EXPANDING HISTORIC DISTRICT BOUNDARIES
Why Historic District Boundaries Are Often Limited
HDC’s Survey of the Existing Historic Districts
Effects of Designation
Effects of Non-Designation
Boundaries That Are Too Limited
Historic Districts in New York City range from brownstone neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights, to industrial areas like the newly designated Gansevoort Market, to commercial centers like Ladies’ Mile. While the city’s 83 historic districts are diverse and rich in architectural and cultural history, it is an acknowledged fact that there are still many neighborhoods deserving historic district status that have not yet been considered. It is also true that the majority of the districts designated do not adequately represent the reality of New York City’s intact historic neighborhoods. This report will examine why this discrepancy between designated districts and coherent historic neighborhoods exists and how it may be alleviated.
The Landmarks Law defines a Historic District as an area that has a “special character or special historic or aesthetic interest,” represents “one or more periods of styles of architecture typical of one or more eras in the history of the city” and constitutes “a distinct section of the city.” The boundaries of historic districts should not be arbitrary or based on political decisions, and a historic district should not be a fraction of a neighborhood. Rather, historic districts should constitute a cohesive and distinct area of New York City that merits preservation for future generations, as defined by the law.
As the Landmarks Preservation Commission prepares to enter its fifth decade of protecting the city’s historic neighborhoods, the time has come to think more broadly about our historic districts and to expand many of the incomplete boundaries. The worthy buildings and sometimes entire blocks that were, for one reason or another, omitted from the originally designated district must be re-evaluate and reconsidered. These are the properties that are at the greatest risk of insensitive change or demolition. Equally important, the historic district boundaries must be revisited to protect the designated districts from the development of sharp, jarring distinctions between historically similar areas inside and outside the district.
When the Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed in 1965, the idea of designating and regulating areas of the city recognized for their aesthetic, historic and cultural significance was new and untried. How the effort to preserve and protect historic buildings would be received by property owners, residents, realtors, developers and the courts was unknown. New York City’s traditional obsession with real estate meant that there would be serious questions relating to the bottom line: Would designation be detrimental to the neighborhood’s vitality? Would it cause property values to decline? Would it cause a neighborhood to stagnate?
For many years, the Landmarks Preservation Commission worked on shaky legal ground. Until the U.S. Supreme Court’s Penn Central decision in 1978, a degree of uncertainty hung over the agency’s actions. The LPC was therefore careful in its early years to select small, defensible districts. With some exceptions, the LPC’s early criteria for district designation were rigid and based on a narrow perception of what constitutes an “urban” neighborhood. Thus the boundaries of many early historic districts are “exclusive” rather than “inclusive,” inasmuch as they exclude properties that did not meet the LPC’s strict standards. As a result, much was omitted from these historic districts that, in retrospect, should have been included. However, during the more than 35 years the Landmarks Law has been in effect, both the benefits of designating and the negative consequences of not designating have become obvious. The fears and uncertainties voiced earlier have proven unfounded, and the need for expanded boundaries is now apparent.
Even as landmarking has become an acceptable and often sought after part of New York City’s regulation of the built environment, the LPC has continued to designate districts with limited boundaries. Failure to embrace the traditional neighborhood lines more inclusively has caused problems on the edges of the districts, where new construction or incongruous additions often conflict with the original patterns of development, marring even the protected district itself.
In 2001 and 2002, HDC surveyed the city’s existing historic districts, reviewing the materials collected over many years relating to the establishment of the designated areas. The results of the survey confirmed the pattern of under-designation. In most cases when there was a community pressing for designation, the boundaries it proposed tended to follow the lines of the traditional neighborhood. The boundaries that the Landmarks Preservation Commission subsequently designated almost invariably encompassed a smaller area. Similarly, when the initiative for a district came from the Landmarks Preservation Commission itself, it also tended to be quite small. In both cases, the result was the same: a district that does not adequately reflect the neighborhood’s traditional boundaries and as a result affords inadequate preservation and protection of the area’s “sense of place.” One particular egregious example is the Park Slope Historic District, designated in 1978 (see map). The Park Slope Civic Council requested a number of more blocks for inclusion than were eventually calendared and designated.
One common problem with historic district boundaries that became evident through HDC’s survey is the omission of commercial strips in residential neighborhoods. In general, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has focused on residential areas and has been hesitant to designate the commercial strips associated with them. The major reduction in the boundaries proposed for the Park Slope Historic District was largely due to the explicit omission of the commercial strip along Seventh Avenue in the heart of the community. Likewise, Fort Greene and Brooklyn Academy of Music Historic Districts were designated separately by cutting out the commercial strip on Fulton Street that they were proposed to share. This was due as much to a reluctance to regulate commercial properties as to the perceived lesser significance of Fulton Street.
It should be noted that not all district boundaries are inadequate. HDC’s survey showed that there are some small districts that do encompass their traditional boundaries. Such districts as Tudor City, Turtle Bay Gardens, Bertine Block and Sniffen Court are appropriately drawn, coinciding with the neighborhood they were planned to identify, recognize, preserve and protect. However, these districts are the exception rather than the norm. More common are districts like Tribeca, Fort Greene, the Upper West Side, Mount Morris Park and Jackson Heights, whose boundaries are far too arbitrary and inadequate. What has been omitted is not clearly different from what was included. The consistency and the architectural and historic integrity of the districts have been compromised.
After nearly four decades, the benefits of designation are clear. Former LPC Chair Jennifer Raab notes in the 1998 edition of Guide to New York City Landmarks that “…historic districts have become prime locations—or better, destinations, places where New Yorkers want to live and work, and tourists want to visit, because of their architectural and historical character. They have become, and remain, stable, desirable places that attract people, renovation, and economic development…. The value of landmarks protection today is widely understood, and New York’s landmarks are greatly coveted.” Economically as well as psychologically, these benefits are important to New York City.
In the late 1990’s, City Councilmember Kenneth Fisher asked the Independent Budget Office to study the economic effects of historic designation on brownstone neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Rather than showing a decline in property values, the study confirmed preservationists’ long-held contention that property values followed the economic curve for similar undesignated neighborhoods during prosperous times and held their value better during periods of economic decline. In other words, properties in historic districts are good investments. This is no secret to real estate brokers, whose listings routinely tout historic district inclusion. Owners of commercial or income-producing properties in historic districts, some of whom may have been reluctant to embrace designation, have long since learned that the economic advantages far outweigh the purported difficulties. Prospective buyers or renters are willing to pay a premium for the cachet of a designated building.
Far from having a “chilling” effect on development, historic districts have been dramatically successful for community re-investment and economic growth. As the number of applications for new buildings and the renovation and adaptive re-use of older ones clearly indicates, historic districts have become magnets for development and investment. Indeed, designation as a historic district typically leads to the upgrading, stabilization and physical improvement of a neighborhood. One of the most dramatic examples of this phenomenon in a residential area is the Fort Greene Historic District.
Years of observation of the effects of designation on, for example, Madison Avenue, which traverses three historic districts–the Upper East Side Historic District, the Metropolitan Museum Historic District and the Carnegie Hill Historic District–have shown that no less than residential blocks, commercial thoroughfares in historic districts thrive. To omit them from a historic district’s boundaries warps its sense of place, which is not merely a figure of speech, but a phrase called out in the New York City Landmarks Law. In dominantly commercial areas, Ladies’ Mile and SoHo are perhaps the clearest examples of the financial success of designation. Designation as historic districts helped assure their economic revival. Who can imagine New York City today without them?
What happens on the blocks adjacent to an historic district? Ironically, far from freezing a neighborhood, designation actually spurs development outside as well as inside the district. Building owners try to increase the square footage of their properties with rooftop and rear-yard additions, and because of the appeal of the historic districts, developers want to build new buildings just over the protected boundaries, often at a scale that hems in and overpowers the district proper. The Landmarks Preservation Commission regulates new construction and alterations within the district, but does not regulate the adjacent blocks and streets no less worthy of protection, resulting in loss of character of the larger neighborhood. By their scale and style, many (not all, to be sure) new structures rising immediately adjacent to a district compromise the very characteristics and sense of place that merited the area’s protection. While this is partially a problem with inadequate zoning, the new development nonetheless destroys buildings that are often worthy of designation but not within the historic district. Since the boundaries of most of the existing historic districts represent only a portion of what could have been designated, the incentives to develop properties in a neighborhood made more prestigious by historic district designation can lead to such excesses as the 5-story rooftop additions on Warren Street just outside the Tribeca South Historic District. The contrast between the stretch of the east side of West Broadway located in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District and the undesignated and originally very similar area on the west side tells a similar story. By extending the boundaries in time to make a more coherent historic district, a neighborhood’s character can be protected from out-of-place development.
The New York City Landmark Law encourages the “protection, enhancement, perpetuation, and use of improvements and landscape features of special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value.” It follows that one of the major goals of the Landmarks Law is the identification of what is important with regard to the city’s historical, architectural and cultural heritage. Therefore, the seemingly arbitrary standards used to designate one section of a neighborhood and not an identical adjacent area obscure the purpose of the law. Capricious boundaries result in confusion for the general public; how is an observer to know why one side of a street is included in an historic district and the other side, essentially identical in terms of scale, style, period and character, is not? This was the case when only the east side of West Broadway was designated in the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District and again when only the north side of Chambers Street was designated in the Tribeca South Historic District. Development since designation of these districts has shown the difficulty of preserving and protecting a real sense of place under such illogical conditions. Designations based on criteria unrelated to the quality and character of the built environment suggest an arbitrary decision-making process and have unacceptable consequences.
The quality of the built environment immediately outside an historic district has a profound effect on that district’s character. Boundaries that are ill-drawn and influenced by politics rather than architectural integrity and historical patterns of development encourage inappropriate development in the adjacent areas. Thus in too many instances, the designated district’s boundaries do not really protect the historic neighborhoods they are meant to preserve. Our understanding of what constitutes a historic district has evolved and expanded, and our historic district boundaries should reflect this change. It is apparent that a re-evaluation is merited and long overdue.
As the prestige of being in or near an historic district grows, we are losing more historic fabric immediately around the edges. With a fuller understanding of the benefits of designation we can counter threats to the integrity of the city’s existing historic districts. There is no time to lose. The preservation and protection of New York City’s historic neighborhoods must be expanded to encompass adjacent areas excluded in the original designations in order to truly reflect the city’s cultural, social, economic, political and architectural history.