A place for everything, and landmarking in its place

By Steven Spinola, president,
Real Estate Board of New York

New York City is among the most iconic cities in the world due in part to its built environment that accommodates both our tremendous history and our prosperous future. The New the New York City landmark-preservation law plays an essential role in helping preserve our legacy and, in doing so, our identity. From the testaments to early 20th century capitalism and the resulting skyscraper race to Brooklyn Heights and Greenwich Village, our landmarks help define the fabric of our city.

It is a marvelous honor to have so many members that own and maintain some of New York’s greatest landmarks. We are also proud to have ourt offices in the magnificent former RCA Victor Building (now the General Electric Building,) which was designated a landmark in 1985.

REBNY recently released two studies on landmarking. The first noted that nearly 30 percent of Manhattan has received landmarks designation, and the second found that only five new units of affordable housing have been built in historic districts in the past decade. Rather than attempt to dispute these facts, opponents instead have accused us of trying to weaken or destroy the landmarks law. These accusations are misguided and only serve to distract from the realities facing our city.

REBNY has supported both the landmarks law and the Landmarks Preservation Commission. When the LPC faced potential staffing reductions, we supported landmarking application filing fees. We were proud to support LPC designations for proposals that were based on architectural, historical, and cultural significance. For instance, we supported the Park Slope Historic District Extension, the architecture of which clearly constituted a distinct section of the city, as well as the Lamartine Historic District, which designated numerous buildings with indisputable historical significance.

What we cannot support is the use of the landmarks law to impede or regulate development. Recently, a break from the original intent of the groundbreaking 1965 legislation occurred. More and more, the LPC promotes historic districts and historic district extensions that lack merit and that do not adhere to the principles of the landmarks law. The exemplar of this shift is 2010’s SoHo—Cast Iron Historic District Extension. The merits enumerated in the area’s designation report cannot be found in nearly 50 half of the buildings included. These buildings were significantly altered or did not contribute to the character of the district. The only logical explanation for the inclusion of these building, which lack architectural, historical, and cultural significance, is that the extension’s goal was to regulate adjacent development.
Earlier this month, the LPC held a public hearing on a newly proposed historic district along Park Avenue from roughly 80th to 96th Street. Based on the features LPC presented as their criteria for the district, our review of the area suggests that one-third of the properties do not match the criteria described. What is more telling is that during the hearing, the majority of the testimony spoke in opposition to a church’s plan to legally develop a building. Rather than supporting the LPC’s desire to preserve architectural and historical merits, those that testified instead complained that the church’s as-of-right expansion would block the views of neighboring apartments. It is this misappropriation of the landmarks law, to impede particular developments rather than preserve significance, which the Real Estate Board seeks to correct.

New York City has time-tested zoning laws to regulate its development. If the City hopes to address other public needs, such as affordable housing, it must confront the changing interpretation of the landmarks law.

In Greenwich Village, the conflict between affordable housing and landmarking can be observed at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields. The church would like to use a blighted parking lot to build space for 138 new school seats; a new mission space for serving LGBT youth, the elderly, and the hungry; and the first affordable housing project in the Village in decades. Unfortunately, many preservationists are opposing the project’s height, even though they claim preservation enhances affordability.

REBNY supports landmarking when used appropriately. The basis for landmark designation must return to the high standards of its original intent, not to prevent development and the affordable housing and well-paying jobs that development creates.

In other REBNY News:

  • The next Commercial “Crossfire” event will be on Tuesday, March 18th at 570 Lexington Avenue from 5:30pm-7:00pm. Entitled “The Art of Making a Restaurant Deal in NYC”, the panel will feature: Mark Birnbaum, John DeLucie, Stephen Starr, Michael Weinstein, and Ed Hogan. Joanne Podell and Jeffrey Roseman will moderate. For more information, contact Desiree Jones at djones@rebny.com.
  • The Annual Sales Brokers Cocktail Party will be held at the 101 Club on May 6, 2014. The winners of the 3 awards for the Most Ingenious Deal of the Year will be announced. For more information, please contact Desiree Jones at djones@rebny.com.