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Time to Reform the NYC Landmarks Commission


Washington Square Arch in 1905

Edward Glaeser, a Harvard University economics professor, argues in “Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier” argues cities are economically and culturally better places to live than non-urban areas. Glaeser chastises “environmentalists” who prevented development in temperate areas for contributing to development in less-temperate climates—especially areas require air conditioning for comfort. Land use policies that require large lot sizes also make non-urban areas less green than cities. “High costs of land restrict private space, and density makes car use less attractive. Urban living is sustainable sustainability.” Cities are greener than suburbs based upon empirical measures of carbon emissions. Denser cities would reduce the need for residential construction at the edges of urban areas.


We have this quandary at work in New York City. I really wonder what the intent of the NYC Landmark law.  This law championed by Jane Jacobs and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis saved Grand Central and has helped make NYC attractive to tourists and natives alike.

On the other hand, the way the NYC Landmarks Commission as it now operates perverts its original mandate in becoming the domain of NIMBY.  15% of Manhattan non-parkland has now been landmarked!  Garbage dumps are literally being preserved because people do not want change or want to keep the “wrong people” out.  The building of residential skyscrapers makes housing more affordable for all and reduces the carbon footprint.   Preserving too much will turn a vibrant NYC into a rotting museum.  Historic preservation has its place but too much will rot a city. For every Grand Central that is preserved, we need a Barclays Center to pay the bills and give us a future.  If the opponents of Barclay Center and the Atlantic Yards had succeeded in preserving a supposed half dozen dwellings with a dubious connection with the Underground Railroad, we would not have the world’s greatest entertainment center and Atlantic Yards Development reviving a whole borough!


We need to the reform of the current NYC Landmark Commission because its good intentions have been perverted by the NIMBY crowd, all those that oppose change, and think the wrong people will move in.  Something is wrong when a sixth of the non-parkland of Manhattan Island is now landmarked.  Instead of a few hundred buildings that we can treasure, we have thousand that are landmarked to prevent development, especially skyscrapers.  Garbage dumps are literally preserved because of the hidden agendas of people.  Every residential skyscraper prevented means less affordable housing and less people living in the city.


Over-regulation of residential development and anti-growth sentiments are the enemies of positive urban density to the extent that they impact the affordability of housing and interfere with market forces of supply and demand. “The growth in housing supply determines not only prices but the number of people in a city….construction restrictions tie cities to their past and limit the possibilities for their future.”


We need a balance between Jane Jacobs approach in preserving the best of NYC while having a Robert Moses approach to sustaining the viability of the future. At this point, if we add to a historic district, we should detract from a historic district. We cannot afford to expand historic districts and preserve buildings relentlessly without tradeoffs.


NYC Walks Blog 5 Time to Reform the New York City Landmark Commission:  The Balance between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses © 2017 by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg #ghost

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