Thursday, November 04, 2010

An exchange on community preservation

I'm posting an exchange between me and a commenter on this blog about landmarking and community preservation, addressing the question of whether landmarking in all contexts gentrify and raise real estate values, and to what extent landmarking can be successful in preventing eviction and preserving affordable housing. It begins with "Can the Bowery be preserved?"

Rob wrote:
If you've gone to the city's Oasis map [below, with my comments] and looked at the historic preservation in community district 2, you've seen that about three fourths of CD2 are protected by landmarking [including the soon-to-be South Village District not yet shown in the map], including the west side of the Bowery, some of which was protected only recently.

So it's possible to protect. It takes organizing and political maneuvering. But it's possible.

The Bowery is particularly sensitive: it runs deep into Chinatown, so what the city does with the Bowery has reflexes there. In contrast to CD2, there's virtually no protection in the LES/EV (CD3). Why has CD3 had so little preservation? It's not the buildings themselves: tenements were constructed during one of the most fertile moments of fa├žade design in New York. You can see it everywhere here.

Can the community be preserved? That's much tougher. But if Chinatown is stabilized as an immigrant destination, and grows, parts of the Bowery may also be protected from rampant gentrification.

Commenter responded:
I think you're right with regard to landmarking. That is the one element of preservation that may actually succeed, not least because it's driven by wealthy people, and benefits wealthy people. It's exactly the aspect of preservation that does the least for poor/middle class people, and arguably even hurts them. Older, scenic buildings that give a neighborhood charm are valued first and foremost by residential property owners who have invested in the neighborhood. As their number goes up, landmarking goes up too. People holding down two full time jobs don't have time to attend community board meetings. I don't have the numbers, but I'd wager that the West Village has some of the highest incidence of landmarked buildings. Doesn't prevent Marc Jacobs from renting storefronts, or landlords from rolling inventory into market rate, as soon as they are able to do so. Ironically, as ugly and noncontextual as new developments can be, they actually increase the supply of housing and therefore make rents lower than what they would be otherwise. A place like Avalon Chrystie, which is 80/20 I believe, actually contributes a chunk of apartments that are "affordable" (for lack of a better term.) In other words, preserving the buildings is exactly what the gentrifiers want, and it's unclear to me that doing so has any positive effect on economic diversity in the long term.

I'm all for it, by the way, because I think they look pretty, and new buildings are mostly crap, but I don't see how it will ultimately "save" Chinatown.

It's true that landmarking increases property value of the existing building if it's a house, like a townhouse. I'm not sure the effect on a tenement. Studies I've seen compare landmarked houses with non-landmarked houses, not tenements. More to the point, I've not seen a comparison between a landmarked house and a non landmarked house that was demolished and redeveloped into a 23-story hotel. My off-the-top guess is that the latter appreciated far more than the former.
That's the rational for landmarking a tenement: the tenants, being regulated, won't be evicted regardless of the appreciation of the tenement's landmarking designation (if tenements appreciate as houses do) as long as the owner doesn't demolish, and landmarking prevents demolition.

The most affordable housing is current affordable housing. So preserving tenants where they are has that advantage over 80/20 which brings additional gentrification/displacement pressures as well. It's hard to imagine that the tenements of Chinatown would appreciate much in their narrow streets.

In any case, the issues you address, anon, are exactly the right issues to address. We had this debate in the EV rezoning: should we welcome development for the sake of 20% "affordable" housing, or hold out for no development at all (or minimal development).

I think you are absolutely right that the 23 story hotel will create greater returns for the owner of that particular property, but it will likely depress values in the surrounding properties, which would benefit from a uniformity in pre-war architecture. Landmarking is almost always a burden for the owner, but a benefit to the surrounding owners who will benefit from the fact that the restricted owner will not be allowed to cash in by maximizing his asset.

The thing about affordable housing in tenements is that is only moves in one direction. People do relocate, even when they have amazing, way below market rents. People die. An apartment that was once controlled/stabilized and then brought to market rate will never go back. So it's just a matter of time, given external pressures in the neighborhood, that the tenement apartments will shift over to newcomers who pay market. It happened above Grand, and it will happen below too.

What I don't really understand is why people would want to live in a neighborhood where none of the amenities cater to them. If I were immigrant Chinese and were being priced out of peripheral Chinatown by LES gentrification, wouldn't I just rather move to Sunset Park or Flushing? I mean, what value do I get from being surrounded by hipster boutiques and oyster bars? Clearly this is far from the case in core Chinatown, and I believe core Chinatown will continue to survive in some form. But when the writing's on the wall, what's point of fighting market forces?


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