Landmarking in Gotham: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish?


By Susan Kathryn Hefti
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report

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As summer slowly exits stage right, Gotham’s green leaves rapidly russet. Severe desiccation — resulting from a Sahara-like summer scorched with record-high temperatures — has accelerated the natural pace of this perennial but not-so-subtle color cue, reminding us that the chill of winter will be upon us before too long.

Yet despite the sauna-like conditions successive heat waves visited upon our city in the summer of 2010, the annual leafy reminder of winter’s inevitability seems rudely redundant this year as New York has yet to shake from its bones the big chill that crept in many moons earlier. A quick stroll up Madison Avenue, still freckled with empty storefronts, would prompt even the most devout optimist among us to peer over the rim of his rosy-tinted glasses while a shiver races up his spine.

Given the bald stubbornness of the frigid economy and the intractable tundra into which it has plunged many a municipal budget throughout the country, it comes as no surprise this week that New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has called upon city agencies to slash an additional 5.4 percent (with the exception of certain vital services which are expected to cut 2.7 percent), to reduce a total of $800 million from the 2011 fiscal budget.

In such an icy fiscal climate, where the long-ignored warnings of budget hawks are finally coming home to roost, it would hardly seem anachronistic if there were a sudden surge in sales of Poor Richard’s Almanack. After all, had we heeded the homespun fiscal lessons of Benjamin Franklin’s popular annual pamphlet (first published in 1732), our economy might not be perched at such an uncomfortable proximity to the abyss.

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Dispensing with folksy financial wisdom like an 18th century apothecary trafficking in economic elixirs, the almanac — a virtual cash cow for the man who refused to profit from his invention of the lightning rod — is filled with pithy little apothegms still embedded in our cultural fabric, like “a penny wise, pound foolish.” This is also quoted as “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and “a penny saved is a penny earned” — even as our nation has turned a collective deaf ear to their simple, obvious instruction.

Writing about these traditional proverbs in his introduction to a 2007 edition of the almanac — a book that also provides readers with predictions about the weather, when to plant crops and the phases of the moon — Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve Chairman, found that “a fair number seem particularly apropos for today’s world.” And while Volcker points out that the penny is hardly worth its name these days, the underlying principle — to be frugal and wise when making decisions about spending money — is one that all governments must now bear in mind.

In hard times, it becomes incumbent upon any responsible government to rethink the way it spends public dollars. In the case of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), were Benjamin Franklin running things today, he might suggest that this fiscal crisis is the perfect opportunity to finally reconsider the LPC’s s strategy — or lack thereof — in conducting surveys of our city’s historic building stock.

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Survey Says? Pictured: Leo Blackman, President, Historic Districts Council

Though widely recognized as a vital tool in the effort to protect New York City’s architectural, cultural and historic heritage, the LPC’s executive director, Kate Daly, told me in a phone interview that surveys do not occur here according to a comprehensive master plan. Most often they are the result of persistent neighborhood requests or what some might even call eleventh-hour preservation emergencies — where plans to demolish an undesignated historic structure are already underway. According to Daly, at any given moment the LPC has a “lengthy list of [proposed] historic districts” it has been asked to evaluate. Daly admitted there is no plan underway right now to conduct a city-wide comprehensive survey.

Rather than trying to protect historic structures through the fits and starts that come of request-driven surveys, other American municipalities have opted for a comprehensive blueprint, or guide, to their building inventory. While keeping an eye on the bottom line of how best to utilize the dollars available for historic building surveys, the databases created with the comprehensive-analysis approach also serve to better inform developers and preservationists before their often competing goals come to blows.

Born in Boston in 1706, Franklin first moved to Philadelphia in 1723 and finally settled there a bit later. So chances are, the Founding Father perhaps most closely associated with the concept of frugality might be pleased as punch to know his adopted city is indeed one of the municipalities engaged in an effort to conduct a comprehensive historic survey. Aimed at stemming the indiscriminate demolition of Philadelphia’s historic fabric, the private-public partnership enabling this ambitious undertaking would no doubt also meet with Franklin’s approval, as he is often credited with inventing the concept of matching funds.

In a phone interview, John Andrew Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, talked with me at length about how his city came to believe that a comprehensive preservation plan was the best way to go. Gallery said a turning point in Philadelphia occurred when a neighborhood group proposed the nomination of its 1950s subdivision for landmark designation. The group wanted the subdivision — “the first racially integrated development,” Gallery says — to be designated on the 50th anniversary of the neighborhood.

While the Preservation Alliance immediately recognized the social and cultural significance of the subdivision, Gallery said its architectural importance remained a blank. So when it was finally discovered that the development had been designed by the renowned architect Louis Kahn, the preservation community was stunned. “None of us had known about it because there is no comprehensive survey,” Gallery told me. And once it became apparent that Philadelphia might have lost one of Kahn’s contributions were it not for this accidental revelation, Gallery said there was no denying the time had come to “set priorities rather than do it [surveys] in a random way.”

Now, with even less money in many city budgets, New York’s included, it becomes an imperative to scrutinize the methodology we employ to conduct our surveys. And since the goal of the New York City Landmarks law is to protect as much historically significant inventory as possible, and since the budget crisis requires fiscal efficiency, a more comprehensive strategy may finally be in order.

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In Philadelphia, the first stage of that city’s preservation plan — a public-private collaboration between the Preservation Alliance, the City of Philadelphia and numerous private partners — has already been set in motion. The Preservation Alliance’s website offers the following description of this initial step toward a comprehensive city-wide plan:

“The first stage includes preparation of a strategic preservation plan based upon extensive public consultation, a statement of historic significance defining the important themes in the history of the physical development of the city and the development of a methodology for a citywide survey of built resources based on the use of the latest in technology.”

Gallery told me that notwithstanding the fact that preservationists “are often painted as people who obstruct development,” the community’s real objective is to figure out how to “strike the balance between those things that give your city character and what will promote growth.”

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Reflecting on Gallery’s comment, I was reminded of remarks made by then-candidate Bloomberg at a 2001 breakfast forum hosted by a coalition of preservation advocacy groups. While still lobbying for a job he has now parlayed into an unexpected third term, Bloomberg described his own preservation goals in terms of finding just such a balance. Casting more than just a bit of irony on candidate-Bloomberg’s musings while breaking bread with New York City’s preservation community some eight years later, the Mayor famously compared himself to master builder Robert Moses.

Mocked by some for the grandiosity of the credit he so greedily tried to grab for himself, one project for which Bloomberg has not tried to take credit is the glorious reinvention of Grand Central Terminal. Now a sparkling showcase, many New Yorkers still remember holding their noses, quite literally, while dashing through the dark and smelly terminal en route to a train.

As it would happen, in the earliest stages of that fine preservation project — long before the refurbished ceiling’s twinkling stars were a gleam in anybody’s eyes — the Municipal Arts Society (MAS) hired Kathryn Welch Howes to produce a study exploring what steps might be taken to reinvigorate the worn-out station. In a phone interview, Kent Barwick, president emeritus of the MAS, said that Howes quickly rose to the challenge, doing such a thorough job that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), impressed with Howes’ report, hired her to advise the MTA on the very same subject.

Later, Howes went on to work with the City of Los Angeles and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), helping to get Survey LA — that’s municipality’s comprehensive city-wide historic survey — off the ground.

The message came through loud and clear in a phone interview with Howes: She is a big fan of city-wide surveys not only because they provide a clear picture of a municipality’s historic inventory, but also because a systematic comprehensive approach enables an agency to more efficiently allocate its attention and resources. Concluding it had been, Howes says, “penny wise, pound foolish in the past,” the City of Los Angeles decided to take her advice and partnered with the GCI to begin the process of a comprehensive survey. Touting the fiscal efficiency of this approach, Howes said “[t]he old fashioned way of doing it is like Sisyphus: It’s like pushing a rock up a hill.” Without a blueprint, Howes added, it’s just a wasteful “ad hoc reactive process.”

So, between her previous experience with New York City’s historic preservation community and her expertise not just with city-wide surveys but in the sort of public-private partnerships that keep honorable public projects afloat during frosty economic times, the time seems ripe for Howes to return to Gotham.

As one of the preservation community’s greatest ambassadors of hope, perhaps Barwick would be willing to negotiate a preservation summit between Mayor Bloomberg and Howes. The perfect moderator for such a proceeding, Barwick’s diplomatic effort in pursuit of fiscal efficiency in historic preservation would have surely won the endorsement of the author of Poor Richard’s Almanack.

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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.