Amidst LPC Rules Change Fight, Chief Resigns

Landmarks Preservation Commission chairperson Meenakshi Srinivasan is leaving that post on June 1 after four years at the helm. | Photo courtesy of LPC

BY SYDNEY PEREIRAWhen Meenakshi Srinivasan announced on April 19 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 LPC over a proposed rules change for the agency was standing room only, and the overwhelming majority of the crowd were opposed to Srinivasan’s proposal. A leading member of at least one group called for her resignation, 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, she had been planning to leave the post for months, according to a spokesperson for the 53-year-old city agency. The Architect’s Newspaper reported that Srinivasan is taking a position at New York Law School’s Center for New York City Law to develop curricula for it. The TimesLedger of Queens, our sister newspaper, broke the news about her resignation, which comes after four years as LPC 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 LPC’s work, and working with the administration to make preservation a critical part of the city’s planning process,” Srinivasan said in a written 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 certainly not without controversy. Preservation groups have been deeply critical of a myriad of decisions she made as the Commission’s leader — most recently the rules change proposal, which, preservationists charge, would drastically reduce transparency and public oversight. Decisions by the LPC seen as developer-friendly, such as approving “Gansevoort Row,” a major rebuilding project on Gansevoort St. in the Meatpacking District, fall on Srinivasan’s back, as well.

Yet some note that under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, there’s not much hope for Srinivasan’s replacement being 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 the Rose Reading Room and Bill Blass Catalogue Room at the New York Public Library’s main branch at 42nd St. and Fifth Ave., select interior spaces in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the historic West Village Stonewall Inn, and in underrepresented areas, like East Harlem, Brownsville, and East New York, are just a few of the shining moments in her tenure, but they have been overshadowed by pro-development decisions, her critics say.

The overarching power of the mayor is to blame, some argue.

“This mayoral administration has been extraordinarily clear about its growth agenda and about attempting to deliver social services,” Bankoff said.

That agenda is also overly friendly to real estate developers, preservationists feel. According to Bankoff, the mayor’s agenda is fundamentally at odds with what the core goals of the LPC should be.

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

Audience members protest proposed LPC rule changes at a March 27 public hearing. | Photo by Lincoln Anderson

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 20 years, rising to deputy director of its Manhattan office.

Her time as LPC 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 make final decisions on applications that had been pending for years.

It’s ironic then that, by and large, the recent LPC rules change proposal was accused of being anything but transparent — lessening public oversight for certain applications and creating vague language for the criteria in 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 LPC maintains that 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. The new rules, the agency says, are intended to increase the clarity of 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.

“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 LPC staff would make such a determination was not clear to preservation groups. The public’s input would be best for answering such a vague question, they said.

“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 GVSHP flagged. Her group’s testimony — nearly 10,000 words long — pointed out that determining what the subjective phrase “undue attention” means would be decided behind closed doors.

Other changes the LPC 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” in evaluating 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 don’t “significantly increase visibility” in the judgment of staff.

To its credit, the LPC has made significant transparency improvements in the form of publicly available online databases and search tools.

And, the agency noted, of the 14,000 permit applications the LPC receives each year, between 93 and 96 percent are already reviewed at a staff level. Only three to six percent of applications are reviewed by local community boards through a public hearing — and the Commission says such review would not change under the new rules.

Looking ahead, Gough and others are now keeping their focus on the LPC., with or without Srinivasan. Explaining Srinivasan’s abrupt resignation, Gough declared, is largely a “distraction” Her group is concerned about the rules change at the agency.

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,” she said.

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