Under fire, Landmarks leader readies to resign

After four years leading the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Meenakshi Srinivasan will step down as its chairperson on June 1.

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | When Meenakshi Srinivasan announced last Thursday that she would be resigning as chairperson of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the timing struck many as peculiar.

Less than a month earlier, a public hearing at L.P.C. over a proposed rules change for the agency was standing room only, and the overwhelming majority of those in attendance were opposed to Srinivasan’s proposal. A leading member of at least one group called for Srinivasan to resign from her post, as the audience applauded.

Yet, Srinivasan denies that the hearing — and the outpouring of opposition to the proposal — had anything to do with her decision to resign.

In fact, Srinivasan had been planning to leave the post for months now, according to a spokesperson for the 53-year-old city agency. She plans to take a position at New York Law School’s Center for New York City Law to develop curricula for it, as reported by the Architect’s Newspaper. The TimesLedger of Queens, a sister paper of The Villager, broke the news about her resignation, which comes after four years as L.P.C. chairperson and 28 years in city government.

“I am proud of what we have accomplished —promoting equity, diversity, efficiency and transparency in all aspects of L.P.C.’s work, and working with the administration to make preservation a critical part of the city’s planning process,” Srinivasan said in a statement. “It’s been an intense, challenging and incredibly rewarding experience.”

Her resignation was “surprising” to Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council.

“Just based on the history of the Landmarks Commission, typically, there have been changes in the chairperson when there’s changes in the mayoral administration,” he said.

While news of Srinivasan’s departure came as a shock to some preservationists, her tenure was not without controversy. Preservation groups have been deeply critical of a myriad of decisions Srinivasan has made as the commission’s leader — most recently the rules change proposal, which, preservationists charge, would drastically reduce transparency and public oversight.

Decisions by L.P.C. seen as developer-friendly in the Downtown area — such as approving “Gansevoort Row,” a major rebuilding project on Gansevoort St. in the Meatpacking District, and O.K.’ing a new apartment complex at a former garage site at 11 Jane St. in the Village — fall on the back of Srinivasan.

Yet, some note that under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, there’s not much hope for Srinivasan’s replacement to be any better for preservation in the city.

“While she has pushed the agency in many ways to be more inclusive, I think that she has, by and large,  tried to loosen its regulatory powers,” Bankoff said. Srinivasan’s landmark designations, such as of the historic Stonewall Inn in 2015, and in underrepresented areas, like Brownsville, East New York and East Harlem, plus proposing landmarking the Coney Island wooden boardwalk, are just a few of the shining moments in her tenure — but they don’t outshine the seemingly pro-development decisions, her critics say. But the overarching power of the mayor could be to blame, as well.

“This mayoral administration has been extraordinarily clear about its growth agenda and about attempting to deliver social services,” Bankoff said. That agenda, however, also is overly friendly to real estate developers, preservationists feel. In short, the mayor’s agenda, particularly in terms of development and growth, is fundamentally at odds with the core goals of the L.P.C. should be, according to Bankoff.

“That’s not what the agency does,” Bankoff said. “It’s like asking the Fire Department to pick up garbage.”

Srinivasan was appointed Landmarks commissioner by the mayor in 2014. She previously served as chairperson of the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals for a decade during the Bloomberg administration, and prior to that, worked at the Department of City Planning for more than two decades, rising to deputy director of its Manhattan office.

Most of those in the overflow crowd at the March 27 L.P.C. hearing were opposed to the proposed rule changes. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Her time as L.P.C. chairperson focused on increasing transparency and expediting the lengthy process of applications for permits and landmark designations — including, in particular, what was dubbed the “backlog initiative,” an effort to winnow down applications that had been pending for years.

It’s ironic then that, by and large, the most recent L.P.C. rules change proposal was accused of being anything but transparent — lessening public oversight for certain applications and creating vague language for the criteria on decisions that would be made at the staff level rather than voted on by the commissioners. More than 100 pages of bureaucratic rule changes were released to the public in mid-February, and a public hearing was held March 27. The L.P.C. says the new rules would streamline the application process, leaving just the major architectural changes and developer applications for public hearings and review by local community boards. Additionally, the new rules are intended to increase the clarity of the criteria for staff-level decisions.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation testified at the March 27 hearing about several phrases in the regulations that were far from clear — but rather would leave many decisions dependent on staffers’ subjective opinions.

But, for its part, the L.P.C. portrayed the rules changes as not major, saying they would simply make application processes go more smoothly.

“For the most part,” said Andrew Berman, the society’s executive director, “people were not buying it.”

One example of vague jargon in the rules was whether or not a proposed architectural addition calls “undue attention” to itself. How L.P.C. staff would even determine such a thing was not clear to preservation groups. On the contrary, they said, the public’s input would be best for answering such a vague question.

“What can that possibly mean?” scoffed Christabel Gough, the secretary of the Society for the Architecture of the City, another group critical of the subjective phrases that G.V.S.H.P. flagged. Her group’s testimony — nearly 10,000 words long — pointed out that determing what the subjective phrase “undue attention” means in relation to an application would be decided by staffers behind closed doors.

The “undue attention” phrase was just one of several that preservationists noted in their testimonies. Other changes that the L.P.C. says will make the process more efficient by way of staff-level approval include: allowing more options in restoration efforts to use substitute materials rather than original materials; creating a “standardized formula” for criteria for several storefront designs and windows, which could lead to design homogenization; and cutting the public out of the review of rooftop and rear-yard additions that — in staffers’ subjective opinion — don’t “significantly increase visibilty.”

To its credit, the L.P.C. has indeed made other transparency improvements in the form of publicly available online databases and search tools. Of the 14,000 permit applications the L.P.C. receives each year, between 93 and 96 percent are already reviewed at a staff level, according to the commission. Only 3 to 6 percent of applications are reviewed by local community boards through a public hearing — and the commission says this would not change under the new rules.

Looking ahead, Gough and others are now keeping their focus on the L.P.C., with or without Srinivasan. Focusing on Srinivasan and why exactly she abruptly resigned is largely a “distraction,” Gough declared, stressing that her group wants to focus on the rules change.

Srinivasan’s last day is not until June 1, and the public comment period for the rules change ends May 8 — which gives the commission plenty of time to approve the rules change while she is still around. But Gough hopes the other commissioners will see fit to vote against the proposal.

“It’s up to them to take a stand,” Gough said.

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