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Nostalgia has no place in building a city for tomorrow

By Steven Spinola


This week we join the City in celebrating the 50th anniversary of New York City’s Landmarks Law. REBNY’s members are proud owners of New York City’s most iconic buildings such as: Rockefeller Center, Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Woolworth Building, Lever House, and Seagram Building, just to name a few.

This anniversary is a good time to celebrate the success of the Law, reflect on its application and explore how it can be strengthened.

Unlike other City regulations, like the zoning code which has seen countless updates and revisions over its century-long history, the City’s Landmarks Law remains virtually unchanged since its inception. And while the City’s Landmarks Law has stayed the same, the politics have evolved.

Local neighborhood and civic groups, afraid of new development or taller buildings, have used the Law to preserve entire neighborhoods — circumventing the more thorough and comprehensive zoning process that would normally include a study of environmental and socioeconomic impacts.

Over the past ten years, the amount of landmarking has dramatically increased.

Chester Court Historic District
Chester Court Historic District

Today there are over 33,000 protected properties Citywide — 96 percent of which are located in 135 historic districts. 28 percent of Manhattan is now landmarked, with 70 percent of the West Village and Upper West Side set aside for historic preservation.

And the movement is spreading to the outer boroughs — Brooklyn now has several Community Districts that have over 25 percent of their properties landmarked.

Aside from lowering the standards of truly worthy landmarks, rampant landmarking naturally impacts housing production.

REBNY’s latest report, “Landmarking, Housing Production and Demographics in NYC,” clearly and quantitatively defines the impacts.

The report’s findings make it clear that landmark designation — particularly historic district designation — has had a significantly negative impact on new housing production, especially affordable housing.

From 2003-2012, only 100 units of affordable housing were built on landmarked property Citywide; compared to nearly 35,000 affordable units created on non-landmarked properties.

The report also found a stark difference in demographics between residents who live in landmarked areas and those who do not. Overall, the population in landmarked districts is significantly less diverse in terms of racial and ethnic makeup, and the average household income is twice that of than the rest of Manhattan, Brooklyn, or New York City as a whole.

Historic districts create a situation that favors stasis over change, and they have led to the rise of owner-resident groups determined to maintain their permanence at the expense of City and civic goals.

Most recently, preservationist groups have been very vocal in their opposition of the Department of City Planning’s Zoning for Quality and Affordability plan — a laudable, yet modest, attempt to remove barriers that constrain housing production, encourage better quality buildings, promote senior housing and remove unnecessary costs that encumber affordable housing development.

NYC has already reached its 2020 population projection, and faces the monumental task of creating enough housing for a million more residents over the next 20 years.

If the original purpose of the Landmarks Law was to benefit the welfare of the general public at large instead of small residential groups, then recent actions need to be reassessed through the scope of balancing other public policy priorities.

If this problem is not addressed, we will continue to see the Law used as more of a tool for nostalgic preservationists to control development in their neighborhoods than used for its true purpose — to preserve the most important and iconic parts of New York City while improving on what remains.
We must address critical issues, such as: strengthening standards to prevent landmarking abuse; better accommodating growth in historic districts; and streamlining processes to reduce costs related to lengthy public review.

Ideally, REBNY would like to see more predictability and transparency in the landmarking process. All proposed historic districts should have draft designation reports before LPC has a hearing, so that owners will be given the opportunity to know why their property is being considered.
Historic districts should also have guidelines explaining their key features, to minimalize confusion for owners when they perform alterations or renovations, and most importantly there should be a definitive timeline on the designation process.

The theme of change in New York City has been constant throughout its history, and as a result we have a collection of some of the most universally recognized and beloved landmarks.

We should not impede the construction of future landmarks by encasing large portions of our dynamic city in amber.

On the 50th anniversary of New York City’s Landmarks Law, we at REBNY believe that the time is right to finally update this important City policy. We cannot allow errant nostalgia to jeopardize our future, and must have the wisdom to prioritize larger public interests ahead of provincial preferences.

In other REBNY news:
Request for Potential Pre-Kindergarten Spaces: The New York City Department of Education (DOE) is seeking to identify space for September 2015 that could be converted for pre-K programs in order to offer full-day, high-quality, free pre-K to every four-year old in New York City through the Pre-K For All Expansion. To find out more information about the space requirements, or to submit a property for consideration, please visit the DOE’s web site at


April 23 is REBNY’s next Inside Secrets of Top Brokers and Industry Leaders seminar, “Is There Room for the Co-Op in the Year of the Condo?” Join Diana Diaz, Louise Phillips Forbes, Stuart Saft, Cathy Taub, and moderator Bill Cunningham in REBNY’s Mendik Education Center from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. to hear this panel discussion, followed by an hour of networking, during which cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will be served! To register around, visit

The Residential Upper Manhattan Open House Expo is May 2 and 3. This year, REBNY is combining its annual open house expos into one exciting, all-inclusive weekend, during which attendees will be able to view exclusive condo, co-op, townhouse, and high-end rental listings in Harlem, Washington Heights, Inwood, and Hamilton Heights! For more information on attending this lively event, contact Desiree Jones at or Jeanne Oliver-Taylor at

REBNY’s Finance Committee Cocktail Reception is on May 11. This exciting networking event will take place from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the 230 Fifth Avenue Rooftop Lounge, and will feature an open bar and hors d’oeuvres. For more information, contact Ossie Shemtov at or visit

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