Our Advocacy

HDC NYT Appelbaum Response

Letter to The New York Times Editor, January 2024 

Binyamin Applebaum thinks New York would be a better city if we tore it down. 

In his Op-Ed “I Want a City Not a Museum,” (December 30th, 2023), Applebaum writes that he is sad to see buildings where his forebears lived in New York City still standing. He asserts that preservation is responsible for the city’s affordability crisis, maintaining that “the buildings survive because New York is preserving the corporeal city of bricks and steel at the expense of its residents and of those who might live here.” 

New York’s affordability crisis is shameful and crippling, but preservation is not the cause. Landmarks, as Applebaum notes, cover just 4% of the city. When he catalogs buildings his ancestors lived in, including a tenement on Suffolk St., an apartment building in Astoria, and a two-family home in Canarsie, he is not talking about landmarks: there are no landmarks on Suffolk St; There are no landmarked apartment buildings in Astoria; there are no landmarks of any kind in Canarsie. Applebaum is not just against landmarks, he is against New York’s existing urban fabric. 

Applebaum concedes that “landmarks” are the wrong boogeyman, but laments that “it’s not easy to build on the other 96% of New York.” When he does this he actually makes a strong case for adaptive reuse of existing buildings. Applebaum notes that “forty percent of the buildings in Manhattan could not be built today.” What he means is that those buildings don’t conform to current zoning standards. That’s why adaptive reuse is such a vital tool in the fight for affordable housing: converting overbuilt but underutilized existing buildings into new housing yields more housing units than new construction could achieve. 

That’s also part of why preservation is so important. We must protect our existing building stock from developers who would tear it down to build taller luxury towers with fewer units at higher rents. Rightly, landmark regulation does not control use, so converted historic buildings, landmarked or otherwise, may find new life as housing. In fact, The Mayor’s Office recently announced that 46 office buildings are in the pipeline for commercial to residential conversion through the Office Conversion Accelerator Program. We are thrilled, and hope this is just the beginning of a new life for many of these buildings. 

New York’s existing building stock is also a tool in the fight for affordable housing because so much of it was built to be affordable or accessible to middle income tenants. Applebaum notes that “developers, in the decades after WWII, built thousands of low cost homes,” citing the very homes in Canarsie he’d like to see demolished.

But, instead of seeking to emulate the dense midrise middle income units that were built to blanket the outer boroughs, Applebaum lauds the empty luxury towers of Midtown as a bright alternative writing “the luxury highrises that have redefined the midtown skyline are a fitting emblem of a modern city.” This is a curious and damning attitude that ignores that many of the luxury towers in midtown, and most of the ones that rise in the outer boroughs, replaced smaller buildings, like the ones that Applebaum says make him sad. Those “sad” buildings contained more units of more affordable housing than are available in larger luxury towers. 

Indeed, Applebaum says he wants a city and not a museum, but that’s exactly what the high end luxury towers are built to be. When the developer of Hudson Yards, Stephen M. Ross, was asked by this newspaper in 2019 if he envisioned that development to be “a museum of architecture,” he said, “Yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing.” He clarified, “we are creating a museum of architecture and a whole new way of life,” adding “this is New York as it should be.” 

We do not believe that New York should be a museum of hyper-luxury towers, but that is what it is increasingly becoming, because every new hyper-luxury development makes the affordable city smaller, and contributes to a city as “museum” that cannot be touched, or lived in, by anyone but the ultrawealthy. (Not that many people live in the luxury towers anyway, (approximately half of the city’s luxury units are vacant.) 

In the face of an ever-growing glut of empty luxury towers and ever-increasing rents, adaptive reuse, and, yes, neighborhood preservation, are tools in the fight for affordable housing: we must convert underutilized historic structures into housing, and we must preserve lower and midrise housing which was built to be affordable. Applebaum hopes it will be knocked down. We hope it will be preserved, so that it can’t be destroyed and replaced with Applebaum’s ideal city, which, of course, is a city that he doesn’t live in. 


Historic Districts Council 

Brooklyn Heights Association 

Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts 

Landmark West! 

Save Harlem Now! 

Village Preservation