REBNY Has Been a Loyal Friend to Preservation

But preservation has seen some mission creep

A snapshot of the Soho Cast Iron District. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
A snapshot of the Soho Cast Iron Historic District.
(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Landmarks are a vital part of New York City’s legacy and an essential part of its identity. Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, Greenwich Village, the Grand Concourse and Brooklyn Heights are each irreplaceable and distinctive elements that make up the fabric of our city. The members of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) proudly own and impeccably maintain some of New York’s great landmark buildings, and our office is in the magnificent landmark G.E. building.

Recently, REBNY has been accused of trying to weaken or destroy the Landmarks Law. This mistaken view has arisen in response to two recent REBNY studies: One pointed out that nearly 30 percent of Manhattan is a designated landmark, and the other noted that over the last decade there have been only five new affordable housing units built in historic districts. The response to these undisputed facts is to accuse REBNY of attacking the Landmarks Law.

REBNY has supported the Landmarks Law and the landmarks agency. To prevent the loss of landmark agency staff, we have supported the imposition of fees for filing an application with landmarks. We have supported proposed districts such as the Park Slope extension and the Lamartine Historic District based on the merit of the district. The architecture of the Park Slope historic district extension constituted a distinct section of the city; the Lamartine Historic District had indisputable historical significance that was clearly linked to the buildings designated.

What we have opposed have been historic districts and historic district extensions that lack merit, that do not adhere to the principles of the Landmarks Law and that are promoted to thwart development. Unfortunately, we are seeing these weaker applications more frequently. For instance, in the Soho Cast Iron Historic District extension, nearly 50 percent of the buildings were significantly altered or did not contribute to the character of the district, according to an REBNY analysis of the designation report. Including so many unworthy properties was not an act of historic or architectural preservation but an attempt to regulate development.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing on the proposed Park Avenue Historic District. Based on our survey of the district, approximately one third of the properties were not consistent with the architectural and historical features presented by the LPC as the reason for the designation. At the hearing, the majority of the testimony in support of the designation was not about the architectural or historical merits of the buildings, but rather opposition to a church’s plan to legally develop a building on its site that would block the views in the neighboring apartments. It is clear that the support for this proposed district is motivated by a desire to stop a particular development, not the architectural or historical significance of the properties in the district.

If the Landmarks Law is going to be used to plan and regulate development, we need to address the changing nature of the use and purpose of the law so we can accommodate other public needs like affordable housing.

An example of the conflict between affordable housing and landmarking is currently playing out in Greenwich Village. The Church of St. Luke in the Fields has put forth a proposal that will add 138 school seats, a new mission space that will do critical work in serving LGBT youth, the elderly and hungry, and the first affordable housing project in the Village in decades. All of this will be built while still preserving existing buildings and only building on top of a blighted parking lot. Yet despite claims that preservation enhances affordability, many preservationist organizations have opposed this project as being too tall, even though the plan utilizes approximately half the allowable floor area available.

REBNY has proudly supported truly worthy districts and an appropriate level of staff to implement the Landmarks Law. In addition, we will continue to advocate for the proper implementation of the law. But let’s be clear. The basis for landmark designation must return to the high standards originally envisioned and not used to stop new buildings and the affordable housing and good paying jobs they bring.

Steven Spinola is the president of the Real Estate Board of New York.

REBNY Has Been a Loyal Friend to Preservation