Sarah Carroll, new Landmarks chief, aims for ‘balance’

Sarah Carroll answered questions and spoke about herself at a City Council hearing last Thursday. Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Sarah Carroll, the former executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, was O.K.’d by the City Council as the agency’s new chairperson on Wednesday.

Carroll, a 24-year veteran of the agency who spent much of her time in its preservation department, will replace former Chairperson Meenakshi Srinivasan, who spent four years helming the commission and announced her resignation in late April.

After resounding support from preservationists, architects, former L.P.C. Chairpersons Robert Tierney and Sherida Paulsen, and a developer at a Council hearing last Thurs., Sept. 20, her appointment comes as no surprise. Queens Councilmember Karen Koslowitz even told Carroll not to lose sleep over the wait time between committee hearing and the official vote.

“I really am happy that someone with your experience at the L.P.C. — someone who started at the ground floor and worked your way up through the years — is being put forward for the position,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told Carroll at last week’s hearing.

Wednesday’s vote was unanimous.

“My experience with Sarah is that she’s been tough but fair,” said Albert Laboz, principal of United American Land, which owns more than 50 buildings in Manhattan. “To my chagrin, she’s not a pushover.”

Since 2014, Carroll has been the executive director of the commission, at which she managed agency operations and worked with the chairperson on policy and strategic planning.

In touting her successes, she noted she oversaw more than 4,000 designations of various buildings and sites, as well as pushed transparency efforts, including creating a new Web site for the agency and an internal permit-tracking database. “As a native New Yorker, I have a passion for this city,” Carroll told The Villager. “It’s very important to me that we do seek to protect areas and properties that reflect the diversity of this rich city, and having worked at the agency for so long, I’m completely dedicated to its mission and its mandate.”

Carroll will lead an agency that has been under fire from preservationists, who have most recently criticized former Chairperson Srinivasan for making decisions some see as developer-friendly.

Srinivasan resigned weeks after a contentious public hearing over proposed rule changes to “streamline” the application process, which have since been modified and will be subject of a public hearing on Oct. 16. Srinivasan officially denied that the hearing had anything to do with her resignation, adding that she had planned to leave the post for several months, according to L.P.C. spokesperson Zodet Negrón.

Council Speaker Johnson questioned Carroll on an overarching issue the agency faces: balancing the city’s need for development amid a housing crisis with a vacancy rate of 3.6 percent (below the 5 percent threshold considered a housing emergency) and the importance of preserving the city’s architectural and cultural history.

Carroll contended that the city’s growth and preservation can often go hand in hand.

“For me, I think that one of the really dynamic things about New York City is that change is constant,” she said. “New York City has always had development. In fact, the Empire State Building replaced the original Waldorf Astoria.

“I think the constant change and growth of the city along with preservation goes together to create the sort of dynamic vibrancy of the city,” she added. “Both are equally important and can be balanced together.”

Councilmember Margaret Chin asked Carroll to re-evaluate the extension of the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District, noting the neighborhood is “rich with a living history of working families from every corner of the globe.”

The district as it stands is completely in the East Village, stretching from E. Second St. to St. Mark’s Place between Avenue A and Third Ave. and bordering the St. Mark’s and Noho Historic Districts. (The East Village formerly used to be known as part of the Lower East Side.)

There is currently a push by preservationists to designate a Lower East Side Historic District south of Delancey St. between Essex and Forsyth Sts.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, is optimistic based on Carroll’s experience and work in preservation.

“She clearly has a very strong background in terms of preservation work and is obviously incredibly knowledgeable about the agency and about the work of preservation, which some of her predecessors as chair of the commission were not,” Berman said. “So that is definitely a plus.”

For Berman, a priority “right out of the gate” will be the aim to create some kind of historic district along and around Broadway south of Union Square to protect buildings that Berman fears will be at risk of development after the recent City Council approval of the Tech Hub, on E. 14th St. between Third and Fourth Aves.

Berman’s group recommended to the agency some 190 buildings south of Union Square for designation, but the agency highlighted only seven as potential landmarks. Those include the Roosevelt Building, at 478-482 Broadway, in addition to Nos. 817, 826, 830, 832, 836, and 840 Broadway.

“It is easy for commissioners and even advocates to get mired in the details of an individual project and lose sight of the forest for the trees, but avoiding this is one of the most important roles of a chair,” Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said in his testimony. “We believe that, having been eyewitnesses and party to decades of preservation activity, [Carroll] also has a deep appreciation for the benefits and importance of historic preservation principles to the people of New York City and its soul.”

Former L.P.C. Chairperson Tierney said, “I can’t think of anyone who would be more qualified.”

Shortly after Wednesday’s vote, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said in a statement that she was “thrilled” by Carroll’s appointment.

“This is one of the most important offices in city government,” Brewer said, “and I could not be more confident than with Sarah Carroll at the helm.”

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