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At a crossroads, preservationists urged to find clear message and collective voice

Around the time of the Historic District Council’s annual conference March 7, the results of the Preservation Vision: Planning for the Future of Preservation (PDF) in New York City project were released by Minerva Partners.

The report offered much wise advice, but its message was ominous:
The preservation community now lacks the capacity to address needs, opportunities, and trends that will be increasingly central to quality of life for New York City residents. Even if that capacity existed, it is a profession without refined and prioritized ideas about its biggest challenges or how they might be overcome most efficiently. Many of these shortcomings stem from a lack of leadership and acrimonious relationships within the field which undermine the development of shared goals, a clear message and a collective voice with which to engage citywide planning and decision-making processes.

Needs are many things: new research to support arguments in favor of preservation, new tools beyond the Landmarks Law, and partners are to carry out preservation work, and a new, more inclusive generation of practitioners and advocates.

There’s some potential for a new foundation, a “window of opportunity over the next three to five years with the convergence of economic realities, federal stimulus investments in social and environmental sectors, and growing public concern for issues related to sustainability.”

In excerpting some of the observations and arguments, I’ll select ones that might have impacted the Atlantic Yards fight, notably the effort to save the Ward Bakery, a somewhat rundown building that clearly could have been rehabilitated, as other bakeries built at the same time by the company, as in Newark, have been.

Key categories

The nearly 500 people who participated in the project developed ten key categories related to the future of historic preservation, ranked in order of overall frequency:
1. address environmental sustainability
2. undertake serious research
3. expand incentives
4. implement more land use regulations
5. strengthen the Landmarks Law
6. contribute to community livability
7. focus messaging & branding
8. expand alliances & diversity
9. identify new sources of funding
10. enhance education


Environmental sustainability

Several of the suggestions under sustainability might have saved the Ward Bakery and undermined some of the claims that the new AY buildings would be green:
Work to change the yard sticks that measure a building’s sustainability to include more incentive for reuse, retrofitting and upgrading.

Produce the data to prove that LEED does not do enough to reflect New York City conditions, and LEED standards should focus more on existing buildings.

Lobby the New York State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) and New York City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) to develop a protocol on demolition.

Since New York City tax code currently favors demolition and rebuilding for green architecture, explore a demolition tax, stiff recycling requirements and landfill fees to overcome market barriers and eliminate the incentives for demolition and reconstruction.

Look critically at existing tax codes, create incentives to green older buildings, twin with other credits, do more cost benefit analysis and research.

Research

“Producing factual information to back up intuitive arguments in favor of preservation constitutes a pressing need,” the report states.

Among the suggestions:
Develop reliable, quantitative ways to measure the value of concern for buildings felt within communities.

Develop reliable, quantitative ways to determine the degree to which preservation and landmarking foster gentrification and demographic stability.


Incentives

If there are tax breaks and incentives for building, why not for preservation? Among the suggestions:
Create real property tax abatements, where non-profit rehabilitation projects generate preservation certificates sold to other property owners for tax credits.

Land-use regulations

Limitations embedded in NYC regulations, specifically associated with landmarking, might be eased by the use of conservation districts that “consider use, scale, aesthetics and social cohesion”--something would have addressed concerns about dropping a “spaceship” in Prospect Heights.

Among the suggestions:
Think beyond the Landmarks law, identifying innovative land-use regulations that can be used to protect New York City neighborhoods.

Create Neighborhood Conservation Districts with their own, context-driven historic ordinances for areas worthy of protection not at the level of the existing landmarks law; provide guidelines that are more flexible than landmarks but regulate size, etc.

Consider creation of a Division of Urban Design and Preservation, like the one in Seattle, and explore examples from other places.

Strengthening the Landmarks Law

Those interviewed disagreed about the future of the New York City landmarks law, some saying it should be updated, others saying it should be discarded, and others suggesting that it be strengthened in its current form.

Among the suggestions:
Engage communities in the landmark identification process providing opportunities
for “places that matter” and cultural landmarks -- not always identified by architectural excellence -- to be considered.

Amend the 40-day rules regarding the review period for Department of Buildings to issue permits, specifically by requiring review of all demolition permits and perhaps significant alteration requests, with the specific goal to expand the possibility to protect buildings that have not been vetted.

Reform the law to provide more protection and support a more rational approach to landmarking, putting it on par with other city agencies.

Community livability

It’s important to link preservation to affordable housing, since it shows a recognition of an important issue. Then again, it's a challenge, since, in the case of Atlantic Yards, affordable housing is a tradeoff for increasing density, something often not possible via preservation.

Suggestions include:
Find a way to make it easier to use the Historic Preservation tax credit program; if the State Historic Preservation Office could be more flexible and the standards for restoration eased so that developers could also conform to code requirements, the tax credit could be used to help finance safe and affordable apartments.

Collaborate with affordable housing developers and advocacy organizations on tax credit filing, research and paperwork in support of middle class property owners and lower-income housing developers.

Create a city policy for mandatory inclusionary zoning, with new subsidies for the creation of affordable housing; since available properties are privately owned and expensive for affordable housing developers to buy, more public funding should be devoted to helping them succeed.

Rethink the question of density on wide streets; NYC has been and will continue to be a growing city, no historic district designation or down-zoning should be affected without some thought to where new housing can be built in the community.

Messaging and branding

Preservationists are often perceived as stodgy, elitist, negative, and scolding -- not a good thing. Even the terms “preservation” and “historic” suggest an emphasis on the connoisseur, not the layperson. How to mainstream it?

Among the suggestions:
Put human stories first: notions of “neighborhood preservation” and “community character” and “sense of place” have meaning for regular New Yorkers, but they need translation and specificity; for now, many associate the work of the profession with the negative impacts of gentrification.

Coordinate an event series, like Open House New York, for preservation.


Alliances and diversity

How to build alliances? Among the suggestions:
Work strategically with other groups -- community housing groups for example -- and isolate areas of common interest in relation to tough political issues; find point of alignment with consortiums, unions, politicians, special interest groups, etc.

Funding

How to pay for it? Why not create a fund for preservation projects?

Among the suggestions:
Lobby for higher tax revenues from groups taking direct benefits from New York’s unique sense of place, funneling some of those funds into preservation; here better alliances with city agencies, earning preservationist a place at the decision making table, would provide significant advantages.

Earmark special tax levied on developers requesting demolition and real estate transactions where property values are elevated due to historic associations, all channeled into preservation projects.


Education

How to get people to care more?

Among the suggestions:
Place preservation directly into the K-12 public school curriculum, putting them into contact with historic places and delivering a message to children over consecutive years of their education so that they can take it home; give them the idea that the past is good, countering the idea that new is always better.

Conclusion

The report conclude:
Under overcast conditions, a window becomes a mirror. In that frame we saw energetic and committed actors, savvy strategic thinkers, resourceful advocates, and a shared interest in seeing the preservation profession evolve. We also saw a fleet of recycled causes, complaints, and proposals tossed on the choppy waters of New York’s real estate development market without rudders of data, firm proposals, or constructive self-assessment. We saw a profession without sufficient inclination to consolidate and refine ideas about what the big problems are, and how they might be addressed most efficiently.

So the profession has a 3 to 5 year window of opportunity to make a larger impact.

Preservationists should get rid of “the cloak of the martyr” and “buttress its ethical, intuitive, and aesthetic postures with facts, figures, and transferrable arguments owing little to a listener’s appreciation of architectural poetics.”

Moreover, there must be a balance:
Meanwhile, the field can no longer afford to indulge its historically intense passion for advocacy and resistance to the point of exclusion of more positive and sensible postures.

In CityRoom

Two weeks ago, in the New York Times’s City Room blog, Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the HDC, answered selected readers’ questions about community-based preservation efforts.

Q: How can New York City residents pressure politicians to give the agency more money to hire more people to protect more buildings?

SB: Good question. Under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Landmarks Preservation Commission's staff was drastically shrunk (from 80 in 1991 to 49 in 1995) and the survey team was abolished, leading to a chilling effect in new designations. In 2006, the Historic Districts Council helped organize a coalition of more than 80 community-based and citywide preservation groups to campaign for more funds for the preservation commission. We had meetings with City Council members, making certain to bring involved constituents with us — never underestimate the impact that a constituent has with an elected representative, especially on a specific, local issue.

By framing the agency’s financing request as an initiative that could specifically benefit neighborhoods throughout the city that have been historically underserved, the council members became receptive to it, and during budget negotiations an additional $250,000 was granted to the preservation commission to pay for a survey team. This was possible only through strong partners in City Council and the hard work of all the members of the coalition.
We successfully campaigned for the allocation to be renewed in subsequent years, and this year, despite a grim economic outlook, the increase in designations and responsiveness from the Landmarks Preservation Commission has, we hope, ensured its continued existence. We are still planning to meet with elected officials over the next few months as the budget process plays out and to rally on City Hall steps for what has become an annual event in May.


A second question appeared on another day.

Q: What innovative preservation tools would you like to see implemented in New York that you think have worked well in other major cities?

SB: A number of other cities have a “demolition delay” ordinance that can prove quite helpful to saving buildings. There are several variations; but the most common feature is that the local historic commission has the opportunity to review a building for historical significance before a demolition permit is issued and, if the building is judged to be significant, can take action to prevent its demolition.

Triggers for this delay range from a public list to any building more than 50 years old. A time frame is imposed on the historic commission for review and action, usually three to nine months, and if the agency is not able to take appropriate action in time, the demolition permit is granted.

Some cities offer financial and other incentives to encourage preservation activities; from waiving building permit fees to allowing more flexibility in building code to reducing property tax increases. Other cities even offer a tax credit for rehabilitation work on historic properties.

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