Events

Monday, December 1, 2008

New York Historic Preservation Crises: buildings endangered by strong wills vs. weak laws. Why not fight back?

In contrast to the relatively encouraging preservation news contained in the New York Times stories on Buffalo and New Bedford, the more recent piece on the metropolis itself is depressing in the extreme:  a story of cynicism, evasion of the law, and exploitation of weaknesses in the law for the sake of philistine pursuit of naked profit  (Robin Pogrebin, "Preservationists See Bulldozers Charging Through a Loophole," 29 Nov. 2008).

It is a long and lugubrious tale, for which reason I allow you to read it for yourselves.  The essence of the story, though, is that developers seeking to demolish old buildings or revamp them beyond recognition will use any trick in the book, from casuistry to bribery, to attain their ends.

Most disturbing is the attempt to circumvent the spirit of the law by ostensibly legal means:  Owners or developers rush to demolish a building before it can acquire landmark status. And if a building has been so designated, they typically "strip" it, removing the features that make it most historically noteworthy.  When the case comes before the authorities:  voilà, no more historical character to preserve--and demolition is allowed to proceed.  

It is a shameful practice, and one can only hope that the countervailing practice of public shaming of the wrongdoers--as in the case of the aforementioned article--will increase in response to the offense.  At first sight, it is not the most powerful weapon, but when wielded both aggressively and wisely, it can achieve significant results.  Especially in the glorious age of the internet and cell phones, it is relatively easy to mobilize opinion against miscreants.  In the 19th century, Heinrich Heine declared that the press was the modern equivalent of the fortress.  Today, we may say:  the pillory is dead, long live the blog! Social networking can summon a crowd as fast as the tocsin.

In the case of Amherst, our Demolition Delay Law (Article 13) explicitly cites historic and aesthetic criteria:
Finding that the economic, cultural and aesthetic standing of the Town of Amherst can best be maintained and enhanced by due regard for the historical and architectural heritage of the Town and by striving to discourage the destruction of such cultural assets, it is hereby declared as a matter of public policy that the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of structures of historical and architectural significance, located within the Town of Amherst, is a public necessity, and is required in the interest of the prosperity, civic pride and general welfare of the people.
Its provision for the imposition of delays furnishes limited and temporary protection intended to facilitate negotiation and compromise, but it also has some more potent "sticks" with which to chastise the irresponsible.  The key points are:  (1) No one can demolish a building without filing the proper request, a document that, in the case of buildings older than 50 years, must in principle pass under the review of the Historical Commission, and (2) Any owner who knowingly destroys or structurally sabotages a building without obtaining the proper permit faces a fine of $ 300 per day--the operative clause being, "until the demolished building is rebuilt or re-created as directed by the Historical Commission, or unless otherwise agreed to by the Commission."  In the case of someone forced to recreate a vanished and irreplaceable building, that could add up. For better or worse, that aspect of the law has not really been put to the test.

As the eighteenth-century British architect and preservationist Nicholas Hawksmoor put it, "Whatever is goode in its kinde ought to be preserv'd in respect for antiquity, as well as our present advantage, for destruction can be profitable to none but such as live by it."

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