A Preservation Agenda For Landmarking’s 50th Birthday
For weeks now we’ve all been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of New York City’s landmarks law, which actually took place on April 19, 1965.
As we approach this momentous occasion, we thought we’d take a look at some items on our current preservation agenda, and the many challenges we face today.
1. Saving Our Contextual Zoning. The de Blasio Administration is proposing to gut neighborhood zoning protections by lifting height limits across the board in contextual zones by as much as 20-31%. This would allow for a greatly increased scale of development not just in our contextual zones, where these height limits are mandatory, but in non-contextual zones as well, where they are incentivized but not required by the zoning. The administration claims their package of changes will result in higher quality and more affordable housing, but neither result seems likely. With its approval, however, the loss of light, air, sky, and neighborhood scale and character, however, will be guaranteed.
2. Extend Landmark Protections. While a large chunk of the Village, East Village, and NoHo enjoy landmark protections, some pretty significant areas do not. These are among the oldest and most historically significant sections of the city, so its ludicrous when our opponents argue that we have more than our fair share of landmarks protections already. GVSHP is actively pushing to get the third and final phase of our proposed South Village Historic District designated, and we are working with allies and neighbors to promulgate and advance proposals for landmark designations in worthy but undesignated areas of the East Village and along the University Place, Broadway, and 14th Street corridors.
3. Prevent Air Rights Abuse By The Hudson Waterfront. In 2013 the State Legislature quickly passed legislation enabling the transfer of air rights from the Hudson River Park to allow increased development inland on blocks adjacent to the park. The legislation allows over 1.5 million square feet of “development rights” to move from the park to inland areas — the equivalent of six and half Trump SoHo’s! It appears the first place this will likely occur is Pier 40 (at West Houston Street), with development rights transferred to the St. John’s Building site across West Street. There air rights could allow construction of a massive building or buildings on the three-block long site, if approved by the City, the Borough President, and the City Council. GVSHP has been pushing for restrictions on the use of those air rights and alternatives to increasing the size of allowable new development inland as means for funding the Hudson River Park (the rationale for selling the air rights). We understand city and state officials are discussing the contours of a plan for a Pier 40/St. John’s air rights swap, but that progress has been slow.
4. Repel REBNY’s Attacks on Landmarking and Preservation. The Real Estate Board of New York has consistently attacked landmarking and other preservation measures, saying they do everything from strangle economic development to turn neighborhoods into playgrounds for the rich. In this campaign they have found a surprisingly sympathetic ear in the current Mayoral administration and City Council. We need to debunk the myths REBNY has promulgated about preservation and change the climate in city government to understand the economic and social importance of protecting our city’s historic resources. Toward that end, GVSHP has issued reports showing REBNY’s hypocrisy on the affordable housing issue, and published op-eds demonstrating that efforts to preserve historic buildings, affordability, and socio-economic diversity can go hand-in-hand. We’ve staged press conferences outside the REBNY headquarters and held panel discussions with leaders in government, academia, and affordable housing production to rebut the REBNY myths, and we are working in coalition with not only preservation but social justice, parks, library, good government, and affordable housing groups to take back our city’s decision-making process from real estate interests and ensure that the voices of local communities are heard.
5. Saving Small Businesses. Local, independent businesses are under pressure like never before. Rapidly rising rents and the spread of chain stores are just two of the factors making it harder and harder for them to stay in business in our neighorhoods, and we have lost some of our favorites over the last few years. To help stem the tide, GVSHP is supporting the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), a bill in the New York City Council which would give businesses the opportunity to negotiate through arbitration lease renewals when landlords refuse to offer them. GVSHP has also embarked upon a “Business of the Month” program to highlight and celebrate local small businesses, call attention to their unique qualities or their current plight (or both), and encourage the public to support them.
6. Stop the NYU Expansion Plan. In 2012, over vociferous community objections, the City Council, the City Planning Commission, and then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer approved NYU’s massive twenty-year expansion plan, giving away public land, stripping neighborhood zoning protections and open-space preservation requirements, and overturning urban renewal deed restrictions in order to allow the university to build over two million square feet of above- and below-ground space, including a massive ‘Zipper’ building which would be the largest ever constructed in Greenwich Village. GVSHP and our allies took the City to court, and won at the State Supreme Court level, where Justice Donna Mills agreed with our contention that the City illegally gave away public parkland to NYU. NYU and the City appealed and got the decision overturned. We have appealed that decision, and are now before the highest court in New York State, which will hear the case this summer. The future not only of our neighborhood but of many other neighborhoods across the city lies in the court’s hands, as the case potentially carries tremendous precedence in terms of how public land must be treated and protected.
7. Saving Stonewall and Recognizing LGBT Landmarks. The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street is recognized globally as the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement. President Obama has cited it in speeches about our nation’s civil rights history; New York State has listed the building on its Register of Historic Places; and the Federal government has declared it a National Historic Landmark. But none of these protect the site from demolition or insensitive alteration, which can only be done by New York City landmark designation. Yet in spite of repeated requests by GVSHP and many others, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission has stubbornly refused to take steps to recognize or protect the Stonewall Inn, or other sites of significance to the LGBT civil rights movement, such as Julius’ Bar (the city’s oldest gay bar and site of the first planned civil disobedience for gay rights) and the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse in SoHo. The LPC has already allowed other extremely important LGBT history sites, such as 186 Spring Street, to be demolished. And while Stonewall, Julius’ and the GAA Firehouse are in designated historic districts, in none of those cases are the LGBT history of the buildings cited as part of their significance, which means they could be altered or demolished if their architecture alone is not found significant enough to warrant their preservation. GVSHP has called upon the LPC to amend its designation reports to reflect this incredibly important layer of these buildings’ histories, or to consider them for individual landmark designation, recognizing their special contributions to our nation’s civil rights history.