Regarding the Proposed East Village Historic District
Statement of the Historic Districts Council
Before Manhattan Community Board Three
Regarding the Proposed Designation of the Lower East Side/East Village Historic District
July 26, 2011
Good evening, I am Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. HDC is the citywide advocate for New York’s historic neighborhoods. We work with community groups throughout New York City to protect and preserve the historic character of their neighborhoods and to ensure that the unique, irreplaceable nature of New York’s built environment is safeguarded for future generations.
Although HDC is a citywide organization, our offices are in the East Village in the converted rectory of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. As neighbors and working members of the East Village community, we are well aware of the distinct sense of place of the East Village; the unmistakable streetscapes, the almost ineffable feel that distinguishes this area from other parts of the city. No place else in New York is like the East Village, although what that means can vary greatly depending on the light and weather. This is seen most pointedly on film – when you see something that was filmed in the East Village (which seems to happen every six months by our office) – you know it instantly, even without sound. Similarly, when you see something claiming to be the East Village but filmed somewhere else, perhaps Toronto or (dare I suggest) New Jersey – it’s also instant apparent. The same can not be said for other places in New York – really, parts of Philadelphia can pretend to be Brooklyn Heights pretty convincingly. The East Village has a certain essence which is immediately recognizable – even if it defies exact identification.
A large part of what that something ‘is’ is based on the architecture of the neighborhood. HDC has been in the East Village since 1999, and I personally came here 15 years earlier for high school, and in that time, there has been a profound level of change in the area. Stores have opened, stores closed, even establishments like the Second Avenue Deli which seemed eternal have moved on but the feel of the East Village has remained essentially solid. Never static or stagnant but definitely solid, with the worn but sturdy 19th-century buildings providing a visual continuum connecting the past and the future. Stores come and go, restaurants come and go, people come and go, but the buildings remain and mark the space of history – both public and personal history. There are buildings on Second Avenue which I have passed literally 6,000 times (I’ve counted) which I may have never been in but their presence is part of my world and their absence would be a terrible loss. This is what landmark designation prevents.
Landmark designation means that the buildings which are here today will be here, in a recognizable form, tomorrow. That’s it. The specifics of regulation and oversight by the Landmarks Preservation Commission vary from case to case and year to year but in its essence, creating a historic district sets the baseline expectation for future development at the level of Hippocrates, “first do no harm”. Development happens in historic districts; the Landmarks Preservation Commission issues over 10,000 permits a year for approved alterations and work on landmark buildings – and there are less than 30,000 buildings which they regulate citywide. Buildings are built in historic districts, enlarged, expanded, taken down and rebuilt – constantly. The difference is that all this work happens with an eye towards preserving the distinct sense of place which makes the neighborhood so special.
Additionally, landmark designation empowers the community to have a voice in its own future. Major projects which require permits must present at a public hearing where community members –and the Community Board – can voice their support or opposition to the commissioners. In New York City, where “as of right” is the rule; this is a remarkable gift, and one which communities throughout the five boroughs yearn for.
A brief word about other neighborhoods and historic districts. HDC works throughout the city with neighborhood groups to achieve their preservation goals, which often include getting a historic district designated. We have worked on preservation campaigns in areas such as Crown Heights North, Addisleigh Park, Sunnyside Gardens, Dumbo and others from the initial formation of local groups to the negotiation around major real estate developments and all the steps in between. In our 40 years of experience as an organization, we have never seen an instance where the long-term economic health of a neighborhood was damaged by landmark designation, nor have we seen examples of wide-spread displacement of longtime residents because of landmark designation. The examples just don’t exist, not over long-term periods. HDC has worked with renters, building owners, tenant groups, co-op boards and commercial landlords and, not to be Pollyanna-ish about it, in the long run, everyone seems to benefit from landmark designation. The people who cherish their homes and worry about their neighborhoods gain reassurance and a voice in determining their neighborhood’s future. People who hate the designation can sell – often at a profit – but generally learn that it’s really not that onerous. To be honest, most of the neighborhood usually doesn’t even notice the designation unless it’s covered in the newspaper, which is prime evidence of the essentially protective, and harmless, nature of this designation. We urge Community Board 3 to support this important proposal.