The Facts on Historic Districts

A Letter to the Editor of Columbia Daily Spectator Feb. 21, 1997

Spectator has published many supportive and responsible editorials about maintaining the quality of our neighborhood. Therefore it pained me to see that your editorial of Friday, Feb. 13, "Building a Community," contained several errors of fact concerning the proposed Morningside Heights historic district, as did your story of the previous day, "Locals Look to Slow Building."

Error #1: "Every stone of local buildings may soon be protected if the Morningside Heights District Committee can convince city government to declare the Columbia area a historic district."
Fact #1: This is not so. The landmarks law only covers certain buildings in a neighborhood, and it only covers the exterior of the building, except in the rare cases when the interior itself, like a lobby or a concert hall, has been deemed historic. Some buildings in historic districts are deemed "non-contributing," and thus do not have to be historically preserved.

Error #2: "All adjustments and maintenance requests in historic areas must be approved by the New York City Landmarks Preservation (LPC) before they can be considered."
Fact #2: According to the official publication of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, "What Landmark Designation Means for Building Owners," page 3, "Ordinary exterior repairs and maintenance ... do not require the Commissions's approval. A Landmarks Commission permit for interior work is required [only] in the following cases: when the the work requires a permit from the Buildings Department or, when work on the interior affects the exterior or, when the interior has been designated by the Landmarks Commission as an interior landmark.."

Thus your argument is mistaken that routine maintenance requests would be delayed by the need for Landmarks Commission approval. You also say that a historic district would impede technological upgrades of Columbia buildings, but some of the most technologically advanced buildings in this city, stuffed to the gills with fiber-optic telecommunications, brand-new elevators and high-capacity central air-conditioning, are buildings with historically protected exteriors in Midtown and on Wall Street.

Error#3: (from your story of Feb.12) "Such a designation would... require public hearings on all projects." (p.1)
Fact#3: The landmarks preservation law has nothing to do with public hearings on all projects. You must be thinking about the ULURP , or Uniform Land-Use Review Procedure, which requires a hearing when city-owned land is built on, or about the hearings required when someone wants a zoning variance. Both of these exist whether or not there is a historic district.

Spectator has uncritically swallowed the Columbia administration's line that landmarking would enmesh the University in a vast bureaucratic and political rigamarole. To the contrary, the Landmarks Preservation Commission is a small and non-bureaucratic agency that is required by law to act quickly and has a well-earned reputation for flexibility. The fundamental issue is whether an historic district would be good for Columbia and the surrounding neighborhood. The simple fact is that apartments for sale in existing historic districts tend to advertise this fact, clearly showing the decision of the marketplace that historic districts add value to an area. Anyone who has seen pictures of the old Pennsylania Station, demolished before the landmarks law was written, and has had to scurry through the rat-hole that replaced it, knows what can happen in the absence of landmarks protection.Or look at Carman.

Columbia has the nerve to advertise what a charming historic neighborhood it inhabits, and recognizes that it needs a nice neighborhood to attract students and faculty, and yet it refuses to support legal protection for this pleasantness. This is parasitism - everyone who shares in the benefits of living in a fine neighborhood should share the the very minimal burden of keeping it that way. The landmarks law of this city is very flexible and sensible about the desirability of continued growth - look at Madison Avenue, which is in the Upper East Side historic district but still has glittering modern shops and other new buildings, side-by-side with our irreplaceable architectural heritage. This is the kind of city most of us want to live in, not simply a high-density version of America's usual plastic sameness, and we need a historic district to ensure that Morningside Heights stays this way in the years to come.

Ian Fletcher
Board Member,
Morningside Heights Residents Association

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