What’s happening to the Landmarks Preservation Commission?

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What’s happening to the Landmarks Preservation Commission?

What’s happening to the Landmarks Preservation Commission?
June 27, 2016

The old New York is disappearing.

Neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, some of our most distinctive buildings – witnesses to the long and remarkable history of this city – are being sacrificed to development. And as a result, the uniqueness of so many communities is being suffocated by scaffolding, franchises and impersonal modern construction.

This is the reality facing the Gansevoort Market Historic District and iconic Gansevoort Street.

With its cobblestone paving and low buildings – the last intact block of one- and two-story, market-style structures in Manhattan – Gansevoort Street is a gateway for visitors to not only the Meatpacking District, the High Line and the Whitney Museum, but also to the past. It is one of the only places in New York where you can turn a corner and seemingly walk back in time, picturing meatpackers and other food wholesalers handling their goods underneath the metal canopies still in place today.

Gansevoort’s market architecture is exactly why the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission decided to designate the Gansevoort Market Historic District as a landmark in 2003 – to preserve the area’s “strong and integral sense of place as a market district.”

But this is all at risk of changing. Now, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is paving the way for the destruction of the history and character of Gansevoort Street, a profound loss for generations of residents and visitors to come.

Just recently, the commission ruled that massive new buildings – one of them nearly six times as high as the market building it would replace – could be constructed on Gansevoort Street due to the fact that tenements existed on this block more than 75 years ago. That this argument, advanced by the developers, actually won out with the current commission is shocking. One could equally argue that, because this block was once the site of the Indian village of Sapokanikan, it should be rebuilt with one-story wooden longhouses, which stood here in the 17th century.

The commission’s verdict is a complete reversal from the decision made by the same agency under a different administration. After all, there was a reason why the area was designated as the Gansevoort Market Historic District and not the Gansevoort Tenement Historic District. Today’s commission has disregarded what its predecessors deemed as the most historically valuable aspect of this area – its market-style buildings – and all for the sake of development.

Without question, our community is distraught at the thought of losing what drew us all to this part of the city to begin with. But as New Yorkers who care about preserving the past, we are even more disturbed by the precedents set by the commission’s actions.

The point of landmarking is supposed to be to preserve an area of great historical value forever – not just for one mayor’s tenure. If the city’s commitments to protecting one neighborhood can shift arbitrarily depending on the person living in Gracie Mansion (and the group of people he or she appoints to administer those commitments) what is the value of a landmark designation?

We don’t object to change; thoughtful, unobtrusive changes that are sensitive to history and character have always been allowed in historic districts. Completely freezing our landmarked neighborhoods in time would be neither feasible nor reasonable. The Gansevoort Market Historic District has helped to drive economic growth in this city, and has always welcomed new businesses and employers – and that's the way it should be.

But change should not and does not have to come at the detriment of preserving history. Change does not have to mean deformation: it can be focused on restoration and revitalization. It can be respectful of the traditions and intrinsic character of our neighborhoods.

In today’s New York City, that should be the purpose of landmarking: to enable developers to grow local economies while making sure that change in our most historic communities respects all that defines those communities.

Going forward, it must be the responsibility of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to walk that careful line rather than bowing down to developers, as they did with their ruling on Gansevoort Street. And if they do not fulfill that obligation, it will raise very real questions about whether the commission can continue to function as the steward of New York City's heritage.

The future of New York City’s past is at stake.

Zack Winestine and Elaine Young are community organizers and co-founders of Save Gansevoort (www.savegansevoort.org). Zack has lived in the far West Village for 28 years, and Elaine has been a resident since 1986.

Zack Winestine
Elaine Young
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