OPINION: In praise of landmark districts

Claims that landmark districts are holding back the city are exaggerated.

In an article in the Eagle about a forum sponsored by Crain’s New York Business, Matthew Taub quoted Kenneth Jackson, professor at Columbia University, as saying that “History is for losers…Boston and Philadelphia, Savannah and Charleston 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.”

The cities Jackson named are very different from each other. Boston seems to be doing OK. There are about 60 colleges and universities in greater Boston, and I doubt that they would be prospering if Boston were a town for “losers.” The Red Sox seem to be doing all right, too. As for Savannah, it was the subject of a best-selling book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” by John Berendt.

There are about 25 officially designated historic districts in Brooklyn, most of them in an area stretching from Prospect Park north to Brooklyn Heights and then east to Bedford-Stuyvesant. Many of these districts are well known: Brooklyn Heights itself (the first in the city), Cobble Hill, various parts of Victorian Flatbush, Stuyvesant Heights, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. Some of them encompass fairly large areas. Others, such as the Borough Hall Skyscraper District, only consist of a few blocks or half-blocks.

Landmarking regulations can be a pain to homeowners within the district – for example, they have to replace a window or door with the same type of window or door, and they often have to get approval even to install a window air-conditioning unit. Yes, things sometimes get out of hand. But, homeowners who need to make repairs to their landmarked houses needn’t fret. There’s an entire industry of contractors, designers, etc., who specialize in this type of work.

If one looks at the sheer size of Brooklyn, the landmarked districts take up about a tenth of the borough, if that much. And it’s not as if the districts are imposed on residents – there is a formal hearing process, where both proponents and opponents of landmarking have their say. Often, as in the cases of the Heights and Park Slope, residents led the effort to declare the area a historic district. In the case of the Skyscraper District, many of the owners and tenants of the skyscrapers opposed the effort, saying that landmarking could hurt business. While their objections weren’t successful, they were seriously considered.

In Taub’s article, Professor Jackson is quoted as saying, “I have been leading tourists and teaching students for 40 years. I have never heard a single person say they wanted to go to see a historic district.” I think Jackson is splitting hairs--maybe the students never said it in those terms, but I bet plenty wanted to go see Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. And landmarking has done a lot for those neighborhoods. If Brooklyn Heights were dominated by 40-story buildings, fewer tourists would come to the Promenade because they wouldn’t even be able to find it.

Clearly, not every neighborhood deserves to be landmarked. But in general, landmarking has done far more good than harm.