Friday, January 20, 2012

REBNY opposes New Brooklyn Heights Commercial Landmark District

An interesting situation is unfolding at the eastern edge of Brooklyn Heights.  In September 2011 the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a landmark district called the "Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District". This area includes 21 commercial buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century, from 7 story Romanesque-style to a modernist skyscraper, and several Art Deco era buildings as well. I frequent the area, and have often admired several of the included buildings, though I find the skyscrapers somewhat forbidding.

This week, Crains New York reported that the Real Estate Board of New York - an industry advocacy group representing most of the real estate agencies in Manhattan and many in the outer boroughs (my agency - M. Woods & Associates LTD -  is also a member of REBNY) - sent out direct mail to residents in the area asking them to oppose the landmark district and to press their City Council members to vote down the designation.  According to the Crain's article, the City Council has never denied or adjusted the borders of a historic district after it was approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).

The reason is because LPC has such a long process of considering proposed landmark districts, that most of the arguments have been hashed out by the time it gets to City Council. LPC has often designated smaller areas that ones proposed by preservationist lobbies such as the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (of which I am a member).  In this case, the Municipal Art Society of New York, Brooklyn Heights Association and New York Landmarks Conservancy proposed the Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District.

Again, I frequent the area, and I do love the older Gothic and Romanesque buildings that were designated. I think there is a reason to protect these buildings. They are rather low buildings that are now in zoning districts that would allow much higher buildings, and therefore in danger of being torn down.  But I am undecided as to whether it is necessary to include the skyscrapers. After all, it's these are the tallest commercial buildings to be found in Brooklyn (with the exception of nearby Metrotech), now that the Williamsburg Savings Bank is mostly condominums.  In addition, which of these buildings is in danger of being torn down?  There are thousands of Art Deco era buildings on Manhattan that have been in service just as long, and are not deemed to deserve landmark status.

The reason given on the Municipal Art Society's web page speaks about recognizing the tremendous commercial growth that the district experienced "after (italics mine) the borough was consolidated into Greater New York."

REBNY's commentary has to do with the increased bureaucracy inherent with a landmark designation. It takes longer and is more costly to maintain the buildings' facades. I particularly note the quote from REBNY president Steven Spinola“The city just continues to landmark away its economic future.”  To some extent, I agree.  I support the landmarking of examples of past great architecture - I am around it more than most.  I am so grateful that the Village and Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope - all areas I love to be around - have been deemed worthy of landmark status.

But this issue has caused me to examine why I am so happy about it. And the truth came to me when I pondered when I thought about which buildings in this new district seemed deserving, others superfluous. The answer: height. While I love looking at all the Greenwich Village townhouses, I love more the sun on my face!  Same with Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights Brownstones. The townhouses are lovely, but I grew up in a Cape Cod and see the beauty there too.  Skyscrapers, in my opinion, don't need landmarks. But we do need more height restrictions in neighborhoods around the city. 

Another beef I have with Art Deco sky scrapers is the relatively small amount of window area they sport relative to their facade size. I worked in office buildings for many years, and often felt so stifled. How many occupational health studies have been done in office buildings that come up with a recommendation that more sunlight = more happy and productive workers? 

So here, I think REBNY has a point: we need to be able to innovate and upgrade. Particularly I think that is true of our commercial properties. It's hard enough with residential properties. Commercial properties should be icons of our future, not hallowed relics of our storied past.

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