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A Tale of Two Times Articles

From The New York Sun, 1914, by Francis Luis Mora. NYPL Digital Gallery.

So there I was, innocently paging through the New York Times Real Estate section this past Sunday — I know you were, too, dreaming about the $2.5 million Mercer Street loft splashed on page 3 — when a pesky contradiction that’s been buzzing around the world of preservation and development landed right on my nose.

I perused the Argument in Brownstone cover story, which explored perceived pros and cons to designating 16 handsome blocks of Bed-Stuy as the Bedford Historic District. I found it interesting, especially the strong feelings that longtime residents had on both sides of the issue. The article contained two long sidebars: one giving voice to “The Proponents” and the other to “The Opponents.” Unsurprisingly, given its many recent attacks on landmarking, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) was prominent among the opponents:

“A common argument against historic designation is that it will hinder development. In this case, the real estate group contends that designation will choke off the production of affordable housing, a priority of the new de Blasio administration. Without designation, the real estate group said, developers would be able to build low-rise apartment houses that contain more units per structure than their neighbors.”

I wasn’t sure if this passed the laugh test.

On page 2 I’d just read A Nod to the Past, which described a new development at 215 Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village, wherein a Children’s Aid Society school for poor children was razed in order to construct 25 new condos, the choicest priced at $18 million. This is ironic by itself, of course, but also an example that gives the lie to REBNY’s claim. Here was a site unaffected by landmarking, where the developer could have made any number of choices — and GVSHP executive director Andrew Berman was quoted giving faint praise to the aesthetic choices — but affordable housing certainly didn’t win out. (The block in question, between Bleecker and West 3rd, became part of the South Village Historic District in December, but it was not when building plans were drawn up and approved.)

This development site had no landmarking – and it still has no affordable housing.

The Jefferson
The Jefferson luxury condo development, named after the RKO Jefferson Theater that once occupied the site, opened this year.

Take another example, in the East Village. The long-empty “mystery lot” on 13th Street between Second and Third Avenues was finally, and quickly, filled with an 82-unit condo building that opened early this year and is completely sold out. There are no affordable units. Rather, the price range was “from $795,000 for a 536-square-foot studio to more than $3.5 million for the penthouse,” according to The Real Deal.

This development site had no landmarking – and it still has no affordable housing.

The many members of REBNY surely have some experience building affordable housing, but largely those units are created by developers dedicated solely to that work. And while affordable housing developers can name plenty of challenges they face, landmarking is not one of them. For the real problems, see our previous post.

But REBNY’s argument is that landmarks are in the way. By that reasoning, so are gardens, hospitals, museums, Central Park and City Hall. They are all very much in the way of building affordable housing.

Except that when nothing’s in the way, REBNY developers don’t usually volunteer to build affordable housing then, either.

One response to “A Tale of Two Times Articles

  1. Affordability is about supply and demand, nothing more nothing less.

    We can have both preservation and affordability, but only if supply in non landmarked areas is allowed to flourish.

    It’s not a pipe dream, either. Chicago’s vacancy (a simple measure of supply and demand) is around 8%, compared to NYC’s 1.5% or less, and avg rents in comparable neighborhoods are half that of NYC.

    Preservationists are not going to make many converts by ignoring Econ 101. We’re not winning any converts by landmarking crappy single story warehouses and parking lots, either.

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