Volume 73, Number 5 | June 2 - 8, 2004

Landmarks faces challenges of historic proportion

By Charles Hack

The Gachot & Gachot meatpacking building at 440 W. 14th St. The landlord, the Gachots, removed a metal awning right before the designation of the Gansevoort Historic District last year and also put up an illegal billboard. As reported in The Villager last month, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg is reportedly interested in buying the building and restoring it.

Just four months after the city declared an old cold-storage warehouse at W. 14th and Washington Sts. in September of last year part of a new Gansevoort Market Historic District, its owner slapped a two-story-high billboard against the building’s red-brick wall.

The owner had already ripped down much of a corrugated metal awning that used to wrap around the building providing shade for the meatpackers who have worked there since 1957. The Meat Market’s signature metal awnings, which were all legally protected by the impending landmark designation, were one of the notable features of the Market that persuaded the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the district.

Having spent three years lobbying to save the Market, preservationists at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation swiftly reported the infringement to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The commission followed up with violation notices and asked that the owner restore the canopy.

Now four months later, the billboard remains and a crudely painted scar runs along the side of the wall where the awning was once attached to the wall.

“If the Landmarks Preservation Commission was better staffed, with more inspectors, they would have been able to move more quickly, with better follow-up and may have been able to prevent it happening,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Preservation Society.

But the $46.9 billion 2005 budget that Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in April shows he will not be increasing Landmarks’ staff any time soon. The Landmarks Commission’s budget has actually been sliced 10 percent, from $3.6 million in 2004 to $3.2 million in 2005 — in other words, to the budget level of 2001.

Already the city’s smallest department, representing just 0.007 percent of the city’s expenditure, the commission’s lone enforcement officer has the job of protecting all of New York City’s 22,286 landmarks. And the workload increases year after year, as more and more properties are designated.

Speaking at the preliminary budget hearing, Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council — a citywide nonprofit group that advocates for landmark preservation — called on the mayor’s Office of Management and Budget to reinstate the 2004 spending level for Landmarks. But his pleas fell on deaf ears.

“They are under-funded and they don’t have enough personnel or resources,” said Bankoff.

Like other New York City regulatory agencies, the commission relies on the public to report complaints. Unlike other agencies, non-enforcement staff members, armed with digital cameras, help to spot and report infractions near where they live.

Kate Wood is the chief executive of Landmark West, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving seven interior landmarks, 47 individual landmarks and eight historic districts — a total of 2,606 properties — that fall between Central and Riverside parks. She says it is all too easy for owners to make changes to their buildings without permission and then ignore warning letters from the commission.

“Although there was legislation passed that would allow them to impose fines on people who do work illegally, it has very seldom been implemented,” Wood said. “If somebody can get away with something for years and never fix the problem, this will have a bad impact on a neighborhood.”

According to the 2003 Mayor’s Management Report, 1,006 warning letters were sent out in 2003. Just 112 violators fixed the problem after a first notification during this period.

Infractions that do not get fixed after a warning letter need more action, such as violation letters, orders to stop work and possible referral to the Environmental Control Board for a hearing and penalties. The department sent out 308 violation notices during the year. Of the cases referred to the E.C.B. during 2003, 219 were found to be in violation under the 1998 Local Law 1, which allows the E.C.B. to impose fines on behalf of the Landmarks Commission.

Created in the early 1960s, the commission was authorized to investigate architectural, historical and cultural merits of buildings older than 30 years and, after public hearings, designate them as individual landmarks or historic districts.

Until 1998, altering a property without authorization from the commission could be considered a crime, but this was seldom enforced. Local Law 1, however, introduced the enforcement officer to oversee what is now treated as a civil infraction, much like a parking ticket — but with fines up to $5,000 for second violation notices. The commission can impose a fine of $500 a day, if a landlord ignores a notice to stop work.

The new law also gives owners the choice of either curing the problem or legalizing the work. According to the Mayor’s Management Report, 420 owners applied to make their work legal in 2003.

The Historic Districts Council regularly testifies at hearings to oppose legalizing work, because they see after-the-fact legalization as a way to get building modifications authorized by the backdoor.

Wood agrees. She says that weak enforcement is unfair to owners who go to the trouble and expense to apply for permission before they work on their properties, and that this undermines the credibility of the commission. “For people who do go through it, there is no respect for the process,” Wood said.

That is not to say that Landmarks will not come down hard on a property owner it feels is flouting the system.

The commission denied an appeal to legalize a storefront by the architects who represent the owner of 54 W. 22nd St. in the Ladies’ Mile Historic District. The owner had attempted to recreate a black storefront for the Beaux-Arts style building, but a 3-ft.-high wall and baseboard to the side door, matched the height that the commissioners had rejected in a previous submission.

The architect testified that it was a coincidence and that the change would not make much of a difference. But the commissioners were not moved. One commissioner said that the 1-ft. difference between the authorized and final heights would “destroy that balance,” and that the commission could not “legalize a lapse on what was otherwise a fine reconstruction of the storefront.”

Mark Schiffer of AGM Architecture and Engineering — a firm specializing in renovation — who was representing the owners, complained after the meeting of a lack of supervision from commission staff.

“They do not have a registered architect or engineer to oversee the work while it is being done — it’s left to the owner and their staff,” said Schiffer.

Some occupants of landmarked properties claim they don’t realize that painting their building a new color, installing new windows or re-pointing the brickwork could land them in trouble with the Landmarks Commission.

With staffing 40 to 50 percent lower than it was in the beginning of the ’90s, according to Diane Jackier, the commission’s spokesperson, there is precious little time to educate new tenants and owners of their obligations of living in a landmark district.

“Where we have a big problem is commercial buildings where the owners don’t tell the tenant that they are in a landmark district or the regulations they are expected to follow,” said Penny Ryan, district manager of the Upper West Side’s Community Board 7. “They go out and do something they are not supposed to and then become very upset” when told they shouldn’t have done it.

With a staff of 17 responsible for reviewing 7,875 applications in 2003, each of these Landmarks staff members has to process an average of two applications a day.

“If the Buildings Department fell down on the job, issued a permit for something that wasn’t structurally sound there would be hell to pay,” Wood said, contrasting the commission with the Department of Buildings.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, there is a perception among some community activists that the Landmarks Preservation Commission appears to have built a wall between themselves and the public.

Landmarks improve quality of life for New Yorkers and preservation is quintessentially a grassroots activity, driven by the community where the activists are the eyes on the street, says Wood.

Local preservationists also complain they have less access now than previously to the people in Landmarks who have a knowledge of the detailed information they want to know.

As Landmarks West is unable to get feedback until a public hearing, the group cannot properly represent the interests of the neighborhood, Wood says. “By that point it’s too late because it’s already been decided,” she said.

And getting records through the sunshine laws appears to be getting harder too. In 2000, the department reported granting 83 percent of requests for public records. By 2003 just 49 percent of requests were granted.

“They do the best they can with the size staff they have,” said David Goldfarb an attorney and president of Historic Districts Council. “They are not as fast as we would like and they used to do a lot more. They used to survey various parts of city and designate more properties.”

With a barebones team of four full-time researchers, the Landmarks Commission receives many more requests for designation than it can handle. The commission has a target of designating 25 buildings year, which it achieved between 1998 and 2001. But in 2002 it received 197 applications and it designated 12 landmarks. In 2003 it received 273 applications and created just 15 individual landmarks and one historic district, in Gansevoort Market.

All the initiative for new landmarks comes from community groups, who must take photographs, prepare the documentation and pay for the research to support their applications — “all on behalf of the city agency, so that we can see our neighborhood protected,” said Wood.

This supports a widely held perception that preservation is something enjoyed by the wealthier neighborhoods. “We were fortunate that we were able to rally a lot of financial support,” said Wood. “But there are other communities where that is not going to be always possible.”

Gansevoort Market — located at the northwest corner of Greenwich Village and with the active Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation advocating on its behalf — was one of these areas.

Once the site of an old American fort, open-air Gansevoort Market opened in 1884, where wagons began choking the streets at around 4 a.m. to sell meat, poultry, vegetables and dairy products. Longshoremen used to bring the wares from the waterfront by horse and buggy to the overflowing produce carts and thousands of shoppers that jammed the streets.

Now, the old market buildings and lofts that line the cobblestoned streets are occupied by open-fronted restaurants and sidewalk cafes, with galleries, boutiques and nightclubs and some remaining meatpacking plants. Most of the district’s buildings — 104 to be exact — are landmarked.

One of New York City’s newest historic districts, Gansevoort Market has been a long time coming, but the wait could have been worse, says Berman.

“It’s not atypical that we had to wait for three years to get Gansevoort Market designated,” said Breman. “The fact that we didn’t have to wait much longer meant we were on the lucky side.”

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