Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Annual Preservation Conference Unites Citywide Advocates

By Michael Perlman

Preservation conference panel, Photo by Michael Perlman
The Historic Districts Council (HDC), a citywide advocate for New York’s historic neighborhoods, hosted the 26th Annual Preservation Conference at John Jay College on March 7. Hundreds of preservationists from the five boroughs networked and discussed strategies in preserving historic buildings and districts that grant community distinction, with an aim of strengthening the preservation ethic through tools including Individual Landmark (façade) and Historic District status via the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, as well as the State & National Register of Historic Places. 

Rego-Forest Preservation Council at the preservation fair
Rego-Forest Preservation Council flyer, March 2020
An annual preservation fair offered an opportunity for organizations to present current initiatives and display posters, brochures, and petitions at tables. Diverse attendees included Rego-Forest Preservation Council, Docomomo, South Street Seaport Coalition, 300 East 25th Street Block Association, Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, NY Preservation Archive Project, Greenwich Village Preservation, Park Slope Civic Council, Iron Hills Civic Association, Save Chelsea, Bronx Borough Landmarks Committee, Mott Haven Historic Districts Association, and Hart Island Project. Networking continued over a buffet lunch. 

Iron Hills Civic Association & friends, Photo by Michael Perlman
Section of preservation fair, Photo by Michael Perlman
This event builds upon the success of the recent ceremony where the “Six To Celebrate” 2020 communities meriting preservation are Rego Park, East Flatbush, Center Park Slope, Bronx Preservation Committee, Todt-Dongan Hills, and Landmarks of the Future Citywide. Rego-Forest Preservation Council advocates for landmark status for significant sites in Rego Park, Forest Hills, and nearby Queens communities, and documents local history. Presently, Forest Hills has three official landmarks, Remsen Cemetery (designated 1981), Ridgewood Savings Bank (2000), and Engine 305 & Ladder 151 (2012), but Rego Park has no designations. 

Simeon Bankoff, executive director, Historic Districts Council, Photo by Michael Perlman

HDC President Daniel Allen, Photo by Michael Perlman
HDC President Daniel Allen explained their success since 1970. “We have produced hundreds of programs about New York’s history and educated thousands of people about how to protect their historic neighborhoods, worked on gaining designations of more than 125 of the soon-to-be 150 historic districts, and reviewed thousands of proposals to alter historic buildings.” He continued, “Since last year’s conference, preservationists fought hard to protect the city’s character.” Landmark designations include Bay Ridge’s first historic district and Tin Pan Alley. “Each advancement has something in common; a fierce group of preservationists holding rallies, sending e-blasts, writing letters, bothering elected officials, and testifying at hearings.” A short film of preservation stories proved what makes our city special, and also included Landmarks Lion award recipients such as historian Barry Lewis and preservationists Christabel Gough and Kitty Carlisle, and Grassroots Preservation Award recipients. 

Chair Sarah Carroll, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, Photo by Michael Perlman
There are over 37,000 landmarked buildings and sites, including over 1,400 Individual Landmarks, 149 Historic Districts, 120 Interior Landmarks, and 11 Scenic Landmarks. HDC Executive Director Simeon Bankoff introduced keynote speaker, Chair Sarah Carroll of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). She explained, “NYC is a vibrant city whose history is revealed through its built environment. I believe that preservation is integral for the dynamism of this city and is a significant factor in NYC being a global destination. It was because of New Yorkers’ growing concern for the protection of the city’s history, that the Landmarks Law was enacted 55 years ago.”

During her time at the LPC for over 25 years in various roles, she has strived to initiate fairness and equity to the agency. She explained, “I firmly believe that preservation needs to represent and reach more communities, and that means representing our diverse history, and in the long-run, promoting preservation in all communities. We are working to ensure diversity in designations, making sure that we are telling the stories of all New Yorkers, and really looking at communities that haven’t had a voice in the past. We are working to ensure effective outreach for our regulatory work and garnering support for designations while recognizing NY’s incredible diversity, and ensuring fairness, transparency, and efficiency in regulations, so that proposed work is approved in a timely manner and that we are supporting property owners through technical assistance and improved guidance.”

She continued, “Preservation is more than just protecting our historic buildings, but about providing life to these buildings, so they can continue to be relevant tomorrow because as speaker Corey Johnson says, ‘In a city as dynamic as New York, the only constant is change.’”

A recent LPC goal is to identify newer buildings that reflect the more recent NYC history. She said, “It is vitally important that we think ahead and protect these properties that continue to represent the city’s changing nature, as well as the diversity of our social and cultural history.”

“In order to be equitable, we need to nurture preservation in less represented communities that may not have the architectural icons that earlier districts had, but have equally strong historic and cultural value,” said Carroll. 

Preservation session led by Simeon Bankoff, HDC, Photo by Michael Perlman
Participant-driven conferences are a component that differentiates this event from others. In classrooms, leaders delivered 45-minute sessions on NYC preservation topics which were voted upon by preservationists, and the winners were “South Street Seaport,” “Not Just Preservation,” “What About Penn South?,” “Lower West Side,” “Quarantine Island,” and “Preservation Manifesto.”

Simeon Bankoff’s presentation pinpointed that New Yorkers inherit the city and need to pass it down to future generations in a recognizable shape, and asserted that the government is the nurturer of citizens and must provide a healthy environment, safety, education, housing, and a stable economy. Additionally, equal access and the opportunity to utilize public resources are essential. Attendees proposed advocating for more preservation-friendly people in public office and offering training sessions, having buildings over a certain age become landmarks (similar to other municipalities), and having the full LPC body review proposed designations, the LPC holding public hearings at a certain threshold of community support, and every community having access to open space and protection of their historical resources. Suggestions also included implementing citywide planning which includes preservation and sensitive contextual development, modifying mayoral appointments of commissioners, instituting a demolition tax based on environmental factors and an EIS peer review, and strengthening community board oversight. A main point was that our historic city’s preservation is equally as important future housing and climate resiliency. 

50+ years of advocacy panel, Photo by Michael Perlman
Plenary sessions were inspired by HDC’s 50th anniversary. The first session, “50+ years of advocacy” reflected upon HDC’s preservation work and posed the question of what will advocates seek to preserve in the next 50 years. Panelists pinpointed current preservation challenges and proposed directions meriting exploration. It featured moderator Angel Ayón, Gregory Dietrich, Christian Emanuel, and Vicki Weiner. As a case in point for Queens, Emanuel, a real estate broker, was a dormant preservationist until his parents, commercial tenants at the Bank of Manhattan Company tower in Queens Plaza were facing eviction, and what was once Queens’ first skyscraper (1927), was threatened with demolition. They partnered with the HDC and rallied support from the community and elected officials, and the building was landmarked within a year. Today, Emanuel is on HDC’s board of directors. 

Designation tales panel, Photo by Michael Perlman  
The second session, “designation tales” largely focused on landmarking success stories told by advocates and offered advice on the process. Panelists were moderator Kelly Carroll, George Calderaro, Julia Charles, Jim Protos, and Keith Taylor.

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