The Cost of Permanence

JORDAN VOGELSANG

American writer Jane Jacobs and architect Philip Johnson stand with…

American writer Jane Jacobs and architect Philip Johnson stand with picketing crowds outside Penn Station to protest the building’s demolition, New York City. Placards read: ‘AGBANY is here’ and… Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

1963: American writer Jane Jacobs (L) and architect Philip Johnson (R) stand with picketing crowds outside Penn Station to protest the building’s demolition, New York City. Placards read: ‘AGBANY is here’ and ‘Save Penn Station.’ (Photo by Walter Daran/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Source: Getty Images

A black and white photograph is well solidified in urban planners’ canon: Jane Jacobs and Philip Johnson picket outside of Penn Station on August 2nd, 1962 to oppose the demolition of a historic structure.1 This is just one still shot of preservation forces that emerged in opposition to the unraveling of the urban built environment in the age of Urban Renewal. However, this moment is iconic because the demolition of Penn Station set in motion the establishment of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Since 1965, the LPC designates properties and districts to preserve permanence of architectural, historical, and cultural significance in New York City.  

While Jacobs’ many David and Goliath clashes against powerful development forces are pertinent to gentrification pains today, the story has only grown more complicated. In the quest to preserve for permanence, landmark designation has been the subject of criticism: 13 years after its crystallization, Landmarks Law in NYC was put to its first audition of validity. Oneyear later Landmarks Law faced another test to its authority, leading to a 1984 article questioning whether landmarking is a burden or benefit.2 Writings that challenge landmarking practices cite the red tape involved, costs of maintenance, inequitable and disproportionate designation, and the “freezing” nature of designation. In an era of impermanence one of the most pressing questions that needs answering is how landmark designation affects changing communities that are at risk of gentrification-fueled displacement or facing rapid gentrification. To unpack the many complexities of landmarking, interviews were conducted with LPC General Counsel Mark Silberman, a homeowner holding a preservation award, and residents of recently designated historic districts of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. These discussions are aimed at answering the following questions: What relationship does landmarking have with gentrification, and are there costs associated with landmark designation that may increase the financial burdens of residents within changing communities?  

The Case against Landmark Designation 

As a landmark case for landmarking, Penn Central Transportation Company sought to evade the same laws created as a response to the loss of the former Penn Station. In 1978 Penn Central filed suit against LPC’s  refusal to approve plans for the construction of an office building over the landmarked Grand Central Terminal. The terminal owners claimed that the application of Landmarks Law in this scenario constituted a “taking of the property without just compensation and arbitrarily deprived owners of their property without due process.”3  Landmarks Law was affirmed for the first time when the Supreme Court upheld LPC’s ability to restrict a landmark owner’s use of their property. However, this “takings” argument is raised a year later in Society for Ethical Culture v. Spatt. In this second attempt to subvert Landmarks Law,  The Society for Ethical Culture of New York attempted to annul its landmark status to generate redevelopment revenue to support its charitable and philanthropic mission.4 Although the court ruled in favor of Landmarks Law once again, an interesting debate was forming on the burdens of being a landmarked property.  

While these two cases reflect early critiques of landmarking on large public and institutional buildings, a 1984 article by Joan Cook offers first hand testimony from homeowners of historic properties.Teri Slater, a brownstone owner, claimed that because she was unaware of permit requirements, she was “handed violations right and left” after hiring a contractor to complete masonry work. While Teri Slater intended to be landmark compliant, she claimed ”Because you don’t know how the system works, you fall into these little traps.”5  

Recently, with a bold statement, economist Adam A. Millsap writes that “Historic Districts are Ruining Cities.” Milsap points to the freezing effects of landmark status, claiming that the stability and certainty of historic districts can “hold back a city’s growth.”6  This “freezing”” argument against landmarking posits that once designated, historic districts are frozen in place and prohibit future development. According to Millsap’s perspective, flexibility of development is essential for a resilient city to adapt to economic changes. While limiting much needed development may be detrimental, it is important to remember that to some extent this “freezing” argument reflects a developer adjacent perspective. Alongside a lack of development flexibility caused by landmark designation, Milsap also discusses the burdens of compliance costs to low income residents, confusion of permit red tape, restrictions that limit housing supply in areas that desperately need more affordable housing, and a correlation between designation and gentrification. 

Source: Jordan Vogelsang

Considering concerns about gentrification, it is important to examine the demographic makeup of NYC historic districts. In 2010, the average census tract in a historic district was 80% White and 9.5% Black, while the average census tract in a non-historic district was only 43% White and almost 30% Black.7  It is reported that over 90% of residents living in historic districts held a college degree, compared to only 33% outside of historic districts8, a factor accelerating demographic change. This data speaks to the inequity of landmark designation, and the change that communities may face once landmarked. Most importantly, the disparity of these numbers indicate that communities defined by whiteness and educational wealth are being preserved at far greater rates than communities that include a larger share of Non-White and less formally educated populations. The reality is, if this trend continues, what will be left for permanence is an educated and white narrative of the city’s built environment. 

Addressing Criticism with LPC 

To better understand the confusion of permit red tape, high maintenance costs, inequitable designation, and “freezing” effects associated with landmark designation, it is important to hear the perspective of LPC. The critiques raised by organizations, homeowners, and researchers were brought to LPC General Counsel Mark Silberman who was receptive to having a discussion on the complications of landmarking. 

During our discussion about costs associated with owning a landmarked property, Silberman noted that there is an LPC program available to provide financial assistance to low-income homeowners of landmarked properties. Providing a comprehensive understanding of the renovation process, Silberman stated “it is accurate to say almost all exterior work will trigger landmarks review”; however, “there is a huge percentage of work that doesn’t have fees at all.” 

To draw attention to the benefits of working with LPC on a renovation, Silberman articulated that architectural drawings are required, noting “these are things homeowners can rely on if things go wrong.” These documents “give homeowners a sense of . . . how it should come out, where they can say. .  how it is supposed to look [and] why doesn’t it look like this.” 

Speaking on the critique that landmarking “freezes” a neighborhood in place, Silberman claimed that “overall it is not a true critique. Landmarks is evolving. Buildings can be altered to meet new needs, former industrial is turned into residential, buildings can expand. We allow rooftop additions and all sorts of changes. The criticism is not fair if you say you can’t re-do a whole neighborhood.”Highlighting an example that demonstrates the flexibility of LPC, Silberman pointed to a landmarked church property in the Bronx that sought to build affordable housing. In this case, the development required the construction of an entirely new building on an individual landmarked site. Silberman noted that LPC recently approved this project, affirming “LPC is very flexible and reasonable”.  

On the importance of historic districts Silberman speaks tellingly: “People value historic neighborhoods. There are certain areas that are historic and some are development areas, this is what makes a dynamic city.” Responsibly, Silberman acknowledged  that the landmark process can have nuances and complications for some property owners, stating, “I understand it can affect someone a lot.”  

In regards to the racial disparity of districts with landmark status, Silberman emphasized that LPC has heard concerns that ask “why aren’t you designating more communities of color?” and is actively engaging in preserving districts and properties with historical and cultural significance to communities of color, noting “it is import to preserve all communities.” After a conversation on changing communities, Silberman leaves a looming question, saying “was designation of a historic district an attempt to stop gentrification?” 

Silberman maintained that in an age of impermanence and rapid development, residents in historic districts have greater autonomy over the built environment in their neighborhoods: “Having a say means a lot to people, there is a sense of mind that you have an idea of what’s going on in your neighborhood.  The fact that you have a say in community means a lot. You could have development that would affect your way of life.”  

An Award Winning Historic Property 

While my conversation with an LPC executive was immensely informative, contact needed to be made to homeowners of landmarked properties to truly investigate the landmarking debate. The New York Landmarks Conservancy assisted me in making first contact with a homeowner within a historic district. While LPC does not offer much financial assistance to individual homeowners, the New York Landmarks Conservancy fills in gaps to offer guidance and financial support to owners of landmarked properties. 

The New York Landmarks Conservancy appoints awards to property owners that excel in their preservation efforts, one recipient is Joseph Demartino of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, who offers a unique perspective into the story of landmarking both as an owner of a historic home and a participant in the effort to restore a historic building. Down the block from his historic home, Joe and three other Brooklynites purchased a mixed commercial residential building at 39 Clifton Place, a property that became a recipient of the Conservancy’s 29th Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award. Joe mentioned that the prior commercial tenants had gone through great lengths to hide the historical features of the building. 

Source: Jordan Vogelsang

The building at 36 Clifton Place was purchased in 2004 and completed in 2018, which Joe describes as “a fun project as much as a headache project.” While the interior work was like “opening up a can of worms,” Joe describes the New York Landmarks Conservancy and LPC as incredibly helpful in the process: “if there was a snag, Landmarks [LPC] helped me get the project along instead of just sitting there. The benefit was knowing they were overlooking the project … they were able to wrap that up.” While there were no red tape issues with LPC, Joe reports that he and his partners did not receive any financial assistance through LPC, but did receive a low interest loan through the Landmarks Conservancy. When asked if 39 Clifton place would have been renovated if it was not for these financial resources, Joe claims “it would not have been, maybe my house because I live there, but we were just four young people buying something.”  

When asked if he felt that his home is better off with landmark designation, Joe replied, “yes it makes it more special.” However, Joe worries about neighbors who seek exceptions to the rules of the district, citing “. . .a house next door to us that was purchased and they are trying to do things outside of the realm that is landmarked.” Joe also claims that LPC has been flexible regarding violation costs and has not yet issued him a violation for failing to replace his windows.  

Speaking on the demographic changes of the Clinton Hill historic District Joe stated, “I was the first white person on my block when I bought my house in 1997,.” However, Joe noted that in the early 2000’s some of his Black neighbors started selling their homes after Clinton Hill prices began increasing. This raises the question of whether Joe’s former neighbors willingly sold their homes or if they were displaced. On the rising costs to live in Clinton Hill Joe noted,, “I couldn’t afford my house now.” These comments support the data that from 2000 to 2010 there was a 149% increase in the White population and a 29% decline of the Black population in Clinton Hill.9 While there is not enough evidence to prove causality, these facts show that there is certainly some correlation between landmark designation and gentrification in Clinton Hill.  

Landmark Designation and Changing Communities Today  

Since designation in 1981, Clinton Hill has experienced gentrification forces that have shaped the neighborhood into an extremely costly place to live. With Silberman’s lingering question in mind, it’s difficult to see in the case of Clinton Hill how the status of historic district impeded gentrification. Former district manager of Brooklyn Community Board 2, Robert Perris, observed the changing conceptions of Clinton Hill claiming, “people once thought of it as West Bed-Stuy,” “these days their perception is more East Fort Greene.”10 Although Joe provided a rich narrative of his experiences as a homeowner and part landlord of a historic building, there are many questions left on landmark designation in areas that are currently facing gentrification threats and demographic change.  

In a move to designate equitably and to preserve more communities of color, LPC designated the Bedford Historic District in 2015 in response to the community’s longtime efforts to obtain landmarks protection. To gain some insight into the perspectives of recently landmarked neighborhood residents, I interviewed community members of the Bedford Historic District on the ground. 

On Halsey Street and Nostrand Avenue one resident reported that while she was not a homeowner, her parents owned a home in the Bedford Historic District. When asked about her opinion on designation and LPC, she responded “my parents haven’t had any problems keeping up with renovations, there weren’t any issues with costs, and they haven’t had any issues with the commission.” Between Macon Street and Nostrand Avenue,  I asked a renter of the near by Crown Heights Historic District about her opinions of landmark designation, to which she replied favorably: “I like the way my community looks.” On Hancock Street, a mother exiting her brownstone and placing her young child in a stroller was asked about landmarking and responded “I love the way everything looks, I wouldn’t want it to change.” On Jefferson Avenue, a homeowner of the nearby Stuyvesant Heights Historic District pointed to her satisfaction with LPC saying, “Landmarks has been great to the community. I don’t see any downsides.” While I was not able to find any critical remarks against landmark designation within these few interactions, the overwhelming impression I drew from residents quoted and not quoted is that they value the historical structures of their neighborhood, and do not wish to see them change.  

To be clear, these interviews do not represent the overall experience and opinion of residents in historic districts, including that of Bed-Stuy. In their interactions with Bed-Stuy residents prior to landmark designation, Constance Rosenblum shows a community divided on the issue of becoming a historic district. Two homeowners told Rosenblum, “We have watched closely as new development has changed the look and feel of our community. As such, we grieve the possibility that this trend will continue without the greatly desired protections of this landmarking process.”11 Other residents claimed “Yes, landmarking imposes some obligations on property owners, but it gives more than it takes away.”12  

On the subject of gentrification, one resident communicated to Rosenblum that landmarking is an affirmation of the struggles of a hard working neighborhood that took back the streets when the city failed them, and that the neighborhood “can be handed down for those who will come after us, without the dangers of overdevelopment or arbitrary tear-downs,” noting that gentrification doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with landmarking, and that prices in the neighborhood “were already rising before landmarking was proposed.”13  

Skeptical of landmark designation of the Bedford Historic District, Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, articulated that he is not opposed to protecting the “historic and majestic significance” of the neighborhood where he lives and works; however, he is opposed to “additional and unnecessary landmark designation that will place undue financial constraints and burdens on people who can barely afford to maintain what they have spent years building.” Kristen John Foy of the National Action Network mirrored this concern and noted the rising rates of displacement, stating, “Making homeownership more costly for existing residents will accelerate normal market and business cycles, drive up evictions, and create more gentrification, more displacement.” These concerns echo the anxiety over whether historic districts in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights are in a metamorphic stage and may ultimately suffer the same fate as Clinton Hill.  

What Was Found and What Questions Are Left  

In their interviews prior to landmark designation of the Bedford Historic District, Rosenblum spoke to a resident that stated “what needs to be preserved are the people of Bedford-Stuyvesant.” This is a sentiment palpable while digging deep into the landmarking debate: Who, rather, what is landmarking preserving? Is landmarking preserving structures or community? Does the landmarks framework have the capacity to save both community and built form?  

Since the landmark Penn Central case, the pursuit of preserving properties of importance has grown only more labyrinthine. A true finding that can be presented from this research is that residents truly appreciate the fact that the historical and cultural significance of their neighborhoods will be preserved once landmarked, but there are many unanswered questions. How has the broader base of residents in newly designated historic districts faced the costs that are associated with landmark designation whether small or big? Who faces the heaviest burden once landmark designation is passed in a neighborhood? What role does landmarking truly have in transforming the demographics of a neighborhood like Clinton Hill? The landmarking process is nuanced and complex, and though I only scratched the surface of the subject through my interviews, there seemed to be a common theme in many responses that contributes to the landmarking conversation: most residents value the permanence of the historical structures that tell a story about their community. In the quest for permanence, it is imperative to remember that it is people who made these structures and its urban fabric significant, not the other way around.  


Notes

1.  Joan Cook, “Designation as a Landmark: Burden or Benefit?” New York Times (New York, NY), December 23, 1984.

2.  Penn Central Transportation Company v. New York, 438 U.S. 104 (1978)  

3.  Society for Ethical Culture v. Spatt, 68 A.D.2d. 112 (1st Dept. 1979) 

4. Cook, 1984.

5.  Adam A. Millsap, “Historic Designations are Ruining Cities,” Forbes, December 23, 2019.

6.  Ingrid Gould Ellen, Brian J. McCabe, & Gerard Torrats-Espinosa, “How can Historic Preservation be More Inclusive? Learning from New York City’s Historic Districts,” Issues in Preservation Policy, NYU Furman Center, June 8, 2020. 

7.  Ibid.

8.  Julie Besonen, “Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, a Neighborhood in Transition,” New York Times (New York, NY), December 2, 2015. 

9. Ibid.

10.  Constance Rosenblum, “Argument Over a Brownstone Neighborhood,” New York Times (New York, NY), February 21, 2014.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.


Jordan Vogelsang graduated with a Masters in Urban Planning from Hunter College in May, 2021. He is a former history educator who is interested in housing, land use, and community-centered development. He is currently an intern at NYCHA. Find Jordan at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jordan-vogelsang.

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