Saturday, April 11, 2009

A few mayoral candidates (but not the big two) on historic preservation, plus more from the HDC conference

So, where’s the place of historic preservation on the city’s agenda? Not very high, according to speakers at the Historic Districts Council’s (HDC) annual conference March 7, and according to a report released around the same time.

The lack of attention to historic preservation has many reasons, including mayoral control of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), and a fractured preservation movement. There were suggestions for new forms of advocacy and reframing of the issues.

The HDC invited all five “major” declared mayoral candidates to speak to them, and the two leaders, incumbent Mayor Mike Bloomberg and City Comptroller Bill Thompson, declined to attend. Maybe they calculated there was little profit in trying to convince a crowd of perhaps 100 who were not disposed to them in the first place.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, who since has apparently put his candidacy on hold, did come, but delivered a variant of a stump speech. More on point were longshot Democratic candidate Tony Avella, who knows the issues, and even longer shot Green Party candidate Bill (Rev. Billy) Talen, who, though not as versed in the issues, was clearly a fellow traveler.

Mayoral Candidate 1: Tony Avella

“If we don’t, as a city, recognize our heritage, and preserve it, then shame on us,” declared Avella, who noted that he was president of a preservation group in his northeast Queens community when he was elected to City Council.

“I personally believe we can do development and preservation at the same time,” he said, noting “we just need the political will power… We have to say to the real estate industry, ‘Your days of controlling the agenda are over.’”

He cited his success in enacting the “demolition by neglect” bill, which plugged a “huge loophole” in the landmarks law, allowing owners to demolish a landmarked building that had fallen into disrepair. The opposition was not just the real estate industry, he noted, but also, the religious community, which often wants more control of real estate that could be turned into development sites.

He said he’s been working on a bill to give the LPC the power to trump a demolition permit. “Even if they have a permit, we should have power to say, the building is still there, you’re going to have to hold off for 30 days,” Avella said. That could have at least stalled the Ward Bakery demolition.

However, Avella noted that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an ally of Bloomberg, controls the Council’s legal division, and “if the speaker doesn’t want it to happen, it won’t be written.”

Avella also said he’d eliminate the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), a mayoral-appointed board that grants “relief” from the zoning code. The BSA’s legitimate functions, he said, could be handled by the Department of City Planning (DCP) and the Department of Buildings (DOB).

“The old boy’s network for developers has to go,” he said. He called DOB “the worst agency in the history of the city,” citing the tension between promoting development while maintaining the housing stock ensuring that construction goes safely.

Mayoral Candidate #2: Bill Talen

Talen described himself as “an unreconstructed, one might say, religiously dedicated preservationist,” noting that his Rev. Billy persona emerged in “opposition to Disneyfication” in Times Square to keep the “demon monoculture out of the place where I lived.” 

Talen noted that Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer had criticized significant, and questionable, tax benefits for “formula retail," aka chain stores.

What would he do to stem inappropriate development, HDC head Simeon Bankoff asked Talen. 

“The government must no longer be the partner of the real estate developers and speculators,” Talen responded. “As Mayor, I would hire people that you would tell me to hire, Simeon.”

It was a chuckle-worthy nod to the way business gets done in the city, assuming an alternate universe in which low-budget advocates like Bankoff had more power than, say, the deep-pocketed Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY).

Mayoral Candidate #3: Anthony Weiner

Weiner said “we were making changes after the deleterious things happened to many of the communities,” but have still not made good planning decisions.

“I’ll tell you my basic bias,” he said. “I’m biased toward neighborhoods… toward neighborhood shopping strips… toward an economy of allowing people to walk to shop.”

He segued into the strongest part of his stump speech, an attack on Bloomberg’s successful effort to overturn and extend term limits: “I also have a bias toward something else… to open, free, animated debate in our city.”

Asked how to balance economic growth and new housing with neighborhood character, Weiner acknowledged it was difficult, but said there could be better use made of public housing and brownfield resources for development. Density should be added to boulevards, not side streets.

He called for more transparency by mayoral agencies, with agendas and plans made available online in advance, with digitized records for inserting comments, and “livestream”--not sure if he meant audio or video--of all meetings.

He didn't stick around for questions.

The preservation landscape

Former State Senator and Council Member John Sabini described how he got into preservation and how it was important to broaden the constituencies, involving, for example, more African-Americans and new immigrants.

“We need to bridge those gaps, make them understand that the history we’re looking to preserve can be incorporated into their experience.” He noted that, “as an Italian-American kid from Queens, [historical figures like] Peter Stuyvesant and John Jacob Astor had little relevance to my life,” he he grew to appreciate them.

Brooklyn Assemblyman Jim Brennan, chairman of the Cities Committees, noted that he had been involved in “every conceivable zoning battle” as well as historic district extensions and creations.

Are preservationists are making their case and, if not, why not? “I think the historic preservation movement needs to be more aggressive,” Brennan said, suggesting that advocates relate more to groups with other concerns, such as affordable housing and downzoning. “There are many passions floating about in the city of New York relating to land use and preservation.”

Sabini offered the money quote: “Real estate is to New York what oil is to Texas.”

The role of unions

Brennan suggested there may be a way out of polarizing development battles pitting residents against construction workers. “Unions become allies because they are dependent on these megaprojects for their employment and always take the short-term pro-development point of view,” Brennan said.

“I think government needs to promote public works and development in a balanced stabilizing manner, so construction unions are less dependent on the private sector.”

Legislation and regulation

Mark Silberman, chief counsel of the LPC, appeared at a panel on legislation and regulation. He suggested that the City Council has little understanding of the how the LPC works and the importance of landmarking. Advocates, he said, should educate their Council Members about preservation and, “as painful as this might be to those of you, to actually tell people we do a good job.”

He said it was impractical to send to the LPC demolitions of 3000 potentially historic buildings a year, and urged advocates to focus on making their concerns practical.

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