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The New York Post.

Landmark This?
October 2, 2005

By Julia Vitullo-Martin

NEW Yorkers care about their landmarks and want them preserved. But of all the city's regulatory processes meant to promote the public welfare, landmarking may be the one most vulnerable to abuse and manipulation thwarting legitimate development. Indeed, that's exactly what many landmark fights are really about especially in contentious neighborhoods.

Take a current example on the Brooklyn waterfront: The city Landmarks Preservation Committee just voted to give the Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse a huge and homely mass of white concrete the same protected status as Carnegie Hall. If the move holds up, it would halt the owners' plans to redevelop the building into residential apartments.

Sitting on the water's edge of Williamsburg, one of the city's hottest neighborhoods, the warehouse has long ceased to have any economic use as either a warehouse or a factory. Its value both to its owners and its neighborhood lies in its potential as highly desirable housing, with glorious views.

But apartments require light and air two qualities not needed in a warehouse. To get them, the architects plan to scoop out the building's center, creating an atrium, and to recover the lost floor space (as allowed by the zoning code) by adding to the top of the building. Landmarking would prevent any such reconstruction.

LANDMARKING is the tricki est, least predictable hurdle that New York forces developers to jump. Beyond the most obvious calls like Rockefeller Center disputes arise on nearly everything. The law says only that a landmark must have "a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value." But what makes a building special? The vague criteria can be arbitrarily applied, with proponents sometimes stretching claims to ludicrous lengths as with Austin Nichols.

Surely, looks matter. A landmark should look like a landmark. But Austin Nichols is just a white concrete box. "In 91 years, nobody cared about this building," says historian David Hurwitz, who has lived in a converted industrial loft there since 2001. "If you show any rational being this building and ask 'Landmark? Yes or no?' They'll say, 'Are you kidding?' "

In the press release on the landmarking, the best praise commission Chairman Robert Tierney could manage was to call the building "one of the most visually prominent structures on the Brooklyn waterfront." That's prominent, not preeminent truly faint praise for a designation that would put this building in the same category as, say, the indisputably great Grand Central Terminal.

What else? Well, the commission also tries to make a virtue of the building's plainness, contending that "European architects, such as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, identified this type of industrial building as inspiration for the development of European modernism." Not this particular building, mind you, just this type of building.

ARCHITECTURAL historian Andrew Alpern, who has researched the New-York Historical Society's extensive records on the building, says the building's simplicity is due to nothing more than the stinginess of its original owner, Horace Havemeyer. There is no evidence, he says, of any European architect ever citing Austin Nichols as inspiration for anything. The whole argument is preposterous.

The landmarks board also calls it a "superb and highly visible example" of early 20th century engineering, and "one of the earliest reinforced concrete warehouses in the United States designed by a nationally prominent architect."

That architect was Cass Gilbert, who also designed the U.S. Custom House and the Woolworth Building, among many others. Yet Alpern's research shows that Gilbert clearly disowned the design elements of Austin Nichols: It was built solely as an investment venture. The emphasis was on strict economy in construction and maximum efficiency of use and Havemeyer discarded most of Gilbert's design ideas because they would have added costs.

What's astounding about this debate (unlike most landmarking disputes) is that the relevant historical documents exist yet the commission ignored them. It was owner Havemeyer, not architect Gilbert who loved ornamentation, who decreed that "the building should be entirely plain and massive in appearance."

This was not pre-modernism. It was cheapness.

CITY Councilmember David Yassky represents the neighborhood and has been a consistent advocate of landmarking important buildings but opposes it for the warehouse. Why? It's "nondescript": He's walked and driven by it dozens of times, and never thought it could be a landmark.

He also has a larger point: The landmarking process must be made more systematic and fair. "If we're going to try and preserve the industrial buildings of the past," he says, "let's make that decision. But in the absence of a more comprehensive policy, Landmarks should not swoop in and do this one or that one. That just creates uncertainty, and impedes the revitalization of the waterfront."

Which is what this controversy is really about: the future of the waterfront, and the future of Williamsburg. Both are changing rapidly, to the chagrin of some. Many of the building's tenants and their neighbors do not want to see the area developed or new residents moving in. They fought tooth and nail to prevent the recent Greenpoint/Williamsburg rezoning which will permit residential development in formerly industrial areas but lost.

AS an anti-development tac tic, landmarking can work as an end run on the Bloomberg administration's (and Yassky's) immensely important rezoning victory. David Hurwitz says "a lot of people mainly new residents just don't want development of any kind. And when you've lost other battles, landmarking is the tactic of last resort."

Indeed, most of the locals who testified in favor of landmarking cited the rezoning pejoratively: "We must make the right decision to designate the Austin Nichols Warehouse," said resident Ramon Sanchez, "or it will become the victim of the city's expeditious rezoning measures."

Resident David Hurwitz, who opposes the landmarking, summarizes his neighbors' views harshly: "You have two kinds of people in this dispute the preservationists, who want to preserve everything, they don't care what, everything and the disgruntled locals, those who are dissatisfied with the rezoning, and are willing to use any method they can to attack rezoning, including through the landmarks commission. Those people are more or less in the majority of the pro-landmarking group. They don't want new people moving in even though they're mostly recent arrivals from the Midwest themselves and they're using this tactic to preserve a building by keeping new people out."

BUT this may be a Phyrric victory for the anti-devel opment forces. If the owners get to redevelop the building, they will provide a public esplanade along the water, as the zoning now requires. If the building remains as is, it will continue to block public access.

And it will make a mockery of landmarking, which has to be based on substance if it is to continue protecting true landmarks. As Alpern summarizes the situation, "Designating this building demeans what Cass Gilbert considered important and trivializes his design intent."

Still, the battle is not over. Designation must be approved by the City Council, where Yassky will be waiting.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

©2005 New York Post

About Julia Vitullo-Martin: articles, bio, and photo


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