The Ladies’ Mile: property rights vs. preservation


<div about=''><a href='' target='_blank'><img xmlns:dct='' href='' rel='dct:type' src='' alt='Flatiron Building from Empire State Buil by John McK, on Flickr' title='Flatiron Building from Empire State Buil by John McK, on Flickr' border='0'/></a><br/><a rel='license' href='' target='_blank'><img src='' alt='Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License' title='Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License' border='0' align='left'></a>   by <a href='' target='_blank'> </a><a xmlns:cc='' rel='cc:attributionURL' property='cc:attributionName' href='' target='_blank'>John McK</a><a href='' target='_blank'> </a></div>

Two votes in City Council are aimed at tightening regulation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the group that oversees the development of historic districts like the Ladies’ Mile. Photo by John McKerrell ©.

Preservationists are once again rallying to defeat two bills recently introduced to City Council. New York City Councilmen Koo and Greenfield’s bill 775 and Councilman Garodnick’s bill 837 are both aimed at tightening regulation of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, a government agency created 50 years ago to help administer New York City’s Landmarks Law.

President of the Historic Districts Council and architect Daniel Allen says that the Real Estate Board of New York pushes bills like these onto the City Council’s agenda every couple of years. “RebNY is financed by the real estate industry and this is nothing new. We’ve defeated this many times before and we’ll do it again,” said Allen.

Groups like the Real Estate Board of New York and those they represent feel the LPC adds an additional layer of bureaucracy that hinders their ability to do business in Manhattan. Joel Radni, owner of a building located in the Ladies’ Mile Historic District, says his property’s landmark status impedes renovations and construction projects. “Dealing with the LPC is very complicated. There are always extra approvals needed and it always affects the cost of doing construction,” he said.

Owners of landmarked buildings and the owners of buildings in landmarked districts have long lamented the challenge they say the Landmarks Preservation Commission represents. When Ladies’ Mile, a commercial area known for its women’s fashion, was designated as historic in 1989, only three of the 450 building owners in the district — the area spanning from 15th to 24th Streets, just west of 6th Avenue, east towards Park Avenue South — supported the designation out of fear that the LPC would negatively impact their ability to operate independently as property owners.

Jack Taylor, who is now in his nineties, was the president of the Drive to Protect the Ladies’ Mile District in the six years leading up to the 1989 designation, and is considered the grandfather of the now economically booming region of Manhattan. Taylor admits that the process of working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission can be difficult, “but how else can you regulate things?” he said.

“Like all bureaucracy, it can be very frustrating, but the city government doesn’t fund the LPC enough so they’re understaffed and overworked,” he said, adding that the three building-owner outliers who initially supported the landmark designation did so because they felt it would eventually be economically advantageous. Among those early adopters was the group behind ABC Carpet, which is still in business in the area.

Councilmen Koo and Greenfield’s bill is aimed at imposing deadlines for hearings and votes on whether new buildings and areas should be designated as historic. As it now stands, the process of landmark designation begins when a site is “calendared,” or put on a timeline. There is currently no limit to the length of timeline process; there is a backlog of nearly 100 properties, some for more than 20 years.

While properties wait in limbo, some restrictions are implemented to protect them while extensive research is conducted. Additionally, Councilman Garodnick’s bill would require the Landmarks Preservation Commission to maintain a public database of all potentially landmarked properties and districts within the city.

Allen agrees that landmark status may have a minor, dampening effect on renovation progress, but he believes the aims of the bills in City Council are simply “unconscionable.”

“I would like to see the Landmarks Preservation Commission make their own reforms. It shouldn’t come from the government, and the agency should fix themselves by setting their own internal time limits,” said Allen, who added that the number of buildings affected by long-lasting calendaring is too insignificant (around 0.3 percent) for the legislation proposed to City Council to be necessary at all.

While the debate on property rights versus preservation continues, not all building changes in historic districts require extensive approvals. Damaris Olivo of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission says, “the LPC doesn’t prevent owners from making changes, but rather works with them to ensure that planned changes are appropriate to the character and style of their building.”

Changes that do not alter the part of the building that is the reason for the landmark status are easy to initiate. For instance, interior renovations in buildings within landmarked districts are acceptable, as the building’s interior would only be subject to LPC approvals if the building itself were a landmark. In the Ladies’ Mile, changing an exterior paint color or door would lead to an LPC violation, while alterations inside of the building are considered a “certificate of no effect.”

Jared Pinchasick, VP of acquisitions at Stone Street Properties, represents a minority view of the Landmarks Preservation Commission among those in the real estate industry; he feels that landmark status positively increases the premium customers are willing to pay for a slice of history.

“Especially in areas like Union Square and the West Village where everything is so well preserved, people want old architecture and high ceilings more than they want something that’s brand new. Those areas have character, which people love, and that’s all thanks to the LPC,” said Pinchasick.

Olivo of the LPC noted that the commission provides various resources to building owners to assist them, rather than foster an adversarial relationship. “The Commission provides free technical advice and guidance to landmark property owners. Therefore, while we require detailed information on changes and repairs, in the long-term the Commission’s advice helps property owners make appropriate choices for the maintenance and sustainability of historic buildings,” she said.

The Kaufman Organization, which purchased a building in the Ladies’ Mile Historic district in late 2013, resold it in early 2015 for $92 million, a 40.2 percent increase from the price they initially paid. An article in Crain’s New York attributed the increase of the building’s value to the result of $2.5 million in capital improvements that the Kaufman Organization put into the space at 27 W. 24th Street.

Jessica Kosaric, Director of Marketing and Digital Media at Kaufman, describes her company’s relationship with the LPC as harmonious, saying that the renovations, which made their property more profitable, were fairly easy to navigate. “We have architects and expeditors who have relationships with the Landmarks Preservation Commission so the renovations process is usually very smooth for us,” said Kosaric.

Allen says that what groups like RebNY want to prevent is actually what makes properties and areas more profitable in the long run. “It works in the opposite direction. No one wanted Soho to become a designated area initially but now it’s a hot area simply because it’s intact and well maintained,” he said.

Preservation advocates like Allen are optimistic both of these bills will be defeated in City Council. “New York’s unique character exists because it’s old. No one wants it to become developer-ville.”

Councilman Garodnick’s aide Adam Avit says a final draft of bill 837 is in the works, complete with changes such as the inclusion of dates and actions taken by the LPC on various properties within the proposed database. Avit added it is unclear when a vote is expected.  No vote is currently scheduled for bill 775 either.