The irony of preserving that which was intended to destroy

Worth saving?

From the front lines of the New York City preservation wars, one landlord is trying to convince the Landmarks Preservation Commission to allow him to demolish two of his landmarked buildings on the Upper East Side – something the commission has only approved 11 times for the 27,000 landmarks it oversees. The only circumstance in which the commission allows buildings to be torn down is if they are losing money, and the landlord claims to be losing $1 million a year on the buildings, whose apartments have an average rent controlled/stabilized price of $600/mo. He’s offering to move all the current tenants into other units (I assume at the same price), and also redo the interiors of 13 other buildings, but the tenants are putting up a fight.

Architecturally the buildings are completely unremarkable, and in fact the façades were ruined by the landlord right before the buildings were landmarked in a futile attempt to stop it – an unfortunate but legal and unavoidable side effect of the current preservation process. The reason that the buildings are landmarked, though, is actually quite interesting and ironic:

Those buildings along York Avenue in the East 60s, part of a complex of 15 walk-ups built between 1898 and 1915, were designated landmarks in 2006 because they were examples of a Progressive Era effort to improve tenement design for low-wage earners. The tan brick buildings offered snug apartments that overlooked courtyards and let in more air and light than a typical tenement’s railroad flat.

The irony here is that the buildings were models for buildings that were supposed to be built in place of the “tenements” in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side – which back then were dark and dingy, but nowadays have had their interiors refurbished and are far more desirable than the buildings in question. That is to say, the tenements, many of which are now themselves landmarked, were intended to be torn down and replaced with these sorts of buildings, which let in more light and air. Of course now, a century later, skyscrapers with floor-to-ceiling windows soar above other buildings, and even in the most crowded parts of Midtown they let in far more light and air than these six-story walk-ups.

Aside from pointing out this historical irony, it’s worth emphasizing that of the fifteen original buildings, the landlord is only asking to tear down two. In keeping with the complete lack of perspective that characterizes the LPC (which, to be fair, has not yet denied the application), one tenant said five years ago that tearing down two of the buildings would be “akin to designating the Statue of Liberty, but not its torch.”


1. PlaNYC 2.0 may try to tackle off-street minimum parking requirements for new development, though Transportation Alternatives and Tri-State Transportation Campaign are skeptical.

2. The TLC has been cracking down on illegal livery cab street hails as the Bloomberg administration considers allowing the black cars to pick people up off the street in the outer boroughs (and maybe Manhattan above 96th St.). Other than when Bloomberg first proposed it in his 10th State of the City, though, I haven’t seen any progress on that initiative.

3. The LPC is considering a proposal for a new East Village historic district “containing nearly 300 buildings,” and according to my quick Google Map’ing, a few completely non-historic post-war buildings and a gigantic parking lot.

4. More on the California redevelopment agencies that Jerry Brown is trying to kill.

5. The blog ArlingtonGOP chides county Democrats’ “failure to require adequate parking at new development projects,” which I guess means they are not in favor of free markets in off-street parking. I’ve emailed the Arlington GOP for clarification and further comment and will post it if I receive it.

Another historic preservation district fail

Rejected!The other day I got some pushback from my weird (non-)historical preservation example, with some people saying that it wasn’t a great example of what’s wrong with preservation districts – the thing got built, after all! And of course I was being coy – that building was obviously going to pass the commissioners’ muster. But I noted that anything even the least bit more controversial – taller, say, or more modern – does not fly through so easily.

Welp, Curbed NY (your number 1 source for real estate porn) has heard your cry and presented me with a perfect example of how fucked up New York City’s historical preservation districts are: Meet the Gansevoort Market Historic District, in the heart of the Meatpacking District in Lower Manhattan

The image you see here is a rendering of a design that was actually rejected as being, among other things, too tall for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, despite it being very similar in height to buildings that were there about a hundred years ago. (And then, of course, there’s the Standard Hotel, a much taller building, right across the street!) So the architect lobbed off two stories (bringing it down to six total, which makes it less than half the height of lot of buildings in my suburban Philadelphia hometown), but still no go. The architect is going to go back for a round three at some point, but time is money, and these delays are only going to make the project more expensive.

Now, in general I think that additions should be allowed to nearly all historical buildings. If you can cram an 80-story skyscraper through the middle of the Dakota, I say go for it! I understand, however, that this is a minority viewpoint, but the case for preserving the “skyline” of a two-story factory with no architectural merit (there’s not even a friggin’ cornice!!) seems to me to be especially weak. This design looks very nice to me, even taking into account that renderings are always a bit nicer than the actual thing and it’ll look a little different once people close their blinds.

…in fact, I’d go so far as to say that it would actually be nicer without that totally non-historical warehouse that it has to be built on top of.

From the comments: “Architects always ask, with a haggard look in their eyes…”

In response to yesterday’s post about landmark districts, one commenter said that it wasn’t a good example of landmarking gone awry, since the project was approved, apparently without controversy. Of course, he’s right – even the Landmarks Preservation Commission isn’t going to turn down an incredibly tasteful four-story neoclassical flagship store of a major American retailer in place of an unremarkable, run-down, two-story post-war building – the risk premium on this project was probably very low. But change any of the variables – have the new building be a bit taller or more modern, or, god forbid, have it replace a pre-war building – and all of the sudden you’re going to end up paying extra for the uncertainty. (And in fact, it’s highly likely that the only reason Ralph Lauren could afford to build such a store in that location in the first place was because the land was devalued by its restrictive landmarking and perhaps zoning.) As one commenter, whose email address suggests he works in real estate finance, puts it:

It is always difficult and costly. Think of a few months delay. There is also the uncertainty. With zoning, you can build “as of right.” So, as long as you follow the law, you can spend vast amounts of time and money and care planning your project. With [the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission], there is no certainty. That’s another ball game. Architects always ask, when you speak to them about your project, with a haggard look in their eyes, if the property is landmarked. It’s like having a high strung and unpredictable spouse who could blow up your project at any point, for any reason, and for none.

Links: A private cable car line for Hamburg, a private downtown for Quincy, Mass., and no adaptive reuse for Brooklyn

Maybe if the developer was allowed more than two stories, they'd spend more than 10 minutes designing the roof...

Maybe if the developer was allowed more than two stories, they'd spend more than 10 minutes designing the roof...

1. Hamburg’s newly-revitalized port could get a completely privately-funded cable car line, if the city allows it.

2. Quincy, Mass., a few T stops away from downtown Boston, is getting a new downtown from a private developer, replete with infrastructure and dense development. It’s unique, however, in that the city supposedly isn’t giving the developer huge tax breaks and infrastructure subsidies (more here). Here is an article about a previous project by the same developer, Street-Works. Environmentalists, predictably, are perturbed. In any case, the project sounds promising, though I guess the devil’s in the details. Anyone know anything more about it?

3. In Brooklyn, near a bridge, almost 150 years old, doesn’t have a roof!adaptive reuse opportunities like Dumbo’s Tobacco Warehouse don’t come along too often, even in New York, so it’s unfortunate that developers are only being allowed to build to two stories (if they’re allowed to build at all).

4. Other cities seem to have plenty of people willing to do it for free, but Berkeley’s City Council actually subsidizes its BRT-hating NIMBYs to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars under the guise of the “Community Environmental Advisory Committee.” It’s a shame that every metro area doesn’t have a transit critic like the Drunk Engineer, who I think is the best transit commentator in the blogosphere.

5. Randal O’Toole on TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, and its mismanagement.

6. “A Requiem for ‘High-Speed Rail’,” from New Geography.

More weekend links

1. Cuban dissident blogger (as in, living in Cuba) Yoani Sánchez describes the state of the Cuban real estate market, and discusses new rules that apparently legalize buying and selling houses, though she has her doubts that the government will allow the overt displays of inequality that would undoubtedly occur once the market is liberalized.

2. The NYT Magazine has a profile of a physicist who claims to have mastered the mathematics of the city. Hmm, where have I heard that before? He’s got some positive things to say about cities over suburbs and Joel Kotkin seems to disagree with him (always a plus in my book), but at the end of the day there’s something about him and his context-free pronouncement about “cities” writ large that really rubs me the wrong way.

3. A preservation vs. development story in the NYT about Seoul’s traditional “hanok” houses, with the chief preservationist being a white foreigner who doesn’t approve of interior redesigns or added basements or second stories. Something tells me he proably wouldn’t be a huge fan of my “development as preservation” theory.

NYC & DC links

New York City

1. A while ago I wrote about how Manhattanville’s blight, and therefore Columbia’s ability to use eminent domain, was the fault of bad zoning. The nearby neighborhood of West Harlem looks like it’s learned that lesson, and is seeking to protect itself against encroachment from Columbia by upzoning itself. Unfortunately it’s not a pure upzoning – there’re also affordable housing mandates, regulations against “sliver buildings,” and some unspecified protections for existing structures. The massive 100-block rezoning is the first in half a century.

2. A handful of buildings in Downtown Brooklyn may get historic district’d.

3. A massive parking garage in Jamaica, Queens is receiving huge tax breaks, ostensibly for reducing congestion. Why am I not surprised to see that it’s owned by an organization with “development corporation” in its name?

4. Janette Sadik-Khan wants to expand the “pop-up cafe” program that essentially lets businesses use parking spaces as seating areas. I personally think that anyone who’s willing to pay more than the current metered parking rates should be allowed to do whatever they want with the space.

Washington, DC

1. Security expert Bruce Schneier suggests closing the Washington Monument “as a monument to our fears,” and Matt Yglesias wants terrorists to blow it up – something I’ve suggested before. Maybe if that boring obelisk were gone, people would give up on DC’s height restriction and consider turning the Mall into a place that’s actually pleasant to be.

2. Unsuck DC Metro on why the Metro’s escalators suck – it’s the unions!