Preservation Issues

Defending Landmarking in Lively Debate

Conservancy President Peg Breen, President of the Real Estate Board of New York Steven Spinola, Ronda Wist of the Municipal Arts Society and History Professor Kenneth Jackson

Ronda Wist Vice President, Preservation and Government Relations of the Municipal Arts Society

May 2014

Conservancy President Peg Breen took part in a lively panel discussion of “Is Landmarking Out of Control?” sponsored by Crain’s New York Business last Tuesday. Her answer: “Absolutely not!”

Breen noted that landmarking was very popular with residents and that neighborhoods throughout the City were still petitioning to become historic districts. She added that preservation provides thousands of local jobs, attracts tourists, enhances the City’s quality of life, and “keeps New York, New York” by maintaining its iconic identity.

Ronda Wist, of the Municipal Arts Society, also defended landmarking, including the process followed by the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in determining what buildings or neighborhoods to designate.

Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) insisted that the landmarks process is “broken.” History Professor Kenneth Jackson and blogger Nikolai Fedak, editor of New York YIMBY (Yes in My Back Yard) sided with Spinola. Jackson called for taller buildings and higher density and insisted that New York lacks distinctive architecture.

“No one comes to New York to look at buildings,” Jackson claimed.

Breen noted that tech companies were becoming an increasingly important part of New York’s economy and that they were locating in “older buildings with distinctive architecture, not corporate glass boxes.”

Discussing the Bloomberg Administration’s plan for Midtown East, Spinola claimed that preservationists wanted to over landmark the area, while Breen noted that the major groups had agreed on a list of 16 buildings they wanted designated. She also denounced a REBNY study of Midtown East, which said there wasn’t one building among the 573 in the proposed rezoning area that was landmark quality.

“You overpaid for that study,” she stated.

Breen and Wist also countered REBNY’s claim that historic districts are hindering the development of affordable housing. They noted that districts often preserved affordable housing and that non-profit community developers of affordable housing often paired the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit with the federal rehab credit that promotes the reuse of older buildings.

Breen and Wist agreed that there could be some minor changes to the landmarks process, such as more information on the Commission’s website and paid landmarks commissioners. But they both credited the commission under Chair Robert Tierney with trying to address the demand for designation of historic districts throughout the boroughs. Both said designations were a crucial element in planning for a modern city.

REBNY attacked the landmarks law, shortly after it was passed claiming it would stifle the City and routinely opposed historic districts. They have stepped up their attacks in the last two years. The Conservancy has met with REBNY twice to see if there is any merit to their claims and has concluded that their proposals are basically unworkable or would weaken the landmarks law. This was the first public debate over landmarking and the Conservancy would welcome other opportunities to discuss preservations crucial role in New York’s economy and quality of life.