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Landmark Designation in Relation to Retail

By Joanne Chua

It comes as no surprise that a city as vibrant and rich in culture as New York plays host to a number of groups that fight for the protection of its historic architecture and landscapes. Among the most notable of these is the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which exerts considerable influence on property owners, land users, and particularly, as will be discussed shortly, on retail store operators.

Established in 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s chief goal is to administer the city’s Landmarks Preservation Law. Signed by Mayor Robert Wagner following the 1964 demolition of Pennsylvania Station (currently Madison Square Garden), the law enables the Commission to designate landmarks, and to regulate changes to designated landmarks, throughout New York City.

Landmark designation is the process by which the Commission works to ensure that the city’s important social, cultural, and historical sites and attributes remain intact. The Commission can pronounce different buildings, structures, and areas as individual landmarks, interior landmarks, historic districts, or scenic landmarks. The law states that a building or structure must be at least 30 years old before it can be declared a landmark. As of May 2009, the Commission has designated over 25,000 buildings as landmarks in all five boroughs, including 1,230 individual landmarks, 110 interior landmarks, 10 scenic landmarks, and 95 historic districts.

How does work done by the Commission affect retail storeowners? In order to make any sort of alteration to the storefront or interior of a landmarked building or building in an historic district, a storeowner needs to apply to the Landmarks Commission for approval before they may begin work.

Before delving into the Commission’s application process for work approval, we need to first clarify the difference between a landmarked building and a building residing in an historic district. Distinguishing between the two is essential, because buildings designated as individual landmarks, and buildings in designated historic districts, have different implications for retailers seeking approval for permits.

Image source: http://www.gvshp.org/_gvshp/preservation/south_village/south_village-main.htm

Image source: http://www.gvshp.org/_gvshp/preservation/south_village/south_village-main.htm

An historic district is a group of buildings or properties within a certain prescribed area that have been collectively deemed architecturally significant. Examples of historic districts include the districts of Gramercy, Greenwich Village, and SoHo in Manhattan. One historic district currently being proposed, that has been backed by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation since January of 2007, is the South Village. The village will cover an area stretching south of West Fourth Street to Broome Street, bounded by La Guardia Place to the east, and Seventh Avenue South to the west. The area will be the first largely tenement-based historic district, highlighting the history of immigration in the city, especially that of Italian-American immigrants. To view photos and descriptions of all designated historic districts to date, visit the Historic District Council’s digital image library at http://www.hdc.org/DIL/DILintro.htm.

So what does this distinction mean for retailers, as they prepare to design and construct a storefront property? If a retailer proposes construction work on a building’s storefront in an historic district, the work must reinforce the fundamental character and feel of the area. The Commission is fundamentally concerned with the façade of buildings in historic districts, and how they blend in with one another. Such proposed work is thus subject to partially defined yet flexible criteria, depending on the type of work proposed.

Similarly, individual landmark status only protects a building’s exterior. Individual landmarks are the Commission’s most common designation, and can apply to any single building or structure—for example, Grand Central Station, or the Coney Island Wonder Wheel. For the interior of individual landmarks to be under the protection of the Landmarks Law, the Commission has the power to designate important public spaces as interior landmarks—spaces such as the lobby of the Woolworth building, and the interior of the Ed Sullivan theater.

As opposed to buildings in historic districts, a retailer proposing work on a landmarked building, so designated to preserve the specific building’s architectural features, may have to follow stricter guidelines and encounter more restrictions, at the discretion of the Commission.

Both generalizations made above apply to work proposed on the exterior of a building. If a retailer were to propose work on the interior of a building, they would need to obtain a Certificate of No Effect from the Commission before they can apply for a Department of Buildings permit, which is required for any project that demolishes, alters, adds onto or builds a new structure to make certain that the resulting structure complies with all applicable laws. As the Commission usually isn’t very concerned with the interior of a building, unless they have designated it an interior landmark, this step is quick and easy, and will not delay the construction process. The Certificate of No Effect will be more fully explained below.

The operations and processes carried out by the Commission are important, because they affect retail storeowners’ build-out schedule, design plans, and construction costs.

The Commission issues three types of permits to grant approval for proposed work—a Certificate of No Effect, a Permit for Minor Work, and a Certificate of Appropriateness.

A Certificate of No Effect, or “CNE”, is issued when the proposed work requires a Department of Buildings permit but does not affect the architectural features of a building. A CNE is typically issued for interior renovations requiring Department of Building permits, such as plumbing and heating equipment installations. In the event that the proposed interior work does affect the exterior features of a building—the vent of a kitchen exhaust fan cutting through a decorative feature of the façade, for instance—a Commission staff member may help the applicant revise their proposal until it is satisfactory.

The second permit issued by the Commission is a Permit for Minor Work, or “PMW”. The Commission issues a PMW when the proposed work is minor—affecting significant protected architectural features, but not requiring a Department of Buildings permit. Examples of such work include window or door replacement, masonry cleaning or repair, and restoration of architectural details.

The third permit the Commission issues is a Certificate of Appropriateness, or “C of A”. A C of A is needed when the proposed work is major, both requiring a Department of Buildings permit and affecting significant architectural features of a building. Additions, new construction, or removal of architectural features, such as stoops and cornices, usually require a C of A. The Landmarks Law states that a public hearing must be held for each C of A application. C of A hearings are conducted by the Commission every month.

The Commission makes its decisions on the three types of permits within the following time periods: 30 working days for a CNE, 20 working days for a PMW, and 90 working days for a C of A. In most cases, the Commission will make a decision in much less time. However, storeowners must account for the time it may take for a permit to be issued, and should therefore apply to the Commission as early as they can, provided that they have carefully thought out and prepared their application.

Whether planning to do work on a landmarked building or building in an historic district, a retail storeowner may face more challenges with the Landmarks Commission than he or she might initially expect. Many see the entire process as expensive and time-consuming. However, costs can be reduced, and challenges abated, if storeowners arm themselves with sufficient knowledge about the Commission’s rules and regulations.

West 71st Historic District in Manhattan

West 71st Historic District in Manhattan. Image source: http://www.hdc.org/DIL/west71.htm

In general, the Commission wishes to preserve the historic character of the landmarked building or designated historic district. It thus looks for the addition presented in the proposal to be respectful and comparable to the scale, material, and style of the original building. It also prefers the work proposed to preserve as much solid, intact historic material as possible. For example, regarding brownstone repair, the Commission would favor a proposal that patches only deteriorated areas over a proposal that resurfaces the entire façade.

Retailers must keep in mind that although the Commission has general guidelines and procedures to how they perform their work, it still treats each proposal on a case-by-case basis. Documents that may be of use to those preparing a proposal, such as “Rules of the Landmarks Preservation Commission”, “Work Guidelines & Material Checklists for Work on Landmarked Buildings”, and “Rooftop Addition Guidelines”, may be found in the Forms and Publications section of the Commission’s website, at http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/html/forms/forms_pub.shtml. Additionally, more detailed information on how to perform work on landmarked properties—work on such features as lighting, painting, signage, storefronts, and temporary installations can be located at http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/pubs/workguide.pdf.

If retailers are at all unsure of anything regarding the work approval process, they should visit the Commission’s website, at http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/html/home/home.shtml. If any further questions remain unanswered, or you wish to check the status of an application, email the Commission at info@lpc.nyc.gov, or call them at (212) 669-7817. Should you feel the need to visit their office, they are located on the 9th Floor of the Municipal Building at the corner of Centre Street and Chambers Street, in Manhattan. Their business hours are from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday, except holidays. Be sure to bring two forms of photo ID.

Other web links that may be of interest are the designation report database, a project led by the Neighborhood Preservation Center and the Landmarks Preservation Commission featuring all the city’s landmark designation reports, found at http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/designation_reports/index.php, and the New York Historical Society’s current exhibition, “Landmarks of New York”, for which more information may be obtained at https://www.nyhistory.org/web/default.php?section=exhibits_collections&page=exhibit_detail&id=6208136.

Joanne Chua is a retail real estate intern at Sinvin Realty.

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