The Scope of LPC’s Power

August 5, 2010ZONE

Yesterday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (“LPC”) voted down the landmarking of 45-47 Park Place – because they did not believe the building was of sufficient architectural and historic merit to warrant a landmark designation. This otherwise routine decision not to designate received much press coverage because the proposed use is an Islamic cultural center near the World Trade Center site. Of course, the LPC does not focus on a building’s intended use – but its aesthetic and architectural design.

Lost in the political rhetoric of the past several days is a question that has begun to come up with more and more frequency in recent years: Does the LPC go beyond the intended scope of its power and use landmark designation as an anti-development tool?

In the question of 45-47 Park, several commentators have argued that the landmarking request was an attempt to prevent a specific use, not a desire to preserve a historic building. Much credit should be given to the LPC Commissioners – who are not shy in designating buildings and extending historic districts – for making a determination based on the historic nature of the building in question, and not the hotly debated appropriateness of the proposed use.

Earlier this year, the LPC designated the West Park Presbyterian Church as a landmark, explicitly against the wishes of the Church itself. The Church has long discussed the possibility of increasing revenue by developing a residential tower on its property. With the landmark designation, the Church will not be able to add a residential tower that would help fund its operations. The Church’s position, basically, is that landmark designation will effectively prevent the Church from being able to meet its financial obligations. The implication is that designation is essentially a death sentence for the Church. But the LPC felt that architectural concerns trumped all else, in this instance.

And then there’s the use of historic districts. These large swaths of “protection” make development in these designated areas very difficult (if not impossible) and certainly much more expensive (sometimes, prohibitively so). Often times, anti development groups encourage the creation or expansion of historic districts with what is seemingly less of a concern for what is and more of a fear of what will be. The Gansevoort Market Historic District comes to mind.

So the question is, where is the line? Most can agree that some level of preservation is probably a good idea (see: original Penn Station), but how much is too much? Is the loss of a 150+ year old congregation too high a price to pay? And what about historic districts that place an (oftentimes unwanted) burden on many properties, regardless of the individual merits of their landmark worthiness?