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Constraints of History

Jeffrey Sosnick was first shown an apartment in a building on Central Park West in 1982. The property was converting from a rental to the 227 Tenants Corporation, a cooperative. He remembers it well. “The broker said, ‘Prewar – like pre-World War I.” As Sosnick, who is 62 and board president for 30 of the 31 years he’s lived there, describes it: “You feel like you’re going into some European apartment house because of the design elements.” That’s one reason the lovely, 20-unit building is part of the “Upper West Side-Central Park West” historic district designated by New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) – and one reason why a window-replacement project ballooned from a $400,000 budget to $571,000, triggering the first special assessment in the co-op’s history.

“The landmarks commission rules with absolute autonomy, which creates significant challenges for buildings under its jurisdiction,” Sosnick says bitterly. Other cash-strapped boards often feel the same way. Is it a fair charge? Is there anything you can do about it? And what exactly happened here that you could possibly avoid – or failing that, for which you can be prepared?

Window Pain

With this co-op, it began at the April 2010 quarterly meeting of the seven-member board. Sosnick and managing agent Louis Sandberg, president of Sandberg Management, presented a window-replacement plan with the idea to do the installation in summer 2010. The board solicited bids from architectural firms, and that August hired Michael Notaro, a principal with Zaskorski & Notaro. Together, the professionals, the board, and the shareholders chose a quality window with a wood interior and a type of metal exterior called “cladding,” which means metal coating bonded to a metal core. “At this point it was our feeling we’d still be within five percent of our budget,” Sosnick says.

Because the building lies within a 34-block-long historic district, Notaro in January 2011 filed an application with the LPC. “Generally, the landmarks commission takes jurisdiction of things that are in either landmarked buildings or landmarked districts,” explains attorney Steven Wagner, a partner at Porzio, Bromberg & Newman, who is unaffiliated with this building. “If you’re doing work that requires a building permit and the work is in a landmarked district, one of the things the Department of Buildings will require is approval of the work from the landmarks commission.”

After some back-and-forth that included photos and revised drawings, Notaro heard from an LPC preservationist, Rita Wong, who said that for a staff-level approval, the commission would require “installation of the new windows in the same plane as the historic window and replication of the original brick molds.”

This LPC requirement meant that the simple remove-and-replace project suddenly became much more complicated. “We immediately recognized it would involve a more expensive renovation due to the changed profile,” says Sosnick, since moving the window position would expose openings that would have to be covered up by additional trim. It also meant more architectural fees.

Hearings Aid

The board had two choices at this point: accept the ruling and make the adjustments as indicated, or appeal the decision by requesting a public hearing. “A public hearing would require a large output of additional money and a delay of at minimum several months because the co-op would have to get on [the LPC] schedule for a public hearing,” says Sosnick, who adds: “Worst-case scenario, we’d miss the summer [construction season], which would delay it another year.”

“The commission reviews 20 to 30 applications every Tuesday at public hearings,” notes LPC Director of Preservation Sarah Carroll, who oversees more than 10,000 applications annually as one of seven directors for various aspects. “There are a couple of ways to get an approval at the landmarks commission: through the staff and through the full commission. The commission has adopted a set of rules, and if you follow those rules the staff can issue a permit administratively without having to get the full commission.” In this instance, she says, preservationist Wong “reviewed the application and the windows initially didn’t meet configuration details.”

At this point, says Sosnick, “we discussed the possibility of canceling the project because of the financial consequences of the landmarks ruling, but realized the windows were continuing to deteriorate and were only going to get worse.”

After having C & M General Contractor install a sample window with the profile the LPC required, the LPC signed off on it, and Notaro prepared a bid sheet. The architect found potential contractors, and the board met with finalists within the next six weeks, approving Basonas Construction Corp. in April 2011 and executing the contract a month later. On the first day of work, Sosnick says, the board learned that because of the changed window profile, the original sash pockets would have to be completely torn out and the surrounding areas repaired, requiring more time and more work.

The installation was substantially complete by mid-November that year, and all concerned are happy with the results. “The shareholders were mostly sanguine” about paying for the overage, Sosnick says. “However, as a result of all these additional costs it became necessary for the first time in our history to declare a shareholder assessment,” for $70,000. “We had always prided ourselves on never spending more than we had.”

“I know the building feels it was forced to spend extra money to do this,” Notaro says. “All in all, I think it added value to the building. I would look forward to working in the same manner with the landmarks commission because I feel it went very well.”

Sosnick disagrees, noting that potential buyers “do not give a hoot about [buildings being] landmarks and changing the profile four inches. Our board and our building are fully supportive of [LPC’s] mission to preserve and protect the architecture in our neighborhood, which we value.” But, he adds: “We could have kept the profile exactly as it was and no one would have said it’s inauthentic or not historically accurate.”

Notaro counters: “I think that it makes a difference. The shadow line and the relationship of the plane of the glass to the exterior of the wall – it can look odd and contrary to the historic configuration if it’s pushed too far in or too far out. Getting it just right was important to the landmarks commission because their mission is to restore historic character and for new work to be appropriate.”

“It would be much more equitable if there were a mediation process that could issue rulings that were both timely and inexpensive,” observes Sosnick. “In that way, the problem faced by my building and undoubtedly others could be adjudicated in a way that would, at the very least, give applicants the perception that there exists a system of checks and balances, which is sorely missing in the current process.”

Elisabeth De Bourbon, an LPC spokeswoman, says that the commission is ready to make compromises – if the applicant reaches out. “The commission’s staff is always open to helping applicants address cost concerns and would have been happy to work to find a less costly solution in this situation had it been brought to our attention.” In a later clarification, she adds: “Nobody came to us and said [this cost] is going to wreck the project. That never came up.”

The board did not try negotiating with the LPC directly because, Sosnick says, “Our executed agreement with Michael Notaro references that during the regulatory phase and the documentation phase, he was our designated representative to LPC. I know that Michael was as concerned as we were regarding the impact of LPC’s decision on our budgetary limitations, and I’m certain that he communicated these concerns directly to LPC. I admit to being perplexed that LPC would respond in this way.”

Notaro, in response to an e-mail concerning the LPC’s comment, says in an e-mail: “I believe that LPC helped [the building] to the extent they could without triggering a public hearing.” In a follow-up interview, he notes: “They did work with us. They did come to the site. We avoided a very expensive and time-consuming full commission hearing. We couldn’t have asked for more.”

But perhaps someone should have, because, notes De Bourbon, the meetings referenced by Notaro were to deal with a specific issue concerning the window placement – not to discuss the bigger issue of “blowing a hole” in the budget. “There was no overall complaint that this was going to sink the finances of the building,” she notes. The lesson from this exchange: in dealing with LPC, boards must be clear about what they want and ensure that channels of communication are open.

“They often will work with buildings,” Wagner says of the commission. “They understand that cost is a consideration. They will work with them on materials, they’ll work with them if something is not absolutely identical but is similar and gives a similar appearance.”

So what should boards tell residents when faced with a landmarks-mandated expense? Observes Wagner: “First of all, [say,] ‘We don’t have a choice.’ And second, they have to realize they are custodians of the building and part of the history of New York City and it should not be for them, in the interest of saving a few dollars, to destroy it.” The town’s landmarks, Wagner says, “are part of what makes New York New York.”



Working with the LPC

What’s the process for working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a New York City agency established to protect the city’s architectural heritage shortly after the 1963 demolition of the original Penn Station?

If you’re in a landmarked building or a building within a landmarked district, you need to apply for an LPC permit before undertaking certain repairs or capital improvements. By law, the commission must review proposals for such alterations and determine whether they have any effect on significant features, and if so, to ensure that any effect be “harmonious or appropriate,” in the LPC’s words.

A staff preservationist reviews the application – which consists of an application form and supporting materials that describe the proposed alteration – and works with the building to find solutions that meet contemporary needs such as safety standards. Once all this is completed, the LPC can issue a permit administratively without involving the full commission. As an alternative, a building can request a public hearing.

Once your application is complete, the LPC is required to decide within a certain number of days to issue one of three types of permits: “Certificate of No Effect” (30 business days); “Permit for Minor Work” (20 business days); or “Certificate of Appropriateness” (90 business days).

The LPC also offers two options it calls “FasTrack Service” and “Expedited Reviews.” With the former, a team of preservationists works exclusively on permits for specific types of work, such as window replacement or HVAC installation on non-visible façades. Projects are approved within 10 days if the application includes the required documents and materials and there are no outstanding LPC violations on your building.

With the latter, a building can request that an application for interior work above the second floor be reviewed on an expedited basis. Interior work eligible for such review cannot involve any change to, replacement of, or penetration of an exterior wall, window, skylight, or roof, including penetrations, replacements, or changes for ducts, grilles, exhaust intakes, vents, or pipes.

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