If the “art deco masterpiece” that is 570 Lexington Avenue no longer stood on the southwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 51st Street, perhaps affordable housing could be constructed in its place.
But this “suave fantasy of polished marble and modern metals,” built in 1931 for the Radio Victor Corporation and since known as the GE Building, has been designated a New York City landmark, so its presence will continue.
This blemish in the heart of Midtown is, ironically, where the Real Estate Board of New York chose to locate its headquarters. It is from here that REBNY broadcasts the problem of landmarks. If the city had fewer landmarks, it could have more affordable housing, REBNY declares.
Affordable housing activists gathered in front of 570 Lexington yesterday morning to address this absurd claim, which has gained some attention despite the shoddiness of the Board’s “evidence.” Attorney Harvey Epstein, associate director of the Urban Justice Center, said, “I find it hard to believe that REBNY could ever say anything that would negatively affect affordable housing more than their activities every day trying to gentrify this city. If anything, landmarking supports preservation of existing affordable housing and slows down gentrification.”
In Greenwich Village, two examples of landmarked affordable housing complexes are Westbeth and 505 LaGuardia Place, noted GVSHP Executive Director Andrew Berman. Landmarking a rent-stabilized building puts a huge obstacle in the way of demolition, a method by which affordable housing units can be eliminated. If it could be torn down and redeveloped, it would likely become something like the Richard Meier towers, just a few blocks down West Street from Westbeth, where New York’s very first $1 million studio apartment was sold, and where by far most of the owners do not live permanently in their apartments, but simply maintain them as pieds-à-terre.
Most New Yorkers agree that residents need more permanent affordable housing. But there are two reasons why New York’s pool of affordable housing is shrinking: 1) the formerly vast pool of affordable housing we had has been disappearing at a rapid pace (a trend that landmarking can help slow, and that REBNY’s efforts have greatly accelerated), and 2) the amount of affordable housing being produced in New York is not nearly enough to balance that out.
Unashamedly, REBNY claims that the sites occupied by landmarks take too much buildable land off the table. By that logic, however, the 27% of land citywide that’s used for open space like parks, playgrounds and cemeteries, and the the 6.9% of land citywide that’s used for public facilities and institutions like schools, hospitals and courts, are also barriers in the way of new buildings.
If the art deco masterpiece that is 570 Lexington Avenue no longer stood on the southwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 51st Street, perhaps affordable housing could be constructed in its place – if only developers would choose to build it.