Bill de Blasio can be “very eloquent” on preservation issues. Or at least he was as public advocate.
But since he took over City Hall, preservationists like New York Landmarks Conservancy President Peg Breen have noticed, “It’s clearly not one of his major topics.”
In February 2010, when a group of about 40 preservationists met the then-public advocate at the Upper West Side co-op of Arlene Simon (then president of Landmark West), de Blasio hit all the right notes.
“People were very impressed with his willingness to talk about preservation issues,” recalled Kate Wood, the group’s current president.
As mayor, however, Breen said, “He’s more or less silent on it.”
What’s more, his administration has made some moves that generated dismay.
Most notably, shortly after de Blasio appointed Meenakshi Srinivasan as the chair of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, she proposed to “de-calendar” almost 100 sites and neighborhoods waiting for historic designation, including some that had languished for decades.
“We wanted to address the issue of backlog,” Srinivasan told The Real Deal, a situation both sides said needed to be addressed.
After opposition from preservationists, the commissioner, a trained architect who previously served as chair of the city Board of Standards and Appeals, withdrew the plan and asked for input from the community on how to address the matter.
“She got off on shaky footing,” said Peter Bray, a Park Slope Civic Council trustee.
The commission set a deadline of May 1 for input on how to solve the backlog issue.
While the preservationist community is disappointed, de Blasio’s administration claims progress. So far, it has designated 1,754 buildings and sites since taking office, according to Landmarks spokesperson Damaris Olivo. This was “more than each of the five previous fiscal years,” Olivo claimed, adding that the agency hopes to designate 2,000 buildings and sites by June 30. The city also initiated a potential historic district in Harlem, she said.
Separate from the backlog issue, Srinivasan also instituted reforms designed to expedite designations of sites and buildings faster than her predecessors. For example, the Chester Court Historic District in Brooklyn was designated within two months, which she claimed is a record.
On the agenda, and worrying to activists, is a proposed new zoning plan that would alter the city’s contextual zoning districts. The proposal would allow developers to build higher density projects, which could help reach the main goals of the mayor’s affordable housing plan: Creating and preserving 200,000 units in 10 years.
“We are pushing now for changes to the zoning code that would remove barriers that constrain housing production and raise costs, encourage better quality buildings that contribute to the fabric of neighborhoods and promote senior housing,” Planning Chair Carl Weisbrod wrote in an op-ed in March.
Contextual districts were created in the 1980s , when Weisbrod ran the Department of City Planning, to limit tall buildings on side streets in an effort to preserve neighborhood character. The Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, parts of Downtown Manhattan and all of Brownstone Brooklyn fall under this designation. Some contextual districts overlap with historic districts.
“De Blasio’s plan would remove all those contextual zones,” Bray charged. Doing so would provide “incentive for developers to tear down existing buildings and replace them with bulkier buildings.”
The city claims the zoning changes, which would add five feet to the maximum height of new buildings and permit higher density construction, will better promote the creation of affordable housing.
But while the city claims that the new zoning code would allow higher ceilings, elevated ground floor apartments and taller windows, and therefore more attractive buildings, activists are unconvinced.
The proposed zoning rules could also pressure Landmarks into allowing buildings that wouldn’t usually pass the commission in districts where contextual and historic districts overlap, for fear of being seen as obstructionist, Breen said.
The preservationists’ worries are far from the optimistic feelings they had after leaving that meeting with the public advocate years ago. He appeared to be “a big friend” of preservation, Bray said. “There’s been no evidence since he has become mayor that this is a priority of this administration.”