For Release Thursday, February 7, 2013
New York City has been in high celebratory mode these days, marking the 100th anniversary of that world-class landmark, Grand Central Terminal. And well the city and the country should be celebrating; the incomparable Beaux Arts structure was almost lost.
Save for a vigorous, citizen-led effort to preserve it (“no more bites out of the Big Apple”) – an effort joined and made nationally significant by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – and save for a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court declaring it the landmark it is, the terminal was doomed.
A 1968 proposal from owner Penn Central Railroad to build a tower over the terminal was rejected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. So the railroad sued to overturn the station’s landmark status and effectively kill the 1965 landmarks law. Ironically, the law was so weak at that time that it only functioned for six months every three years.
The railroad won the first round in New York’s lowest court, where the landmark designation was overturned and damages of $60 million were awarded. At that time the real estate community wanted even less to do with landmark preservation than it does now, which doesn’t say much. Mayor Abraham Beame, cheered on by that real estate community, was ready to throw in the towel, de-designate the building and let Penn Central do what it wanted.
But the Municipal Art Society, then a vigorous but lonely voice on behalf of preservation, organized to pressure the city to pursue the lawsuit. Led by then-MAS President Kent Barwick (future chair of the Landmarks Commission), the civic organization rallied the comparatively small preservation community. Jackie Onassis’ joining their ranks turned it into a national cause, culminating in several hundred supporters riding the train from Grand Central to Washington, seeking to listen to the U.S. Supreme Court hear arguments in the case.
In 1978, the Supreme Court upheld the law and the terminal’s designation, changing urban history nationwide. That decision legitimized cities’ right to protect their landmarks.
But the fight for preserving historic structures never ceased. It is as highly charged today as it was then, with the real estate community still trying to weaken its very foundation for their own purposes.
It doesn’t matter that many developers have made lots of money converting and renovating the landmarks the preservationists fought to save, over real estate objections.
It doesn’t matter that the highest real estate values in New York City and across the country are inevitably found in neighborhoods dominated by historic buildings, and that studies consistently show a rise in those values after designation.
It doesn’t matter that generous tax credits accrue to the restoration of buildings that have either been designated by the city Landmarks Commission or listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
What matters is that the developer community, already the most potent political force in New York, wants to decide what should be designated on their terms, rather than by the thoughtfully developed opinions of the Landmarks Commission, representing a cross-section of city interests and staffed brilliantly by trained professionals.
And while the Grand Central celebrations go on, historic buildings in its shadow are threatened by a proposal to massively upzone the area around it, threatening with demolition some 30 to 40 undesignated but worthy buildings. A mere 21 buildings have already been designated in this extremely dense, historic midtown area. But the city, ostensibly, needs more huge skyscrapers. “Bigger floor plates” and competition with other cities (Singapore?) are the heart of the developers’ argument, as it has been since the 1960s. In their eyes, functional and architecturally worthy historic buildings must be sacrificed.
In a pull-out section published last month in the New York Times, the Real Estate Board of New York laid down the gauntlet, endorsing the upzoning proposal and promising to “push back” against advocates of more landmark designation. Indirectly, it insulted the Landmarks Commission by asking for “consistently high standards” in the landmarking process, and for implementation of the law “in a sensible manner,” as if both are not already the case. In fact, a great many New Yorkers fervently believe the commission already defers too much to real estate interests.
But for now, everybody loves the landmark of landmarks, if not the law and the community responsible for saving it. The real fun will begin, probably in March, when the upzoning proposal is formally certified to go through the official public review process. Stay tuned.
Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of 2010, Nation Books.
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