Meenakshi Srinivasan, the chair of the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) since 2014, announced her resignation on Thursday. For many, it is a “Ding, Dong, the Wicked Witch is Gone” kind of moment.
Critics, including this author, rejoice because they see Ms. Srinivasan’s reign at the LPC in the same way that worried Democrats see Scott Pruitt’s reign at the EPA: as the triumph of an anti-regulatory ideology.
In the LPC’s case, that means weakening and dismantling protections for historic neighborhoods around the City. Much went wrong the past few years under the departing chair. Requests for protections for historic areas of Tribeca and Lower Washington Street were ignored, stalled and denied.
Historic Downtown buildings were demolished at an alarming pace (some 33 in Tribeca alone). And the Chair forced endless landmarked buildings to succumb to the indignity of giant glass spaceships built on top of them, such as at Tammany Hall on Union Square, or the Clocktower Building near City Hall.
It is therefore a good moment to think about what makes a good LPC chair. And how can the Mayor restore public confidence in the agency? The answers lie in avoiding the mistakes of the past. First, don’t appoint people with axes to grind about how modern styles of architecture must efface older styles, who protest against renovating old buildings to look like how they used to, and who object to healing wounds in a historic streetscape through restoration.
Second, don’t appoint people who see their job as one of cutting deals with big real estate, rather than upholding and defending the landmarks Law. Too much of that horse-trading was done in the past and the historic assets of the City have suffered for it. Third, don’t appoint a chair who is burdened with excessive, insurmountable conflicts of interest — for example, an architect or real estate broker whose firm does a lot of business with the city. Last, don’t instruct the chair to stand down on “preservation” in the face of an affordable housing agenda: the facts of the matter tell us that historic neighborhoods help rather than hinder the existence of affordable housing.
This brings up the question of who should replace the departing chair. Ill-considered ‘tradition’ says it should be the current commissioner with the most seniority. In this case, that would be Fred Bland. Yikes! Mr. Bland’s firm does a huge amount of business with the Commission, and thus brings the potential for conflict of interest. And Mr. Bland is the commissioner who famously praised an architect for designing an out-of-context building inside a historic district on Franklin Street, saying he had successfully gotten around “the tyranny of the context.”
Think for a minute on that one.
Anyone who sees the context that historic districts create as a “tyranny” has obviously swallowed nonsensical architectural theory and should not be chair, even on an interim basis. Mr. Bland is also quoted on the website of the real estate lobbying firm of Kramer Levin about his vote to approve a 1,350 foot tower next to historic Steinway Hall. He said it was “one of the most thrilling days” he had ever had as a commissioner. That is not the kind of biased cheerleading for big developers that we need in a Chair.
What the Mayor should do is simple: find a good, conflict of-interest free preservationist with an appreciation of the varied, storied fabric of this city. Find one who realizes that different neighborhoods need evaluation by varying standards and who will uphold and defend the spirit, intent, and letter of the landmarks law. Simple, right?
The author has helped to found several public-service organizations, including Friends of Duane Park (which restored the second-oldest public park in New York City), the Tribeca Trust (a neighborhood wide civic organization concerned with innovative management of public spaces and historic-district management), and New Yorkers for a Human-Scale City (which seeks to promote neighborhood livability, democratic control over the built environment, and human-scale urbanism by means of public education, policy debate, and advocacy). Find out more about these issues at humanscale.nyc