Preservationists Cry Wolfe; We've Got Their Numbers

On the sleepy last Sunday in November, Tom Wolfe flipped a middle finger at the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. The writer, still angry about the commission’s decision last year not to landmark 2 Columbus Circle, essentially called the commission pawns of the developer class in the city’s booming real-estate market.

“ … The Landmarks Preservation Commission has been de facto defunct for going on 20 years,” he wrote in The New York Times. “Today it is a bureau of the walking dead.”

Mr. Wolfe accused the commission of rolling over for developer Aby Rosen, allowing him through inaction to plunk a 30-story glass apartment tower atop 980 Madison Avenue, which falls within the Upper East Side Historic District.

From the 980 Madison battle, Mr. Wolfe waded into a history of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, stretching all the way back to the impetuses for its creation in 1965, when Mr. Wolfe was at the New York Herald Tribune and writing for Esquire.

Four decades later, Mr. Wolfe is a prominent spokesman for New Yorkers who think the Landmarks Commission has gone astray from its mission: protecting the city’s historically significant architecture from extinction at the hands of ambitious developers.

Going by the numbers, Mr. Wolfe and his sympathizers seem to have it all wrong.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission, year by year, going back to 1994, remains fairly consistent annually in the number of historic districts that it creates and the number of landmarks that it designates.

In fiscal year 1995 (July 1994 to June 1995), the commission designated 23 individual landmarks and created one historic district—in Staten Island’s St. George neighborhood, a district that encompassed 90 buildings.

In fiscal year 2006 (July 2005 to June 2006), the commission designated 17 landmarks and three districts encompassing 316 buildings. (The commission changed its annual designation goal in fiscal year 2002 to at least 16 districts and landmarks a year.)

From mid-1994 through mid-2006, the commission designated 241 individual landmarks, according to numbers from the commission that The Lab checked against other sources. It has also created 26 historic districts encompassing around 2,300 buildings, the most recent one the 257-building Fieldston district in the northwestern Bronx.

Mr. Wolfe also characterized Landmarks as being unwilling to make bolder moves than the designation “of the occasional parish house in Staten Island or rusticated old stone archway in eastern Queens.”

Again, not true, according to the numbers.

Six of the 15 landmarks designated in fiscal year 2005 were in Manhattan. In the following 12 months, the commission designated three historic districts, two of which (totaling 59 buildings) fell within Manhattan, including a sweep of Greenwich Village.

In other recent years, the commission’s Manhattan-centric push rings even louder.

In fiscal year 1998, during the reign of Rudy Giuliani, whom Mr. Wolfe accuses of rendering “the undead commission only … undeader,” 19 of the 25 landmarks designated were in Manhattan. Nineteen of 25 were also in Manhattan in the previous 12 months; and, in the succeeding 12 months (fiscal year 1999), 17 of 25 were in Manhattan.

In 2000, a pivotal year in local elections and a commercial real-estate peak year similar to the one that Manhattan is enjoying right now, nearly half of all landmark designations fell within the borough.

That’s a lot of new landmarks in a borough with a rapidly depleting number of available places to landmark—and all beneath a Mayor whom Mr. Wolfe proclaimed a stomping example of anti-preservation.

Anecdotally, any reporter who talks regularly to developers can attest to how little love they have for the commission—though it can hardly be a surprise.

Nor was it a surprise, then, when Aby Rosen weighed in on Mr. Wolfe’s remarks—after serving as something of a whipping-boy for the developer-Landmarks complex: “He should stick to writing books,” Mr. Rosen told The Observer. “His facts were not great, either. It’s easy to write an op-ed piece; you can pick and choose your facts.”

But not your numbers.