Historic buildings and the owners who hate them

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This NYT article on preemptive demolition by property owners is extremely odd. The basic story is the (totally unsurprising) fact that property owners in NYC who expect their property to be declared historic landmarks (and therefore changes will be highly restricted) are preemptively demolishing historic features in order to avoid the designation. What's striking about this article and it's <predecessor, is the essentially complete absence of the property owners. The only players who get coverage are the Landmarks Commission and the preservationists who claim that the Commission is dragging its heels.

But once the building's distinctive features had been erased, the battle was lost. The commission went ahead with its hearing, but ultimately decided not to designate the structure because it had been irreparably changed. Today a 16-story luxury condominium designed by Robert A. M. Stern is rising on the site: the Related Companies is asking from $765,000 for a studio to $7 million or more for a five-bedroom unit in the building.

The strategy has become wearyingly familiar to preservationists. A property owner -- in this case Sylgar Properties, which was under contract to sell the site to Related -- is notified by the landmarks commission that its building or the neighborhood is being considered for landmark status. The owner then rushes to obtain a demolition or stripping permit from the city's Department of Buildings so that notable qualities can be removed, rendering the structure unworthy of protection.

"In the middle of the night I'm out there at 2 in the morning, and they're taking the cornices off," said Gale Brewer, a city councilwoman who represents that part of the Upper West Side. "We're calling the Buildings Department, we're calling Landmarks. You get so beaten down by all of this. The developers know they can get away with that."

I'm sure that preservationists do find this to be a wearingly familiar strategy, but it's not exactly unexpected: put yourself in the position of the property owner. At the moment, you have control of a building and can mostly do what you want with it (subject of course to the existing zoning regulations), and suddenly you hear that you're going to be subject to a whole bunch of new, annoying restrictions, which you can evade by doing some minor surgery on your building (if you own a lot of property, you might find this to be a wearyingly familiar story). What would you do? In general, my sympathies here are mostly with the property owners, but that's mostly because the preservationists don't seem to have any sense that they're using the power of the state to inflict costs on others. That said, I'm not exactly a fan of having hog slaughtering operations or meth labs set up next door to my house, so it's not like I don't have any sympathy for zoning. I'd just like to see a more balanced presentation.


I really think preservationists have overplayed their hand. Back in 2000 - one of the academic co-founders of my dot.com bought a decrepit property in a local historic district. His plan was to demolish the house and build a new house that was more in line with the neighborhood. He had to endear months of protests and opposition from (ironically) students that wanted the building "saved". In the end common sense won out and he got the permits but not after considerable expense.

I am thankful that the prior owners of my 100 year old house have remodeled the heck out of it so I can have the place torn down in the next couple of years with no similar issues...

A few months ago, NPR did a much more owner-sympathetic piece on the brutalist Third Church of Christ, Scientist near the White House.

Amusingly, my local planning commission recently zoned a lot nearby for "exclusively meth lab use"

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