, adamantly opposed them.
The protectors of New York’s heritage and character fortunately won this round against the forces of runaway development.
But those who wish to follow in Srinivasan’s footsteps and permanently weaken protections for historic neighborhoods and buildings will be back.
As a bare minimum, the next leader of the commission charged with safeguarding New York’s historic fabric should be standing in the middle of the road, yelling “stop!”