May is National Preservation Month and coincidently legislation introduced recently has sparked a controversy over how the city designates and maintains historically significant buildings.
The City Council held a hearing on May 2 to review 11 bills which, if passed, would greatly change how the Landmarks Preservation Commission operates. The two most controversial pieces of legislation were those introduced by City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans).
One would allow the owners of landmark buildings to use replacement materials available at the time of designation. Comrie said if the same look can be achieved by using cheaper modern materials, he sees no reason why they shouldn’t be.
Carl Ballenas, an area historian and school teachers, disagrees. “They should have the quality of the craftsmanship of the era we are honoring,” he said. “There is no substitution for the best. That’s why we admire the past so much — for its handicrafts and artwork. To use a substitute would be an injustice.”
The second of Comrie’s bills would require the City Planning Commission to analyze the economic impact of a designation on the property owner and call upon the City Council to review that information before making a decision.
Lisi de Bourbon, the spokeswoman for the LPC, said the agency opposes both bills. She said the first would significantly change the way landmarks are preserved by grandfathering in changes prior to a building’s original design.
As for economic concerns regarding preservation, de Bourbon said the agency regularly approves substitute materials, except for example, when a pillar or cornice is deemed too important to the artistic integrity of the structure that it warrants a period-appropriate replacement.
“We are always trying to help homeowners make choices that are not economically burdensome,” de Bourbon said.
On the second bill, de Bourbon said it would greatly expand the job of the CPC, straining its resources. The agency already regulates the designation process and ensures that such properties comply with city zoning requirements.
Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said Comrie’s bills would have a negative impact on the 28,000 buildings protected by the LPC and those being considered for landmark status in the future.
“The basic premise is that the only economic value of a property is as a buildable site and that’s incorrect,” Bankoff said.
Comrie said he was prompted to introduce the legislation because the existing law presents the “most extreme scenario” for landmarking, adding that they are being opposed by preservationists because “they want to be the sole experts and arbitrators of what should be done, and that’s not realistic.”
“That is a strong statement,” Bankoff said of Comrie’s comment. “I wonder if he would say that about other city agencies.”
The lawmaker stated that landmarking comes with a whole host of financial responsibilities that some designees cannot afford or don’t want to be bothered with. “The genesis is to have options — to be less prohibitive on people’s time and less prohibitive on people’s wallets, and still keep properties in landmark condition where visually they are still the same,” Comrie said.
A recent example in which a Southeast Queens group butted heads with the LPC over a landmark designation involved Grace Episcopal Church in Jamaica. Its adjacent graveyard received the honor in 1967. But when the LPC wanted to do the same for the property’s memorial hall, also called its parish house, the pastor objected. He cited financial distress from a dwindling congregation and a church that was in need of extensive repairs. The City Council’s landmarks subcommittee voted to overturn the possibility of designation in January 2011.
But Bankoff noted that landmarking or historic district status has many benefits including increasing the value of a property, increasing access to public and private funding, enhancing the ability to acquire special permits for zoning and drawing tourists and filmakers to the area.
“There are a plethora of economic benefits that this bill flat out ignores,” Bankoff said. “It encourages the City Council to turn down landmark proposals based on a very narrow definition of economic development.”
Ballenas recommended that proposed designees opposing landmark status due to financial hardship try to get on the National Register of Historic Places, because that may entitle them to special tax credits, loans and grant benefits.