Much ado about nothing in Madison Square North

By Steve Spinola

Last week, a proposal to triple the size of the existing Madison Square North Historic District in midtown was approved by Manhattan Community Board 5.

It was approved despite frequent inquiries by Community Board members about reducing the size of the proposed district, and the acknowledgement that a substantial percentage of the properties in the extension unmistakably lack architectural and historic significance.

A community group known as The Madison Square North Property Owners Coalition has spent the past year preparing a professional response to the proposed Madison Square North Historic District Extension.

The Property Owners Coalition commissioned a report that was prepared by two architectural historians from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

The report aptly describes the region as a “Seinfeld Region – a region that is largely about nothing.” Put another way, this area is largely defined by several unremarkable properties, run-of-the-mill parking lots, monotonous rows of houses, and similarly uninteresting real estate.

According to the report, 50% or 144 of the 286 properties encompassed in the proposed extension were not worthy of New York City Landmark Preservation Commission designation, and of the remaining 142, most did not rise to the level of landmark status.

The landmarking effort has garnered a significant amount of media attention and revealed that the impetus for designating such a large area is the desire to limit development and curb permitted nightlife uses—issues that should most appropriately be addressed through the zoning process, not landmarking.

Proponents claim that the proposed extension seeks to “protect and nourish the uniquely jumbled and diverse character of commercial, residential, artistic, and small-office businesses,” in Madison Square North—a statement the Daily News editorial board rightly concluded “makes a mockery of the city’s landmarking powers.

Additional media scrutiny from Curbed pointed out that as many as half of the buildings in the area have no historical value, and others that have been considered for preservation in the past have been passed over for a variety of reasons.

In the Wall Street Journal, Keiko Morris and Laura Kusisto explored the parameters for preservation. They interviewed Farrell Virga, a member of the Madison Square North Property Owners Coalition, who said, “if we are restricted with bureaucratic red tape in the form of a broad-brush landmarking of an area, you could stymie development in that area that is both residential and commercial.”

Meanwhile,  both the Flatiron Partnership and the 34th Street Partnership Business Improvement Districts spoke of the negative impacts landmarking would have in their testimony against the proposed designation.

Freezing development in such a transit-rich neighborhood is bad for the greater health of New York City. The proposed area contains four subway stations and is only one block away from Penn Station, one of the busiest commuter hubs in America.

Landmarking this entire area would greatly deter commercial and residential progress in exchange for absolutely no public benefit. These are circumstances which do not only apply exclusively to Madison Square North, and should be considered in every instance of creating or extending historic districts.

Today, nearly a third of Manhattan is landmarked. The standards for landmarking and preservation have become too lax, and we are running the risk of running out of suitable locations for the creation of badly needed affordable and market rate housing —further exacerbating our affordability crisis.

The Madison Square North Historic District Extension is a spurious effort to control development and undermine zoning under the guise of historic preservation.

It is an ill-advised proposal, and our city would be much better served if this area were allowed to realize its full potential.

 In other REBNY news:

April 23 is REBNY’s next Inside Secrets of Top Brokers and Industry Leaders seminar, “Is There Room for the Co-Op in the Year of the Condo?” Join Diana Diaz, Louise Phillips Forbes, Stuart Saft, Cathy Taub, and moderator Bill Cunningham in REBNY’s Mendik Education Center from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. to hear this exciting panel discussion, followed by an hour of networking, during which cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will be served. To register around, visitwww.rebny.com.

The Residential Upper Manhattan Open House Expo is May 2 and 3. This year, REBNY is combining its annual open house expos into one exciting, all-inclusive weekend, during which attendees will be able to view exclusive condo, co-op, townhouse, and high-end rental listings in Harlem, Washington Heights, Inwood, and Hamilton Heights! For more information on attending this lively event, contact Desiree Jones at DJones@rebny.com or Jeanne Oliver-Taylor at JTaylor@rebny.com.

Request for Potential Pre-Kindergarten Spaces: The New York City Department of Education (DOE) is seeking to identify space for September 2015 that could be converted for pre-K programs in order to offer full-day, high-quality, free pre-K to every four-year old in New York City through the Pre-K For All Expansion.  To find out more information about the space requirements, or to submit a property for consideration, please visit the DOE’s web site at http://schools.nyc.gov/Academics/EarlyChildhood/support/prekspace.htm