The Audubon Park Historic District: Lessons Learned Pursuing HD Status

The Audubon Park Historic District from the Southwest

Building on the success of the Audubon Park Historic District designation this past summer, Community Board 12’s Land Use Committee sponsored a community forum at its February 3 meeting, a first step in organizing interested Washington Heights residents into teams to explore and identify additional buildings (or groups of buildings) in Washington Heights for designation as New York Landmarks. Leading off the meeting, representatives from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) were on hand to explain guidelines, offer suggestions, and answer questions. Then Wayne Benjamin, the Land Use Committee’s chair, a strong supporter of landmarking in Washington Heights, encouraged the several dozen people attending to voice their interests, sign up for development teams, and then go home and log onto CB12s website, where a projected master plan for historic landmarking in Washington Heights is available for review, a plan based on community input over the last couple of years.

From initial idea to designation, landmarking is a complex, time-consuming, and long process that involves detailed research and coordinated community support from building owners, residents, local politicians, and the Community Board. So, where does a person begin? I can hardly term myself an expert in the field, but having seen one project from inception to designation, I can offer a few suggestions based on what we did well with the Audubon Park Historic District project – and what we didn’t. Here are five suggestions.

Suggestion 1: Follow the rules.
A successful designation depends upon an appropriate request, supported by a strong Request for Evaluation (RFE). First stop in the process is a visit to the LPC website. Pay particular attention to the FAQs section that outlines the four types of landmarks and clarifies qualifications:

The Landmarks Law requires that, to be designated, a potential landmark must be at least 30 years old and must possess “a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation.”

Next, review some of the recent designation reports. Reviewing and understanding the components of designation reports is very important because the information in those reports is a guide for what should be in your RFE; the more applicable information you include, the more you streamline the proposal process. LPC staff is limited and receives scores of proposals yearly. The more legwork you can do and present in your RFE, the less work they’ll face. Fact-checking your work requires far fewer man hours than conducting the research from the ground up. A detailed RFE doesn’t guarantee that your request will advance to designation, but as in elementary school in your RFE, neatness and complete answers do count.

Suggestion 2: Commit to the project.
Perhaps this should have been suggestion 1.
If you don’t like architecture, libraries, surfing the internet, or delving into other people’s lives – often dead people’s lives – this is not a your project.

Researching and writing an RFE for LPC takes time, stamina, diplomacy, and patience. The Internet has brought invaluable resources to your desktop, particularly sites that feature historic newspapers, like the New York Times and the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America, but visits to the New York Public Library, Department of Buildings, City Register, and museums like the New York Historical Society or Museum of the City of New York, are essential to completing your RFE. Those are the places where you’ll find primary source material and images to strengthen and support your proposal.

Suggestion 3: Ask for advice – and then follow it.
The LPC, the Historic Districts Council, and the Municipal Art Society all have staff who understand the ins and outs of the landmarking process, but remember: these people are fielding multiple inquiries daily, so have your questions organized when you phone or email and keep your contact as concise and brief as possible. You don’t want to waste their time and you don’t want to waste yours. And, don’t argue. They have experience; they know what they talking about. Remember: if your project reaches the testimony stage, representatives of these organizations will be testifying; you want them on your team.

Suggestion 4: Involve your community.
Communicate. While a researcher’s instinct may be to hold his cards close to his chest, keeping his hard-found, deep-thought findings a secret until he can break them to a wondering world, a successful RFE is a community effort, requiring support from residents, building owners, local politicians, and the local Community Board. Written support from the community – letters, emails, communication using the LPC website – help ensure that an RFE moves through the process. An RFE that reaches proposal stage will require public hearings; if the Commission cannot see broad public support for the proposal, it has very good reason to question whether to give final approval.

How do you involve your community? If you’re working on one building, start by speaking to a few neighbors and find some who share your interest. Expand that group with fliers on the bulletin board and a group meeting to organize, dividing into teams that will research, write, contact politicians and the CB for support, and publicize your efforts. A website, blog, or even a Yahoo! chat group will help keep interested people informed and decrease the number of meetings. When you do have meetings, be sure they are short, focused, and everyone leaves with a something specific to accomplish before the next gathering or by a specific date. Lay out some milestones from the onset and have a project manager in charge of tracking progress.

Suggestion 5: Keep your eye on the prize.
Be patient and work as a team. One way to keep egos out of the mix is to establish a focused, concise mission statement from the onset, followed by an outline based on those LPC designation reports you studied in step 1. When conflict arises, find the answer that helps you reach your goal the quickest way possible. Then move on. Remember, while this is a worthwhile project, it should also have an element of fun.

One final word of caution: be prepared to become completely absorbed in the building or area you are studying. Somewhere along the way, my deep interest in the Audubon Park Historic District morphed into a compulsion to learn as much about it as I could, not completely a bad compulsion granted, but an absorbing one none-the-less.

Photo credits:
Top photo: LPC, Audubon Park Historic District Designation Report
Bottom photo: NY Times, May 13, 2009