No. 13 April 1998
Landmark Preservation For A Growing City
Roger Starr is Resident Scholar of the Center for Civic Innovation. He was formerly Editor of City Journal, an Editorial Board Member of The New York Times, and New York City’s Administrator of Housing and Development.
Pennsylvania Station, whose massive pillared portico on Seventh Avenue was surely one of New York City’s architectural gems, had fallen on economic hard times by the early 1960s. Airlines and interstate highways were stealing away passengers from the railroad. Moreover, the station’s interior had never really been practical as a railroad terminal: arriving passengers had a steep climb to the street, and escalators hadn’t yet been invented when the station was built. Now the railroad couldn’t afford to build them. By the middle of the decade, the station had run out of time.
But Pennsylvania Station’s location was priceless. Thus the railroad’s directors were no doubt delighted when a New York developer, Irving Mitchell Felt, offered to demolish the station and replace it with an office complex and a spanking-new Madison Square Garden. But Felt’s proposal was less happy news to other New Yorkers, who cherished the great colonnade on Seventh Avenue, and saw the station as an indispensable part of the city’s storied past. The loss of Pennsylvania Station intensified a fight that the city’s elites had already begun—to save New York’s architectural treasures from the developmental boom of the post-war years. The result: the legislative birth of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Too Much Landmarking
To this day, the commission has the power to investigate buildings older than 30 years, appraise their merits—architectural, historical, or cultural—and designate them landmarks, after public hearings. Landmarking a building protects it both from demolition and from any alterations that the commission believes harmful. What the commission doesn’t have power to do, however, is to compensate the owners of landmarked buildings for the economic burdens, often considerable, of maintaining them. While we might assume the commission would make landmarks of such significant buildings as City Hall, St. Paul’s Chapel, Grand Central Terminal, or the Dakota—a spectacular apartment house at 72nd Street and Central Park West—it actually went further: the commission considered as potential landmarks all structures with unique qualities of design and integral connections to the city’s history and culture, even if the general public was largely unfamiliar with them.
As a result of its expansive understanding of what a landmark is, the commission carried out its charge with excessive enthusiasm: in 36 years, it has designated close to a thousand individual landmarks, and exercised power 68 times to designate “historic districts,” in which a grand total of 19,200 separate buildings stand—all subject to control over their owners’ power to demolish or make visible changes in them.
In addition, the commission’s broad powers led it to make unrealistic requirements of owners. Not only can it designate as a “landmark site” the area surrounding a free-standing landmark building, it can regulate minute changes within the site to harmonize them with the landmark itself. In historic districts, owners who needed to replace a rotted window-frame quickly learned that the commission’s rules tended, especially early on, to be unexpectedly onerous, not atypically requiring new frames identical in every respect to those they were replacing—even if no manufacturer made such frames any longer, and the frames were so high up that no one could see them from ground level, anyway!
Further, in the commission’s early years, riding a wave of near-unanimous support following Pennsylvania Station’s destruction and other startling changes in the city’s appearance, it was accountable to no one. Its power to designate was not even subject to review by the city’s governing body. Building owners opposed to landmark designation of their buildings could subsequently seek redress only in the courts. But eventually, as the commission pronounced ever more rules for the maintenance and replacement of doors, windows, and decoration, and as its designations of historic districts began to impinge on owners of undistinguished properties that just happened to fall within such districts, a countervailing force emerged, made up primarily of real estate and development interests.
The commission didn’t always side against the potential landmark’s owner. The commission has also been given, in extreme cases, the power to mitigate a hardship—if a building owner made a convincing enough case—by requesting a tax adjustment from City Council or even, on a few rare occasions, allowing a hopeless building to be demolished. But the commission rarely took such measures. It maintained that landmarking will often increase a building’s economic value, particularly in areas of the city where property values are already high and owners have the means to spend on historic preservation.
Restoring Common Sense to Landmarking
Over time, the constellation of real estate and development interests began to get its message heard. One reform was long overdue: the law now subjects landmark designations to approval by the City Council, so the Landmarks Preservation Commission has become more accountable in recent years. The biggest shift, however, has been in the attitude of the commission itself. Increasingly, it wisely recognizes that at least four important considerations must influence landmarking decisions.
1. More Selective Designation. Unworthy buildings cannot be landmarked without reducing the significance of worthy buildings landmarked in the past, or even trivializing the notion of landmarking itself. Local groups have frequently pressed the commission to designate a building in their particular neighborhood a New York City landmark. Even though the building in question—a police station, say, historically important to the settlement of a specific area of the Bronx—is not of citywide importance, it may mean a lot to a local neighborhood. The commission must carefully decide which, if any, such structures qualify as landmarks without destroying the very meaning of the term. Sometimes, too, the demand for a landmark designation is motivated by a not-in-my-backyard attitude, as when a local group expects the Department of Sanitation to build an unwanted garage in its neighborhood and uses landmarking requests to stave off the unwanted intruder. The goal of landmarking cannot be to stop progress, but to stimulate interest, including economic interest, that can make use of historic resources to stabilize and enrich the city and its neighborhoods.
2. Suitable Use. Suitable has a double meaning: the use must be suitable under the city’s zoning regulations (a motorcycle repair shop, for example, might be too noisy to be housed in an outwardly preserved, but substantially remodeled, stable); and the proposed use must have a reasonably good chance of surviving economically. It is futile to landmark a building if no reasonable chance exists to find a use for it. The leadership of the Landmarks Commission, chaired until recently by Jennifer Raab, is sensitive to the high mortality rate of buildings that it has landmarked for historical, architectural, or cultural reasons, but for which no suitable use can be found. The best guarantee for landmark survival is to be home to a profitable enterprise that doesn’t violate any zoning law or destroy the landmark itself. Chairman Raab sensibly not only permitted but actively encouraged modifications in the appearance of landmarked buildings to enable them to shelter various enterprises.
The city’s “Ladies Mile” on Sixth Avenue demonstrates, too, that the commission can landmark in a way that leads to economic success. The mile extends north of 14th Street and reaches almost up to 23rd Street, and it was home to upper middle class retailing in the closing years of the 19th century. Here, the commission—with help from the city’s Planning Commission—sought to keep these old merchants’ properties open to what are today called “niche” businesses: specialty linen stores, unique clothing shops, and a bookstore with an upstairs café housed in masonry that a few years before, might have been split up into smaller offices.
3. Allow Substitutes. Administratively, the commission has been more sophisticated in prescribing substitute materials, fixtures, and paints for worn landmarked buildings. Too often, a beleaguered owner has had to order expensive custom-made replacements for designs that are now only a memory, in order to meet the commission’s replacement criteria. Common sense should rule here. The details of window design above a minimum floor level are not a serious test of architectural integrity, but rather a test of the commission’s good sense, thankfully much more evident today than in the past.
4. Shortening the Review Process. The commission must close the period of time that passes between the Landmark Commission’s first expression of interest in landmarking a building and its call for a public hearing. Often the hearing is set far in the future, but once a building is on the calendar, the Department of Buildings won’t approve any plans for alterations or demolition, so the owner is stuck. In effect, the building in question is landmarked until the hearing, whatever the final outcome might be. Meanwhile, the owner may be trying to keep a prospective buyer interested in his property as the weeks drag on and on.
One part of the city is intent on saving the best of the city’s architectural past; another part wants to expand the city’s economy, augment its housing supply, and speed up its transportation. Clearly, these two parts of the city’s soul are in conflict, or at least significant tension. Therefore, the Landmarks Commission must recognize the delicacy of its position: if landmarking imperils an owner’s solvency, or threatens the city’s economy, the pain caused may well exceed the architectural, historical, or cultural benefit of any particular landmark. In such cases, the commission should withhold the landmark designation, for our love for the city must not jeopardize its future.