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Blaming Preservation Won’t Solve Housing Shortage

A New York Times editorial board member is blaming preservation for the City’s housing shortage. Yesterday’s headline declared preservation “The Enemy of Evolution.” The piece appeared online two weeks ago.

New York Times Op-ed by Binyamin Appelbaum. Photo: Southbridge Towers housing complex, just south of the Brooklyn Bridge in Lower Manhattan – photo by Ka-Man Tse (The New York Times).

But the author undercut his own argument by citing one of the Conservancy’s economic studies. It showed that only some 4% of the City is landmarked. He blamed zoning laws for making it “not easy to build on the other 96% of New York.” Clearly, preservation isn’t the villain.

This opinion piece appeared underneath a study that says it found a way to add 520,245 homes “all while maintaining the look and feel of the city.” The architecture firm Practice for Architecture and Urbanism (PAU) conducted the detailed study. PAU’s founder, Vishaan Chakrabarti told me “we did not harm any landmarks or historic districts to achieve our numbers.”

The PAU study cited zoning, the under-taxation of vacant and underutilized land, rising construction costs, the loss of important tax incentives, and “misguided anti-development sentiments” as reasons for the housing shortage.

A blaring headline criticizing preservation was upsetting. But I found myself equally concerned about the writer’s seeming lack of appreciation that many of the places where his ancestors lived still exist—and are still homes today. “I take pleasure in wandering this museum of family history,” he wrote “but it also makes me sad.” So it’s a good thing Mr. Appelbaum is based in Washington, D.C.

He’d prefer that most older architecture be torn down for new, larger buildings. One of his ancestors’ homes still stands on Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights—an area he describes as “one of the first parts of the city to fossilize.” He considers the Midtown “supertalls” “a fitting emblem of the modern city” but says it is “an illusion that New York remains a dynamic and growing city.”

Did he miss the growing towers of downtown Brooklyn, Gowanus, Williamsburg, and Long Island City? The cold charm of Hudson Yards? The current development of the Willets Point project?

As someone who grew up in a house my great-grandfather built, I treasure the rich layers of architecture in New York and the stories buildings hold. These layers give the City its identity and, to visitors and residents alike, its appeal.

Of course, we need more housing. Blaming preservation isn’t going to achieve it.

Peg Breen, President
The New York Landmarks Conservancy

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