12 Mar 2007

PART ONE : NEW YORK V IRELAND

WHO'S WHO?

New York

In New York, listed buildings are called Landmark Buildings, architectural conservation areas Landmark Districts. All issues relating to Landmark Buildings and Districts are handled by one organisation: the Landmarks Preservation Commission (the LPC).

Ireland

Irish listed buildings are called Protected Structures. We have Architectural Conservation Areas. Issues relating to both are decided by the local council or by An Bord Planala on appeal.

Even steven.

HOW IS A BUILDING LISTED?

New York

A building can be nominated as a Landmark either by the LPC or by a member of the public. The Commission prepares a detailed report on the building, invites input from interested parties and holds public hearings where all concerned can air their views. As ‘listing’ of buildings is considered something done in the community’s interest, the costs of preparing reports are paid by the LPC (i.e. by the community).

The decision whether or not a building has achieved the necessary criteria to be designated a Landmark is taken by a vote of the eleven Commissioners. The Commissioners are public figures, professionals with a background in building conservation or design or others whose opinion is widely regarded.

Assessment

The process is accessible and user friendly. Most importantly, it must be demonstrated that a building is of genuine importance to be awarded the ‘Landmark’ moniker. As the decision is made by a board acting in public, things are quite transparent. The commissioners are a widely respected bunch (except, as always, by the pro and anti conservation extremists) so there is usually a sense that decisions are taken for the right reasons and that they’re consistent.

Because there is a certain amount of pomp and circumstance surrounding it, the process has an air of importance appropriate to the circumstance.

Ireland

Listing in Ireland can happen in one of two ways: the local council can write a letter to the building owner directly or the building can be nominated during the development plan process (it has happened that buildings have been nominated without the owner having any knowledge). Sometimes the council will send the owner a couple of paragraphs justifying the reasons for the inclusion – scant enough, if it happens - often not. If the owner has something to say about the proposal, he/she is given the opportunity to submit a response, which is usually by way of an expensive report prepared by a conservation specialist. The final decision to list a building or not is taken by county councillors who are free to ignore procedures and advice.

Assessment

The process is full of flaws. No specific criteria are used to identify the selection of structures so buildings can be nominated for ‘Protection’ without much justification (the Department has published a set of guidelines for local authorities to use when putting their lists together, but they aren’t technical enough for the task they address). We don’t have the New York equivalent of a public hearing, so there’s the squirm-making feeling of decisions being taken behind closed doors. Costs associated with nominating a building as a Protected Structure fall to the building owner. This is because the ‘listing’ of a building in Ireland is considered punitive (we still don’t have a developed sense of the ‘common good’). The final assessment on a listing is made by local councillors who have no obligation to justify how they arrived at their decision. This leaves the door open for a certain type of corruption: councillors might ‘impose’ listing on a building owner if that person, say, is not a member of the correct political party. (I’m not saying for an absolute fact that this has actually happened. I’m just saying that it could possible have happened… say somewhere in the mid west in late 2006).

Verdict.

New York by a mile.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LODGE A PLANNING APPLICATION FOR A 'LISTED BUILDING'?

New York

All decisions relating to the quality of applications involving Landmark Buildings or buildings in Landmark Districts are made by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. First, you submit a basic set of drawings to the LPC and an official decides whether or not you have a case to answer: if the ‘conservator’ is satisfied the proposal is of no great significance, he/she issues a ‘Certificate of No Effect’ - fairly swiftly, too - and away you go.

If, on the other hand, the conservator believes your application is a bit more serious, a detailed submission is made for a public hearing (again, arranged pretty swiftly) in front of the Commission. At the hearing, the applicant gets to make a presentation following which the public are invited to comment. Then the Commissioners express their views in front of everyone. The fate of your application is decided by a majority vote.

Assessment

The process (up to three months) is not short by New York standards, but it is finite.

All decisions are made in public by vote of the commissioners after they’ve already aired their views, so you know where they’re coming from. The Commissioners are changed by rotation, so there tends to be consistency over time in decisions handed down. Again, the pomp surrounding the process lends to it a kind of respect. It has that nice feeling you get in a democracy.

Ireland

Applications for listed buildings involve the applicant having a conservation architect preparing a detailed and often very expensive report. Multiple copies of this report and extremely detailed drawings are submitted to the council. The same level of detail is required regardless of the importance of the building or the extent of the work involved. These copies are circulated to the Conservation Officer, The Minister’s people in Dublin, the Heritage Council, An Taisce and others who then generate their own multi-page reports which are sent back to the council.

Decisions may take months to make. It’s almost impossible to know how they were arrived at.

The council’s decision can then be challenged at An Bord Planala.

Assessment

Where to start?

First of all, the purpose of the report the applicant has to lodge at the start of the process isn’t clear: is it supposed to justify the proposed works? Or to reprimand the applicant for not being conservation minded enough? These reports can cost a fortune. Plus, the client is paying so there’s already a conflict of interest.

After that, it’s impossible to tell how a decision is made. Opinions are written by nameless council and Department officials (won’t go into the whole duplication of effort thing – you can already figure that one out for yourselves) whose qualifications, experience or competence in building design or conservation is left to the imagination. (I’ve been at the receiving end of a couple of their reports. Sometimes they ain’t pretty. One or two I’ve seen read like the troubled jottings of a below-average-secondary-school-student’s English essay, written in a rush the morning of school and tarted up a word processor. And this is me being kind.) These officials work behind closed doors and aren’t accountable to anyone, really. Which means the system is open to inconsistency, petty politics, outside influence, incompetence, and so on. (Not saying it happens, just the system allows for it to happen).

The process can seem interminable. Because they have so many procedures available to them (validation, further information, clarification, etc.), councils can delay making a decision on an application for more than a year if they want to. Then, if the application ends up with An Bord, well…

In a word? I was thinking of categorising the Irish process as ‘frustrating’ or ‘incompetent’ or one of those words you use in these situations. But after a little reflection I think, in fact, that the word I’m looking for is ‘immoral’.

Verdict

New York by about two hundred years.

I’d love to be able to make a comparison with other planning systems besides New York. Procedures in the UK are fairly similar to our own so they aren’t really all that illuminating. I have some idea of how things work in France, Holland and Germany but I’ve never been through the process so I’m not really sure of my ground. This is where I was hoping you all might come in: any folks out there with knowledge to share on a planning system sufficiently different from our own that we could learn something from? If you do, please, please let the rest of us know.

The floor is yours

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