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Places Journal - Unfinished New York
Belmont Freeman | March 7, 2017

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From Issue No. 258 | May 1, 2017

New Yorks historic preservation community has been in celebratory mode this year, marking a half-century since the passage of the citys Landmarks Law. Observances will go national next year, with the fiftieth anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. The Museum of the City of New York is honoring the occasion with a splendid exhibition, Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks, curated by Donald Albrecht and Andrew Scott Dolkart, which is accompanied by a handsome catalogue and a series of smart public programs.

Earlier this year I attended a panel discussion at the museum on The Politics of Preservation. There panelist Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, cut through the generally congratulatory mood by declaring that historic preservation in New York is under siege, facing its gravest threats since 1978, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the citys landmarks ordinance in the famous Grand Central Terminal case. To which my response was: Really? Can this be true? Or is this just the latest posture of a movement that seems always to be in need of a crisis?

In fact it would seem that historic preservation is today stronger than ever. The past half century has seen the movement evolve and mature from a rarified special interest on shaky legal and political ground to an institution  an ethos  firmly entrenched in our culture. In New York City, for instance, large parts of every borough are protected by historic district designation, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission has unquestioned authority to prevent building owners and developers from making inappropriate alterations to landmark structures or intrusions into historic districts. But no; according to Breen, I am wrong. There are ascendant forces, fueled by New Yorks white-hot real estate market, that threaten to undo decades of progress. Breen cited the current mayoral administrations intention to modify the longstanding regulation of contextual zoning  a mechanism to control the height and bulk of new buildings in neighborhoods of distinctive character, generally to the effect of perpetuating existing development patterns  by allowing taller buildings in such zones, many of which are contiguous with historic districts. Likewise she warned about the potential effects of up-zoning Midtown East  of allowing taller towers in the area around Grand Central Terminal  which would raise land values and thus subject historic properties to intensified threats of demolition, while the Landmarks Preservation Commission is acting too slowly to designate and protect those properties. And she lamented a proposed bill being debated by the City Council that would impose time limits on the LPC: that if a property is nominated for landmark designation and the commission does not act within a certain period, there would be a five-year moratorium on reconsidering that property, during which time anything could happen.

That the preservation battle is now playing out over wonky issues of bureaucratic process suggests the phenomenal success of the movement.

Let me process this. The possibility that a building somewhat taller than those in its immediate context might be sited on a lot not within, but bordering, a historic district may alarm conservation purists; but it hardly constitutes an existential threat to historic preservation in New York City. And no matter the possible rezoning of Midtown East, the LPC should be considering the designation of worthy properties around Grand Central: In this light it might actually be good that the proposed rezoning gives this matter new urgency, since the commission has become notoriously slow with designation cases. And why shouldnt it be subject to deadlines, like other city agencies? To put it another way: these are the kinds of problems that the preservation pioneers who picketed unsuccessfully to prevent the demolition of Penn Station could only dream about. That the discussion  the preservation battle  is now playing out over wonky issues of bureaucratic process and procedure seems proof of the phenomenal success of the movement in the past fifty years. Far beyond struggling to save individual buildings from destruction  though clearly this remains a never-ending concern  preservationists today are going head to head with City Hall, the City Planning Commission, and the real estate industry over the very shape of the city.

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