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Historic Districts Under Attack Again

When I left the City Council years ago to join the Landmarks Conservancy, one City Hall reporter quipped that I was “off to do good deeds.” I thought so too. I’ve always believed in the many benefits of preservation.

The City did as well. When they passed the 1965 Landmarks Law, officials said they were working to: “stabilize and improve property values; foster civic pride; protect and enhance the City’s attraction to tourists; strengthen the economy; and promote historic districts and landmarks for the education, pleasure, and welfare of the City.”

Mott Haven East Historic District, The Bronx

Times have changed. Historic Districts are under attack again by real estate interests. They want to prevent the Landmarks Commission from designating any new districts. They want the State Legislature to remove a cap on the size of buildings in residential districts. They blame historic districts for the lack of affordable housing. They claim historic districts aim at “exclusion.” They even trotted out that old chestnut that historic districts coat neighborhoods “in amber,” despite the number of new buildings routinely approved in historic districts.

This time, the de Blasio Administration is obliging—determined to upzone SoHo and NoHo, thriving retail and tourist destinations, where the overwhelming majority of residents, business people, and commercial property owners want to protect the area’s unique historic character.

So let’s consider some facts from our most recent economic study of historic preservation in the City. Historic districts cover less than 5% of the City’s lot area. How could this possibly restrain affordable housing in the other 95% of the City?

Over the last five years, more than 1,700 units of affordable housing were created or preserved in historic districts—nearly one-fourth of those through new construction.

All historic districts have a full range of income levels. Residents with income from below $25,000 to $50,000 represent 25% of Manhattan districts, 65% of Bronx districts, 28% of Brooklyn districts, nearly 20% of Queens districts, and 42% of Staten Island districts. Nine out of ten historic districts have a density greater than the density of the City overall.

Since 2000, 35% of new historic districts have been majority-non White. There has been an 11% increase in Hispanic residents in historic districts since 2010. The majority of historic districts are initiated by requests from the residents. Many are concerned about new luxury development that encourages displacement.

All the reasons the City created the Landmarks Law are still valid. The choice isn’t historic districts or affordable housing. The question is whether the City is willing to damage SoHo/NoHo and other historic districts so real estate interests can build larger buildings.

That message was pretty clear at last week’s City Planning Department hearing on SoHo/NoHo. We are all going to have to make sure those currently in office, and all those running for office, hear that message.

Peg Breen, President
The New York Landmarks Conservancy

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