Over the last few years, the Bedford-Stuyvesant community has renewed its interest in historic designation. The Stuyvesant Historic District Expansion, which was calendared in 1993, is on its way to designation. The Bedford Historic District has been calendared.
The Stuyvesant East Preservation Action League (SEPAL) is holding its 3rd community forum on landmarking and the Community Board 3 Landmarks Committee is working with residents in the proposed Stuyvesant West and Stuyvesant North districts.
With the rise of rapid development of new high-rise buildings and the razing of historic buildings to accommodate them, communities throughout the city are seeking landmark designation for individual buildings and historic districts.
Under the Bloomberg administration, the number of historic districts has grown from 64 to 107. While on the surface this may seem like a lot of buildings, the total number of buildings within these districts represents only 3.6 percent of buildings in New York City.
In the 2008, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission surveyed Bedford Stuyvesant and determined that 8500 plus buildings were worthy of historic designation.
With eminent designation of the Stuyvesant Heights Historic District Expansion and the potential for several historic districts in Bedford-Stuyvesant, it is time to take a look at the facts and dispel the myths about historic designation.
To that end, I will be interviewing some of the most prominent figures in the historic preservation movement to bring you the facts and gain their personal insights on the value of historic preservation.
My first interview is with Simeon Bankoff, executive director of Historic Districts Council (HDC), the city-wide advocate for historic buildings and districts. In 2011, Historic Districts Council nominated Bedford Stuyvesant as a participant in its first annual Six to Celebrate program.
This nomination and the assistance provided by HDC’s staff were integral to the upcoming designation of the Stuyvesant Heights Expansion and the calendaring of the proposed Bedford District.
CB: How did you get started in preservation?
SB: After college, I worked in technical theater for a few years doing design and production work. During a dry spell, my father (who is the Chair of the Anthropology Department and has decades of archaeological experience working in New York City) introduced me to the Historic House Office of the New York City Park Department, who were fortunately looking for summer help in the office doing event and program planning. I continued on after the summer as an employee of the Historic House Trust (the non-profit partner of the Parks Department) and, barring a two-year gap, stayed in the field ever since.
CB: How long have you worked for HDC?
SB: I started working for HDC as the second full-time paid employee in 1997. I went back to the Historic House Trust in 1999, but returned to HDC in November 2000 as its third (and longest-serving) Executive Director.
CB: What do you think is the biggest myth about landmark designation?
SB: That landmark designation freezes everything in place and stifles development. As part of our ongoing programs, HDC monitors public proposals affecting landmark buildings throughout the city. The LPC allows a tremendous amount of work to happen in historic neighborhoods – we see demolitions, new buildings, rooftop additions and new storefronts approved every week, and those are only the items that come to public hearings. The LPC approves more than 10,000 permits for work on landmark buildings every year – and there are less than 30,000 landmark properties in the entire city. That’s a lot of work being done – so the charge of “preserving the city in amber” is just plain wrong.
CB: How many neighborhood groups is HDC currently working with?
SB: We have a network of over 500 neighborhood-based community groups whom we’re in contact with. Of those, there are about 250 with whom we work closely, although the actual groups change all the time depending on what is going on in their communities.
CB: To what do you attest the dramatic increase in neighborhoods seeking historic designation?
SB: The enormous real estate boom of the past fifteen years. Even with the mortgage crisis, New York City real estate prices weren’t nearly as affected as elsewhere in the country. Real estate is what dries New York, it is to the city what oil is to Texas. Consequently, the development pressures are intense as the real estate industry attempts to grind every possible dollar out of the land. People who lived in lovely, older neighborhoods and never thought about preservation awoke to find bulldozers demolishing houses next door to them and massive, ungainly buildings rising over them. Communities quickly realized that they needed to act to save their neighborhoods, which has led to an enormous number of re-zonings and landmark designations. In too many cases, it really has been a race for survival.
CB: Other than advising neighborhood groups what other activities is HDC involved in?
SB: HDC has a very active educational agenda – we offer at least two programs and workshops every month, and that doesn’t even include our growing tour programs. We believe that education is critical to affecting the future of your community, so we try to keep our educational programs free or very low-cost. We also monitor proposals affecting historic buildings and publically comment on them when appropriate. We are the only group who does this on a citywide basis and unfortunately all too often, we’re the only speakers at the Landmarks Commission hearings. Finally, we perform occasional surveys of potential landmarks – through our efforts, the Addisliegh Park Historic District, the neighborhood where James Brown, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Chuck Berry and Count Basie lived in Jamaica was designated by the LPC last year and we’re currently finishing up a survey of the surviving Carnegie Libraries.
CB: HDC will be presenting Council Member Albert Vann with the Grassroots Preservation “Friend in High Places” award. Why was he chosen?
SB: Council member Vann has shown himself to be true Friend to community preservation in many ways. In addition to his strong and steady support for the Crown Heights North, Expanded Stuyvesant Heights and Bedford Corners Historic Districts, he was crucial to saving the MacDonough Street houses during the unfortunate wall collapse last winter. Without CM Vann there to support the owner and the community, the Department of Buildings would have rushed in and demolished not only 329 MacDonough Street, but possibly the neighboring houses as well. We’re thrilled to be able to honor him.
CB: On a personal note, why do you think historic designation is necessary?
SB: The best way to understand history is to physically encounter it. Without any protections, you risk losing any sense of continuity in the world, which I believe leads to a scary, scary place. Without a sense of history, it’s impossible to imagine achievements or consequences. I think that place is a selfish, illusionary world and that’s nowhere I want to live.
If you would like to learn more about Historic Districts Council and the landmarking process, visit their website. The on-line FAQ, which offer a wealth of information on historic designation in New York City, is a quick and easy read.