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Process vs. projects, the 'race card,' and 'reluctant preservationists'

At a conference Saturday, Roberta Brandes Gratz, an urbanist and author of The Living City, wasn't directly addressing the Atlantic Yards project. But there was an echo of sorts when she said the term “economic development” was wrongly used today to refer to big real estate projects. “Economic development is a process," she declared, "that builds on the inherent strengths and talents of a workforce.”

Speaking on a panel at the Historic Districts Council conference on "Place, Race, Money & Art: The Economics and Demographics of Historic Preservation," Gratz advised, “The public schools should be on your radar screen as part of your preservation values,” contrasting it with project-driven development such as a stadium, aquarium, or mall. “If you invest in public schools and mass transit, the city will take care of itself.”

(That does beg the question of housing, and the Atlantic Yards project, it should be noted, is part of an emerging trend, a mix of a sports facility plus other development, in this case housing. The latter would supply far greater economic return than the arena--though the projections also can be questioned.)

Gratz described herself: “I am a preservationist. More importantly, I’m an urbanist. It’s about economic development, transportation, public spaces, public health… looking at a place holistically.” She observed, “There are a lot of developers makings tons of money on the buildings you guys saved.”

Planning decisions can have far-reaching effects. When there was a plan to build a Lower Manhattan Expressway, Gratz said, “SoHo was considered an anachronism.” Because it was designated for demolition, “that killed manufacturing.” She called that “a classic example of ‘planners blight.’”

Zoning and its discontents

Gratz and Carol Clark of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) got into a dispute about zoning and its effect on development. Clark cited “contextual zoning,” in which the city regulates development in buildings adjacent to historic districts.

Gratz offered some criticism: “We have contextual zoning, the Planning Commission is zoning, in neighborhoods like Greenpoint and Williamsburg, 44-story towers. There’s a lot of contradictions."

Clark pointed out that the waterfront rezoning included incentives for “a significant amount of affordable housing” affordable to a family of four earning up to $50,000 per year. “These are competing policy goals.” (Note that the Atlantic Yards plan would involve a broader range of incomes and that, unlike the waterfront plan, it was not part of a City Council-negotiated rezoning process.)

Clark offered some more perspective. The city became the owner of more than 100,000 units of housing in buildings abandoned for nonpayment of taxes. Nearly all have been rehabilitated for affordable housing. “Going forward, there is a preponderance of new construction," she said. "Hence the rezoning in Williamsburg/Greenpoint.”

Property values and development

Has historic preservation helped property values? The answer is complex, Clark said, but there’s some evidence that it has helped those with residential properties. (There’s much less data on commercial properties.) She noted that the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) , the voice of the real estate industry, has often countered preservationists, because landmarking (of both buildings and neighborhoods) limits the development potential of land. Still, some owners of individually landmarked skyscrapers, who were not about to replace their buildings, have said the designation adds prestige.

Does preservation deter economic development? REBNY fought the designation of TriBeCa as a historic district. Now there’s been a tremendous amount of economic activity, both the renovation of existing buildings and new construction on vacant lots.

Does historic preservation lead to gentrification and displacement? The evidence is mixed, Clark said. As the city’s population has grown—New York has added 840,000 residents since 1990--there is increased demand in an already expensive and tight market. (That’s the equivalent of a city like Denver.) Since 1987, Clark said, the city has spent $6.3 billion to supply over 250,000 units of affordable housing. Now the city wants to provide housing for a half-million New Yorkers by 2013.

Clark acknowledged that some residents are under pressure from rising rents, especially those not protected by rent regulations, but cited a report on gentrification and displacement from Citizens Housing and Planning Council that suggested that people are willing to pay more to stay in neighborhoods where the quality of life is good. (I couldn’t find the report, but similar findings are discussed here.)

Lessons from Red Hook?

Gratz described developer Greg O’Connell, who has bought up many dormant industrial buildings in Red Hook, as “my greatest urban hero. He is about economic development and preservation… There’s a value he adheres to that a lot of developers and property owners don’t."

The neighborhood, O’Connell said, was desolate when he went there in the early 1980s, “but I saw these beautiful historic buildings on the waterfront,” neglected because of the city’s fiscal crisis. One building, the 1854 Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works on Van Dyke Street, was even slated for demolition, with a permit issued for demolition. O’Connell bought the building and restored it. (Photo from Forgotten NY.)

(Hmm. Does that some of the buildings in the Atlantic Yards footprint slated for demolition, like 461-463 Dean Street--scroll down on this post--could be saved? An engineer suggested it seemed likely, at least from his limited outside view.)

O’Connell has emphasized space for businesses rather than more lucrative residential use. “Sometimes we ought to think about the highest and best use not always being the bottom line,” he said. “I could make triple the amount, if I did residential. But you have to keep the balance."

His buildings now house over 100 businesses, with more than 1200 employees—plus 200 more at the emerging Fairway store. He has worked outside the city’s historic preservation framework. Gratz called it “genuine economic development made possible by historic preservation. But the city does not learn from his example.”

Race and preservation

At a later panel, Michael Henry Adams, a preservationist and author from Harlem, observed that it was “poignant” that many preservation efforts in minority neighborhoods have been ignored. He observed that it has been difficult to get many historic buildings in Harlem landmarked, but, as whites continue to move into the neighborhood, they eventually will demand such landmarking, and be successful.

“Some say that African-Americans have never shown any great interest in preserving the environment,” Adams said. “It chagrined me to hear [then-Mayor David] Dinkins call landmarking an impediment to development in Harlem.” Dinkins resisted calls to landmark the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was killed.) However, Adams said of Community Board 10 in Harlem, “Over and over, they’ve done the right thing.” In fact, the resistance to Robert Moses in Greenwich Village was paralleled by a similar, though far more obscure, effort in Harlem.

Former City Council Member Bill Perkins, who represented Central Harlem, was on the panel, and Adams observed that he was disappointed how little support preservationists offered to Perkins’ efforts to reform the Landmarks Preservation Commission—apparently because they were afraid to antagonize the commission. It would allowed the City Council, by majority vote, to require the LPC to hold hearings on eligible properties. Currently the LPC has sole discretion to hold such hearings.

Perkins read an excerpt from an article which described African-Americans’ suspicion of historic preservation efforts in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, where black residents were squeezed out when preservationists and developers boosted the value of the land. He looked toward the mostly-white audience: “I look out and realize: There is a problem.” He added, “Folks are not anti-preservation. They just think it’s a hidden agenda sometimes for displacement or gentrification.”

Why the “race card” gets played

Tom Angotti, a Hunter College professor of urban planning, observed that the late Joan Maynard, founding executive director of the Weeksville Society in Brooklyn, taught him that preservation involved not just buildings, but also spiritual, emotional, cultural, and political elements. Angotti congratulated HDC “for putting race on the agenda.” He observed that race has become an important factor in development, and that “the race card” was being used when it comes to developer-driven development.

Without specifically mentioning the Atlantic Yards project—about which Angotti has commented forcefully--he outlined the situation: a developer finds people “who have been systematically ignored in the past, so they respond quite positively when someone with money and power says ‘let’s make a deal’”—just as white groups have done in the past. Preservationists and environmentalists may protest, but, Angotti said in admonishment, “Did you talk about joining together? The problem is: There’s no dialogue across racial lines until someone comes in and takes over the conversation.”

He blamed government for the situation. Regarding the City Planning Department, he said, "The name ‘Planning’ should be taken out of their name. They should be the Zoning Department.” He noted that 70 community-based plans had been created around the city, but only seven have been approved. As for HPD, “change that name to the ‘Department of Development.’ They’ve been imitating the real estate market; they go out and assemble land for development.”

Artists and developers

A panel on the role of artists in reviving neighborhoods offered an intriguing example of the interplay between a developer and the community. Artist Doreen Gallo, a longtime DUMBO resident, observed, “It was really developers who organized the artists.” David Walentas, the principal developer of DUMBO, gave three not-for-profit gallery spaces free rent, and artists found a place to display their works.

But when activists in the neighborhood asked their friends and neighbors to sign petitions protesting Walentas’s plans for the waterfront, Gallo recounted, "No one would sign the petitions. They were represented by galleries that got free rent.”

Nicholas Evans-Cato, who lives in Vinegar Hill, observed that “Artists are not generally interested in preservation or their neighborhoods.” When he has canvassed neighbors to join his efforts, he said, “Mostly what I heard was: ‘I’m really busy now—great you’re doing that.’”

He noted that a small number of prominent artists—such as Joel Sternfeld, photographer of the High Line in Manhattan—had become preservationists. The challenge in getting artists to think beyond their own art and survival, he said, raised some resonant questions. “What do we expect of citizens? What do we expect of government?” he asked. “Aren’t many of us reluctant preservationists, doing what we want government to do?”

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