Since the early days of the landmarks preservation movement in New York City in the 1960s, one of the oldest arguments against official designation was what could be called the Superlative Steward Syndrome.
It goes like this: Yes, our building is a treasure, an architectural wonder, in fact. We are well aware of that and we have taken care of it supremely well because we understand its architectural value. Because we have taken care of it so well, presumably preserving its historic architecturally integrity through necessary repairs and upgrades, the Landmarks Preservation Commission should stay away from us. Save designation for the unpredictable stewards, the ones whose expertise is not comparable, like ours is, to the Landmarks Commissioners or the professional staff. To designate us would be a form of punishment, in fact, and would make our stewardship more costly.
After almost 50 years of the city’s landmarks law, after all the evidence of how much value is added to property by designation, about how much preservation successes have enriched historic neighborhoods and the larger city, it is shocking to hear the Superlative Steward Syndrome still being promoted, as is currently the case with the co-op board of the former Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Building at 75 Livingston Street, a 1928 melange of extraordinary ornamentation that could be labeled Art Deco with a touch of the Gothic and the Mayan.
In September, the Landmarks Commission justifiably designated a Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District, an act that effectively puts it on par with areas of downtown Manhattan, a formal recognition it has long deserved. In fact, one could argue—and some experts have—that this district is architecturally richer than some of the long ago designated Manhattan areas.
The magnificent 75 Livingston Street co-op is a star in this galaxy but wants no such recognition. More on that in a moment.
Predictably, the Real Estate Board of New York is up in arms at the Skyscraper District affront. This is no surprise. The 21 buildings in a mere five square blocks that make up what the Landmarks Commission called “the civic, cultural and commercial heart of Brooklyn for more than a century and a half” is now hot real estate in a city where Brooklyn now has the cache for too long reserved for Manhattan only.
Property owners and developers here and elsewhere in the city are happy to benefit from the added value that distinctive old architectural treasures have these days and they are even happier to take advantage of the historic tax credits if their building goes on the National Register of Historic Places without local landmarks designation. But they, too, want to be left alone, free of the added burden of expert review of their stewardship and the extra cost that sometimes understandably comes with doing things right.
Developers have been making millions for years now buying, restoring and converting the very landmark-quality buildings that Preservationists prevented them from tearing down years ago.
Clearly, the real estate community is throwing its formidable weight around to cajole the City Council into second guessing the expertise of the Landmarks Commission. Real estate political power versus landmarks preservation is not a balanced competition, especially among officials with an eye on the next election.
But if the Superlative Steward Syndrome had any merit, hundreds of already designated landmarks could—and might—stand in line to be de-designated from The Dakota to Grand Central Terminal to the Woolworth Building. No, the Co-op owners of 75 Livingston should gracefully join the substantial community of designated landmarks and not assume they can enjoy all the benefits of living in such an extraordinary building as they do without assuming some of the modest burdens that come with that honor. After all, they probably paid a premium for their apartment and could sell it also at a premium just because of the building’s special architectural qualities. The value here works both ways in a cost/benefit analysis.
And if the City Council thinks it has more expertise than the Landmarks Preservation Commission, if those elected council members are so confident of their superior landmarks judgment, then why not do away with the Landmarks Commission and appoint themselves as its replacement?