City Journal Spring 2014

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Emily Washington
Historic Preservation and Its Costs « Back to Story

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Benjamin Hemric May 07, 2012 at 10:39 PM
I think this essay makes a number of good and points overall (although I'm inclined to be somewhat skeptical about the efficacy of the "Regulatory Impact Analysis" technique).

I think it's important, though, not to overlook or forget about a more basic set of questions that should be asked regarding the designation and administration of landmark districts -- how large should landmark districts be, what "quality" is supposedly being protected, and "why"? I say this because, looking at, say, New York City in general and Greenwich Village and SoHo in particular, one can see that many "successful" landmarked districts either already contain non-conforming structures, including modern buidings and/or high-rises, or are directly adjacent to areas that contain non-conforming structures (the districts being written to exclude the non-conforming structures). Furthermore, I think a very good case can be made for the idea that such landmarked districts are, indeed, successful BECAUSE OF, not just inspite of, these non-conforming structures. Just one case in point, look at historic Washington Mews in Greenwich Village, which is lined with small renovated former carriage houses AND a 27-story Art Deco hotel/apartment house.

These questions are also inspired by what Jane Jacobs has to say about landmark districts in "Death and Life of Great American Cities." In her landmark book about cities, written in 1961 (before NYC's landmark preservation law) Jacobs touts the designation of landmark districts as a way of preventing the self-destruction of diversity, in other words, as a way of preserving heterogeneity -- a mix of building types, including high-rises -- NOT as a way of preserving homogenity (the way landmark districts seem to be conceived and administered today).

Benjamin Hemric
Monday, May 7, 2012, 10:35 p.m.

I agree, richtea. The extant Grand Central Station was preceded by two (I think) earlier versions. Each time the station was happily, speedily demolished and replaced with something grander. If that happened today, could we really expect a contemporary "starchitect" to produce something better than the existing masterpiece?

If plenty of people uncomfortably and unconsciously suspect that everything new will be worse than the surviving old stuff, is it any surprise that historic preservation has veered into the "amber" phase?

I definitely agree with the author that sometimes preservation veers into absurd and irrational stuff (really, people want to preserve a gas station?!), but this could be the symptom of an anxious neighborhood that fears the gas station might be replaced with something even worse!
I more or less agree with the previous two comments, but the essence of the matter, which the article fails to address, seems to be this:

In the past, American city builders would demolish old to erect new, replacing something which has outlived its purpose with a BETTER edifice. There was little doubt about it, while now it is the opposite. Anything new is suspect nearly by definition, since the underlying, general opinion is that it could only be WORSE than what is in place already. Thence, in face of overwhelming decadence and bad taste, the drive for preservation. This condition is very difficult to overcome, or explain away.
It's disappointing to see what comes across as such a philistinistic article in the more usually excellent City Journal. The arguments for sensitive development of Historic Districts are just not properly presented here. By argiung to allow development so as to "enable more people to live in a desirable neighbourhood", the author puts the cart before the horse; by arguing for a cost-benefit analysis on a matter that is necessarily dominated by aesthetic considerations, she risks coming across as a Yahoo.

She implies that "price spikes" occur because of short supply (consequent on preservation that limits new development) in a historic neighborhood. But supply can, by definition, only be short relative to whatever the level of demand is. Demand in a historic neighbourhood goes up precisely because of its prisinte beauty. Relax the planning laws, and you not only lose that beauty but you create a significantly overcrowded environment.

The real fight in a historic neighborhood is between existing residents (who I suppose the author would consider NIMBYs), and developers (who are seeking to piggyback on the beauty of the neighbourhood, and therefore are classic economic free riders, loweing the overall value with insensitive or too-large developments, but benefiting from the preexisiting surrounding beauty). Chelsea in Manhattan is a classic example --although there are fights about plans,and conswequently a lot of the buildings are going up are decently architected, the fact is that the neighbourhood is now appallingly crowded, and massive buidlings, many of them brutalist, are springing up all over.

Just saying that developers should be allowed to come in and crowd up and ugly down a neighborhood is pretty poor stuff --as I say, the editor should have thought a bit more before agreeing to allow this sort of stuff into the journal
There is some absurdity to this article. Building on top of a "facade" is how Moscow rebuilt its great Orthodox Church, torn down under Stalin. Or should I say it was rebuilt on top of a multistory parking garage, becoming itself a facade? We take for granted how Grand Central Station was rebuilt several times, until the front became a highway, and the north-rear became a hotel. At least that was tastefully done. But the demolition of Penn Station clearly did not work, and the atrocity that replaced it had no congruity or vibrancy with the 1940's style business district, represented by the Penta Hotel, and other buildings all the way from Broadway to Herald Square. And building up and over is not an answer in and of itself. Wall Street as a modern financial district was unavoidable, but the Trinity Cathedral, Fruances Tavern, and the U.S. Cusyoms House have been reduced to sad incongruities.

Simply put, architectural rape and ruin are always possible, and broadminded compromises involving facades just won't work.