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Are Preservation Efforts Freezing The New York City In Time?

Some feel that whole historical building landmarking thing is getting out of control.

By Nathalie Nayman December 7, 2016

Luxury condo. If you live in New York, chances are, you have learned to feel a hidden threat whenever these ominous words are uttered. Beautiful old buildings out, condos in. This seems to be the current urban dynamic. In fact, with all the construction going on around NYC, one can’t help but wonder: why hasn’t the whole city turned into a homogeneous tract of condos yet?

The answer is NYC’s Landmarks Preservation Act. Adopted fifty years ago, it protects buildings—as well as whole districts— “of historic significance” and it’s doing a pretty good job. Even still, every now and then you’ll hear a public outcry over some historical structure that’s being threatened with conversion. But the truth is, there’s a lot of buildings staying just as they are because of their landmarked status. Perhaps, as some would argue, way too many. Yes, that’s right: while one half New Yorkers are not happy about new condo construction, the other half is vigorously complaining that the whole historical building preservation thing is getting out of control.

Related: Historic L.A. Landmark To Be Preserved As Affordable Housing

You be the judge: Almost a third of Manhattan buildings are landmarked and so are more than 33,000 structures across five boroughs. Landmarking, by the way, doesn’t just apply to the standalone buildings—but to districts too: 114 NYC districts, to be precise (you can see the interactive map of NYC Landmarks here). Whole NYC neighborhoods are basically frozen in time, and while the past is being preserved—what about the future of NYC urban development?

Earlier in 2016, The Reason TV came up with a curious video “How New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Act Bulldozed the Future” – an interesting take on what landmarking in NYC really means. Imagine if the city would have adopted the aggressive landmarking policy a hundred years earlier, the narrative says.

Related: New York’s Next Big Public Landmark Is Coming to Hudson Yards

As the somewhat utopian story of the video unfolds, the ghosts of the past—the now demolished buildings—magically appear in the streets of NYC, only to be replaced by the modern urban view. But if the Landmarks Preservation Commission had been established a hundred years earlier, the original Waldorf Astoria, this architectural masterpiece of the Jazz age, would surely have been landmarked. In this instance we wouldn’t have the Empire State building, which now occupies exactly the same spot. Which would you rather have? And even if you’d prefer the former—especially you jazz lovers—isn’t losing great buildings to skyscrapers an inevitable part of how a city grows and evolves?

It isn’t the old buildings that we should mourn, suggests the author of the video. What we’ve truly lost is the invisible buildings which will never exist.

What is the real price of having all these landmarked buildings? Do we forsake affordable housing units where the lucky few would live happily ever for $800 a month or lose the luxury condos reserved for foreign moguls, or some awesome building which New Yorkers would learn to love, cherish and protect? That’s a great unknown. But here is food for thought: if living in a condo tract isn’t where NYC is going, will we all then end up existing in a “life-sized historical diorama?”

Nathalie Nayman

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Nathalie Nayman

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Nathalie Nayman

Nathalie is an international media trooper. After working as a journalist in Moscow, Nathalie participated in local politics and social movements in Cairo where she covered the protests and political upheaval of the Arab Spring. Nathalie is Agorafy's content manager. She produces and oversees unique and creative content for the Newsroom.

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