Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Historical Landmarking Vs Housing Costs, Diversity

with 2 comments

by Weiner

My friend Josh Barro wrote an interesting post about  New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the unelected body that recently and rightly helped speed along the process of approving the Cordoba House mosque near Ground Zero. Josh has no problem with their decision there, but he does have a problem with this Commission’s over-zealous landmarking.

On an ideological level, Josh believes that  “the trouble with landmarking is that it interferes with private property rights — the government decides that a property is deserving of protection, but the cost of preservation (both in maintenance and opportunity cost) falls on the property owner.” On a more practical level, he notes that “landmarking on a large scale can impede the construction of new housing to meet demand, driving up housing costs.” As a result, “from 1991 to 2002, historic designations appear to have added several hundred dollars per square foot to housing prices in certain districts of Manhattan, making the borough more unaffordable and less diverse.” (i.e., mostly rich, educated white people live there). He links to a good piece by Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, who provides more evidence of this trend, concluding that “preservation doesn’t make New York accessible to a wider range of people; it turns the city into a preserve of the prosperous.”

I’m torn about this, though I think I’m mostly sympathetic to Josh here. As an aspiring professional historian, I support the principle of history for history’s sake, and I believe that as a society we should endeavour to preserve historical landmarks. I note that the Commission rules state that its membership must include at least one historian. But when I read the Commission’s mission statement, I find myself agreeing with only some of its stated goals:

  • Safeguard the city’s historic, aesthetic, and cultural heritage.
  • Help stabilize and improve property values in historic districts.
  • Encourage civic pride in the beauty and accomplishments of the past.
  • Protect and enhance the city’s attractions for tourists.
  • Strengthen the city’s economy.
  • Promote the use of landmarks for the education, pleasure, and welfare of the people of New York City

Goal one is the most important, and goals three, four and six seem good to me. It’s no clear to me, though, that the Commission is is helping NYC’s economy, because that might come into conflict with its goal of improving property values. And of course it’s debatable whether keep property values sky-high is an “improvement.”

It also seems like the Commission has on more than one occasion designated buildings and areas as historic where that distinction is dubious at best. Josh highlights this 1999 case:

the existence of a landmark district prevented a developer from razing a single-story Citibank branch at the corner of 91st & Madison to build a 17-story tower. The bank itself was non-historic, yet the LPC, lobbied by neighbors including Woody Allen and Kevin Kline, only let the developer build nine stories. (For non-Manhattanite readers, high-rise buildings are thick on the ground in the vicinity of 91st & Madison.)

Even beyond the LPC making inappropriate and overzealous historical designations, I think that Josh also makes a good point about property rights here. If the government believes that a certain building is historic, and thinks preserving it is important, it should take that cost upon itself, either by buying the property or helping the owner pay for its upkeep. This would encourage more responsible landmarking and be more fair to the property owners. It would probably also have the added bonus of preserving less property, thereby making Manhattan more affordable and diverse. And finally, and hopefully, it might limit landmarking to those buildings and districts that more appropriately deserve the designation of “historic.”


Written by David Weinfeld

August 5, 2010 at 08:32

2 Responses

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  1. I unfortunately let myself get trapped by Josh’s baited comment. The topic is too broad to debate through comments and (as is often in life) the solution is in a middle way.

    I find it impossible to argue that there is no need for a Landmarks Preservation Commission or a zoning board although I recognize the high cost associated with both. Imagine West Village torn down only to be replaced by highways and skyscrapers. Or think of Amsterdam. They have very strict architectural rules to preserve their historic character. This promotes tourism as well as instilling national pride. I believe that the cost – expensive and limited housing – is justified by the benefit: an internationally recognized architectural gem.


    August 5, 2010 at 10:20

  2. I agree with Dave, Josh, and Ed. None of the above are necessarily against a preservation commission — the observation is that the commission has overreached and led to a NYC with inflated rents and ugly buildings. 16% of the city is “historic.” I’m not sure what the socially optimal amount of preservation is, but I’m convinced by their anecdotes that it’s not 16%. The decisions are not being made on the basis of some kind of citywide cost-benefit analysis, but on the basis of rich neighbors who want to limit increases in housing supply and preserve their property values.

    The interesting question is not status quo vs. nothing, but rather, what’s the governmental institution that produces an outcome as consistent as possible with some view of social welfare? Dave thinks the solution is simply to have government (i.e. taxpayers) pay the costs of historic preservation. But the price the government would pay to preserve buildings would also be easily corrupted and influenced by interested parties. But that could be better than other alternatives (obvious one’s being nothing or the status quo). I’m not sure what the best solution is. We need more policy debates & research that take the potential for rent-seeking seriously.


    August 5, 2010 at 13:38

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