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Preserving Historic Preservation in New York City

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New York City became a world leader in historic preservation following the demolition of the original Penn Station in 1963 and the threatened destruction of Grand Central Terminal shortly thereafter. Now nearly 50 years later, a public debate has emerged around whether the city is taking landmarks preservation too far.

Certainly much has been accomplished in the intervening years. With leadership from the Municipal Art Society and other civic organizations, a Landmarks Preservation Commission was created in 1965; its powers were expanded in 1973, and the constitutionality of the city's Landmarks Law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978, thereby preserving Grand Central. Historic preservation has become a core value of the city, and many of the city's greatest architectural treasures have been protected.

Yet even as eminent an architectural authority as Paul Goldberger recently warned that increasing numbers of landmarked buildings risk turning the city into "some grotesque version of Colonial Williamsburg on the Hudson." And New York City-bred Harvard urban economist Edward Glaeser recently published a blog posting titled "Reservations About Landmark Preservation." The criticisms focus on stifling the development of new buildings - with the hope that those new buildings will add contemporary architectural vitality (and perhaps future landmarks) and greater housing stock (and lower housing costs) - all admirable goals.

But the criticisms ignore a number of facts about historic preservation that should be kept in mind:

Historic Districts Make up Only a Tiny Percentage of the City: In New York City, there are 115 historic districts and 1,265 individual landmarks, totaling approximately 27,000 buildings - out of a total of about 975,000 buildings. The protected buildings thus make up less than three percent of the city's building stock.

Development Can and Does Take Place in Historic Districts: New residential buildings that the Landmarks Preservation Commission has recently approved include the 11-story 1 Jackson Square in the Greenwich Village Historic District, a 23-story building at 39-41 West 23rd Street, and a 17-story building at 4 West 21st Street, both in the Ladies' Mile Historic District. Despite the common misconception, the Commission sometimes approves very tall buildings, too. Just look at the 46-story Hearst Tower addition.

Zoning, Not Historic Districts, Drives or Limits Development: Zoning, which is under the domain of the City Planning Commission, determines the size and use of buildings. The Landmarks Preservation Commission regulates the appearance of buildings and how any new development relates to the surrounding district but does not set limits on a building's size. The real driver of development is the amount of unused zoning capacity in a neighborhood or on a particular lot. That said, zoning alone does not create housing, especially affordable housing. Subsidies, tax incentives, and government policy have as much, if not more, impact on the development of new housing.

The City is Dynamic and Growing: New York City has continued to grow while the Landmarks Preservation Commission has designated more buildings and historic districts. Data collected by the Municipal Art Society shows that from 2003 to 2008 the gross square footage of the city's building stock increased by nearly 300 million square feet, roughly equivalent to the construction of 250 Chrysler Buildings in just a five-year period.

"New Ideas Require Old Buildings": This quote from the renowned urban activist and author Jane Jacobs says it best. New York's older and existing buildings provide the most affordable places to start a business or live. Galleries in old warehouses in Long Island City, small manufacturers in the Brooklyn Navy Yard's longstanding buildings, and restaurants opened by up-and-coming chefs in Fort Greene, are just some of the present-day examples of the creative ideas that are the backbone of New York's identity being born and realized in old buildings.

Preservationists Need to be Part of the Planning for the City's Growth: Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 makes clear the need to plan for an increase to accommodate an expected population growth of one million people. It is critical that we ensure that the benefits and burdens of that expansion are fairly distributed. Historic neighborhoods tend to be located near transit centers, and many have amenities that make them attractive places to live and site affordable housing. With comprehensive planning that allows for community participation, neighborhood character can be retained while creating higher-density affordable housing in an equitable manner.

There are many ways in which preservation promotes a more sustainable city, and there is no reason why we have to choose between protecting our historic resources and developing New York City. With comprehensive planning, we can balance the city's growth while preserving the places that give New York City its identity and soul.