HDC Defends NYC Landmark Preservation

Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council.

Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council.

Last week CityLand published a Guest Commentary from Steven Spinola, President of REBNY.  Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council submitted this commentary in response. 

In his recent editorial in CityLand, Steven Spinola, the longtime President of the Real Estate Board of New York, suggested a number of ways which the Landmarks Law needs to be reformed to adhere to its “spirit.”  This is a curious statement that warrants further examination.  In  Section 25-301(b) of the Administrative Code, the purpose of the law is clearly set out to protect and preserve the historic buildings and neighborhoods of New York City in order to stabilize and improve property values, foster civic pride, enhance tourism, strengthen the City’s economy and generally promote the use of landmarks for the education, pleasure and welfare of the public.

The Landmarks Law was adopted in 1965 and in the subsequent half-century, New York has seen an astonishing amount of urban revitalization. Neighborhoods have been reinvented and transformed and new economies have emerged to take the place of old ones.  The very way New Yorkers see their city has radically altered and it’s commonly held that this is for the better.  New York is not a city preserved in aspic, amber or crystal and anyone who suggests otherwise has, at the very least, no historic memory.

In truth, despite almost 50 years of the Landmarks Law, less than 4 percent of New York City’s properties are protected by landmark designation.  Statistics and numbers can be manipulated endlessly and yes, within a historic district, it’s true that you are surrounded by landmark buildings. But look at a map of the city or even only of Manhattan and it’s surprising how little is actually designated. Of those few areas, though, the effects are remarkable. Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village,  Fort Greene, the Upper West Side, Tribeca,  Dumbo – the list of neighborhoods which have improved in terms of services, housing and value since becoming historic districts goes on and on.  Even areas outside of the City’s core such as Jackson Heights, Ditmas Park and Saint George have seen remarkable prosperity since designation.

It’s important to note that the drive for landmark designation does not start from outside the community nor is it usually a single issue campaign. Rather the community effort which brings about the political will needed for landmarking usually comes from the private investment of individual residents who work to uplift their homes and their neighborhoods.  Urban critic Roberta Gratz termed this “urban husbandry,” and the agricultural metaphor is apt, given the time and work required for these efforts to work. Landmark designation is one stop along the path towards a community’s self-determined future.

Not every neighborhood in New York merits landmark status; there is a large group of discontented communities who have been rejected by the Landmarks Commission, but among those areas which are deserving, historic district designation is a powerful tool  for preserving the physical character of a neighborhood.  This preservation provides stability and assurance which encourages personal and emotional investment in an area, which then brings improvement and prosperity to property values, just like the law envisioned.

Regulation related to landmarking brings with it a host of lesser annoyances, but these are largely inconsequential compared to the long-term benefits of landmark designation to an area.  Property is often the largest asset an individual owns and a little extra bother that brings security and long-term benefits to that asset can be tolerated. The key phrase here is “long term” – since real estate developers interested in redeveloping are the one constituency that landmark regulation consistently vexes. The very nature and value of landmark buildings are their solidity and stability – they are what they are.  This stymies the “tear it down and build it up bigger” strategy often seen in speculative development, especially in projects racing to take advantage of a changing market.

In truth, it is harder to achieve the “highest and best use” of a landmark property when “highest and best use” is interpreted from a strict square footage measurement. Almost anywhere in the City could be exploited to make more money in the short-term.  Central Park would make someone a fortune as a parking lot, Lincoln Center would have a much better bottom line as market-rate residences, and property owners in Greenwich Village would be able to print money if they could all just build high-rise apartment buildings. Fortunately, even though New York is a real estate town in a capitalist society,  “highest and best use” is not confined to these short-sighted, micro-economic terms.

New York benefits from the existence of Central Park, New York benefits from Lincoln Center and New York benefits from the existence of its historic districts.  These are all things which give the city its spirit and which inspire people to come here and stay.  The historic districts of New York are the living foundation of the blossoming vibrant city in which we live and they are the fuel which feeds our character. In an age where “Brooklyn” has become a valuable global brand, it takes a willful obliviousness to ignore  the beneficial effects of landmark designation.

That is the crux of the Real Estate Board’s complaint, that landmark designation gets in the way of what it wants out of the city.  The thing is, while the development community’s desires might not be fully satisfied, its needs are being more than met.  As of the time of this writing, the new residential development on the site of St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Greenwich Village Historic District is selling at a record price per square foot before the buildings are even constructed. Recently, a sliver of land in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District formerly occupied by a fruit stand sold for nearly $26 million. Townhouses in Brooklyn Heights regularly sell for several million dollars and newly-renovated apartments in the Crown Heights North Historic District are going for more than $700,000. The real estate industry is not suffering because of landmark designation, even if one accepts their outsized claims of the preponderance of landmark properties littering the market, the owners, sellers and operators of those properties are doing quite well by all accounts.  They’re just not getting EVERYTHING they want. So, like any hungry beast, from the Minotaur to a house cat, they are complaining loudly that they are not getting fed RIGHT NOW with WHAT THEY WANT. That doesn’t mean the rules governing the city are bad, broken or even need reform. It just means they’re hungry.

One thought on “HDC Defends NYC Landmark Preservation

  1. Thank you, Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director of the Historic Districts Council, for your excellent response to the Real Estate Board of New York article that appeared in City Land. REBNY’s self-serving article attacked landmarking as a problem in obtaining more units of affordable housing.
    As a community advocate and a preservationist here in Queens, I believe that landmarking historic buildings and districts is a positive way of preserving the character of our communities and the stability of our city. We do need more units of affordable housing, however, the onus should be on setting aside a higher percentage of units in new residential construction projects for affordable residences for working class people, senior citizens and veterans.

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