Can Los Angeles Teach Gotham About City Planning and Historic Preservation?

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By Susan Kathryn Hefti
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report
[email protected]

The French artist and engineer, Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. President George Washington had asked his fellow revolutionary soldier to design the nation’s capital city on what was a near-empty canvas: the land designated by the fledgling U.S. Congress was still relatively undeveloped in 1791. What a glorious opportunity for a true visionary!

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Surely the Major, who had won the plum assignment after impressing the president with his design for the insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati, must have had étoiles in his eyes imagining a city that would stand in perpetuity as the triumphant symbol of the freedom and independence that the beleaguered rebel army wrestled from the British.

There may also have been dollar signs in L’Enfant eyes. For his baroque plan, with its radiating boulevards and dedicated green spaces, was intended to serve as a model for future American cities as our nation developed. In other words, the good Major expected a shot at national syndication.

But, just like the quivering mouse learned at the wrong end of the Scottish poet Robert Burns’ plough one cold winter morning, “[t]he best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” are often laid to waste. For no sooner did L’Enfant finish his marvelous design for what would become the District of Columbia was he booted from the project for having stubbornly crossed the powers that be (just the names change in politics, the rest remains the same). So, while the artist’s personal vision for our nation’s capital was ultimately realized, its execution was carried out sans L’Enfant. And, despite 219 intervening years, D.C. still remains one of the very few planned cities in all of America.

Prior to his grand misadventure in Washington, however, L’Enfant had successfully managed to complete the 1789 remodeling of City Hall in New York City to be used as the nation’s temporary capital. The very thought of this genius toiling, drafting, planning in Gotham makes me wonder what might have happened if L’Enfant had been born 100 years earlier. Might he have been granted the opportunity to plan New York City? What might it look like today if he had?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s another city anywhere in the world that can compete with this big, bold, hurly-burly lug of a town. Still, I can’t help but contemplate what New York City might be like if it had actually been planned from the start.

But by the time L’Enfant appeared on the scene in the late 18th century, New York City had already sprouted up like a series of disconnected patches of wild flowers, each with its own unique and intoxicating character, but organized with as little rhyme or reason as the wind that carried the seeds. Unlike D.C., New York City had no master plan, no great birds-eye vision for a cohesive community joined together by anything like an interconnected system of subways, much less the radiating boulevards envisioned by the Gallic engineer.

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Any casual observer who’s ever witnessed Chinatown after a heavy rainstorm knows the enduring impact the failure to plan still wreacks on the many apartment buildings, restaurants, banks and storefronts sited atop what was once one of Manhattan’s largest freshwater ponds. While countless plans for the arts, politics and commerce have been brilliantly hatched and meticulously executed in New York City over the years, the 301 square miles that defines the city’s physical evocation were neither planned, designed nor even measured from the start.

So, given our development history — or lack thereof — it should come as no surprise that much of what was built without a comprehensive plan continues to be demolished without a comprehensive plan.

Every year in New York City, in fact, thousands of buildings are razed throughout all five boroughs without the slightest clue as to the histories behind these structures. And while some of the buildings demolished may not be historically significant, without a citywide survey of its building stock, “a lot of historic properties are going to fall through the cracks,” says Adrian Fine, director of the Center for state and local policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP).

In 2006, for instance, with New York City real estate development still raging on steroids and credit cheaper than a pint of mu shu pork, the Department of Buildings(DOB) issued 6,479 demolition permits, a figure which doesn’t even include partial demolitions, only tear-downs. And, according to the DOB’s own account, the city issued 16,040 demolition permits from 2006 to 2008 — again, a figure that accounts only for total tear-downs.

Just how many of these tear-downs involved structures of particular historic value is literally anybody’s guess: the DOB is not required to inquire into the histories of undesignated buildings before granting permission to demolish them. So while the bursting of the housing bubble was deflating your 401(k), it was also taking with it an untold collection of buildings that may or may not have had great significance.

If a citywide survey were available, the information could not only be accessed by the DOB, but by developers, property owners and preservationists before the city allowed demolition to occur. After all, once a demolition permit is granted, it’s already pretty late in the game, explains Louis J. Coletti, president of the Building Trade Employers’ Association (BTEA), which represents 1,700 citywide construction companies.

The BTEA, says Coletti, doesn’t dispute the fact that some buildings should be off-limits to demolition, but he says the lack of available information about buildings complicates real estate development. He claims that if the investment were made “up front” to identify which buildings may have historic significance, then from his “side of the table, the issues go away.” Battles erupt, he says, when the city fails to “identify historic structures beforehand” — when developers find themselves facing angry preservationists and neighborhood organizations rallying around a building already slated for demolition.

Therefore, like characters in a Sartre play, property owners, preservationists, the DOB and the myriad developers Coletti represents are all perpetually consigned to play out the same drama over and over because no one knows which of the city’s undesignated structures — 97 percent of the stock — may have historic significance and which may not.

Preservationists and developers both complain that the city’s looped-triage approach is wildly inefficient. Indeed, the only time a review takes place prior to a demolition permit being issued is when the structure is already a) a designated individual landmark, b) situated within a designated historic district or c) has been calendared by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) for a public hearing to consider landmark status. With only three percent of New York City’s structures having landmark designation and no citywide survey to indicate which structures might be designated in the future, the vast void of relevant information routinely fuels conflicts across all five boroughs.

In each of the last three years, the City Council has provided the LPC with funding to conduct historic surveys; most recently, it allocated $300,000 toward such a task. And, according to LPC spokesperson Elisabeth de Bourbon, the LPC did, in fact, conduct 22,000 surveys between fall 2006 and spring 2008.

But with close to one million buildings in New York City (there’s no record of the exact figure), Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council (HDC), says the LPC does not do nearly enough surveying and that much of what the LPC takes credit for was not city-initiated but in reaction to the voluminous backlog of Requests for Evaluations (RFE) brought by preservation groups. And, he adds, many of the surveys the LPC takes credit for are actually replications of surveys previously done by community-based preservation groups, who often hire professionals to conduct the time-consuming historic research and in-depth analysis necessary for landmark designation.

By duplicating finished work, Bankoff asserts that the LPC’s approach can actually impede a landmark bureaucracy already seen as glacially paced. So while he commends the LPC for trying to make improvements, he says that because the commission lacks a cohesive strategy for surveying New York City’s vast building collection, its approach remains much too “loosey-goosey.”

Finding an upside in the economic downturn, the NTHP’s Fine suggests that while development pressures have eased, as the housing market continues to try to correct itself, elected officials, city leaders, developers and the preservation community finally have the breathing space in which to consider meaningful ways to shore up the gaps between development practices and the city’s preservation process.

With its more than 400 square miles and at least 880,000 legal parcels (some of which account for more than one building), Fine points to the city of Los Angeles as the “shining example” for communities nationwide as L.A. has begun the Herculean task of a comprehensive citywide survey.

When I asked Mark Silberman, general counsel to the LPC, whether he thought it might be useful for New York City to initiate a citywide survey, he laughed at the sheer folly of such an enormous task. Dismissing the idea out of hand, Silberman said, “But how would you ever do something like that?” Not knowing the answer to Silberman’s question, I called the experts in L.A.

And I was immediately encouraged when Ken Bernstein, manager of the Office of Historic Resources for the city of Los Angeles, said that part of the goal of SurveyLA is to share with communities across the globe the cutting edge technology and sophisticated methodology that L.A. has developed in partnership with the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI). So the LPC’s slow start could actually result in a windfall as New York City could benefit tremendously from their collaborative blueprint.

With its streamlined yet inclusive approach (the survey takes great pains to include cultural and historic resources not generally captured by an eyeball survey), Janet Hansen, the OHR’s deputy manager, says that over a four-month period, the city of Los Angeles surveyed 30,000 parcels — part of a pilot project to launch a broad citywide survey that is expected to be complete by 2012. Said Timothy Whalen, executive director of the GCI, “We can’t preserve and conserve things unless we know where they are and what they are.”In essence, the GCI considers surveys the critical first step in any successful preservation effort and argues that investing the resources to do the work up front is just good common sense. Toward the end of my conversation with Hansen, she wistfully mused that once SurveyLA is complete; her dream job would be to travel around the country teaching other municipalities how to execute comprehensive surveys based on the GCI model.

So, with the full faith and confidence that SurveyLA will become the template that L’Enfant’s D.C. never did, I hereby cordially invite the good folks at the GCI for a walking tour of New York City’s fabled streets — the same streets made famous by so many of Hollywood’s finest films. For, I have no doubt, if we were to show Whalen around town, he would be just as gobsmacked as the rest of us. I’ll even organize a posse of preservationists to squire him about town — posthaste.

Please send preservation news tips and info to: [email protected].

Susan Kathryn Hefti is a playwright and active member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Her history play, A Defiant Soul, has been performed throughout the New York City school system as a teaching workshop in early American history. Hefti is also the author and curator of the New York City history exhibit “The Flushing Remonstrance: Who Shall Plead For Us?” Shortly after its 2009 opening, this celebrated exhibit was quickly booked at venues nationwide through the summer of 2010. Her new play, American Dames (or…Waiting for Dolley), introduces us to a group of Upper East Side women confronting their relevance in the ever-changing cultural landscape known as 21st century America. Hefti has been active in historic preservation pretty much her whole life. The Preservation Diaries does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.

  • Robin Lane

    Very enlightening article, most surprising is that L.A.(a city teeming with cars not walkers) is so ahead of us in preservation.
    Go figure!

    Thank you Kathryn.

  • Kathy Plotkin

    Hear ye, hear ye! Five stars for this new column and new columnist. The in-depth, imaginative, dog-after-a-bone research and sprightly presentation of a possible path to solving a thorny muncipal problem should be brought to the eyes of every passionate preservationist in New York City. Might we also hope that would include our mayor?

  • Andrea

    Great article! It really made me think about the assumptions I’ve made regarding the city’s historic preservation oversight. And regarding planning, I live in Forest Hills and often think how great the city would be if we had more planned communities. Your article broadens my wonder: how much more fabulous the city might have been if it had created and fulfilled a master urban plan in its early years. Thanks.

  • Great article–and a hopeful note for New York City which, from even its first moments, has always been a city of change, pitting the old against the new. That Los Angeles could teach New York about historic preservation seems like grist for a Woody Allen joke, but one never knows from whence great ideas may spring.

  • Kelly

    Thank you for the extremely informative and enlightening article! I am thrilled with the fresh writing of this fabulous new preservation columnist, and look forward to future articles!

  • mgp

    Lovely initial essay!
    The tone as well as the content reveal style as well as thoughtfulness.
    I look forward to her next article!

  • mgp

    Lovely essay!

    (Para 7: it is ‘wreaks’, not ‘wrecks’

    Stylish and thoughtful

    MGP

  • Ernie Braasch

    Growing up in NY and now living in NC, I always enjoy reading about a city I love. I thought your article was very informative factually and raised important municipal issues in a thoughtful and hopeful manner. I always appreciate when someone not only highlights a problem, but also suggests solutions. Thanks for a thoughtful and beautifully written article.

  • Pei

    It is good that preservation is still important and nice to see informed articles on the subject. Hopefully we will be able to, with the tenacity of presevationists like the author, preserve more of our city’s history.

  • Kurt Brokaw

    Sue is a well-respected author, historian, cultural anthropologist and
    neighborhood preservationist of the first order. Her voice is especially important railing
    against an administration that favors developers and whose Business Improvement Districts
    (BIDS) are committed to privatizing every foot of public space they can appropriate. Sue’s
    preservation columns and efforts are a breath of fresh air in a city that needs all the fresh air
    it can get.

  • Leslee

    Brilliant Susan! Engaging, informative and fun. And thank you for creating dialogue on this pressing subject. I am one of the lucky New Yorkers to have this powerhouse preservationist living on my block!

  • Rhoda Peterson

    Having attended the lecture at the Museum of the City of New York which was a most enlightening and educational evening put together by Susan Hefti, and now reading her most worthwhile column, I intend to look out for more of her knowledgeable writing. Kudos to your paper.

  • Cathy A.

    Ms. Hefti’s article is like a breath of fresh air. In today’s world where everything is “disposable”, it is so refreshing to see that someone cares about our roots, heritage and history, not to mention the beautiful architecture of yesteryear that is so striking especially in comparison to the blandness of today’s structures. It’s about time that these priceless buildings and neighborhoods get their due respect. Thank you Ms. Hefti for all you are doing. Bravo!!

  • jody jordan

    Extremely insightful. I’m going to make my commute into the big city with new eyes this morning.Great piece of thoughtful imformation!

  • Dervla

    Such an interesting article! Makes me think about New York in a way I never have before. Looking forward to the next installment.

  • Tabetha Garman

    Wonderful article! We lose historic sites every day in our America; it is fantastic to see someone doing something about it. Keep up the good fight!

  • MaryJane M.weiss

    This statistic-filled article further cemented my belief in our society’s willingness to blithely dispose rather than lovingly restore. Of all the thousands of demolitions, how many could’ve been renovated within their period design?
    Fifteen years ago, when walking the streets of downtown Manhattan, I was re-introduced to the magnificence of the older buildings (the intriguing touches…faces, figures, flowers, etc.) by my then toddler children. They taught me to look down along the sidewalk, eye level and gaze upward to appreciate these structures. I suggest a walking tour for children as well as “the powers that be” so generations to follow will be mindful of the history surrounding the building of one of the greatest cities in the world.
    Thank you Susan for this fascinating read…so looking forward to further installments!

  • Elisabeth de Bourbon, NYC Landmarks Commission

    Some corrections to this article: The City Council allocated the funding for only two years. The administration subsequently continued this support. The writer requested an interview with Mark Silberman to discuss proposed “demolition delay” legislation, and when asked about surveys he said that topic was outside his purview and referred the writer to LPC’s Executive Director, who was interviewed at length for this article, but was not asked to comment on the feasibility of a citywide survey.

  • Bunnie

    This is an outstanding article. I applaude the author!!!

  • Jim Gerson

    Beautifully written exposition on a truly important issue. Bravo!!!

  • E.Pliakis

    Love this new column! Thoughtful & certainly thought provoking…it is time we stopped photographing our architectural heritage, archiving the images, then demolishing the subject matter only to replace same with dull and dispirited building projects….who please does not long for the “real” Pennsylvania Station?…whose soul would it not uplift?

  • Dick B

    An enlightening and informative article. It points out how remarkable it is that NYC doesn’t have any kind of demolition review process in place. Hopefully this article will begin this long overdue discussion and lead to a much needed, effective and sensible review process. Looking forward to the next article by Susan Kathryn Hefti!

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