LPC on Trial

December 2, 2008

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is one of the most successful preservation agencies in the United States, if not the world. It has saved tens of thousands of buildings in a great city, and continues to do excellent work. Unfortunately, its reputation has been tarnished in recent years by an autocratic, politically motivated chairman, commissioners who are too ready to approve questionable projects,  and a mayor who likes to pull strings for developers.

An excellent series of articles by Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times has exposed the workings of the Bloomberg era LPC.  Pogrebin skillfully chronicles the tortured process under which developers and preservation advocates battle for control of land and buildings in the city. Ever since the New York City Planning Commission abrogated its power to actively create a vision for New York, the city has been in the thrall of developers like Donald Trump and Stephen Rattner, who press for deals with the mayor with little public scrutiny. Out of frustration the neighborhood boards have turned to preservation as a means of slowing growth–hence the present contentious atmosphere.

The LPC is overburdened with applications for minor alterations to the thousands of buildings in its care. It has a staff of only 17 researchers and operates under a tiny budget. Adding another layer of oversight to its already beleaguered staff has nearly broken the back of a once proud organization. To make matters worse, under Robert Tierney’s direction the commission has neglected to examine questionable development proposals and has permitted the demolition of many eligible buildings, leading many to question the political motivations of the chairman. His close ties to Mayor Bloomberg and the mayor’s pro-development stance leave the impression that his agenda is hardly pro-preservation. Moreover, his commission has been lax in permitting radical modernist proposals, like the addition to the Harvard Club, to go forward, damaging precious landmarks and delicate streetscapes.

The Times has taken on a powerful political constituency in the real estate and development interests by publishing this groundbreaking series of articles. It is now time for New York’s citizens to demand a change in LPC leadership, and for the preservationists to take back the ground they have lost under Mayor Bloomberg, especially as he pursues his bid for a third term.

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