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Managing the Landmarks Process

We recently had a building survey conducted on our 13-story cooperative, and the board is now planning a series of major capital improvements over the next five years. The renovations include facade restoration work, roof repairs, a limited heating upgrade, replacing some of the windows, and minor changes to the lobby. The building is located in the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District, so we know we will need landmark permits. What types of restrictions will be imposed on the work? Do we have to keep the building’s appearance exactly the same, or are visual changes allowed? Is approval required only for the exterior projects or for the interior work as well?

New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) was established to protect properties and areas that have historical or cultural significance or special aesthetic character. The LPC requires owners of landmark properties and buildings located within an LPC-designated historic district to get the commission’s approval before undertaking alterations or repairs. Changes to properties affected by LPC rules must preserve the architectural integrity of the building’s original design, and they cannot unnecessarily clash with the look and feel of the surrounding neighborhood.

The LPC provides clear guidelines on which type of work does or does not require a permit. Approval is not needed for ordinary repairs or maintenance work, such as repainting (if it matches the existing color), caulking around windows and doors, replacing broken window glass, or removing a small amount of graffiti. Most other work, however, will require approval from the LPC, including the following:

• Repairing or resurfacing masonry.
• Repointing stone or brick surfaces.
• Repairing settlement cracks.
• Cleaning exterior wall surfaces.
• Stripping paint from the facade.
• Painting previously unpainted masonry.
• Applying preservative coatings or anti-graffiti coatings.
• Installing or removing signs or other appurtenances.
•Interior alterations, including mechanical, plumbing, and heating upgrades and apartment renovations.

If the work requires a permit from the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), then it automatically requires approval from the LPC. Some projects, however, such as replacing windows (so long as the existing openings remain the same size), usually do not require a DOB permit but always require an LPC permit.

The LPC issues three types of permits. The first, a Certificate of No Effect, is required when the work requires a DOB permit but does not affect the protected architectural features of the building. This would include most interior work, such as the heating upgrade and changes to the lobby that your building has planned, or work that does not adversely affect significant features of the building, such as replacing a window lintel or a roofing membrane. Even though most interior work is not visible from the outside, some repairs and alterations could be, which is why the LPC requires a permit. For example, the vent of a bathroom exhaust fan could cut through a significant decorative feature on the facade, or an interior partition could partially block a front window. Likewise, an exterior element of the building not on the front facade could still be visible from a side street. The LPC would require that the proposed work in such cases be modified so it meets applicable guidelines.

The second type of LPC approval, a Permit for Minor Work (PMW), is issued when the proposed work will affect significant protected architectural features but does not require a DOB permit. Examples include window or door replacement, masonry cleaning or repair, restoring architectural details, and refurbishing fire escapes.

The third type of permit, a Certificate of Appropriateness (C of A), is needed when the proposed work requires a DOB permit and will affect significant protected architectural features. (If the proposed work does not require a DOB permit but has been denied a PMW, the owner can apply for a C of A.) Examples of C of A work include adding or demolishing stories, removing stoops or cornices, or any type of new construction. In these instances, the LPC requires that a public hearing be held at which the building owner (or a representative) presents the case for the proposed work, and a board of LPC commissioners votes on it.

In determining whether to grant approval for a proposed renovation or upgrade, the LPC takes into consideration whether the work will be historically accurate to the building and/or the district where it is located. If the property has been minimally modified from its original design, then the renovations or repairs should match the existing character of the building as closely as possible. If, however, the building has been significantly modified over the years, particularly before 1965, when the LPC was established, then the LPC may require that the proposed work restore the building to its historical origins.

Contemporary-style buildings in historic districts, however, are not required to alter their designs to look “old-fashioned.” The LPC’s main concern is that such recently built properties fit in with the scale and character of the overall district. But a modern building will not be asked to install elements of an earlier era, such as multi-paned windows, if they were not part of the original design.

Similarly, the LPC does not require alterations be made to a property if none are planned. For example, if a building has a highly visible and historically inappropriate addition, such as a roof deck installed before the property or district were landmark-protected, the LPC will not force the owner to remove it. But, if the owner plans on repairing or making changes to the deck, then the LPC would require that the renovations make the installation less visually intrusive and more in line with the rest of the building and the district.

Although the LPC does not require buildings to make unplanned alterations, it does require that owners maintain their properties so that historical features are not lost and the building is not subject to “demolition by neglect.” This rule is similar to the buildings department requirement that all New York City buildings be maintained in a safe condition.

When applying for a LPC permit, the commission will request documentation of the existing conditions, including as-built drawings, current photos, and photographs of the building’s historic origins (if available), as well as plans and a written scope of work of the proposed changes. Material samples or presentation boards may also be required. The commission assigns a staff member to handle each case, and he or she may suggest that the building owner and/or its engineer or architect meet at the commission’s office to review the proposed changes in detail. A meeting at the property may also be requested, and sometimes a prototype or mockup of items such as railings or wood decks must be temporarily put in place for review.

Co-op and condo boards planning a series of frequent changes to the same part of the building or related work that will take several years to complete can submit a “master plan” to the LPC, establishing a building-wide standard for future changes to specific building elements. Before beginning the actual work, however, an application still must be filed identifying the work items to be performed and showing that they will conform to the overall plan. But no drawings or public hearing will be needed, because the master plan has already been approved. A master plan does not limit other type of work – even changes not part of the plan can still be proposed, but those items would have to undergo the regular LPC review.

The LPC may object to proposed changes for a variety of reasons. For example, if the replacement item for an ornamental element does not accurately replicate the existing detail, or replacement windows significantly diminish the glazing area, then the planned alterations would have to be modified. The commission provides guidelines for most types of projects and lists options for approved materials and items if the proposed work does not pass muster. In general, cementitious products, such as cast stone, are preferred over artificial materials, and wood trim should not be covered with vinyl or capped with metal. Some composite materials, such as glass-fiber reinforced concrete, may be an acceptable replacement for decorative elements difficult to replicate in the original material, such as terra cotta.

Boards should be aware that the approval process does not happen overnight, so the necessary documents, photos, and paperwork should be submitted as early in the process as possible. According to the LPC, a Permit for Minor Work takes roughly 20 working days to process, a Certificate of No Effect, 30 working days, and a Certificate of Appropriateness, 90 working days. The time varies depending on the number and type of changes being proposed and whether a visit to the site is necessary. Revising proposed alterations to address LPC objections will also add time to the approval process.

Formerly, there weren’t any fees associated with obtaining an LPC permit. But in July 2004, the DOB started collecting fees on behalf of the commission. LPC permit fees range from fifty to several hundred dollars, depending on the construction cost of the project. (This permit fee is in addition to the DOB’s own filing fees. However, there are no LPC fees if a DOB permit is not required such as with a permit for minor work.)

Keep in mind that most repair and renovation projects on landmark properties or those located in historic districts will require LPC approval. Even something as simple as removing a fabric awning requires a permit, so before beginning work it’s best to check with your engineer or architect or directly with the LPC ( to make sure your building complies. In addition, boards should inform residents and commercial tenants that the building is subject to landmark laws and that all individual apartment alterations need to be approved before the work begins.

LPC regulations do add another layer of paperwork to repair and upgrade projects, but landmark protection plays a valuable role in preserving New York City’s historical and architectural character.

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