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New York Landmarks and How to Renovate Them

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“Gramercy Park Entrance” by Beyond My Ken, licensed by CC Attribution Share Alike 4.0. Modified by Guzov, LLC.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) is the agency charged with preserving New York City’s cultural and historical locations.  The LPC takes great care in maintaining its protected sites, so if you want to renovate your property, you will likely run into a roadblock or two.  Are you one of the lucky few to own a piece of New York history?  If so, here are some key features of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, what the commission requires for renovations, and how best you can work with it to make the changes you want.

The LPC was founded in 1965 in response to public outcry from the demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station.  The agency now consists of 11 appointed commissioners and about 70 other staff members, including preservationists, historians, architects, attorneys and administrative employees.  The commission designates sites for preservation, usually buildings or districts, but sometimes natural locations (Central Park and Prospect Park are perhaps the most well-known of these).  Most designations of individual buildings concern only the exterior, but sometimes interiors are designated landmarks as well (for example, the concourse of Grand Central Terminal).  According to the LPC website, there are currently over 36,000 landmark designations in New York City.

To renovate a protected building, you must receive a permit from the commission.  To receive a permit, you will have to submit an application describing the existing condition of the building and details of how you want to alter it, including drawing and a list of materials you plan to use.  You will then submit the application, where it will be assessed by an LPC preservationist.  You will likely need to meet with the preservationist to review the jobsite and discuss which type of permit is most appropriate for you.  The LPC issues three basic types of permits: a Certificate of No Effect, which covers work not visible from the exterior of the landmark, but work that requires a Department of Buildings permit; a Permit for Minor Work, which encompasses work that effects the exterior of the building but does not require a Department of Buildings permit (like cleaning or window replacement); and a Certificate of Appropriateness, which covers external work that also requires a Department of Buildings permit.  The first two do not require a public hearing before approval.  For a Certificate of Appropriateness, however, a presentation must be given before the commissioners at a public hearing, reviewed by the LPC staff, and subsequently approved by the commissioners.  There are also two additional types of permits: a FasTrack Service permit and an Expedited Certificate of No Effect Service for Interior Work.  The FasTrack permit streamlines the replacement of windows and other standard, minimally visible features.  The Expedited Certificate covers interior work largely for use in private residences.

 

The LPC is loath to alter the exterior of a designated building, but it will work in your favor if you can convince it that such changes are necessary for safety, or that they have been done on other landmarks.  Additions to buildings are only allowed when they cannot be seen from any angle on the street.  As Wayne Bellet of Bellet Construction Company explained in an interview with the Cooperator last year, “[The LPC] will ask you to build a frame and paint it orange….They will go to extreme street corners to see if it is visible by the eye.  If it is…they will decline you.”

 

So if you want to renovate a landmarked building, how can you make working with the LPC easier?  First, preparing a broad, all-encompassing proposal is vital.  Daniel J. Allen of CTA Architects (which won an award in 2016 for its renovation of 36 Gramercy Park East) calls this his “master plan.”  For example, “if I get a nice aluminum-clad wood window approved for a building on Park Avenue,” he says, “and that master plan goes in the file of the commission, the next time someone in that building wants to replace their windows, they simply have to send a letter referring to the master plan.”  Second, mind the details and prepare in advance.  “The [LPC] demands that any patch or replacement must look exactly as it did when the structure was first built,” Bellet says.  “This includes jobs as small as replacing or re-caulking window sills to re-pointing the façade and replacing damaged brick, stone, and mortar.”  Often it is difficult to obtain materials similar to those used at the time of construction, so parts sometimes must be custom-made, which can add tremendous time and expense.  Finally, patience is a virtue.  “When you look at the scope of what happens from the Department of Buildings’ point of view,” Bellet concludes, “it’s amazing anything gets built….Now you sprinkle on the top of it that the building is landmarked…it’s not going to happen tomorrow.”

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