Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Frozen Faces and Frozen Minds

The facades of New York's buildings are like faces. Behind those faces are the minds of the architects and engineers who built them and the minds of the businessmen and residents who work and live in them. Those facades -- the face of the city -- have changed remarkably over the past 125 years. Before the first steel skyscrapers were built around the turn of the last century, building heights were practically limited to not much more than ten stories, and typically much less. Four to six stories was most common.

Despite the emergence of skyscrapers, walk around many streets of New York and, apart from the sight of cars parked on the street and people dressed in modern clothes and talking on their cell phones, you could still swear you were in the 1880s.

That 1880s vista has been frozen in place throughout much of Manhattan by New York City's "landmarking" laws. Those laws ban nearly all construction in the large and growing landmarked zones of the city. If any building is to be allowed, it must be a clone of existing building styles. Although some construction ends up getting built on a vacant lot or at the site of a building that must be razed because it is ready to collapse, no new tall buildings are ever permitted. The rare new building in these landmarked zones, as a rule, must be short and blend in with its ancient surroundings.

The city's landmarked neighborhoods often possess a certain charm. In fact, the Landmarks Commission seeks out the charming neighborhoods to landmark. As of this writing, there are 45 landmarked zones in Manhattan. In addition to the landmarked zones, 1100 individual buildings have been landmarked. While it is difficult to say what percentage of Manhattan's 23 square miles is now essentially off-limits to development, one can get a sense of this number by looking at the sheer size of some of these landmark districts:

The Greenwich Village Historic District (established 1969) covers 86 city blocks.

The Upper East Side Historic District covers 57 city blocks.

The Upper West Side Historic District covers 51 city blocks.

The Tribeca Historic Districts cover 49 city blocks.

The Ladies Mile Historic District covers 19 city blocks.

The Noho Historic District covers 14 city blocks.

These are some of the larger districts. 45 of them now encompass much of Manhattan. New districts and buildings are being added every year.

Interestingly, the formation of these districts tends to coincide with a rise in property values of the frozen regions. Each new landmarked building or neighborhood in New York diminishes the potential supply of new places to live and work. As a result, the value of existing property tends to go up.

New Yorkers who already own property feel wealthier because the value of their property has gone up. Moreover, they marvel at the charming neighborhoods of the city that have been preserved seemingly in perpetuity for their enjoyment.

All of this comes at a price. That price is the violation of their property rights. What of the New Yorker who wants to sell his building to a developer who wants to put up a skyscraper on that land? It is forbidden. What if the owner of a crumbling 1880s-era building wants to replace it with a modern, comfortable building with central air, well-insulated walls and skylights? He can't do it, unless the building he lives in is in imminent danger of collapse. In fact, city officials may require him to install expensive bracing to keep his ancient brickpile aloft. If even expensive retrofitting can keep his building standing, he must employ those methods before he will ever get permission to tear it down or simply let it collapse. If one looks closely, you can see these teetering braced, nearly-ready-to-collapse buildings around the city.

One person's beautiful historic landmark is an uncomfortable, expensive to cool and heat, dreary building to another. Some find 1880s row houses beautiful. Others prefer a gleaming 100-story skyscraper. Regardless, the real debate is not about building esthetics. It is about rights. By what right does one person forbid another the disposition of his property as he sees fit?

Economically, as one would expect, violations of property rights are not without consequences. In the case of New York, as its neighborhoods become expensive "Disneylands for adults" as an unknown commentator described it, businesses and people are being priced out of the city. As the city becomes an uneconomic place to live and work, businesses and people leave the city, or simply do not move here in the first place.

This is not a new trend in New York. The rise of landmarking parallels the rise of other destructive policies that have made New York an expensive place to be for businesses and people. Rent control, imposed at the end of World War II, has made New York's housing the most expensive in the country. Clever and grasping taxes such as taxes on commuters and city taxes on the global earnings of corporations have led most of the Fortune 500 companies that were headquartered here as late as the 1960s to flee the city long ago. To pay for a city-run welfare program including the largest program of free and subsidized municipal public housing in the country, New Yorkers pay the highest taxes in the country, including a combined city and state top marginal income tax rate of 13%. The city's top rate kicks in at incomes that would be considered "middle class."

Like all actions, these actions have consequences, even if they are not obvious to some right now. Eventually, a tipping point will be reached, when the costs of being here become too great. When that day arrives, the owners of their landmarked residences in their charming neighborhoods may find that their property values are falling, instead of rising. They will find that their charming neighborhoods have become less so, now that graffitti is spraypainted on walls and gangs of unemployed hooligans (who live in city housing projects) terrorize them with crime.

New York is, or should be, a city of skyscrapers. Freeze it with landmarking laws and eventually the faces behind those frozen facades will begin to have one expression on them. That expression will be terror.

8 comments:

James said...

I visited New York earlier this year and left thinking how dismal most of it looked. As someone who prefers the 'gleaming 100-story skycraper,' I just do not understand what motivates people to hang on to the old.

Coupled with the tax and cost of living, I guess I am one of those people who won't move there in the first place. Too bad, too; it's a huge freakin' city!

Galileo Blogs said...

Unfortunately, much of New York's greatness is old, leaving aside the really old landmarked parts of the city. Examples are Rockefeller Center, which is my favorite part of Manhattan, or the Empire State Building, my favorite building and now over 75 years old. Rock Center and the Empire State Building are great skyscrapers and a reminder of what was accomplished in a more free era.

Great new buildings still go up in New York, but the mantle of the home of the greatest new buildings has been passed to other cities, such as Chicago in this country, or many other cities abroad, such as Hong Kong.

Still, the spirit that is New York is great, its skyline is beautiful, and I still relish living here, my home of 23 years.

I will always fight for New York's future, because it is my future and, in many ways, the future of our country and the world.

Amit Ghate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amit Ghate said...

Excellent post Galileo! I wish the people who want to preserve things, be it buildings in NY or natural areas throughout the country and world, would simply pool their money and buy the landmarks or parks they wish to preserve. But of course they don't truly value these things to the extent they'll exchange value for them, they only "value" them when others (are forced to) foot the bill.

Galileo Blogs said...

Thanks, Amit!

You make an excellent point that these people really don't value the buildings or natural areas that much, to the extent of being willing to put up their own money to buy them.

It is far easier to dispose of others' property using the policing power of the state, at no cost to themselves.

Another typical motivation has nothing to do with preservation in the historical sense. Often landmarking is used to prevent the construction of a building that might block someone's views or otherwise reduce their property values. In my neighborhood, some of my fellow residents did just that, manufacturing a phony "cause" to save a building that was once used as a horse stable. It is safe to say that these residents had paid no attention whatsoever to the old horse stable until someone bought it and planned to put up a new building there that would block some of their light.

The only thing they wanted to "preserve" was their unobstructed views, something they had no morally valid ownership interest in to begin with.

As New Yorkers and others cudgel each other with these laws, they increasingly make New York a more expensive place to live. As I pointed out, this will backfire one day, as it did in the 1970s when different laws with similar effect bankrupted the city. (Those laws were rent control, high taxes, and inflation at the national level, all of which caused New York to lose 1/8 of its population and become a dismal place to live for awhile.)

Inspector said...

So, so true Galileo. You've really captured the essence of these urban tyrants.

Joseph Kellard said...

Galileo,

I am a nearly life-long New Yorker (I lived in Brooklyn, Queens and, most of my life, on Long Island), and as a journalist out on L.I., someone who has covered many a zoning board meeting (Zzzzzzz's galore), what you’ve written in your post and comments section here is dead on. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve covered where people act as if they’ve got a right to some view (a hotel can’t be raised because it will block their view of the beach), or to be a free of the “eyesore” of cell phone antennas, or elated that some municipality has preserved an old bank building as a landmark, and on and on.

I particularly liked your point about the ultimate costs of all of these measures. It’s amazing about how people cry about their taxes being too high out here in Nassau County—it’s their number one complaint year in and year out—but never consider how such measures, including calling for “affordable housing”—is taxes us all out of this state. (Yet, from what I’ve read, while many New Yorkers have left, people keep coming to this city anyway).

I was a young kid during the 1970s when my father and I would drive to the GW Bridge, and along the way, on the Cross Bronx Expressway, we would look out at "the projects," i.e., the Great Society government “affordable housing” of the day -- blocks and blocks of these brick buildings burned out and abandoned (looking like post-war Berlin).

It is said that there's nothing certain but death and taxes. Well, I say that the taxes these government projects you write about are killing us. My sister move to Virginia many years ago because of the high cost of living out in the Hamptons, and my other sister and her family, as well as I, are contemplating same. I love New York, and want to stay here, but the Tax Reaper is knocking on my door.

Joseph Kellard

Joseph Kellard said...

Galileo,

I am a nearly life-long New Yorker (I lived in Brooklyn, Queens and, most of my life, on Long Island), and as a journalist out on L.I., someone who has covered many a zoning board meeting (Zzzzzzz's galore), what you’ve written in your post and comments section here is dead on. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve covered where people act as if they’ve got a right to some view (a hotel can’t be raised because it will block their view of the beach), or to be a free of the “eyesore” of cell phone antennas, or elated that some municipality has preserved an old bank building as a landmark, and on and on.

I particularly liked your point about the ultimate costs of all of these measures. It’s amazing about how people cry about their taxes being too high out here in Nassau County—it’s their number one complaint year in and year out—but never consider how such measures, including calling for “affordable housing”—is taxes us all out of this state. (Yet, from what I’ve read, while many New Yorkers have left, people keep coming to this city anyway).

I was a young kid during the 1970s when my father and I would drive to the GW Bridge, and along the way, on the Cross Bronx Expressway, we would look out at "the projects," i.e., the Great Society government “affordable housing” of the day -- blocks and blocks of these brick buildings burned out and abandoned (looking like post-war Berlin).

It is said that there's nothing certain but death and taxes. Well, I say that the taxes these government projects you write about are killing us. My sister move to Virginia many years ago because of the high cost of living out in the Hamptons, and my other sister and her family, as well as I, are contemplating same. I love New York, and want to stay here, but the Tax Reaper is knocking on my door.

Joseph Kellard