CityViews: The Enduring Farce of Historic Preservation in NYC

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The destruction of old Penn Station led to the creation of New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission. Whether the commission has too much or not enough power, or lacks the restraint or will to use it wisely, are questions that have been debated ever since.

Historic American Buildings Survey—HABS.

The destruction of old Penn Station led to the creation of New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission. Whether the commission has too much or not enough power, or lacks the restraint or will to use it wisely, are questions that have been debated ever since.

I have spent the past 31 years living, working, participating in civic life and raising a family in the West Village, and I am watching helplessly as it turns, like so many New York City neighborhoods, into a ghetto for the superrich. In recent years the neighborhood’s only hospital has been turned into luxury apartments. Our last lumber yard will become a 20,000-square-foot Starbucks “Roastery.” Our last affordable supermarket closed in the spring when its rent was tripled, and this summer our D’Agostino is barely holding on. This year four longtime neighbors in my building, all arts professionals, cashed in, finding themselves in the odd position of not being able to afford to stay in the homes they had planned to retire in.

People say, get over it. Time marches on. The bohemian Village died a long time ago. New York City remains a great precisely because it refuses to ossify. Manhattan has been a developer’s town from the start.

Most of these statements are true. But just as ghettos of the poor don’t become ghettos all by themselves, our Whitney/High Line ghettoization is being nudged along quietly by municipal policies.

Every time I go to a hearing at the Municipal Building to watch firsthand the way governing is actually done, I come away wanting to cry with anger and frustration. I’m speaking in particular about the way the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission conducts its business. Here is its mission: protecting New York City’s architecturally, historically, and culturally significant buildings and sites by granting them landmark or historic district status, and regulating them once they’re designated.

Here is what actually happens. A developer who has purchased one of the less overtly desirable buildings smack in the middle of a historic district created by this same body comes before the Commissioners. The developer argues that the building is “non-contributing” or of a “no-style” style, and proposes tearing it down and replacing it with a taller luxury residential building for a single family or a handful of families. Recently this happened with an entire block front of Gansevoort Street amassed by a single developer. This is the prototypical low-rise meat market block that is pictured on the cover of the Gansevoort Market Historic District designation report and that provides such a stirring view of the city’s overlapping layers from the terraces of the Whitney Museum across the street. A similar process is unfolding with two prototypical early-20th century garage buildings on Jane Street, one of the most beautiful and representative streets in the Greenwich Village Historic District, designated in 1969.

Invariably the Commissioners readily accept the developer’s premise that the existing old garage or market building is expendable, never taking into account the fact that a historic district is more than a row of pretty brick facades – it’s a piece of living history complete with all the varied structures that made and still make a neighborhood a healthy, fully functioning entity. Next the commissioners study the architectural renderings of the new structure. They ask the developer to shave a bit off the top and change the detailing or materials here and there, so that a new building “reads” as historical even when it isn’t, and then they okay the plan.

Recent applicants have shown outrageous chutzpah. For instance, the developer of the Gansevoort block argued, successfully, that they should be able to build 80-foot tall structures in place of the 15- or 25-foot ones they are tearing down. Why? Because they went hunting through the district’s history and cherry-picked details that supported their case for maximum profit, in this case some obscure history that shows that the emblematic two-story market buildings were once tenement height until the owners tore off the top stories during the Depression. Notice, however, that they are not proposing the construction of tenements to house multitudes.

On nearby Jane Street, one developer proposed replacing a modest garage that has a long and fascinating history (from ice cream factory to piano warehouse) with a much larger single-family home complete with slender 90-foot tall translucent glass “library.” This same developer argued that the new owners would add a beautiful garden, failing to mention that this garden would be visible only to the owners. The developer who bought the second garage building a few blocks away—this one still in operation and virtually unchanged since it was built in the 20s—recently received permission to tear it down.

I applaud the current administration for at least putting the issues of income inequality and affordable housing on the table. But I’ve lived here through five mayors, and I’ve watched all of them tilt in favor of development of the sort that does absolutely nothing to make daily life more affordable for poor or middle-class New Yorkers. In a little known agency called the Board of Standards and Appeals, developers claim hardship to justify their greed for additional buildable space. The most absurd practice may be the transfer of “air rights,” which allows developers to buy the unused sky above an adjacent building. The City Council is about to rule on a massive development project in the far West Village that does this practice one better: the project would gain extra stories through the transfer of “air rights” above the Hudson River.

In the scheme of things, why is the preservation of a few scattered vernacular buildings important? If the LPC fulfilled its mission and protected all the buildings in a historic district (with the possible exception of the occasional “taxpayer,” a one- or two-story structure thrown up quickly for the sole purpose of covering the owner’s annual property tax), some of the current economic pressures in the city’s most desirable neighborhoods might ease. Owners of the more modest commercial, industrial and mixed-use buildings would not be so quick to cash in because developers would not be so quick to pay inflated prices (the Jane Street garage about to be torn down was purchased for a reported $26 million) if they knew that the potential for development were limited to adaptive reuse of the existing structure. I have no illusions of my beloved West Village returning to a haven for artists. But by exercising its existing powers properly, the city can easily rein in some of the excesses that threaten both the history and the health of our neighborhoods.

Michele Herman is a writer whose columns run frequently in The Villager