Developers Are Dangerously in Control of New York City
11 mins read

Developers Are Dangerously in Control of New York City

On April 10, 2024, the New York Landmarks Conservancy bestowed the Preservation Leadership Award to author and urbanist Roberta Brandes Gratz. A longtime preservation activist, Gratz served on the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. She also led the successful effort to restore the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now the Museum at Eldridge Street. The following is a slightly edited version of the speech Gratz delivered at the 34th annual Lucy C. Moses Preservation Awards.

New York City is in trouble. And as New York goes, so go cities across the country. Developers are in control more than ever before. They’re in control of the argument, in control of City Hall, in control of the Governor’s Mansion. And with current state housing legislation ostensibly meant to address the need for more housing, New York City can now expect even more of the new skyline emerging, with high-end, supertall pencil towers everywhere. Officials will ignore the currently occupied modest-scale buildings that will be torn down in the process. They will tell us what is new but not what is lost. The city will continue to gain more upscale units and lose more affordable ones.

Recently, I received the Lucy Moses Award for leadership and writing about historic preservation and urban development from the New York Landmarks Conservancy. I appreciate this honor not just because it acknowledges my work, but from where the honor comes. Founded 50 years ago, the conservancy has enriched the quality of life for everyone living in New York, through its advocacy for landmark preservation and sensible real estate development, its voice, its loans, grants, and expertise—and it’s just about the last one standing of what used to be several diligent organizations who could be counted on to be strong advocates for the interests of the people of New York.

There are not enough loud voices pushing back on all kinds of terrible development. New Yorkers should not only be angry, but should find ways to really show it. This is made most challenging with the diminishment of press coverage of these issues. And, sadly, the diminishment of the number of diligent civic organizations willing to take a needed stand to promote appropriate change. Worse, some of these organizations are putting these developers on their boards, guaranteeing all but a muted civic community.

But the conservancy has been dependable and steadfast in the most critical issues of today. 

It has been loud and forceful in defending the remaining truly urban neighborhood around Penn Station while the governor was ready, and still is, to turn it into another, bigger, Hudson Yards type of development. The governor looks at a group of old buildings—housing thousands of businesses, thousands of jobs, thousands of residences—and calls it a slum, displaying a clear ignorance of what true, vibrant urbanism is about. There aren’t too many neighborhoods of authentic urbanism left in Manhattan that evolved naturally and still serve an important need.

 

The conservancy was early and steadfast—along with City Councilmember Gale Brewer—in fighting the demolition of the extraordinary 1889 West Park Presbyterian Church. The leadership of the same Landmarks Commission that once called it “the best example of a Romanesque Revival religious structure in New York” was ready to de-designate it and pave the way for the Presbytery to tear it down for a new 30-story luxury apartment tower. But vigorous community opposition helped persuade enough commissioners to not go along with that agenda, and the proposal for removing the designation was withdrawn. Thank you, commissioners. The church is now undergoing restoration. The commission and the Presbytery would have us believe they withdrew because the community group still has a lease. But they knew that when the de-designation effort started.

The commission continues to be a formidable adversary. The four-story 1832 Old Merchant House on East 4th Street, one of the city’s most important and fragile landmarks, was so important that it was designated a landmark on the very first day after passage of the 1965 Landmarks Law, and after crowds of school children marched on City Hall on its behalf. Both the exterior and interior are designated, which is highly unusual. The elaborate, delicate plasterwork throughout the house is beyond extraordinary, and in 2014, 10 years ago, an ornamental plaster specialist issued a report stating that any adjacent new construction would, without question, at a minimum cause the historic interior plaster to collapse. It’s not clear if the commissioners ever saw that report. That original plaster cannot be replicated. 

But recently, the Landmarks Commission approved construction for a 10-story new building adjacent to the Old Merchant House. If that new building goes ahead, the landmark, which is popular among schools and perfectly depicts a long-ago era of New York history, will have to close for two to three years. All the original furniture that has never been out of the house in almost 200 years will have to be removed and put in storage. The museum will have to close for all that time.

No surprise. The Commission has often approved new construction requiring serious excavation work, adjacent to landmarks that experts testify will jeopardize the landmark. Inevitably the damage occurs, but then it’s the owner’s problem to deal with it. It seems only fair that if someone wants to excavate a backyard for a swimming pool or whatever, they should buy a building that stands alone. It should not be allowed to endanger its neighbor.

Moreover, scores of landmarks across the city are falling apart or torn down due to lack of enforcement, a power the commission has but is reluctant or unwilling to exercise. The commission missed a deadline to designate and protect an extraordinary Victorian house on Willoughby Street in Brooklyn that was a valued landmark to its adjacent Black neighborhood. A miscommunication with the Buildings Department was blamed, but the commission has been using that excuse since I started writing about preservation and development 50 years ago. The leadership of the Landmarks Preservation Commission seems to forget that Preservation is its middle name. 

But it’s not just the Landmarks Commission that has gone off the rails. So has the Planning Commission, approving one up-zoning after another, bringing new towers to low and modest-scale neighborhoods and losing the existing affordable units that get torn down in the process. The excuse is always the need for new affordable housing and a promise that the neighborhood will not be upscaled and become more expensive. Two private studies, however, have proved that inevitably the opposite is what really happens. And according to the Community Service Society, the city lost 526,800 affordable units between 2002 and 2021. No one in the power structure cares to count the number of units that get lost. In fact, clearly developer advocates don’t count and don’t care about existing housing that gets torn down with residents who, more often than not, can’t afford the so-called affordable units in new buildings. There should be a limit to how many existing units can be torn down to make way for a new building.

There is a full block of tenements and small apartment buildings currently with more than 60 plus units of occupied affordable housing destined to be torn down to make way for yet another tower. I assure you it will not have 60 affordable units.

For years, developers have been wanting to build in the Garment District. And for years, the Planning Commission has given them an inch here and a foot there, always claiming the garment industry was dying or gone anyway, which it definitely is not. Now, with a new up-zoning proposal, developers will be given a huge new green light with the Midtown South Plan, larger than what remains of the garment district: 42 blocks between West 20th and West 40 streets comprising 7,000 businesses, 135,000 jobs, and 2,300 homes, according to the Commission’s figures.

Are we diminishing the city and losing affordable housing in even more ways? Sure. Go after Airbnbs. Go after private equity. Private equity is buying up the country and wreaking havoc. Many communities and cities are suffering under the impact of Airbnbs and private equity. Recently, it was reported that private equity is buying up apartments around all the highly rated New York public schools, raising the rents so that, inevitably, only the privileged will be able to apply. 

Plenty of remedies exist that haven’t been tried. They don’t all depend on the developers who boast of building new needed units. The Adams administration gives the appearance of being hell-bent on new so-called affordable housing built by developers, but shows no interest in protecting the existing occupied or unoccupied truly affordable units. Hypocrisy is embedded in the City of Yes.

I learned years ago from a master citizen advocate, Jane Jacobs, that if you say “yes, but,” your “but” gets lost, you’re counted as a “yes,” and you lose all negotiating strength.

 

So we’re automatically called NIMBYs if we don’t agree, but we are ready to be YIMBYs if the proposals were simply reasonable. It is often just wrong, plain wrong, to stick a pencil tower in the middle of a modest rise neighborhood, landmarked or not. It is often just wrong, plain wrong, to chase longtime residents out of buildings that developers choose to tear down in order to build new. 

I learned years ago from a master citizen advocate, Jane Jacobs, that if you say “yes, but,” your “but” gets lost, you’re counted as a “yes,” and you lose all negotiating strength. First you say “no,” and when the proposal is off the table, you agree to negotiate a new appropriate plan. Jane won more battles than any “yes, but” neighborhood or organization ever did, so her wisdom should remain a beacon for all of us. In fact, there are two bills right now at the state legislature that would lift the height cap on buildings all over the city and de-designate historic churches so they can be demolished for housing. Kill those bills and then invite us to the table to help write a proposal we can all say yes to.

It is now 2024. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem possible that for 50 years I have been writing about and championing the voice of preservation and community in many cities, but especially in the city I care so much about. Through that time, it has been my distinct privilege to have been associated with the Landmarks Conservancy. They have been inspiring, they have been supportive, and they have been steadfast. I am truly humbled to be honored by them this evening. Thank you.

Featured image via Flickr.