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The Price of History

The Ritz Tower, at 465 Park Avenue on East 57th Street, was designed by world-famous architect Emory Roth and built between 1925-27. Once the tallest building in New York, the 150-unit tan-brick structure with the terra-cotta ornamentation has also been the home to such luminaries as William Randolph Hearst and Greta Garbo. And when the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) came calling in 2002, seeking to designate the property a landmark, the co-op board that runs it did not say, "We want to be alone," but actually embraced the process.

"The board considered [landmark designation] carefully," recalls Richard Siegler, a partner in Stroock & Stroock & Lavan and the attorney for the building. Rather than fight designation, "the board negotiated as a quid pro quo a master air conditioning and window plan. We had an [LPC-] approved format, so that even though it became a landmark, owners would be able to put in [new] windows and have air conditioning grills that would be consistent with the landmark scheme. All of that was to ameliorate potential future hardships for building residents. The board felt [designation] added cache to the building - that it was a plus because it says that this is a significant building."

Meanwhile, the board at 257 Central Park West, the 99-year-old, 80-unit co-op at the southwest corner of West 85th Street, is not thrilled about being in the Central Park West Historic District. It means more time and money on what would otherwise be simple repairs.

"We have been spending a lot of time trying to make some improvements to the building and we're very frustrated by the way that the Landmarks Preservation Commission operates," complains Tim Daeleader, the secretary of the board. "The building has taken significant wear-and-tear and we came up with a plan to laminate the base of the building with a natural limestone. In essence, what we'd be doing is adding to the exterior and improving it where there's a fair amount of damage now. The community board was very happy with the plan. We went to the landmarks commission and they said, 'That's nice but you should really do it with granite.' So now we're working on a plan we thought we'd get done last summer, and now here it is January. We hope to get a [revised] plan before them in the next two or three months, so we can start work in the spring. In essence, it's going to take us a year longer than we wanted it to."

Some people love it, others hate it, and between these two extremes sits the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Formed in 1965 following the brouhaha over the destruction of Pennsylvania Station, the commission was set up to seek out and protect "landmark" quality buildings from destruction or defacement. But exactly what is a landmark? And what should a board know about successfully dealing with the commission?

As for the definition of a landmark, the law is general: structures or places that have a "special character or special or historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state or nation." These can include buildings and their sites, historic districts (ranging from a few houses to 2,000 properties), scenic landmarks (Central Park and the 125th Street Broadway IRT elevated subway station), and interiors (Radio City Music Hall). The only objective criterion is age: 30 years is the minimum. All else is opinion, arrived at through research, consultation, public hearings, and debate among the 11 commissioners and their staff members. The commission must include at least three architects, one historian, one city planner or landscape architect, and one realtor, and there must be at least one resident from each borough in the group.

Most co-ops or condos get involved with the commission, or Landmarks as it is commonly called, because they fall into various historic districts (among them: Greenwich Village in Manhattan, Jackson Heights in Queens, and Fort Greene in Brooklyn). Others face the preservationists when their buildings are individually designated.

The process is fairly straightforward. First, find out if your building is landmarked or in a historic district (call the LPC's public information officer at 212-669-7817), or consult the Guide to New York City Landmarks. If you fall under one of those two categories, your building is subject to review procedures. If you want to perform minor work or make alterations to the exterior of the building, you must obtain LPC approval before beginning work (the exceptions: replacing broken window glass, removing small amounts of graffiti, or an emergency repair - but in that case, the repair must later be brought up to LPC standards). Approval for interior work is required when the work needs a Department of Buildings permit; when work on the interior affects the exterior; or when the interior has been designated a landmark.

Successfully navigating through the LPC's approval process involves getting experts who are familiar with the way the commission works and what it is looking for. "Every job is different," says Mark Licalzi, a partner in Luke-Licalzi, Consulting Engineers. "It's not an impossible situation and Landmarks is not there just to say 'no' to a situation. Landmarks has valuable input. It just takes time."

John Wender, a principal in Bartolone, Wender Architects, says that the LPC can be very reasonable. He is currently supervising the waterproofing and restoration of the courtyard at the 65-unit Dakota cooperative on Central Park West and 72nd Street. To do the repairs, a structure in the courtyard, which had been added some 50 years after the building was completed, needed to be replaced. Wender argued, and the co-op board agreed, that it should be removed since it was not in keeping with the original design of the property.

He also argued for the replacement of the concrete sidewalk that led into the courtyard with paved bluestone that matched the material on the facade of the building. "That was controversial because this wasn't in the original design," Wender says. "We argued that it was in the spirit of the original design and that if the technical possibilities had been available to the [original] architect, he would have done this."

After a three-month open call for comments, the commission held a hearing, at which proponents and opponents to the proposed plans offered testimony. In the end, after reviewing documents, materials, and going for on-site visits, Landmarks approved the project.

On big restoration jobs, it may pay to hire a historic preservationist, who offers advice on work and will even testify on your behalf at the LPC hearing. "We work with the architects and engineers to figure out the best approach for window replacement, and jobs like that, as well as masonry restoration," says Elise Quasebarth, a partner at Higgins & Quasebarth, a historic preservationist. "We know a lot about the architectural and historic context of a neighborhood. We do research, but we are also familiar with the review process, with what kind of applications are likely to meet with approval, and what kind of documents are needed to make the process go more smoothly."

Some wonder if there are any direct benefits - as in tax rebates or funding - to help co-ops maintain their properties. "We have a unique lobby," notes Mary Cavataro, secretary of a 72-unit White Plains co-op built in 1929. "It's very ornate, with beautiful terrazzo floors. Our building has been neglected for a long time, but in the last two years, there have been a lot of improvements. We wondered if we could get a grant or if there were any tax benefits available if we got landmarked or were placed on the national register of historic places."

The good news is there is a 20 percent rehabilitation tax credit for those listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but the bad news is that none of that money is available to co-ops. The law requires the property be income-producing, but a co-op acts like a non-profit entity, explains Mark Shernicoff, an accountant with Zucker & Shernicoff. "A co-op sets its income at a level sufficient to cover its expenses." In addition, it doesn't pay federal income tax, so it can't use the credit.

There is a city program available, however: J-51 for landmarks, through which the city will reimburse the owner at full value for the cost of repairs of certain designated items. But that, too, may not apply to many cooperatives or condominiums because of economic threshold tests that are part of the city's J-51 rebate program. "The building has to first qualify for J-51," says attorney Paul Korngold, a partner in Tuchman, Katz, Schwartz, Gelles, Korngold & Weiss. "In much of Manhattan today, because of the increase in the value of co-ops, many buildings that may have been eligible are no longer eligible."

Nonetheless, Korngold says, it doesn't hurt to apply, especially in lower-valued properties. "It's simply done as part of the normal J-51 application procedure." For more information, contact the Landmarks Preservation Commission or the Department of Housing, Preservation & Development, or ask your managing agent.

In the end, should building owners curse or praise the landmarking of their properties? Probably a little of both, with a little more kudos than kvetching. For, as attorney Steve Wagner, a partner in Wagner, Davis & Gold, puts it: "Much of the beauty - the charm of the city - comes from these buildings. The additional bureaucracy is a small complaint when you consider the additional benefits you're leaving."

 

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