With Broad Support, Sarah Carroll OKed as Landmarks Chief

Sarah Carroll testifies at a Sept. 20 Council hearing a week before her unanimous confirmation as the new chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. | Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRASarah Carroll, executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Commission since 2014, won approval from the City Council on Sept. 26 as the agency’s new chair.

Carroll, a 24-year veteran of the LPC who has spent much of her time in the agency’s preservation department, will replace former chair Meenakshi Srinivasan, who served in the post for four years and announced her resignation in late April.

After resounding support from preservationists, architects, former chairs Robert Tierney and Sherida Paulsen, and a developer at a Council hearing on Sept. 20, her appointment comes as no surprise. Queens Councilmember Karen Koslowitz had told Carroll not to lose any sleep over the wait time between the committee hearing and the full Council vote.

“I really am happy that someone with your experience at the LPC — someone who started at the ground floor and worked your way up through the years — is being put forward for the position,” Speaker Corey Johnson told Carroll at the Sept. 20 hearing of the Rules, Privileges and Elections Committee.

Last Wednesday’s Council vote was unanimous.

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

As executive director of the agency, Carroll managed its operations and worked with Srinivasan on policy and strategic planning.

She touted her successes overseeing more than 4,000 landmark designations of buildings and sites as well as transparency efforts, including a new website for the agency and an internal permit-tracking database.

“As a native New Yorker, I have a passion for this city,” Carroll told Manhattan Express. “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 by preservationists, who most recently were critical of Srinivasan for making decisions they saw as developer-friendly.

Srinivasan resigned weeks after a contentious public hearing over proposed rules changes, which have since been modified and will be the subject of a new public hearing on Oct. 16. Srinivasan denied that the earlier hearing had anything to do with her resignation, adding that she had planned to leave the post for several months, according to agency spokesperson Zodet Negrón.

Johnson questioned Carroll on a critical challenge the agency faces: balancing the city’s need for development — amidst a housing crisis based in a vacancy rate of only 3.6 percent, below the 5 percent threshold that signals a housing stock emergency — and the importance of preserving the city’s architectural and cultural history.

Carroll contended that the city’s growth and preservation can 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.”

She added, “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. Both are equally important and can be balanced together.”

East Side Councilmembers Ben Kallos and Keith Powers, in voicing their support for Carroll, questioned her on issues they are concerned about.

Kallos asked if Carroll would consider expanding the scope of considerations that the LPC uses for determining landmarks — particularly their cultural importance in addition to physical characteristics alone.

Carroll responded that the process needs to be guided by specific standards, but left the door open for broadening the grounds for designating properties.

“I think that we have to be very rigorous,” she said. “The commission has standards in terms of determining whether something is eligible or not… Having said that, I am very open to looking at things through a different lens. I think we have done that recently, and I’m very open to continuing to explore ways to do that.”

Powers asked about Carroll’s position on the sale of development rights, sometimes dubbed air rights, by landmarked buildings to property owners looking to build taller. Most recently in Powers’ district, JP Morgan Chase bought air rights from St. Bartholomew’s Church and Grand Central Terminal to replace its 52-story headquarters at 270 Park Ave. with a 75-story tower.

“I think that conceptually a transfer of development rights can be very beneficial to landmarks, particularly if it generates money to maintain and aid in the long term preservation of the landmark,” she said, emphasizing that she can’t comment specifically without a particular proposal in view and that the issue is first and foremost under the authority of the Department of City Planning.

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, former LPC chair Robert Tierney, and Ann-Isabel Friedman, director of Sacred Sites at the New York Landmarks Conservancy, testified in Sarah Carroll’s favor at a Sept. 20 Council hearing. | Photo by Sydney Pereira

Preservation groups support Carroll, too.

“She comes to this role with an intimate knowledge of New York City’s historic buildings in addition to the agency’s operations, policy, and strategic planning,” said Rachel Levy, the executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts.

Levy explained that her group’s mission is to highlight buildings in Yorkville deserving of protection and to press for broader land use policies that “foster common sense zoning that will lead to balanced development.”

The Historic Districts Council is also supportive of Carroll based on her years of experience.

“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,” Simeon Bankoff, the group’s executive director, said in his testimony.

Former LPC chair Tierney said, “I can’t think of anyone who would be more qualified.”

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