Crain's event asks if landmarking is out of control

A cataclysm of divergent views sparred in a healthy (if occasionally contentions) forum sponsored by Crain’s New York Business. “Is Landmarking Out of Control?” brought together an array of prominent figures, from developers to preservationists and others involved in the industry.

Kenneth T. Jackson, Professor at Columbia University, was unrepentant in his rejection of most of preservationists’ claims.

“I have been leading tourists and teaching students for forty years,” Jackson said. ” I have never heard a single person say they wanted to go see a historic district.” For Jackson, these districts are a nuisance at best, and more likely pose obstacles that hurt growth and hold the city back.

“History is for losers…Boston and Philadelphia, Savannah and Charleston lost out–lost out, keeping their gracious streets and their old buildings. New York is a world city–you want to live in a world city? You have to accept change.”

Along with keeping the city dynamic and in constant growth, Jackson sees development as a way to lower the cost of living.

“Right now you could go to Dallas and get a two bedroom with a pool… for the price of a walkup here. The problem in this city is that it costs too much. You want to lower the cost? You increase supply. It’s economics 101.”

“Eighty years ago we had nine of the ten tallest buildings in the world. Now we have zero. The places that are growing around the world are places like Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore. Do I want to live in them? No. But they’re going to eat us for lunch. We’ve done extremely well compared to Detroit, to Cleveland, but not compared to the really dynamic places in the world.”

Nikolai Fedak, who runs the blog Yes in My Backyard (NY YIMBY), was mostly in agreement, if slightly more tempered.

“Landmarking is now used as a political tool,” Fedak said. “Politicians take advantage of the confusion of ordinary people.”

“There’s such a spectacle that landmarking can cause,” Fedak said. He believes that preservation efforts, regardless of their merit or outcome, can too easily inure to a local politician’s populist image while getting in the way of reasonable development. He cited several examples. “Community activists conflated the closure of Rizzoli [the famed bookstore on 57th Street] with the demolition of the entire building and two neighboring structures,” he said. Meanwhile, nearby Chickering Hall, worthy of preservation in Fedak’s view, is now being demolished. On the Upper West Side, developers wanted to build market-rate housing to improve the tax base and build new schools, but the plan was nixed because students would temporarily have to be relocated during the process. Protests over building sites at the Hudson Yards are the most outrageous, Fedak believes, “because no one even lives there now.”

“Do landmarked buildings define a neighborhood or do people define a neighborhood?”

“The city is about dynamic change,” Fedak emphasized. “That’s what New York was founded on. That’s what New York was built on. We need to eliminate red tap for developers and build with a sense of permanence. Do landmarked buildings define a neighborhood or do people define a neighborhood? Offer subsidies to developers for preserving landmarked buildings, or if they preserve the old facade, or use a new limestone facade. The way forward is to encourage good development that we can enjoy in the future.”

Peg Breen, President of the New York Landmark’s Conservancy, beat back many of the pro-development crowd’s claims.

“If you listen to what the developers are saying–they’re actually destroying affordable housing in order to save it,” Breen said.

“We’re not talking about freezing the universe–and we support developers. Community developers who build affordable and supportive housing while protecting the character of the neighborhood.”

Breen also cited tech companies as an example of how landmarking keeps New York attractive in a new economy. “These start-ups prefer older buildings with more character, not newer buildings.” Google, for example, recently moved into the older Port Authority Building on Eighth Avenue.”Preservation is attracting a whole generation of tech people who are going to protect our economy,” Breen claimed.

Breen also took issue at to who should have a say in the development process. “Historic districts come in all shapes and sizes and all income levels, and aren’t designated by the Commission unless they see a large support for it from the residents of the area,” she explained. “Developers aren’t the only ones who invest in the city. Homeowners invest too. And developers shouldn’t have more of a say than homeowners when it comes to a possible landmarked designation.”

Steven Spinola, President of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), sought to bolster his institution’s recent study that historic districts put a stranglehold on any new affordable housing.

“Nobodoy is suggesting we are wrong with a single item in that data,” Spinola said.

“When you’re in a commercial setting, you can capture the cost [of preservation] and try to market it,” Spinola conceded, “but if you own a co-op and you’re replacing windows on the west side, the windows cannot be up-and-down windows, they have to be single pane. It costs twice as much. Then if the Landmarks Commission says you can’t touch the outside of the building, the cost goes to three times higher. And that doesn’t count who you might have to hire to go through the landmarks department to go through the process.”

“Are there some wonderful buildings and are there places that still need to be landmarked? The answer is absolutely yes,” Spinola said. “But it should be done on a building-by-building basis. Not based on a rumor that someone is filing a building permit, and then people show up at Community Board Hearings, and they know very little about the quality of the district or the quality of the building.”

Ronda Wist, Vice President of Preservation for the Municipal Art Society of New York, tried to find common ground.

“We all agree that these 11th hour pushes for [landmark] designation are very difficult,” Wist said. “Just because something is endangered doesn’t make it more important. So how do we make these processes more transparent so this Rizzoli-Chickering Hall debacle doesn’t happen again?”

Wist explained a process for building within historic districts–largely involving vacant lots and parking areas–that has allowed construction of 200 new buildings over the last 10 years within such areas.

The City Planning Commission, meanwhile, conducted over 100 re-zonings, many downward (rather than an “up-zoning”) that prevents further development in an area.

“There’s more going on than just the Landmark’s Commission,” Wist said. “The Landmarks Commission and the City Planning Commission are part of the same administration. They both need to be looked at one a spectrum of ways to deal with land use.”

Glenn Coleman, Editor of Crain’s New York Business, moderated the event. A gracious and respectful host, giving roughly equal time to various points of view, he nonetheless found the entire landmarking process to be laden with politics and class-based influence.

“Sometimes I see a landmarked building,” Coleman said, “and I think the plaque on the outside should read, ‘on this site sits a building site surrounded by wealthy neighbors in tall towers who had the clout to get it landmarked.”

Though some reports of the Crain’s event found evidence of unity over the need for reform of the landmarking process, the dialogue more often resembled fleeting moments of agreement truncated by obvious acrimony.

Still, developers, entrepreneurs and preservationists alike seemed pleased by the spirited debate.