The Landmarks Preservation Commission, an undersized city agency with super-sized clout, faces a moment of truth.
Mayor de Blasio will soon name a replacement for outgoing chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, who stood up for rational decision-making over the howls of “save-everything” preservationists.
Will her successor follow in her brave footsteps — or cave to the whims of the preservationist brigade? It’s a crucial choice, as zealots with no government authority are trying to hijack the LPC’s role. At sites around town, they’re trying to muscle the commission to disallow changes to existing structures just because they don’t like a particular new project — which is not how landmarks law is meant to be used.
The LPC, which selects architecturally or historically distinguished properties to designate as those that can’t be demolished or altered without its permission, is long torn between real-estate interests hungry to build at whatever cost to the city’s legacy and activists who would preserve the whole town in aspic.
Srinivasan, who is stepping down on June 1 after four years on the job, can’t be blamed if she had enough of being vilified merely for trying to better balance preservation and progress.
Her commitment to preservation would seem to speak for itself. During her tenure, the LPC conferred immortality on more than 3,800 buildings and nine “historic districts” in all five boroughs.
It designated many sites overdue for designation, such as the West Side IRT Powerhouse, the United Palace theater in Washington Heights, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village — as well as a
dozen old East Midtown buildings theoretically at risk from recent rezoning.
But it wasn’t enough for the normally honorable Municipal Art Society, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Landmark West!, the Historic District Council and Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “She’s too friendly to developers!” many of their members howled.
The preservationist panzers began calling for Srinivasan’s head when she dared to upend the commission’s old “calendaring” trick, in which buildings couldn’t be replaced or altered even if they weren’t landmarks — as long as they were listed for possible designation someday. Most were in limbo for more than 20 years, until Srinivasan landmarked 27 of the 95 backlogged properties but yanked the rest from the calendar over activists’ howls.
Her latest apostasy is a proposal to allow most applications for absurdly minor changes to a protected building — like window, awning and sign replacements — to be evaluated by LPC employees without having to be second-guessed by the whole commission and subjected to pointless public hearings that drain the panel’s thin resources.
One item up for passionate debate on the LPC’s May 29 public hearing, for example, is an application “to extend a fire escape landing” at 640 Broadway in the NoHo Historic District.
While the LPC looks puny on paper, with only 11 commissioners and 77 staff members (compared to the Department of City Planning’s 300-plus employees), it wields clout out of all proportion to its size.
Its purview covers more than 36,000 properties, including individual landmarks and buildings in 141 historic districts. Nearly 40 percent of all buildings south of 110th Street in Manhattan fall under LPC oversight.
But the city can’t afford a new LPC boss who’d be a soft touch for the wholesale preservation of everything.
Exhibit No. 1: Under Srinivasan, the commission wisely declined to landmark 270 Park Ave., the JP Morgan Chase headquarters the bank plans to replace with a desperately needed new home.
But although it seems like “case closed,” zealots haven’t given up hope of getting the obsolete old building retroactively landmarked — which a new commissioner could put back on the table — or at least of stalling things long enough for JP Morgan simply to give up.
De Blasio, no developers’ patsy, showed uncharacteristic wisdom when he appointed Srinivasan. He needs to keep the streak going.
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