Imagine New York City without a landmarks law protecting historic neighborhoods and buildings. Actually, one does not have to imagine. There are examples aplenty across the five boroughs. From urban renewal sites to the apartment towers rising in Williamsburg and Long Island City, from “McMansions” replacing older homes in Forest Hills and Kew Gardens to new construction breaking up an intact block of row houses in Sunset Park, there is evidence anywhere you look.
The Real Estate Board of New York has launched an aggressive media campaign against historic preservation. There are too many landmarks, they wail, and many of those are unworthy! They argue that historic districts impede growth and development. Their evidence on all fronts is slim to misleading. Here’s why.
“Landmarking is bad for business.” That argument is so contrary to the facts on the ground that one must question the reasoning powers of anyone who advances it. How bad is business in SoHo? Prior to the designation of the SoHo Historic District in 1973, an empty loft building at the corner of Broome and Wooster Streets was offered for $90,000. How much is that property worth today? That astronomical rise is a direct result of designation. Granted, the property might fetch more as a development site, but at the cost of losing the very qualities that make those blocks so attractive, valuable and profitable.
In the 1980s, as the city staggered out of the fiscal crisis of the previous decade, the Theater District was under siege. Many legitimate theaters were dark, and in 1982 five beloved theaters, most notably the Helen Hayes and the Morosco, were demolished to make way for the 50-story Portman Hotel, now the Marriott Marquis. In response, the theatre community, civic organizations and preservationists campaigned to designate the remaining Broadway theaters. By 1987, twenty-five theaters had been designated, and the two major theater organizations sued to overturn the designations.
Can anyone imagine how impoverished the city would have been had that suit been successful? Absent landmarking, there would have been no Broadway revival because the theaters would have been gone. Today, every venue is alive, and when one show closes another is ready to take its place. The industry pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the city and employs thousands in theatres and ancillary businesses, like the restaurants, hotels and retail stores in Times Square. Historic preservation clearly was the catalyst. And the theatre owners who fought designation … well, let’s just say their bottom line is rather healthy.
Similarly, property owners fought the designation of the Ladies Mile Historic District in 1989, pleading that the old buildings were obsolete. Those old buildings between Broadway and Sixth Avenue below 23rd Street had been department stores and other retail establishments. Walk those streets today and we see big box retail and, yes, department stores.
“Landmarking impedes development and growth.” If we define development as new construction only, then yes, landmarking does plead guilty. But historic districts are scarcely dead zones. On the contrary, the renovation, restoration, and reuse of older buildings employs thousands and supports many skilled craftspeople—plasterers, woodworkers, ironworkers, masons, not to mention architects and interior designers. Further, older buildings offer very desirable spaces for start-ups and small firms. And let us not omit the impact of tourism. It is New York’s historic districts visitors want to explore.
REBNY often ridicules the fact that the Landmarks Commission has designated parking lots and a gas station. A gas station! That property is on the edge of SoHo, and the owner only recently applied for and received permits to erect a new 7-story retail and commercial building that will complement the historic district. In fact, the Landmarks Commission has never denied an application for new construction on a vacant site. What they have done is to insist upon a higher design standard.
“Landmarking makes neighborhoods unaffordable.” Property values have risen all across the city in recent decades, and values have risen somewhat more in historic districts. Is that a bad thing for the city? For homeowners? Only, it seems, if the property is in a historic district. Otherwise, it is the free market at work. REBNY argues that landmarking is somehow discriminatory because it makes properties in historic districts less affordable and artificially limits residency. But if there were no controls, would Greenwich Village still be so desirable? There is no going back to the bohemian past, but if the row houses were demolished and replaced by luxury towers, the Village would essentially cease to be the Village. Homes in historic districts are desirable for their sense of place and uniqueness. Compromise there and we surely lose more than we would ever gain.
By opposing preservation, REBNY and its allies oppose the will of the people. The Landmarks Commission has designated historic districts only when a sold majority of residents are in favor. Why do so many neighborhoods desire the protection of the landmarks law, with all its attendant regulations? The law certainly limits what homeowners can do with their own property, but it also limits what their neighbors can do. It is an insurance policy. If my neighbor uglifies his home (and no, it is not merely a matter of taste—some changes are ugly, others appropriate), or builds something out of scale with adjacent properties, then my quality of life has diminished. He may have cashed in, but in the process he has reduced the value of my home as a home, even if it retains value as a development site.
It is that certainty that the landmarks law provides, and that is of value not only to the property owner, but also to the city as a whole. Landmarks are the geese that lay the golden eggs.
Jeffrey A. Kroessler is a board member of the Historic Districts Council, and a librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.