Vault lights

NEW YORK - Walking through SoHo it's hard to miss tiny glass panels in sidewalks, little-known relics of the neighborhood's distant industrial past.

But preservationists warn if the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission approves a new rule, these relics will disappear.

“It's going to be open season on this remarkable form of paving,” says Dan Allen of the Historic Districts Council.

Known as vault lights, they were introduced in the 1840s, to let sunlight filter into basement factories in SoHo and TriBeCa. Even today, they still brighten some basements.

Under current rules, building owners must submit to a lengthy public review process to remove them.

But a proposal before the Landmarks Commission would, in most cases, let the agency’s staff decide on their removal, without any public notice or input.

“This is a public space that is being changed. And it is being changed without a public hearing. Right now we have a public hearing. It doesn't always work but we have the benefit of a public hearing,” Allen says.

Not everyone is opposed to the proposed rule change. Some building owners say that although the vault lights are nice to look at they are incredibly difficult and expensive to maintain.

Sean Sweeney co-owns a building on Greene Street. He says the vault lights leak during bad weather, filling buckets with water and damaging the metal beams supporting the sidewalk. He showed NY1 the seepage, from snow melting during Monday’s storm.

“It was a 19th century technology and we're in the 21st century. And to continue an imperfect 19th century technology and to expect the property owner to pay for that, to maintain, isn't really fair,” Sweeney says.

He says it can cost $30,000 to replace just one sidewalk panel and even more to repair beams damaged by the moisture.

The vault lights have been disappearing for decades, beginning in in the 1920s. The Landmarks Commission points out that it has approved every application in the last seven years to remove those that are damaged.

Still, preservationists say the proposed rule would lead to the complete elimination of this unusual slice of the city's past, without anyone knowing before it's too late.