By Andrew Berman, Executive Director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP)
In June, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) joined forces with some construction trade unions to launch an attack upon the system of landmarks designation and regulation in New York City. Calling themselves the “Responsible Landmarks Coalition” they sent out press releases to major media outlets declaring that “The Landmarks Process is Broken!” and calling for major changes to the system that would make it much more difficult and more unlikely for landmark designation to take place (their website is www.responsible-landmarks-coalition.org).
As its primary illustration that “the landmarks process is broken,” the “coalition” pointed to a handful of parking garages, gas stations or empty lots that are located within historic districts, comparing them to the Empire State Building or the Dakota, implying that while one may deserve landmark designation, the other does not.
This juxtaposition is disingenuous and willfully misleading at best. The Empire State Building and the Dakota are individually designated New York City landmarks. This means they have been deemed to rise to the highest level of importance by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and they are regulated based upon their individual qualities and significance; significant changes to their exterior appearance are only rarely allowed.
The garages, gas station, and empty lot are all located within historic districts, which are designated based upon their overall collective historic significance and sense of place. However, within those districts there are inevitably some buildings or sites such as these which are considered to be “non-contributing.” To these buildings and sites, unlike the aforementioned individual landmarks, the Commission will allow major changes, including demolition and wholly new construction.
Why aren’t such sites just excluded from historic districts? They are, in fact, most of the time. However, when they are completely surrounded by other sites which are included in a historic district, they typically cannot be cut out. Sometimes they are at the edge of a proposed district, but they are included anyway. This only happens when the Commission deems that they are part of a broader neighborhood or distinctive area which is to be designated, and they believe it is important to ensure that new development on the site is visually compatible with the rest of the historic district.
“The Responsible Landmarks Coalition” would have you believe that this puts an unfair burden on property owners; that the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s restrictions and requirements makes development of these sites so costly as to be difficult if not impossible. One need only look to 122 Greenwich Avenue, at 13th Street to see that this charge is patently false.
There, across from Jackson Square, was a parking lot located at the very northern edge of the Greenwich Village Historic District, designated in 1969. Now, there stands a 13-story curving glass apartment building which commands some of the highest prices per square foot of any new residential development in the city. The developer made a very handsome profit on the building which was approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Commission not only allowed them to use every square foot the zoning allowed for the site, they actually approved a building larger and taller than the zoning allowed (the developer had to then get a variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals for the extra bulk and height). Whether one agrees with this decision or not (the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation supported allowing a new building on the site, but opposed the extra height and bulk above and beyond what the zoning allowed, and called for a less glassy, more contextually appropriate design), this provides unambiguous evidence that inclusion in historic districts does not make development of non-historic sites at its edges unprofitable or prohibitively onerous.
The deceptively-named “Responsible Landmarks Coalition” is seeking approval by the City Council of a package of bills that would make landmarks designation harder and less likely. The City Council considered these bills at a hearing in April, but thus far has taken no action.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation is working with a citywide coalition of community groups to respond to this misleading attack upon the landmarks process and to fight any attempt to change the rules to make landmark designation more difficult.
One thing we can agree upon with the “Responsible Landmarks Coalition” is that the Landmarks Preservation Commission and our system of designating and regulating landmarks in New York City, is less than perfect. Any system has its flaws and this agency and this system have their own particular shortcomings, inconsistencies and dysfunctions. However, rather than improving the agency and the system to make them more effective, the REBNY attack is designed to do nothing more than undermine it and make the job of protecting our neighborhoods’ character and our city’s history more difficult.