50th Anniversary of Landmarks Law Marked with Exhibit and Symposium

Saving Place Exhibit. Image Credit: Museum of the City of New York.

Saving Place Exhibit. Image Credit: Museum of the City of New York.

Sometimes-contentious debate focused on the struggle to balance new development with historic preservation in New York City. On the evening of April 20, 2015, the Museum of the City of New York commenced a series of events and exhibitions commemorating the 50th anniversary of the City’s Landmarks Law with a symposium titled “Redefining Preservation for the 21st Century.” The Saving Place exhibit, intends to examine the “impact of a landmark preservation movement that has transformed the City and has been an engine of New York’s growth and success.” The exhibit is curated by the Museum’s Donald Albrecht and Columbia’s Andrew Dolkart, with Seri Worden, of the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation, serving as consulting curator. The Symposium took place at the New York Academy of Medicine’s Hosack Hall.

In her opening remarks, the Museum’s Director, Susan Henshaw Jones, noted that the symposium was taking place 50 years and one day after landmarks protection was signed into law in New York City by Mayor Robert F. Wagner on April 19, 1965. She said that she felt connected to the issues surrounding landmarking through working in the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, who had embraced preservation of historic architecture and neighborhoods as a “remedy for saving the City.”

Alicia Glen, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, stated that while the past continuously informs New York City, it should not “impede change or innovation.” While paying homage to preservationists for having helped shaped the City, Glen also argued that development and preservation could proceed in harmony, and reinforce one another. She said the de Blasio administration aspired to protect and promote historic buildings neighborhoods while simultaneously embracing growth to make for a “dynamic and equitable world city.” She said the administration hoped to preserve the best of the past while spurring the creation of “the next generation’s landmarks.”

Current Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan called the Landmarks Law an “essential guardian of New York’s architectural and cultural legacy,” while stating that designated neighborhoods were able to “function and evolve” under Landmarks’ oversight as the City grows. Srinivasan said the anniversary offered an opportunity to consider how to think about preservation over the next 50 years, and she hoped the Museum’s exhibit would help inform the conversation.

Adele Chatfield-Taylor, former CEO of the American Academy in Rome, moderated the discussion among what Henshaw Jones called a “high-powered panel of urbanists.” Panel Members consisted of Michael Kimmelman, New York Times Architecture critic, Vishaan Chakrabarti, ShoP Architects Principal and Columbia Professor, Roberta Brandes-Gratz, author and former Landmarks Commissioner, Claudette Brady, founder of the Bedford Stuyvesant Society for Historic Preservation, Steven Spinola, Real Estate Board of New York President and Robert A.M. Stern, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture.

Chatfield-Taylor, who noted that “historic preservation has never been universally appreciated” in the City, fuelled the discussion by asking panelists questions such as if the Landmarks Law, was an effective one, how it could be improved, and how to better differentiate between zoning and land marking. She also asked what issues panelists foresaw for historic preservation in coming decades.

Steven Spinola repeatedly took Landmarks to task, for preventing new development that creates housing and makes for the landmark buildings of the future. He claimed the landmarks law is “misused to keep to development from happening” Spinola defended the real estate industry, which generated significant revenues for the City as well as employment, and created the buildings that allowed New York to compete with other world cities. He said the Landmarks Commission lacked transparency, did not provide effective guidelines to property owners, and was turning Manhattan into a “museum.” He criticized Landmarks for not creating designation reports until after hearings had taken place. He recommended that elected officials take a more direct oversight role over Landmarks, and asserted that the drive to designate historic architecture was hurting the City’s future, stymying the creation of jobs and housing.

Roberta Brandes Gratz defended the Landmarks Law, saying “let’s keep it working for another 50 years.” She said designation stimulated economic development and had led to the upgrading of building stock in crumbling neighborhoods, now “developers are getting rich on buildings we would not let them tear down.” She said New York did not need to keep up with Singapore in high-rise development, and that preservationists had prevented the demolition of neighborhoods and buildings that were now among the City’s most valuable.

Claudette Brady said affordable housing could be created within historic districts through renovation and reuse, and that demolition to make for new construction would lead to the displacement of long-time residents in lower-income neighborhoods. She argued that the designation of historic districts in northern Brooklyn was not just about architecture but the preservation of African-American and Afro-Caribbean cultural legacies. Brady also stated that the Landmarks Commission was severely underfunded, limiting its effectiveness.

Michael Kimmelman said the City was at a “critical moment in terms of urban development,” and argued that the de Blasio administration had painted itself in to a corner by committing to create a “completely arbitrary number” of affordable housing units, in what he called single-minded insane focus.” He argued that preservation and urban planning needed to be considered in a more “holistic manner.” Kimmelman noted that Robert Moses built many units of affordable housing, but failed to build “neighborhoods,” and the projects failed.

Kimmelman specifically warned about the planned expansion of the Frick Collection’s Henry Clay Frick House, which he said had “zero support” outside of the museum, and said it would constitute a tragedy if the 1914 mansion “squandered its glory by getting it wrong.”

Robert A.M. Stern asserted that the real estate industry “has plenty of playroom,” especially throughout the outer boroughs. He also argued that historic preservation was only one component of a “larger matrix” of housing creation, which also necessitated the development of stores, schools, and transportation. He said preservation gave neighborhoods stability, and encouraged property owners to reinvest in their buildings. He called City Planning a failure because “it is not physical, it is not social in its dimension…it’s statistical.” He noted that the preservation movement was inherently subjective, with values changing over time, recalling that the preservationists of the 1960s loathed the mid-century Modern architecture that is currently celebrated. He also found that the packed auditorium testified to the preservation movement’s strength and vitality.

Chakrabarti claimed that the tool of Landmarks was sometimes used as a form of “back-door down-zoning,” and he criticized the commission for the inclusion of non-historic fabric in historic districts, as well as the often irrational boundaries created for the districts. He urged the Landmarks Commission to “embrace and value change,” and to think of itself not as the guardian of the past, but as “the guardian of the future of our past.”

The Saving Place exhibit runs through September 15.

The Museum of the City of New York, Redefining Preservation for the 21st Century (April 20, 2015).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law)

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