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Construction & Design

Panelists find common ground in battle over New York landmarking

By David V. Griffin

Is landmarking in New York City out of control? At a recent panel, industry experts disagreed on the issue, but found common ground in a call for reform.

Preservationists and proponents of new development agreed that the landmarking process is inefficient and in need of a review to streamline guidelines, identify buildings worthy of potential historic designations and provide property owners with information about resources and codes.

Steve Spinola
Steve Spinola

Landmarking in New York City has become a contentious topic in recent years. Critics argue that a spread of landmarked districts is blocking new development and exacerbating a scarcity of affordable housing.

Proponents of landmarking see it as an invaluable tool to preserve the city’s character, which they see as threatened by new development.

Both sides of the debate were represented at a panel hosted by Crain’s at the New York Athletic Club last week. And while the panelists agreed on the need for reform, their views diverged on the fundamental merits of expanded landmarking.

Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and Ronda Wist, vice president for Preservation at the Municipal Art Society of New York made the case for landmarking, pointing out that historic districts promote property values and benefit tourism. Breen also noted that older buildings were popular with tech and start-up companies “seeking character and prestige.”

REBNY’s president Steven Spinola responded that costs associated with approved restoration and maintenance were “likely to be tripled” for buildings recognized by the Landmarks Preservation Council.

Nikolai Fedak, founder and editor of the pro-development blog New York YIMBY, made an appeal for better design standards for new construction and argued that further incentives should be possible for the preservation of historic facades in the forms of grants and tax credits.

He also noted that landmarking has become “more and more a politicized issue,” with many on both sides ignoring actually worthy buildings in order to exploit public awareness of beloved but less significant sites.

Fedak cited the fate of Rizzoli’s Bookstore and neighboring Chickering Hall (currently both undergoing demolition), saying that he felt “the latter was the more important of the two and clearly worth preserving”: Wist, Breen and Spinola agreed with him that “eleventh-hour” fights to save buildings in peril were counter-productive to all concerned.

Kenneth T. Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor of History at Columbia University, praised reuse projects such as Chelsea Market and the High Line but cautioned against the assumption that such success stories should be the ultimate benchmark for the city’s development: “We used to have eight of the ten tallest buildings in the world – and now we have none.”

Although the panel was occasionally contentious, many positive points were raised, from Spinola’s avowal that the future landmarks roster would surely include buildings currently under development and Fedak referring to the Hearst Tower – where a new Norman Foster-designed skyscraper rises from an Art Deco base – as an illustration of how old and new buildings can reinvent and reinvigorate each other. “We’re not going to agree on everything,” Wist said. “But the fact that we’re having the conversation is a major step forward.”

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