Monday, July 29th, 2013

Historic Preservation or Economic Preservation? by Sam Hersh

[ This post by Sam Hersh is on a topic that’s always sure to get people’s blood pumping – historic preservation. I hope you enjoy the perspective – Aaron. ]

In historic preservation battles, it seems we are often fed an oversimplified story-line of two, opposing interests. In conflict with any landmarks or preservation, business interests imagine a thriving city as a place of commerce unfettered by unnecessary red tape. On the other hand, cultural proponents see a thriving city as a place of humanity that preserves its history while providing outlets for creative pursuits. Importantly, both of these views hold at their core the belief that cities as dense nodes of human agglomeration can transform the opportunities of individuals by pooling interests and talents to create something greater than their individual parts.

It seems to me that, given the shared interests in the city as vibrant hub for human collaboration by all parties either opposing or supporting the preservation of a building or district that there should be a third, more dominant and more tempered voice in these debates – those who spend their lives thinking about cities should work to reform their mindset toward preservation. Such a mindset would look for a common ground between both the knee-jerk preservation that many interested in architecture and design have been led to support and the blind search for growth at all costs that many economic development professionals have espoused.

As quick background, I take for granted the belief that land use regulations tend to curb new construction or the amount of square footage offered by new construction, disturb the efficiency of a city’s economy, and slow growth. The true benefits of urbanity are in the economic opportunities that efficient living in compact density provides to its residents. When older buildings are torn down and replaced with more housing or commercial space in a denser pattern, this tends to be good for a city. I also believe that cities are not merely corporate entities to maximize profit and efficiency. That same human density that, since the earliest ancient cities of the Fertile Crescent, has facilitated trade of excess harvests and wares has also created some of the most culturally important artifacts in human history.

I often feel that we have been led to believe that there are only two possible views that a government can take towards preservation – business oriented and culturally oriented. I will approximate these views with the case of Chicago and New York, both of which have been instrumental in the creation and dissemination of built forms throughout the world and both of which have a bank of historically important buildings.

In New York, the Landmarks Preservation Commission recently voted to protect, en masse, over 300 buildings in a swath of land called the East Village Historic District. Though none of the buildings in the East Village are seminal historically or architecturally, they are attractive.

In Chicago, preservationists just came off of what should have been an easy win: The Prentice Women’s Hospital. Prentice has a shape unlike anything else in the world and is widely regarded by critics and historians as seminal in the development of modern techniques in computer-aided architecture, hospital design and central core skyscraper construction. Despite its importance and having met multiple criteria for landmark designation in Chicago, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks decided that the economic benefits of razing the building were too great to preserve what otherwise would have been a worthy candidate for protection. (Disclaimer: I worked for Econsult Solutions at the time that they provided an economic impact study on the benefits of preservation of Prentice for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, though I was not involved in that project).

It might be easy to ignore the discrepancies in these two cases with the simple explanation that the fight for hundred year old low rises in Manhattan was a fight for the aesthetically pleasing while Bertrand’s Brutalist Prentice is “hard to love.” But the differences in landmarking procedures between New York and Chicago are for more pervasive than these two cases. In 2012, the Commission of Chicago Landmarks added ten landmarks to its rolls according to its annual report. In the same year, New York’s Landmarks Commission added at least 965 buildings to its protection, according to press releases I could find on the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission website. (The bulk of these protections were in the East Village Historic District, with about 330 landmarks, and an expansion to the Park Slope Historic District, with about 600 properties added).

More than the staggering disparity in number of buildings that receive landmark status, historic buildings are treated differently in Chicago and New York. In Chicago, buildings that are deemed historic are often stripped of their facades and reconstructed over new innards in a so-called facadectomy. These facadectomies are common throughout the city from the slightly pleasant Legacy to the horrific 10 South LaSalle. In 2007 in Chicago, a landmarked building was given a facadectomy and (to add insult to injury) filled with a parking garage for a postmodern tower next door meant to ape the subtle beauty of the original. In New York, also in 2007, the landmarks commission refused to allow Norman Foster, a world-renowned architect, to build a tower above a building in a landmark district that would have kept much of the original structure intact.

While it might seem that New York’s housing shortage would have pushed city leaders to rethink landmarks and the restrictions that they place on new construction, there has been little movement in this direction. Meanwhile Chicago, with a vacancy crisis on its hands in many of its neighborhoods, fears the impact of landmarking one building (though, to be fair, in Prentice’s Streeterville neighborhood, land is increasingly scarce).

Despite Chicago’s unwillingness to put some muscles behind its landmark regulations, the city continues to boast an edge over New York in architectural heritage. Chicago arguably has more architecturally significant buildings than any city in America with a diverse collection of LeBaron Jenney and Burnham skyscrapers, Miesian blocks, Frank Lloyd Wright houses, Goldberg quirk, and S.O.M. engineering feats like the Willis (Sears) Tower and the Hancock Center. Chicago is a living museum for anyone interested in the physical evolution of America’s cities over the past 150 or so years. Despite the fact that architectural tourism is one of the few categories in which Chicago presents a competitive advantage over New York, Chicago continues to sell off it’s heritage in the name of business and economic growth.

It’s easy to understand why Chicago is so landmark-averse and New York so quick to landmark. These policies are rooted in the attitudes of city elites toward business investment. It’s not necessarily New York leaders’ particular interest in preservation that leads to the disparities in preservation policy between the two cities. New York can afford to lose a bit of economic efficiency, even if that means pushing the poor ever further from their service jobs in Manhattan, because the city is in no real threat of losing its standing as a global economic center. City Elites believe that businesses will not leave the gravity of New York and thus don’t see any harm in impeding some development. Moreover, for the elites benefitting from New York’s economic gravity and the quaint neighborhoods they help landmark, the inflationary affects of landmarking are less salient than to the lower class who see their commutes lengthen, rents rise, and poverty rates grow as wage increases fail to match the rising costs of living in New York.

Chicago, meanwhile, has been fighting stagnant population growth, has massive, disconnected and crime ridden ghettos, and will always play second fiddle as an American financial center to New York. While promoting architectural tourism may be profitable in the short term, no city can survive on the tourist dollars of a few architectural patrons. Chicago city leaders know that at times they must sacrifice their past if the city is to remain competitive as a global (or Midwest) financial hub.

But some buildings are more than buildings and make a city worth visiting or living in. How do we preserve the artifacts that tell the story of a city, a nation and the world while allowing a modern city to act as more than a stagnant museum glorifying the urban achievements of the past at the cost of today’s inhabitants?

To start, if preservationists can only present one justification for the preservation of a building – that it is pretty – then the building is probably not worth saving unless private owners value the prettiness enough to save it themselves. There are plenty of pretty buildings in the world and not all of them can be saved. One way to allow for input on which buildings are worth saving might be to set a number of ‘pretty’ buildings to save and let the people of a city vote whether to remove landmark status of a given ‘pretty’ building in favor of the one in question.

In cases for which the preservation can be justified by more than a building’s aesthetic beauty, but also by historic significance, we should question whether the building is integral to the legacy preservationists wish to protect and, ostensibly, the story they hope to tell. In many cases, it seems that the building itself is saved only because it is a convenient place to tell a story. The stories of Muhammad Ali or Bill Clinton for instance do not need to be told at their childhood homes, both of which are landmarks.

Buildings that are worthy of being landmarked are those in which the story preservations wish to tell could only be told through the building. The importance of the building could be in a particular design, like Prentice. But the building’s importance can also originate in a historical event directly tied to the building. As an example, I believe that the landmarking of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York is justified because the history of that building, not a person who happened to live or work in that building, changed the course of this country.

Even if we have established that a building is important in its own right, the question of how important is important enough still remains. All interactions and lives in cities are important, contributing in small parts to the vibrant and sui generis story of each place. But, to retain some level of economy to preservation measures, a good rule of thumb would be to ask whether the building has either had a large international impact that is understood at least by an educated elite in a certain field or an impact on the city that is understood by all its citizens. In this way, buildings that are important to a given field, like Prentice to engineering, or to a particular strand of history, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to labor rights activists, should be preserved. Buildings that are salient in the public imagination of a city are also worth saving. In Chicago, the Water Tower may not be known by many non-natives, but it is an important piece of pre-fire engineering and a landmark to all Chicagoans and is therefore probably worthy of its landmark designation. The low-rises of the East Village of New York, however, are not worth saving. Activists at the Greenwich Village Historical Society spent years researching the buildings, saying on their website that, “research was key in our advocacy for expanding and securing today’s East Village Historic District, and the research was used by the Landmarks Preservation Commission itself in their documentation of the area.” In cases such as this, we should keep in mind why we want to save buildings: to reflect the history of our cities. If the history is not important enough to be relatively widely understood without extensive research, then it is most likely not worth of preservation.

Some people might say that I am calling for our cities to be gutted of their history and culture. But quite the opposite, really. I am calling for cities like Chicago to understand that some heritage is important, especially when that heritage provides an integral piece of history to help us understand a city, a country or the world. At the same time, I am calling on cities like New York to more carefully sift through the rich and multifarious physical legacy left by previous generations. For a city to remain culturally rich (not to mention affordable and economically diverse), some of the history must be moved aside to make way for new, more effective (and often higher density) uses.

Reforming our mindset towards preservation is about understanding that economic development and preservation do not have to be in opposition, but that through compromise we can have cities that are both growth oriented and respective of their history. Through such measures, we can hopefully make our cities more fair, efficient, and culturally exciting.

Sam Hersh is currently a student of urban studies at Haverford College in Pennsylvania hoping to use the worlds’ cities to more effectively catalyze human opportunity when he graduates. He can be reached at

Topics: Architecture and Design, Economic Development, Historic Preservation, Public Policy
Cities: Chicago, New York

42 Responses to “Historic Preservation or Economic Preservation? by Sam Hersh”

  1. It’s also important to ask if the loss of a potentially historic building (or any building for that matter) is worth more or less than what’s replacing it. It’s sad that historic preservation has become a tool of NIMBYism and a sort of overlay zoning to try to freeze out additional density or the successional development of a neighborhood, but the reason that happened is because in modern times the tradeoff has been overwhelmingly in the negative.

    Historic buildings are lost to parking lots or foreboding garages. Neighborhoods are demolished to build freeways or to widen streets. Blocks of varied and interesting buildings are razed to build monolithic single-use structures that turn their backs on the street. Even when something small is replaced by something bigger, it’s often cheaper, uglier, and an order of magnitude larger. It’s no wonder people are fed up with it.

    There needs to be some way to decide that demolishing a building is ok, because what’s replacing it will be better. That’s a tough sell with starchitects ignoring context, and uninspired architects and clients building the cheapest bland boxes they can. Still, maybe it’s a way to start more of a dialogue about how to achieve a mutually beneficial tradeoff between preservation/the neighborhood and development.

  2. Sam Hersh says:

    Jeffrey, thank you so much for your comment. I completely understand your concern and I could not agree with you more on the grounds of preservation being trumpeted out as a red herring argument by NIMBYs. But I wonder to what extent those of us who love cities fall into the same camp as NIMBYs by throwing up blocks that make development harder and urbanity more expensive (thereby only puching more people to the suburbs). If we want streets that are walkable and scaled properly for pedestrians, we should create zoning that requires new buildings to have street level access, no parking minimums etc while also boosting the neighborhoods density. We shouldn’t preserve the underutilized historic simply because we believe in a bout of futility that anything new will inevitably be too big or ugly. I won’t argue that every new building will replace something subjectively less attractive. But I also don’t believe that the first goal of neighborhood planning should be aesthetic.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    One of the standards I proposed a few years ago is that historic designation requires historic use. For example, the Triangle Shirtwaist building should be at least in part a museum of labor history, or industrial safety, or fire safety; the current use by NYU is not acceptably historic. In contrast, Federal Hall is currently a museum of early US political history, an appropriate use even if the building is not physically the same as the one that was used as the capitol in 1789-90.

    The point is that what’s important isn’t preserving the exterior of a building or putting a plaque that most people will miss, but building an actual museum. Instead of museumification of the city’s building stock, there should be more museums of the city’s history inside significant buildings. And likewise, instead of blowing billions on Calatrava monuments, a city that wants to spend money on art should fund artists, art collectives, and museums of art.

  4. I can’t say I agree with that Alon. Not even people at the National Trust would say they want only “museum buildings.” Much of the point of historic designation is to protect an important building (regardless of the reason) and still allow it to function and adapt to more modern uses.

    Many will argue that preserving the exterior of a building *IS* what’s important, for reasons of architectural history, urbanism, or even aesthetics, subjective as that may be. If only museums are allowed, per se, then there will be very little demand or use for such places, leaving little protection for everything that’s left.

  5. Jeff La Noue says:

    I would add that preservation policy probably deserves a local perspective. The article is written from a big city strong market perspective. What about buildings on historic main streets in smaller towns? Would their fabric meet the measures described? What if the market is not strong enough to build something denser, (as Jeffrey Jakucyk acknowledged) but rather the common practice of demolition for a surface parking lot? What about demolitions from something pedestrian oriented to something auto-oriented? Maybe that is more of a zoning question, but preservation policy is a factor. Look at a city like Syracuse. Is Syracuse better off today with acres upon acres of surface parking replacing lost historic fabric? Demolishing for surface parking is a very common in weaker market cities and towns including pretty big places like St. Louis. Also, what should a preservation policy be when there is lots of available and developable non-historic real estate nearby? Should that make a difference?

  6. John Morris says:

    Remember that giving a building actual landmark status loads on lots of costs and may limit the building’s reuse.

    I was once involved with an arts (Very informal- never got 503c3 status) organization that put together art shows and performances in Sunset Park Brooklyn.

    There was a neighborhood music school that wanted to take over an old police station. The building was in tragically bad shape already and mandates that every aspect of the building be restored, including tiny jail cells proved cost prohibitive.

    Later, the building caught on fire and is very unlikely to survive. I heard an almost identical building in the South Bronx met a similar fate.

  7. John Morris says:

    “Still, that was not enough to get the building in useable condition and the (Music) group soon racked up more than $100,000 in fines for a litany of violations.

    The BCAA’s efforts have met a similar fate, with the Landmarks Commission demanding immediate action in response to complaints from neighbors and more than $70,000 in fines from other sources since 2001, ranging from dangerous scaffolding to expiring construction permits.”

    In this particular case, landmarking ahs almost certainly severely hurt rescue attempts. The people at the music school loved the building and wanted deeply to save it.
    Mandates only hurt their ability to do so. The city has done nothing but fine and hassle the people trying to help.

    Read more:

  8. Frank says:

    What really jumped out for me was that you managed to write a couple paragraphs about Prentice without mentioning the words “Northwestern University.” They don’t bigfoot around the city quite as blatantly as the University of Chicago – the main campus isn’t even in the city – but as you can see they’re very *persuasive* when they want something.

    Aaron and others have written about how Chicago is full of these power players and how they clout their way into pretty much anything they want. Where I assume New York has a higher buy-in for developers, and more do-gooding philanthropists who can muster enough clout of their own to block the ambitions of the Trump types.

  9. JesryPo says:

    We’re not talking about colonial Williamsburg here: most of the East Village Historic District’s structues are four, five and six story buildings full of small apartments, and its density would be the envy of a city like Chicago. Further, the argument that preservation drives out the working class is problematic, especially in Manhattan, where most if not all new development is to build luxury housing for the hedge fund or foreign elite. It’s not as if the expansion of the Historic District has prevented block after block of dense affordable housing from being constructed. In fact, the quirky, elevator free nature of the historic fabric has kept what little patches of housing affordable for the young and creative that still exist in Lower Manhattan.

    I happen to think that the blocks that served as the gateway to just about every ethnic group’s acclimation to the American way of life are at least as important to keep around as a place where George Washington may or may not have slept. So you’re basically saying that if it’s not current to the popular imagination then it’s not worthy of preservation? By that standard Alexander Hamilton’s house in upper Manhattan would be demolished, but Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment façade in the West Village would be preserved in perpetuity…

  10. bettybarcode says:

    Hersh writes as though there are no established, codified criteria for preservation, just subjective affection for “prettiness” and vaguely-defined historicity.

    In so doing, he hints that that there is something embarrassing or juvenile about valuing beauty in our cities, when, elsewhere, lovability is openly advocated as a sustainability requisite right alongside energy efficiency. Why? Because people will care for lovable buildings and they will throw away unlovable ones, like the Prentice hospital. Here is one example of this argument:

    But I digress.

    The article would have been stronger had the author demonstrated some familiarity with the criteria used for listing on the National Register of Historic Places:

    While National Register listing does not prohibit demolition (unless federal dollars are being used at the site in some fashion), these criteria usually form the basis for local landmark designations that do offer varying degrees of protection against demolition. And no, not every old building qualifies merely by age alone.

    The writer also compares and contrasts NYC with Chicago, seemingly without knowledge of the New York State Historic Tax Credit program, which funds anywhere from 20% to 70% of qualifying repairs in buildings either listed on the National Register or deemed eligible for listing, situated in eligible census tracts. Which is like almost 100% of upstate NY. I admit that I don’t know how much of NYC qualifies.

    These tax credits are turning the tide from knee-jerk demolition to restoration, creating jobs, density, excitement, in-migration from the ‘burbs, rising property values, improved tax base, and reactivated neighborhoods — all at once.

    In Buffalo, preservation is a major economic engine. We’re probably the only city in America that not only didn’t have a real estate crash in 2008 but enjoyed steadily rising values while everyone else’s market tanked.

    Outside top-tier cities, demolition doesn’t bring bigger and better, it destroys tax base, urbanity, collective memory, a sense of place, and habitat for entrepreneurs. In the immortal words of Jane Jacobs, “New ideas need old buildings.”

  11. @bettybarcode, I think you are missing the distinction between theory and practice. From what I’ve seen, as long as buildings are old enough, with enough research anyone can get a district approved for National Register inclusion. That’s then used to get a local historic district which gives the people who promoted the district (usually the residents, not historic experts) a de facto veto on anything happening.

    In practice, nearly anywhere and everywhere, historic preservation has been corrupted into an anti-development tool. You only have to look at what’s been landmarked to see this. The Wrigley Building in Chicago was only named a landmark in 2012. In Indianapolis the single most historic part of the city (Monument Circle) is only now going through the process while multiple districts of worker cottages and such have been approved.

    At this point I we ought to think about drawing a line under new historic districts in America. How much history is just out there waiting to be discovered? If it hasn’t been found historic yet, how historic can it really be? Landmark the obvious but overlooked individual buildings (not districts), then put a moratorium on new designations.

  12. bettybarcode says:

    Well, Aaron, the History Channel has this slogan, which is absolutely correct: “Made every day.” Nine/eleven proved Francis Fukuyama, who famously predicted “the end of history,” wrong.

    “In practice, nearly anywhere and everywhere, historic preservation has been corrupted into an anti-development tool.” Really? You need to get out of Dodge more often.

    I urge you to visit Buffalo, where historic preservation has become one of the most effective tools in our economic development portfolio.

    One reason that “Preservation = Jobs” is a recurring meme around town is because preservation is better for the local economy than new construction. How can that be?

    From my other half, who is in the construction industry: for every dollar spent on new construction, about $.60 is spent on materials, which leaves the local economy to purchase stuff made elsewhere. $.40 is spent on labor, which is spent in the local economy.

    Preservation reverses that ratio: $.60 is spent on labor and $.40 is spent on materials. Much better deal for a community.

    There are a few cities that enjoy more demand (population) than supply (dwelling units). And then there are the rest of us, frequently but not exclusively in the Northeast, who are saddled with decades of disinvestment and abandonment. Preservation reverses that decline.

  13. Sam Hersh says:

    Aaron, thanks for the clarification on differences between practice and theory.

    Frank, power politics certainly plays a role in Chicago’s development scene, simply look at the way that aldermen are able to control the development in their district before it even goes before the planning commission. At the same time, this power politics also makes Chicago, “the city that works.” In Chicago, if you know the right campaigns to contribute to and the right hands to shake, it seems that you can guarantee an easy approval process for you development. All this makes preservation harder and development bigger.

    A number of people have mentioned buildings outside of big-market cities being replaced by surface parking lots (Jeff La Noue, bettybarcode). This is a fair critique of my article which I did not address. I fully agree that this problem. SPLs push development to less and less dense uses as more and more space for cars is necessitated. I believe, however, that there are plenty of more effective ways to tackle these problems while allowing for higher density if someone sees it as beneficial. Two ways that come to mind are either zoning minimum densities or taxing land more intensively than improvements on the land (thus incentivizing dense construction).

    Bettybarcode, This piece was quite short and I tried to stay away from jumping into the the minutiae of tax credits, but Illinois does offer tax credits for historic preservation as well ( As for a development strategy based in preservation alone, I must admit that I do not know enough of the Buffalo model to comment. I will only say that preservation is often more expensive than new construction and that the total number of new units supplied may be lower as a result (pushing up housing costs). Admittedly, slightly higher housing costs in Buffalo are not of paramount concern.

    JesryPo, there has been plenty of relatively strong economtric
    work showing that impeded development in one neighborhood only makes others more expensive and plenty of urban economists argue that development impeded (either by density minimums or historic preservation) pushes prices up in other neighborhoods and gentrifiers further from the historically popular places. The most salient example of this camp would be Edward Glaeser. We shouldn’t focus on the small scale. It is true that some buildings will remain differentially less expensive than their neighbors, but we have also decreased the overall supply of homes in Manhattan. Assuming some level of price inelasticity by manhattan’s wealthy elite (which seems fair imo) the overall cost of homes in Manhattan will rise as a result of the landmarkings along with the decrease in affordable housing stock somewhere else.

    As for your comment with regards Alexander Hamilton’s House and Carrie Bradshaw’s townhome, I hope most people can tell the difference between historic significance and pop-culture significance. I would also reiterate that buildings should be important in a way that pervades the person who live there.

  14. Chris Barnett says:

    Betty, “preservation” and “history” are not the same as “historic districts”. Neither do they imply “museumification”, Alon.

    People make history and do preservation every day, in every city. I’m more a fan of “adaptive reuse” than of freezing a district or structure as an artifact. I am a fan of recording history (so we do not forget), but not of setting aside unchanged every place where something of importance happened.

  15. Mike Jackson, FAIA says:

    This posting comes from the perspective of the Manhattan and Chicago cores, which makes this discussion somewhat limited when it comes to evaluating the broader question of the planning value of preservation. What is interesting, is the political will in New York to create large historic districts of lower density buildings with the market implication that this will push development in other directions. One of Manhattan’s great achievements has been the cities mix of high density urban avenues with low-rise residential side streets as connectors. You can have it both ways! The Chicago story is more about the use of iconic architecture as one preservation value and the unfortunate position that “new and bigger” trumps preservation. One only has to look at the Block 37 debacle to see one of the largest planning, preservation and economic development failures in the history of America. A whole block of historic buildings was demolished, a city landmark was “unlandmarked,” the land sat vacant for 20 years and the resulting design is mediocre at best. There is also the larger story of what is the ideal density for a city? Paris and Washington DC don’t allow high rises, and provide a very dense and high quality of life. Most of New York City other than Manhattan is relatively low-rise. The need for density to make mass transit really work may be the most critical question, not the question of “how high can I build.”

  16. Eric Fazzini says:

    Historic preservation is often a byproduct of disinvestment or underinvestment. Covington Kentucky was basically preserved until historic protections were put in place simply because it was somewhat depressed and therefore redevelopment did not occur. So maybe informal historic preservation is at odds with economic development since economic development usually means redevelopment.

  17. Preservation by disinvestment is a double-edged sword. Yes it can prevent a place from being excessively redeveloped or otherwise whittled away in favor of “teh new shiny,” like Covington, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, Troy New York, much of Charleston and New Orleans, as well as Prague and Bruges in Europe. The problem is that there’s a very delicate balance. The type of disinvestment you see in the US can only preserve a place for a few decades before attrition through decay and abandonment becomes a problem. That’s when the preservation ordinances come out, to try to keep the place from crumbling away. At least in the European cities that were preserved through neglect, they weren’t virtually abandoned like their US counterparts, so the buildings were at least marginally maintained and mostly occupied.

  18. John Morris says:

    I don’t think most of the people supporting these districts in Manhattan cared much about actual demand or creating growth elsewhere.

    Many of the same people oppose development in Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Long Island City and other former manufacturing districts. Mostly they just don’t seem to care about the total effect on anyone but them.

    This mentality partly developed over the long period when it seemed like total demand for development was not large. A lot of other people like Alon who think almost every historic landmark can be a museum are plainly delusional.

    Remember also that many of these districts like Soho & Tribeca only developed because large numbers of people broke existing laws to use the buildings. Most were not viable in their former use and likely would have been abandoned and neglected.

    Underlying all of this is the arrogant assumption that most owners have no care for these buildings and would tear down and destroy anything they could. Many people in places like Pittsburgh want to reuse properties if they can.

  19. John Morris says:

    “So the buildings were at least marginally maintained and mostly occupied.”

    Right, in places like Berlin, there seems to be acceptance of gradual adaption rather than the all or nothing situation regulation often causes here.

  20. Jeff La Noue says:

    The Atlantic Cities shows photos of roughly the same places 100 years later in Buffalo and Baltimore. Again, very different market dynamics than Chicago and NYC. However, NYC (Manhattan) and Chicago (downtown)also have had their ups and downs and may in the future. Demand may not go up and up forever in Manhattan and the Loop. Interesting to see what was preserved and what wasn’t in these two midsize cities. Does the hundred year horizon change anything policy wise? What will we want to still have a hundred years from now for our grandkids?



  21. Buffalo has fewer jobs today than it did in 1990, so it’s hard to argue the historic architecture has catalyzed economic development. But I do think there’s a point that in a city that has economically struggled, historic buildings can be one of the limited number of assets on which to rebuild. On the other hand, lots of these cities spend a lot of time and money sustaining legacy assets and institutions instead of building for the future.

  22. Jeff La Noue says:

    The photos show Buffalo has invested in highway and parking assets for their central city.

    One challenge for historic adaptive reuse is that it is often an all or nothing proposition. To get use & occupancy permit to reuse an old (commercial) building often needs all kinds of drastic and expensive upgrades from egress issues, sprinkler systems, to lead paint and asbestos abatement, to often 1 for 1 zoned parking requirements. These code requirements often lead to historic assets be labelled obsolete or economically not viable. If the older buildings are rehabbed to code, the rents are high because of the costs of renovation. Many of these buildings could be reused affordably by those looking for cheap space, if not for all the code issues. Codes can be useful, but sometimes they limit the supply of cheap space for those willing to deal with a building code deficiencies.

  23. John Morris says:

    Right, codes often doom buildings to destruction and in the case of Buffalo undermine what should be the advantage of affordable space.

    “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them…. for really new ideas of any kind—no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be—there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”

    Jane Jacobs

    Her case for old buildings had more to do with affordability than aesthetics. This is forgotten or ignored, which is why we often associate historic preservation with often bland, gentrified neighborhoods.

  24. John Morris says:

    Obviously, a meticulously restored historic building can also rarely support innovative new uses that can’t cover the cost of restoration.

  25. Chris Barnett says:

    While I agree that reuse without total rehab is often good, it is necessary to point out that the basis of building codes is life safety.

    Fire suppression and fire safety are not trivial things, and as a society we tend to legislate safety (and more importantly, liability for unsafe structures, where “code” is the definition of “safe”).

    I have no problem as a home or building owner taking what I consider to be acceptable personal risk. However, code inspectors, fire marshals and my insurance company will have something to say about it as soon as I open my doors to others or try to sell.

    If such a building is full of knob-and-tube (or aluminum) wiring, rotted wood windows and sills, inadequate fire escapes and fire suppression, galvanized (or lead) water-supply pipe, improperly vented drain lines, and excessive floor-joist spans, it might really be functionally obsolete.

    If an old building so built has no distinguishing characteristics, new might be better, safer, and more energy and water-efficient.

    Innovative new uses might find more appropriate space in Class C suburban strip malls in most cities.

  26. John Morris says:

    Lots of building codes go way beyond safety. Parking requirements and ADA/ elevators etc… doom many. many buildings.

    The average steel frame, brick early 19th century industrial or commercial building is often so beyond way beyond we come up with today. Look at the Packard plant in Detroit after almost 60 years, empty exposed to the elements.

    Is Berlin burning to the ground?

  27. John Morris says:

    “Innovative new uses might find more appropriate space in Class C suburban strip malls in most cities.”

    Meaning one should throw away all the basic benefits of proximity a city can offer?

  28. John Morris says:

    As an artist, I see lots of people doing potentially dangerous stuff at home, for lack of close, affordable studio space- often while industrial buildings sit empty or filled with boxes due to minor code issues.

  29. JesryPo says:

    I’m not sure how we have “decreased the overall supply of homes in Manhattan” by saving the East Village from wanton development. Are there not whole swaths of the island (like say, Hudson Yards) that remained undeveloped for a century? The only reason why developers WANT to build in the East Village is because of the demand for housing that has been CREATED by the subjective admiration of the existing built environment. You can very easily kill the goose that is laying those golden eggs…

    I would argue that the preservation of neighborhoods has been pivotal, if not a primary catalyst behind the re-emergence of New York as the cultural and lifestyle touchstone that it has become. I think it is clear that it is the quality of the built environment that makes Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn so highly sought-after as places to live, and this quality of life is the result of historic preservation. It is a fallacy to think that location plays a primary role in the way this market values residential property. After all, Roosevelt Island is one subway stop from Midtown, but who the hell wants to live in its hellscape of charmless density?

  30. JesryPo says:

    The bottom line, for me at least, is if we were designing buildings, streets and urban environments that were better than what we demolish, then landmark districts and preservation would lose their grip on development – and be reserved for building that are truly “historic.” I use the example of the very faint lamentation for the loss of the old Waldorf Astoria on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. Why? Because it was replaced by the beloved Empire State Building.

    The dirty truth is that the construction and development industries (of which I am a part) have become more and more efficient at wringing as much profit as possible from any given piece of land. We shrink floor-to-floor heights to their minimum, we budget for cheap slider aluminum windows, we expose the edges of our slabs to save on exterior skin costs, we use loud and inefficient PTAC units, we make residential floor plans as cramped as we are allowed – all in the service of the almighty pro-forma. We build crap. Block after block of crap. It’s no wonder the public fears new development. Trust me: they should.

    I *love* working on ground-up development projects in historic districts. Why? Because my clients and their investors know they have to answer to a higher power, namely New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. They know that the lowest-common-denominator schlock that squeaked by elsewhere will not fly. They know that they have to hire a thoughtful architect and budget for good windows. AND DESPITE THE HIGHER COSTS, THEY MAKE A FORTUNE on these projects.

    I think the ultimate issue here in New York is one of nomenclature: “landmarks” and “historic” are used when what we really want to say is “higher quality.” Our post-modern education does not allow for such subjective appraisals, so we inelegantly apply poorly fitting terms to pass “objective” muster. New Yorkers would consider a “design review board” like Boston’s an anathema, yet embrace the LPC.

  31. John Morris says:


    And who are the tenants? Cool record shops- moved to Brooklyn- Ditto bookstores- Punk Clubs? closed, ditto a lot of the more innovative anything.

    Sorry, but certainly the East Village was much more about the energy the tenants brought than about great buildings- though there are some.

  32. John Morris says:


    Right, so the problem is we build lots of crap. How does all this red tape really change that?

  33. John Morris says:


    Not saying I don’t agree with you on some level but don’t you see the irony?

    Lower Manhattan’s built environment was preserved in Soho, Tribeca, The Meat District etc to a large degree by owners and tenants willing to break zoning laws and building codes.

    Would the buildings many love even be here if they hadn’t?

    Also, if preservation alone accounts for the value, why is the strange free form creative mismash of the Chelsea gallery district one of the hottest real estate markets?

  34. Sam Hersh says:

    I’m just going to echo what a few others have been saying re JesryPo and add that the East Village is not going to become Roosevelt Island. The money necessary to buy out a neighborhood and tear it apart to create some massive complex is far too high. Builders even know that this sort of density is not what modern urbanites want. Especially if we zone parking and street-level engagement properly, the small lot sizes of the East Vilage will be taken over bit by bit with larger buildings that add to the varied rhythm of the city streets. I’m not proposing that we engage in midcentury “renewal” projects, merely arguing that these battles over “neighborhood character” only serve to make our cities less dynamic. Think about all the amazing neighborhoods in which increased interest destroyed what was once considered “neighborhood character.” I’m talking about any neighborhood in any urban area that added density slowly and in a piecemeal fashion and, as the neighborhood became denser, no committees of preservationists objected to the progress.

  35. bettybarcode says:

    This just in from the New York Times:

    “Once just a punchline, Buffalo fights back.”

    We have so much vacant land that we can have historic preservation *and* new construction. Cake & eat it, too.

  36. Anonymous says:

    Comparing the last year of preservation choices does not create a useful narrative of preservation or development in Chicago vs. New York.

    Chicago has historically had a much more robust preservation community, working to find arrangements through which the most important aspects of a building are preserved while allowing for the continued growth of the city. This is almost to a T what Mr. Hersh is advocating for. While New York is still known as a place where preservation is most commonly used as a guise for opposition to development.

    Facadectomys do not often happen in Chicago, but the few instances which worked well have set a precedent for less successful projects. Such as the Lucien Lagrange atrocity he highlights in this article. This is an area where the city must maintain a high bar, setting basic standards for how a reconstructed facade must be used. Either by requiring that there be uses wrapping any parking which occupies a historic facade, or using the right to a facadectomy as a bargaining chip to gain as many improvements to a development as possible. Such as at Legacy, where institutions such as the School of the Art Institute, and the University Club of Chicago benefited from the project through additional space, or an integration of facilities to improve membership and benefits.

    Under Rahm, Chicago has seemed to value quick solutions economic agreements over the considerate and complex solutions which lead to both preservation and developments which are fully integrated into the city. This might be a product of a preservation commission which has little preservation spine, but it should not overshadow decades of collaboration between a robust preservation and development community who have found common ground.

  37. Alon Levy says:

    Bettybarcode, re,

    Further, the argument that preservation drives out the working class is problematic, especially in Manhattan, where most if not all new development is to build luxury housing for the hedge fund or foreign elite,

    housing is housing. There’s no such thing as “housing built for rich people.” There’s a housing shortage, which means that when housing is allocated based on market mechanism, the rich will get it. It’s equally true of supposedly working-class West Village walkups: average incomes in the Village are at Upper West Side levels.

    The cost of building luxury housing is such that the middle class could afford it quite easily if prices matched construction costs. A 100 m^2 apartment in a New York condo costs $230,000 to build (link). That’s including the marble counter tops. At New York’s average price-to-rent ratio that would be about $1,000 in monthly rent. It sells for a million dollars and rents for perhaps $4,000 a month, because there are far more people who’d be willing to live in $230,000 100-m^2 apartments in New York than there are permits for new apartments. So buyers bid up the price. Historic preservation is one of the regimes New York uses to keep housing scarce and raise the owners’ property values. The rent-controlled renters don’t care because it doesn’t affect them, but those of us who don’t have such a deal end up paying top dollar for shoeboxes.

    By the way, I didn’t invent the term museumification. It’s used in Paris, which is full of historical preservation laws, strict height limits, and strict rent controls to allow at least some non-super-rich people to live in the city.

  38. bettybarcode says:


    “Further, the argument that preservation drives out the working class is problematic, especially in Manhattan, where most if not all new development is to build luxury housing for the hedge fund or foreign elite…”

    I did not write this, JesryPo did.

  39. Alon Levy says:

    Apologies, you are right.

  40. Courtney says:

    Until the 1970’s we have only been telling the DWM history. Dead white males; Jeffreon, Washington, Kennedy, etc. Public history is finally evolving to try to tell the breadth and width of the American experience, from immigrants stacked into tenements in NYC or rural historic districts where entire German communities immigrated to aces in North Dakota because the railroads recruited them. Women’s history, minority history, Native American history- ALL are valuable and ALL have specific places where elements of that story can be communicated.

    In order to communicate that history, we have to retain places that aren’t necessarily “pretty.”

    And, this article discusses a narrow section of the American preservation movement. NYC and Chicago have their problems, yes. But what about the vast swaths of American Main streets? The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program has been instrumental in helping mom and pop shops on Main Street survive economically.

    I’m team Betty on this one!

  41. Eric says:

    I’d honestly rather live in a historic neighborhood with underinvestment than a Manhattan that is losing historic buildings at a rapid place. Pretty soon it will have the character of an Asian city. And the Loop Chicago didn’t look that different than OTR Cincinnati prior to Chicago’s boom in the late 19th Century. So I maintain that underinvestment is a tool for historic preservation. Isn’t that the battle that is most often waged, anyways?

  42. Dan Wolf says:

    Agree that “underinvestment is a tool for historic preservation”. Another aid to historic presevation is quality buildings built beautifully and made to last. Where few people, including developers, would wantonly tear down buildings from former generations; and would also find it difficult and expensive to demolish well built buildings. So if we want future generations to inherit what we build, then we must build “landmarks” made to last. As a land broker I concede that multi-million dollar property and the certain prospect for the generation of multiple millions of dollars will likely lead to demolitions in the distant future, though not all. Part of the secret to believing that your “landmark” will last is to Not build at “main and main”, the best that one can guess that. Another idea for historic preservation is to build a whole district of similar or at least compatible landmark quality structures that capture the admiration of everyone. “over the Rhine” in Cincinnati did this, perhaps unknowingly, in the 1840 to 1890 era. Now it is recognized as an amazing jewel of historic urban grit now coming to life again. This, 120 years after the last building of its tribe (19th Century Romanesque) was built!

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