By Andrew Berman, Executive Director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
There's been much speculation lately about who the next Chair of the City's Landmarks Preservation Commission will be. Though there are competing theories as to who the frontrunner is, all agree that whoever is chosen will have a huge impact on our city's future ? no place more so than downtown.
Lower Manhattan is the oldest part of New York, with some of its quaintest and most historic structures. Ironically, it's also probably the part of the New York under the greatest development pressure to tear down and build ever higher.
That's where the chair of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission can come in. The Chair gets to decide which sites and neighborhoods the Commission will consider for landmark designation, and which it will pass over. This often means the difference between maintaining a charming, historic, humanly-scaled neighborhood, and out-of-scale and out-of?character new construction.
Right now, parts of the East Village, the South Village/SoHo, Tribeca, and the Bowery are all clamoring for landmark designation. These are "hot" neighborhoods, where new development is quickly altering the sense of place in some areas, as one hundred- or even two hundred-year old buildings are being torn down. The new Landmarks chair will decide which stays, and which goes.
A lot of factors will go into determining what kind of decisions the Landmarks chair makes. For the past eleven years, the chair has actually had no background in historic preservation or landmarks preservation. We're hoping that will change.
Under the past administration, the Landmarks Preservation Commission was very active, but frequently moved slowly on designations, giving developers who wanted to 'beat the clock' and tear down or alter buildings more than enough time to do so before designations took effect. We're hoping the new chair will move swiftly to protect those buildings and neighborhoods identified as worthy of landmark protections.
The new chair will face a lot of pressure from the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) ? a powerful lobbying group that claims landmarking is "out of control" and is somehow, paradoxically, both stifling economic development and making New York City neighborhoods playgrounds for only the very rich.
This Alice-in-Wonderland logic should be easily dismissed, but REBNY has put a lot of money into their faux-populist campaign to undermine landmark designations in our city, and applying a lot of pressure to get the City to scale back on or forgo entirely new landmark designations. The new chair will have to vigorously defend the system and demonstrate that appropriate landmark designations of historic sites and neighborhoods enrich our city and helps maintain its diversity, not impoverish and homogenize it.
The future of many of downtown's residential neighborhoods depends upon whether or not the new Landmarks chair is up to these tasks. Without a vigorous Landmarks Preservation Commission ? one willing to act swiftly and decisively to preserve our city's patrimony, and one willing to stand up to big real estate ? the special character and livability of our historic neighborhoods could quickly and easily be lost forever.