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


By Susan Kathryn Hefti
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.