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Landmarking, Housing Production and Demographics in NYC
April 17, 2015
New York City’s Landmarks Law turns 50 this year, but unlike the City’s zoning code which has seen countless updates and revisions over its century-long history, the City’s Landmarks Law remains virtually unchanged since its inception.
New York City’s Landmarks Law created four types of landmarks: individual, interior, scenic and historic districts—our study focused on individual landmarks and historic districts. For the Commission to designate an individual landmark or historic district—the two types of landmarks on which our study focused—certain eligibility criteria must be met. Generally, an individual landmark may be a building, any part of which is 30 years or older, that has special character or special historic or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristic of the City, State or nation. “Special” is not defined. An historic district may be any area containing buildings that have a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value; represent at least one period or style of architecture typical of one or more eras in the City’s history; and by reason of such factors, constitutes a distinct section of the city. It does not offer criteria to determine if “distinct” means the section is valuable to the City’s history.
New landmarks and historic districts are frequently added but old designations are rarely if ever revisited. And while the City’s Landmarks Law has stayed the same, the politics have evolved. Small but sophisticated civic and neighborhood groups have used the Law to effectively control development in their neighborhoods, oftentimes at the detriment of larger City housing needs.
While the number of landmarks steadily rises, the rate of landmarking—particularly the creation of historic districts that contain hundreds or in some cases even thousands of properties—has dramatically increased over the last ten years.
At the same time, the City continues to have a chronic housing shortage. For more than fifty years, the City has had a housing emergency, which is defined as a rental vacancy rate below five percent. Such a vacancy rate inflates rents and eliminates competition that might result in lower housing costs. Recently Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an ambitious housing plan to create and preserve an unprecedented amount of housing over the next decade to address this issue. Data collected from City records suggests that New York City’s approach to designating and administering historic properties may be making it much more difficult to create new housing—particularly affordable housing.
This paper analyzes landmarking data, demographic statistics, and housing production in New York City—with a focus on Manhattan and Brooklyn—to take a quantitative look at the relationship between landmarking and housing creation. The findings make it clear that landmark designation, and particularly historic district designation, has in fact placed significant constraints on new housing production, especially affordable housing.
From this research it is our conclusion that it is time for New York City’s Landmarks Law to evolve and to properly balance preservation with the need for more housing creation.