Landmarking: A Dissenting View from a Reader

Photo: Flatbush Gardener

With a deadline approaching on November 1 for the Historic Districts Council’s “Six to Celebrate” competition, which is intended to help a half-dozen out of the “couple of hundred” applicants that the Landmarks Preservation Commission expects next year, here’s a caution from reader Bill of Brooklyn, based on his experience with historic designation:

“Suppose you own a restaurant in New York City and one of your ovens breaks.  It’s 100 years old and you’ve repaired it repeatedly, so you contact your supplier to buy a new, high-efficiency oven.  He files for a permit with, say, the Department of Buildings. Instead of approving it, they tell you that you have to fix the old one.

“Or suppose you own a multiple dwelling and the ancient oil burner in the basement breaks down in the middle of winter.  Your heating contractor tells you it’s time to break down and buy a new, more efficient boiler.  So you arrange for a “boiler in a truck” to keep your tenants warm while you install the new one. Unfortunately, one of your tenants calls 311 and the city tells you to fix the old one, instead of installing a new one.

“Silly, right?   It’s your property and you should be able to upgrade it if you choose to.  But if you’re an owner of a building in an historic district, you may not be able to.

“The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) boasts of designating more than 27,000 properties since 1965, including 1,200 individual landmarked buildings and another 26,000 within 90+ historic districts.  With a hard-working staff of approximately 70, LPC is steadily adding to that count, as well as weighing in on any kind of external improvement or repair that the owner of an historically-designated property seeks to make.

“The LPC learns about any proposed changes in two ways: because the owner follows the rules and files an application, or because someone complains through 311.

“What standards does the LPC use? The commission publishes two documents to provide guidance to property owners in historic districts: the “Guidelines and Materials Checklists for Performing Work on Landmarked Buildings,” issued in 2005, and the recently-issued “Rowhouse Manual.”

“The first publication illuminates the LPC’s thinking: ‘A great deal of [NYC’s] architectural character derives from the numerous blocks of rowhouses which make up the predominant building type within a majority of New York’s historic districts.’”

Deteriorated Yankee Gutters

“Unfortunately, if you have the misfortune to live in a structure that is not a rowhouse, the LPC’s experience is not directly relevant to your situation — and the commission probably has little if any prior knowledge about the architectural features of your building. But this doesn’t prevent the LPC from stopping you from changing anything. Here’s what this can mean for a property owner in an historic district or one about to be designated:

  • In one recent case the LPC reviewed alteration plans that ultimately got approved by the Department of Buildings, but told the applicant that it would not complete its review without elevation drawings of the building’s exterior.  These cost the applicant a lot. What happened then? LPC looked at the elevations and approved the plans without change.  A full year later they designated the district as historic.”
  • The LPC weighs in on the colors a property owner chooses to use to paint his building.  This is a significant issue for non-rowhouse construction types such as detached frame houses. But an application to the LPC is not even required if there is to be no color change. So, if your house is painted, say, neon pink with bright yellow trim before the LPC declares your neighborhood to be historic, you can keep it neon pink with yellow trim any time you repaint. However, if you want to change the color to something a little less electric, the LPC must approve it first.”
  • The LPC recently told the owners of a property in an historic district to rebuild their Yankee gutters, rather than replacing them with a more modern gutter design. (Yankee gutters frequently leak and are notoriously hard to maintain.) This was not a rowhouse, and the staff person who made a site visit was heard to say that they had never seen Yankee gutters before. But historic means historic, the LPC’s mission is preservation, and the Yankee gutters stayed. The leaks are yet to come.”

“My advice: If you are considering buying in an historic district, or if your neighbors are seeking historic designation, watch out.  The LPC could become your partner soon.”

Bill from Brooklyn

2 responses to “Landmarking: A Dissenting View from a Reader

  1. There is no question that living in a landmarked house places additional burdens on the homeowner. The 56 out of 58 testifiers at the LPC public hearing enthusiastically supporting the designation of the Fiske Terrace-Midwood Park Historic District knew this. However, the examples given in the article don’t support the opposition:
    The spector of having to repair obsolete boilers or ovens or other major parts of a business’s or building’s essential (and very expensive) infrastructure can be frightening, but irrelevant – LPC’s purview is limited to the exterior of landmarked buildings. Costs related to windows or paint can hardly be compared to building heating systems.
    A year prior to landmark designation, if an area is “calendared” LPC’s input is advisory only – it could suggest, but not compel a homeowner to do elevation drawings or anything else. If DOB required the drawings, that would be a different story.
    The rule that applies in the example of a house color, protects the neighborhood from a homeowner wishing to change an appropriate color to a “…neon pink…” The alternative to this situation would be for LPC to require all homeowners in newly designated historic districts to repaint their houses to LPC specs, whether they were planning to or not. That would be very unfair and would place an undue burden on all homeowners in the district. Also, the example given doesn’t say that LPC would not approve a new color, only that the homeowner has to apply. Hardly a major hardship.
    I’ve heard the yankee gutter issue before and it is probably true. LPC has to get their act together on this issue. It is true that LPC’s focus is on row houses – the Victorian Flatbush historic districts, as well as Douglaston in Queens and part of Fieldston in the Bronx are the only “suburban” districts and comprise a very small percentage of the landmarked buildings in NYC. LPC staff needs to become more aware of the issues for our detached houses that differ from the more typical brownstones.

    However, lets keep it all in context – take a walk through Gravesend, Manhattan Beach, parts of Forest Hills, etc. Imagine your neighborhood characterized by cinderblock walls surrounding many houses, turning them into “compounds.” Or blocks of very large, overbuilt (but zoning-legal) homes butting against each other, interspersed with stately old Victorians.

    Let’s also keep in mind that NYC already limits what homeowners can do with their property. You can’t open a gas station in your front yard, or operate a factory in your basement, or turn your house into a rooming house (though too many homeowners do anyway).

    The current LPC operation is far from perfect. For historic neighborhoods, the alternative is worse.

  2. yes, the yankee gutter issue is a bit ridiculous. re-doing yankee gutters doubles the cost of the process if not more.

    and what if I have an add on that is not itself “historical”? my porch was enclosed (hapahazardly) in the 40’s with wood that is like 3/8 inch thick. it is shot and I would like to re-do it with decent wood, insulated walls and actual windows rather than screens or glass storm windows (that do not open) that i have to switch out seasonally.

    i’m glad we replaced our wooden windows years ago. they were all broken and half barely opened…if landmarked I’d probably have to replace them with custom built wood windows at $1200 a pop.

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