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Memo to the New Mayor: Strengthen the LPC

Mr. Mayor, don’t forget the Landmarks Preservation Commission!

Amid lobbying on higher-profile issues like stop-and-frisk, public schools, economic inequality and even animal cruelty, the mayor elected Tuesday may not have shaping one of the smallest mayoral agencies atop his list of to-do’s.

Yet implementing a couple of relatively easy, thoughtful changes could improve operations of the LPC, which identifies and designates city landmarks and historic districts, as well as regulating changes to properties thus designated.

So, what should the new mayor’s top LPC priorities be? We’re glad you asked:

LPC Chairman Robert B. Tierney

1) Take it from the top: Appoint a chairperson with a background in historic preservation.

The Commission is composed of 11 members chosen by the mayor, and must by law include at least three architects, a historian, a city planner or landscape architect, a realtor and at least one resident of each of the five boroughs. That’s all good. Better still would be if the chairperson, whom the mayor also selects, had a background in the field. Current Chair Robert B. Tierney is a lawyer by training, with long government and public affairs experience before taking the reins of the LPC in 2002. Before him, architect Sherida Paulsen briefly held the post. Jennifer Raab, chairwoman for seven years under Mayor Giuliani, is also an attorney, with a master’s in public affairs, and now serves as president of Hunter College.

Not since Laurie Beckelman was chairwoman from 1990-1994 has a preservationist been chair of the LPC. Beckelman came to the Commission after serving as executive director of the private nonprofit New York Landmarks Conservancy, and before that was deputy director of the Municipal Art Society.

As the Commission’s leader, the chair has the power to set priorities, allocate resources, influence members, communicate a public agenda, and generally set the course of the city’s preservation work. A chair steeped in this work already will have a level of knowledge, understanding, sensitivity and context to give him or her a head start in leading wisely and well.

2) Build a strong foundation: Appoint a structural engineer to the Commission.

In the West Village, Annie Leibowitz showed how not to treat historic buildings.
In the West Village, Annie Leibovitz showed how not to treat historic buildings.

Much of the LPC’s work concerns buildings from the 19th century and before, built with different techniques than today, and with different needs. Ensuring the integrity of buildings touched by the Commission’s directives – or at very least, doing no harm – is paramount. To that end, giving a structural engineer a spot on the commission, to review applications and address concerns before they become big problems, would be ideal.

A trend in the Greenwich Village Historic District points to the need for this safeguard. Because landmark considerations sometimes preclude rowhouse owners from constructing extensive rooftop additions, owners are instead digging down to add livable space to their homes. These Greek Revival beauties look sturdy from the outside – and they are – but they are built on loose stone foundations called “rubble,” not the poured concrete of today. That means once you start digging down, instability can be caused in the property and its neighbors that share walls. It takes time, money and expertise to do work the right way.

The sad saga of photographer Annie Leibovitz’s properties in the West Village is Exhibit A in terms of poorly thought-out work damaging neighboring properties. Including a structural engineer among the Commission’s roster of experts is a solution certainly worth trying before more property owners discover the costs of cutting corners.

2 responses to “Memo to the New Mayor: Strengthen the LPC

  1. This highlights a problem with many local landmark commissions. These laws were drafted before there were trained preservationists. Had there been the extent of preservation education we have now, these commissions would have seats for dedicated preservationists. Kenneth T. Jackson’s hostility to preservation is a case in point why even an historian may not be fit for a preservation commission.

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