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.’”
“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