Historic Preservation Saved New York!

On Sunday, April 22, 2012, the New York Daily news published an opinion piece by Edward Glaeser, a professor of Economics at Harvard, arguing that historic districts are damaging to the economic, social, and environmental health of the city because they limit new construction.

HDC board member Jeffrey A. Kroessler offers this reply.

In the 1970s, at precisely the moment when the city was in serious decline, plunging toward bankruptcy, when its population was declining for the first time in its history and quality of life was visibly deteriorating in the face of rising crime and declining city services, and when City Hall was embracing a policy of “planned shrinkage,” preservationists committed their lives and fortune to bringing the city back. Historic preservation saved New York City.

Writing in the New York Times Magazine in 1976, Roger Starr, head of the Housing and Development Administration in the Beame administration during the dark days of the fiscal crisis, famously advocated a strategic withdrawal from untenable neighborhoods. “Better a thriving city of five million than a Calcutta of seven,” he wrote. Historians, planners, sociologists, and elected officials all seemed to accept that New York was on an irreversible downward trajectory. But the city was fortunate that preservationists ignored such pronouncements.

Between 1965 and 1981, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated historic districts that anchored the city’s recovery: Brooklyn Heights (1965), Greenwich Village (1969), Mount Morris (1971), Park Slope (1973), SoHo (1973), Carnegie Hill (1974), Fort Green (1978), Longwood (1980), and the Upper East Side (1981). By protecting the buildings in these areas, the city also encouraged investment.

In 1970, SoHo was a desperate real estate market; the fire commissioner called the area of vacant and dilapidated loft buildings “Hell’s Hundred Acres.” Manufacturing was fleeing and landlords willingly rented to artists (legally or not), even as Margot Gayle educated New Yorkers about the beauty of cast iron architecture. At the time of designation, a cast iron building at the corner of Broome and Wooster could be had for $90,000. Today SoHo boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

Only a Harvard economist could declare that a bad thing. “When I’ve looked at the data,” writes Edward Glaeser, “I’ve found that blocks had significantly less building when they were restricted by historic districts.” I prefer the word “protected” to “restricted.” But isn’t that the point, to protect those areas that our citizens define as historic? Prof. Glaeser sees no value, no value whatsoever, in an urban neighborhood except for its development potential. He also seems to suggest that property owners seeking the protections of landmark designation are guilty of NIMBY-ism (make no mistake: the Landmarks Preservation Commission will not designate a district over the objections of the property owners, even though owner consent is nowhere in the law). Further damning preservation, he claims that designated areas “become more expensive and less socially or economically diverse.”

Glaeser blames historic districts for being successful. Rather than demean preservationists and New Yorkers who merely want to live in designated places with the NIMBY label, why not respect them for investing in our city and striving to protect their investment, in quality of life no less than property value.

After calling Jane Jacobs’ 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities “a masterpiece,” he suggests that she was wrong about just about everything, wrong to suggest that cities needed old buildings, and wrong to support the designation of the Greenwich Village Historic District, which he says “saved a charming part of Manhattan – at the cost of turning an area that had been affordable into a neighborhood where only hedge fund multimillionaires can buy townhouses.” Question: where in Manhattan are the prices of townhouses low? Land values have increased across the island, and compared to the declining city of the 1960s, that is a good thing. Designation created value and demand where there had been little. Apparently, in Prof. Glaeser’s worldview supply and demand should apply to every commodity except properties in historic districts. Only there values should remain depressed, replicating the historic anomaly of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

As a historian, I am stunned by Prof. Glaeser’s ahistorical arguments. When Jane Jacobs wrote her critique of the state of urban planning, New York was a different place. There were no historic districts, and the Manhattan was losing population. The empty buildings offered low rents to businesses and residents, an unusual condition of supply and demand to be sure. What that meant is that, unlike other older American cities, New York would recover. Fort Greene, Park Slope, Mount Morris, and Longwood could have gone either way. Historic district designation followed the initial investment by new homeowners. It is not New York City that brought such places into stability and desirability, but New Yorkers. Academics write tomes about the presumed evils of gentrification, but gentrification and the preservation ethos indeed saved New York.

Would New York be a better city, a more livable city, without our historic districts? What would happen if Greenwich Village was undesignated; and while we’re at it, let’s undo the zoning protections also. There is no going back in the sense that it would return to its bohemian past and offer low rents to starving artists. What would happen is that more people would be able to live there because new, and no doubt very large, residential buildings would go up, rather like Williamsburg today. But the Village streetscape would be gone, and there would be no reason to live there as opposed to anyplace else. We would encounter the same chain stores and some would bemoan the loss of the small businesses that once thrived there and gave the Village its character. We will have killed the goose that lays the golden egg.

Why does he blame historic districts for the dearth of affordable housing? After all, less than 4%  of the city’s buildings are designated. Why aren’t developers rushing to erect residential towers of affordable units in areas where they could do so as of right? The first time many of us became aware of Prof. Glaeser was when he weighed in on the controversy over the proposed tower above 980 Madison Avenue (the former home of Sotheby’s). By opposing the construction of those new residential units, he argued, preservationists were contributing to the city’s housing shortage. Yes, those 20 or so units, one to a floor, would have eased the scarcity of affordable units.

Glaeser’s final criticism of historic districts is cloaked in the language of environmentalism. He argues that urban living is more “green” that life in the sprawling suburbs. No disagreement there. But he goes off the cliff when he suggests that historic districts are impediments to our green future because they artificially limit the number of people can live the green urban life. But why is clear-cutting our urban patrimony less of a crime than clear-cutting a stand of virgin redwoods? Why would we squander the embodied energy and still functional materials in our old buildings for the greenest new glass high rise built with dry wall from the other side of the planet?

Our historic city ought not be demolished in the name of sustainability. After all, the greenest building is the one that is already built. Nor should we behave as wastrels with our cultural capital. As we should protect the environment for our children’s children, so should we treasure our historic city.

Jeffrey A. Kroessler is a longtime board member of HDC and member of the Citizens Emergency Committee to Preserve Preservation. He is the author of New York, Year by Year and The Greater New York Sports Chronology. He is an associate professor in the library at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Posted Under: Newsfeed, Planning, The Politics of Preservation

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *