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Landmarks Commission confronts a challenge.

New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission is facing the City Council's wrath as a result of its refusal to hold a hearing on 2 Columbus Circle earlier this year.

On November 14, the Council listened to testimony on a new bill, titled Introduction 705, which would force the Commission to hold a hearing on any building that has gotten the support of the majority of Council members or that has been placed on the State Register of Historic Places. Moreover, the bill would impose a 60-day limit, during which the hearing would have to take place. Introduced by Council member Bill Perkins, it would over-ride the current Landmarks designation procedure, which leaves the decision-making process in the hands of the Commission's research staff and its chair.

According to members of the Commission, the new legislation would drain its resources--the agency's staff is made up mostly of volunteers--and would ultimately fail to fulfill its purpose of preserving architecturally significant buildings, interiors and districts.

In his testimony before the City Council, Mark A. Silberman, general council with the agency, noted that, "The 60-day hearing requirement has the potential to significantly disrupt the Commission's ability to set priorities and meet its goals. Most RFEs contain little information and require extensive research by the agency's professional staff. Meeting the 60-day hearing requirement set forth in Intro. 705 could be difficult, especially if the bill covers historic districts, given the need to do the basic background research."

"I would also question whether this provision is necessary," he added. "The Commission works closely with members of the Council. We try to be responsive to [their] requests and rarely designate something over the objection of the local Councilperson. While this doesn't mean we don't disagree from time to time, in general the process has worked reasonably well for the last 40 years, with each branch of government acknowledging the other Charter's mandated role."

Silberman also pointed out that building owners often submit their properties for placement on the State Register because the designation carries with it certain financial advantages. Therefore, an SRHP listing doesn't necessarily mean that the building in question is worthy of landmark status.

The Commission's objections were seconded by members of the Municipal Art Society, which maintains that involving the City Council in landmark designation could result in an unlimited number of landmark applications.

"If the bill were to pass, it would seriously interfere with the Commission's ability to set priorities and to perform its regulatory functions," said MAS member Amanda Hiller in her testimony before the Council. "The proposed bill places no limit on the number of buildings the Council could direct the Commission to hear, nor does it define any criteria for buildings that the Commission would be required to hear. Conceivably, the Commission could be directed to hear countless buildings, thus diverting the Commission's resources from its other functions."

According to Hiller, "The bill doesn't actually improve the transparency in the Commission decision-making process. Rather than opening up the process to public scrutiny, it simply creates external mechanisms to force the Commission to hold hearings. If the Commission's calendar does end up inundated, the end result will likely be summary determinations not to designate."
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Author:Misonzhnik, Elaine
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Nov 23, 2005
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