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Preservation, planning, and Brooklyn at issue at HDC conference

Forest City Ratner’s much-criticized plans to demolish the Ward Bread Bakery, the issue of whether demolition can be truly green development, and the Atlantic Yards project in general represent Brooklyn embodiments of several issues raised at the Historic Districts Council (HDC) annual conference on 3/10/07.

Author and urbanist Roberta Brandes Gratz led off an overview panel by citing the enormous changes since the 1970s, when local activists responded to the city’s decline by establishing pocket parks in abandoned lots, community groups harnessed sweat equity and government funds to rehabilitate buildings, and intrepid brownstoners invested in yet-to-be historic districts.

“Anyone who doubts the enormous impact of historic preservation either wasn’t here or wasn’t paying attention,” Gratz declared.

Now, however, commented City Council Member Tony Avella, “The very people who brought the city back are being priced out of their developments.” While that may not be true for owners who’ve seen their property rise, Avella expressed a commonplace: “The system is geared to development.”

Avella and Gratz both bemoaned the seemingly inevitable rezoning of manufacturing districts to residential and the shift to a service economy. “The reason we don’t have planning from the bottom up is it’ll take away power from the people at the top,” Avella said. “We let the real estate industry do the planning.”

Preservation debate

Urban planner Alex Garvin Alex Garvin & Associates, who’s worked closely with Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff on the Olympics plan and produced a yet-unreleased land use plan for the city in 2006, offered a dose of skepticism. Preservation impulses, he said, can result from “a series of mistakes,” including nostalgia for the past, dislike of the newly-built environment, and selfish NIMBYism.

He offered some broad guidelines for preservationists, though leaving a large middle ground for debate. He recommended landmarking places of true historic significance (Independence Hall vs. “George Washington slept here”), of real esthetic prominence (example: University of Virginia), of social importance (example: the Tenement Museum), and of public significance when festivals happen (the National Mall).

[Would the Ward Bread Bakery qualify? Well, it didn’t make it past the not apolitical Landmarks Preservation Commission but its loss would be considered a significant adverse impact.]

Academic and HDC board member Jeffrey Kroessler said he wanted to contrast Garvin’s citation of “the selfishness of the preservation movement” with “the selfishness of the free market” Historic preservation, Kroessler asserted, “saved New York in the wake of the urban crisis.”

(Indeed, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Atlantic Yards downplays the role of historic preservation in the Brooklyn neighborhoods surrounding the proposed site, even though a 1974 city study cited “reviving brownstone residential neighborhoods.”)

Gratz picked up on the criticism. “I defy anyone to go into a community opposing a project to find they are against all change,” she stated. “They are against overwhelming change.”

Garvin wasn’t bowed. He suggested that preservation is intertwined with politics, noting that numerous historic districts are too small and that various resources, notably Art Deco buildings in the Bronx, have yet to get official recognition.

Planning, not preservation

Garvin suggested the issue was more planning that preservation, and referred to “the bad planning that’s quite evident elsewhere in the city.” There was no specific project attached, but read between the lines, Garvin might have been dissing Atlantic Yards.

After all, in his unreleased land use report, Garvin recommends (p. 17, or p. 8 of this PDF) that the process for developing a platform for development over Sunnyside Yards in Queens requires a feasibility study with input from "engineers, traffic analysts, site planners, and real estate entrepreneurs.” Regarding Atlantic Yards, all but the latter were engaged after the fact.

(Garvin's land-use plan has never been released; the Bloomberg administration, as I'll explore tomorrow, has instead expanded its aim, working toward a broader set of goals for 2030. It's not unlikely, however, that some of Garvin's study will emerge, notably its observation that the city can grow by platforming over railyards and highway trenches.)

Planning for growth

Garvin acknowledged that residents understand and care about their neighborhoods, but few can plan for the city as a whole. “It’s a serious question,” he continued. Sustainability, he said, depends on expansion of the transit system and the investment of billions of dollars.

He noted that, the demolition of the Third Avenue El in the 1960s devastated the Bronx. If bus rapid transit or light rail is introduced on Third Avenue between the Hub and the Cross-Bronx Expressway, along with a rezoning, the Bronx could accommodate 100,000 new people on vacant or nearly-vacant land within a quarter mile of the avenue.

The city’s capacity to grow through investment raises questions about Forest City Ratner’s plan for the Atlantic Yards site—sure, increased density could be accommodated near a transit hub, but should it be the density now planned?

Preservation politics

Donovan Rypkema offered the tart observation that preservation was more green than demolition (see architect Jonathan Cohn’s Brooklyn Views blog for more), and pointed out how attitudes had changed.

In the 1940s, the conventional wisdom of architects, developers, and many city officials was they had to raze Class B & C office buildings in Lower Manhattan that couldn’t accommodate more modern offices. “Had preservationists not stood up, those investment bankers wouldn’t have their $3 million condos.” (Left unsaid was that tax breaks supported such conversions, without requiring affordable housing as a tradeoff.)

Asked if we need to save all historic buildinga, Rypkema declared “Absolutely not. We’re not about making cities museums.” However, he suggested that “no demolition permit should be issued if what we’re going to get isn’t better than we have now.”

“I cannot identify a single example of downtown rehabilitation without historic preservation,” he said, noting that some “very expensive failures” have included destruction of buildings.

In several communities, historic buildings are natural incubators of small business. He cited Pioneer Square in Seattle, where tenants cited the historic nature and relatively low cost as reasons for locating there.

Hidden benefits

“I’m introduced as a preservationist, but I’m really an economic development consultant,” Rypkema said, pointing out that, while new construction is half-labor, half materials, historic rehabilitation is 60% to 70% labor and puts more money in the local community. However, he acknowledged, it’s more piecemeal work and generally not unionized and thus not backed by organized labor.

He pointed to the fallacy of considering “green” buildings in a vacuum. “You can build an energy-efficient Wal-Mart,” he said, “but the extra fuel to drive to it wipes out the energy savings.”

Still, he acknowledged, no one in the U.S. has yet tried to produce a complete cost-benefit analysis of a building that also values embodied energy. “We have lot line myopia,” he said, noting that such calculations have begun to emerge in Europe.

“The greenest building is one that’s already built,” added Carl Elefante of Quinn Evans Architects in Washington, DC. He contrasted the traditional wood window, which is completely renewable/repairable, with the modern aluminum window, which is mostly not recyclable.

Dealing with density

Then came a challenge. A participant asked about density, “a friend to the environment but an enemy of preservation,” since it’s an argument for tearing down old buildings in favor of dense new construction—indeed, that's the argument for demolition of industrial buildings on Pacific Street for the Atlantic Yards towers.

After a pause, Elefante observed that “there’s no pat answer,” adding that “the link between land use and infrastructure is profound,” a reference to the carrying capacity of the surrounding neighborhood.

Density, noted Stephen Tilly, an architect in Dobbs Ferry, NY, “can’t continue forever; it has to be balanced.” For example, density eventually conflicts with the emerging concept of solar zoning.

“Historic District Commissions and codes need to build in things like solar access, and that’s a real challenge," Tilly said. He had earlier pointed to generally low-rise Park Slope, Brooklyn, which has many smaller buildings and “lots of potential for harvesting energy with little impact on neighborhood character.”

(Indeed, the size of the Atlantic Yards buildings has short-circuited an effort by the Fifth Avenue Committee to place solar panels on a mid-rise building it plans just north of Atlantic Avenue.)

Growth and Brooklyn

At another panel, Lisa Kersavage of the Municipal Art Society (MAS) cited the “failure of the environmental review process to adequately consider historic districts,” She offered a slideshow of historic resources ignored in the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning and cited a “complete failure to identify historic resources” in the waterfront rezoning. The city identified eight known and 12 potential historic resources; MAS identified 264. (For Hudson Yards, by contrast, the city identified 110 resources, she said.)

“Politicians have the power to deny permits because of negative impacts,” she said, stressing that “we need historic resources identified first.”

At the 22-acre Ikea site in Red Hook, in 2004 rezoned from manufacturing to retail, Ikea plans to fill in and pave over a graving dock—a place for ship repair—even though a new such dock would cost $1 billion and be almost impossible to get through a permit process.

Ikea plans to mitigate the impact by drawing an outline of what’s been filled in, Kersavage reported, “much like a chalk outline around a corpse.” In other maritime cities, graving docks have remained, adapted for public use. In Belfast, two are preserved in a science park, while in London, one’s been landscaped into a park. MAS has filed suit, but Ikea has continued on its plan.

Behind Brooklyn’s growth

“Because of the market and rezoning, Brooklyn is booming,” Kersavage, a partial explanation which nonetheless drew a corrective from longtime community planner Ron Shiffman, who teaches at the Pratt Institute and is on the board of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.

“Brooklyn is not booming because of rezoning,” he said, urging a look at the diversity of building types and the preservationists, “risk-oblivious population,” newcomers and not, who invested in neighborhoods before it was chic. Community-based organizations renovated and rehabilitated 80,000 units of declining or abandoned housing in the past three decades. “These folks saved the neighborhoods so the risk averse developers could come in.”

Rezoning, Shiffman asserted, “is monolithic and cataclysmic,” and we need a planning program upfront, before developers articulate what they want. A former member of the City Planning Commission, Shiffman said that environmental impact statements—the product of both city and state reviews—are not read by the commissioners. “If they don’t read it, the politicians won’t.”

Wrangling with policy

Shiffman suggested that “we need to rethink density,” given that the city has erred in both directions. We shouldn’t downzone to exclude populations and uses, he said, citing the example of Toronto, where “performance-based zoning” allows light industry, under certain conditions, in residential areas. That would allow new production facilities to thrive in new places.

He cited the “major victory” of inclusionary zoning on the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront, where affordable housing is required as a tradeoff for increased density, but lamented that the city rejected similar zoning on Fourth Avenue between Flatbush Avenue and 15th Street at the border of Park Slope—an area that is now booming with mid-rise luxury construction.

Shiffman showed a slide of the iconic Williamsburgh Savings Bank building “which is unfortunately being renovated into condos” with no affordable housing. The top tower is sheathed in black for renovation; of that black shroud, he said, “I think it is in mourning,” for itself, as well as the nearby Atlantic Yards development.

Cities need "staunch buildings," he said, and, declared the Ward Bakery one of the “staunch buildings… that should be saved.”

Eminent domain, Hamburg & AY

Shiffman criticized Atlantic Yards, saying that “the misuse of eminent domain to help a private developer” sets a dangerous precedent for the city’s growth. In Hafen City, a new port-area development Hamburg, proposed a few months before Atlantic Yards, the city invested in infrastructure—an opera house and subway station—before going forward. THe process has moved much faster there.

“Rather than turn it over to one developer, they spent nine months working on a community program,” he said. “If we did Atlantic Yards right, it would be 12 developers, not one,” he said. (Of course, it wouldn't be Atlantic Yards, because development would likely be limited to the 8.5-acre railyard, not the 22-acre site.)

The Hamburg project, however, included no mandate for subsidized housing, a key element behind the political support for Atlantic Yards. Affordable housing connects to density, but, regarding Atlantic Yards, the issue was take-it-or-leave-it rather than studied from the start.

That connected, in a way, to a comment Kroessler made earlier: “I’m tired of affordable housing being an albatross around the neck of historic preservation.” The tensions between the two might be mediated, as Garvin's comment suggested, by something in short shrift when it came to Atlantic Yards: planning.

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