The Landmarking Wars: What’s Next at City Hall?

Written by Joanna Fantozzi on . Posted in News Our Town, News West Side Spirit.


Developers, preservationists gear up for post-election battle

For key players in the fight between developers and preservationists, the countdown to a new city administration boils down to this: how will Bill de Blasio approach development in Manhattan?

On the one hand, de Blasio has a record of siding with preservationists, dating back to his days fighting local development projects in Brooklyn. “This is a city,” he said during the campaign, “that understands that greatness is not measured by the height of our skyscrapers, but by the strength of our neighborhoods.”

On the other hand, the Historic Districts Council and Friends of the Upper East Side note that during the campaign, de Blasio didn’t meet with them, despite their repeated invitations to do so.

The Real Estate Board of New York, which represents developers, is hoping for a friendly ear in a de Blasio administration, given his statements during the campaign that he wants to speed up the process of development and cut through the red tape and costly approval processes. “His objectives for the city of New York are no different than ours,” said REBNY President Stephen Spinola. “I hope they will look at ramifications of landmarking and will take into consideration any impacts it might have. You can make a decision to landmark something but then you will not have an opportunity to create a new structure and invest significant hundreds of millions of dollars into city of New York’s economy.”

In the weeks leading up to the election, both sides in the landmark wars amped up their arguments, in hopes of influencing the campaign. A REBNY report, for instance, pointed out that more than 28 percent of Manhattan is landmarked, including the Greenwich Village historic district and the West End Historic District on the Upper West Side.

According to the real estate group, no affordable units have been created on landmarked properties in the last five years; REBNY cites what it says is census data showing that the more landmarked a neighborhood is, the wealthier the average resident will be, in essence making the neighborhoods less affordable and less diverse. “The numbers don’t lie, they can’t argue with fact,” said Spinola.

That report drew an outraged response from the Historic Districts Council and Greenwich Village Society Preservation, which, along with other preservationist groups and public housing advocates, teamed up to hold a rally in protest of REBNY’s report, decrying the numbers as unsubstantiated. Simeon Bankoff, the director of the Historic Districts Council, cited as a counter-example the Amsterdam Houses on the Upper West Side, which residents have been fighting to landmark, so it doesn’t get bulldozed and replaced by condos.

“This was a politically calculated move in trying to capitalize on what they see Mr. de Blasio’s interests to be,” Bankoff said. “The affordable housing crisis in New York is incredibly important, and that’s what REBNY is trying to appeal to.”

Preservationists argue that REBNY actually is anti-landmarking, and doesn’t actually care about affordable housing. As evidence, they point to the $90 million penthouse apartment at 57th Street that sold for $90 million last year, the top of the $500 million luxury hotel and apartment REBNY-backed project. REBNY argues that the luxury hotel and penthouse will pour billions of dollars into the city’s economy.

“Slowing down the rate of development actually helps more affordable units become available,” said Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “REBNY completely ignored in this report, and their numbers show correlation not direct causation.”

Spinola said that REBNY is not anti-landmarking, but that it is against extending pre-existing historic districts, like the proposed West End Historic District, which would make much of the Upper West Side a landmark.

Diane Wildowsky straddles the two sides, as a preservationist activist, realtor at Sotheby’s and REBNY member. Her opinion on development echoes what de Blasio has said in many of his campaign ads and speeches:

“You have to say what makes NYC so fantastic is it’s so diverse,” said Wildowsky. “We are a city filled with artists, musicians and people who don’t make a salary that’s 45 times the rent. A city can’t grow if all you’re going to do is cater toward the mega rich.”

In his own words:

de Blasio on landmarking vs. development

June 2013, in a meeting with New York Landmarks Conservancy: “I came to this honestly through personal experience starting at the age of 14, seeing the house that my grandfather was born in southern Italy, which had been in our family for hundreds of years. I think that gave me very personal sense of the power of keeping things that matter and say something about our culture and history. Being a preservationist is very natural.”

April 2010, from a New York Times interview: “I never got to see Pennsylvania Station, and I feel a palpable pain about that. I hope the city will strengthen, amplify and make more complete our approach to preservation.”

February 2010, in meeting with Landmarks West!: “The links between preservation as it connects to other public priorities, including affordable housing, economic development and energy efficiency….are real. The challenge we have before us is to reinterpret the preservation cause in more universal terms.”

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