Controversial landmarks bill thrusts an obscure rule into the spotlight

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At the heart of a battle over proposed deadlines for the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission lies an obscure but powerful process called calendaring—an extra layer of red tape deliberately added to the construction process to put a property into preservation limbo.

The term is jargon for when the commission begins to seriously consider a property for protection under the city’s landmarks law. It slows the act of altering or demolishing a potentially significant building, but can’t stop it on its own.

The process has been in place for decades, but a new City Council proposal to limit how long items can stay on the calendar list has been a call to arms for scores of preservation groups opposed to the idea, and real estate, union, religious and affordable-housing groups who support it.

Calendaring has caused such a stir because it involves the city’s conduit for all construction activity: the Department of Buildings.

Whenever an address is added to the landmarks commission’s calendar, a notice arrives at the buildings department. If any owner, architect or contractor tries to file a permit to alter or demolish the structure, the department delays the work for up to 40 days. During that time, the landmarks commission may decide the alteration would have no negative effect on the historic portions of a building, and issue a notice allowing the buildings department to proceed. Or it may use the full 40 days to negotiate with an owner, or try to quickly designate a building before any work can be done.

In many instances over the years, the commission has succeeded in getting a building protected before the 40 days were up. But in several instances owners have also gained approval for demolitions or large, anachronistic additions that ultimately cooled the commission’s desire to protect an individual property.

Preservationists such as Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, believe that calendaring at least deters property owners from destroying a potential landmark, while also allowing them to perform work that doesn’t affect historic portions of a building.

“I don’t see how this is causing havoc in the real estate market in New York City,” said Mr. Bankoff, who noted that in recent years the commission has heard most applications within the time frames being proposed, which in his view obviates the need for rules that might endanger complicated cases that could take longer.

On the other hand, groups including the Real Estate Board of New York believe that if properties are calendared for too long, it creates an undue hardship on property owners.

“Waiting 40 days for a permit is significant,” a spokesman from the Real Estate Board of New York said. “Delays add to the cost of a project, and could cause a number of unforeseen complications, like losing a contractor.”

And the way the rules are written now, properties can sit on the list for a very long time.

“We have items on the calendar that have been there in excess of 40 years,” said City Councilman David Greenfield, D-Brooklyn, who sponsored the bill with colleague Peter Koo, D-Queens. “That is not bad government. That is horrible government.”

Mr. Greenfield was referring to roughly 100 properties that have been calendared for more than five years, many for decades. They’re a fraction of the thousands of cases the commission has heard in the 50 years that the landmarks law has been on the books, but to many in the business and real estate world, the backlog shows what can happen without the deadlines that govern other land-use processes such as zoning.


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