Is Landmarking a Tool of Gentrification or a Bulwark Against It?

From YIMBYs to NIMBYs, the Strand's recent historic preservation is a Rorschach test for activists of many stripes. Who's right?
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The Strand.

The Strand. 

When the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission promised to protect the Strand, the storied bookseller said, "Thanks, but no thanks." Since vacating 4th Avenue's legendary "Book Row"—of which it is the only surviving store—in 1957, the Strand has blossomed into an adored cultural institution known for its readings from famous authors, extensive selection (self-reportedly 2.5 million) of used and new books, red awnings, and an aura of old New York. Though colossal gentrification, the rise of Amazon, and various other bookseller-unfriendly forces have felled many other nearby stores, the Strand has remained.

Seeking to enshrine the Strand's cultural legacy and its circa-1902 Renaissance Revival building in law and concrete, the Landmarks Preservation Commission proposed landmarking the building's exterior—kicking off a bitter fight from the Strand and its allies in the literary community. The store's petition against the landmarking earned more than 6,000 signatures, and supportive opposition included media celebrities such as Fran Lebowitz, Naomi Wolf, and Gary Shteyngart.

Landmarking will limit the store's ability to make renovations, creating bureaucratic costs for the store's continued existence, the Strand and its supporters argue. "Landmarking our building will only make it that much harder for us to survive and pass our treasured family owned business to [our] children, and hopefully to theirs," Nancy Bass Wyden, the store's owner, said during a hearing in December, according to the New York Post.

In some ways, the owner of a for-profit business—albeit a culturally beloved one—fighting the city's proposed regulations on its building is a dog-bites-man story. However, the Strand's story also reflects a growing anti-landmarking coalition that views preservation initiatives as potentially harmful to the historic and culturally significant neighborhoods and buildings they intend to preserve. But the reasons residents in cities across the United States oppose—and support—landmarking are manifold.

"There's so many advocacy groups on both sides of this, those that want it and those that don't," says Brian McCabe, a sociologist of affordable housing and historic preservation at Georgetown University. There are YIMBYs ("Yes in My Backyard") and NIMBYs ("Not in My Backyard"), anti-gentrification preservationists and anti-gentrification anti-preservationists—the list goes on. "Rich people tend to be in favor of [landmarking], but it doesn't always fall along easy divides."

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According to Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy at New York University, there are three main schools of criticism levied against historic preservation initiatives. One is composed of building owners who view landmarking policies as imposing an onerous—perhaps even unaffordable—regulatory burden in order to meet the requirements of the rules for landmarked buildings, which sometimes necessitate approval for minor adjustments. "The concern there is that, not only does it make it more costly, but it may ultimately discourage investments in existing buildings," Ellen says.

The Strand's opposition falls into this category: "A landmark designation is not a gift or an award—it is a bureaucratic straitjacket," Wyden wrote in the New York Daily News. "The Landmarks Commission now takes over all decision-making for the aesthetics of our building. The Strand will have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for precise three-dimensional renderings of any future renovations. We will never have any assurance that those costly plans will be approved. The commission will decide the type of metal used in our doors and glass used in our windows. It will decide the color and size of every awning and sign."

Another camp of landmarking opposition is the YIMBYs, the pro-development activists who position themselves against the NIMBY movement. YIMBY activists argue that regulations that restrict development, including landmarking, prevent more housing from being built, leading to an increase in housing prices. A subgroup of YIMBY types sees preservation initiatives as roadblocks to "investing in the type of growth and development that can make [a city] competitive in a global marketplace," Ellen says.

Another related, though distinct, group opposes preservation out of fears that it may "accelerate gentrification by making housing more expensive, and perhaps also increasing the social status of a neighborhood by signaling the presence of amenities that higher income or more educated households value," Ellen says. So while home prices will rise, "that's going to be bad for renters." The rise in home prices can also increase property taxes on pre-existing homeowners.

Additionally, some activists are concerned that, "the gentrification of a neighborhood can become the impetus through which preservation happens," McCabe says. "This is the concern in [Brooklyn neighborhood Bedford-Stuyvesant]. Some neighborhoods in Bed-Stuy were on the calendar for years, and it wasn't really until that neighborhood started to change and gentrify that there was enough community activism to push that forward."

Criticisms about preservation favoring certain cultural assets over others occurs on the micro-level of New York neighborhoods and throughout the entire globe. "Even internationally, people have criticized the predominance of Western sites on the World Heritage list," Ellen says.

However, some neighborhood activists view landmarking policies as a tool to fight development and the gentrification that frequently accompanies it. Preservation advocates "see that the development process in a city like New York—where people see dollar signs, they tear things down, they build them taller and denser—doesn't value historic properties," McCabe says. "[They say,] 'This is the only mechanism we have to make sure that developers don't run wild and tear down things that are actually important and historic and meaningful.'"

But how do those criticisms stack up with empirical evidence?

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In New York, landmarking of neighborhoods tends to raise housing costs in the outer boroughs, but not in already dense and expensive Manhattan, where the effect of landmarking on housing prices is small. In fact, in high-income neighborhoods in Manhattan, landmarking can actually slightly lower property values, Ellen says—since buildings can no longer be built taller, an otherwise omnipresent and lucrative option for Manhattan lot owners. "What you're losing in those outer-borough neighborhoods is the lost option," McCabe says. "Absent the landmarking, the district would be able to redevelop neighborhoods and redevelop those buildings”—to build up and create more density.

The rise in outer-borough housing costs following landmarking is also probably a function of the increased social status it brings. "The bump in property values that we often see is not just kind of an economic function [of restricting increases in the housing supply] but also the authentication of: 'This place has character,'" McCabe says. "With that comes the certainty that your neighborhood is going to basically look like what it looks like right now into the future."

Landmarking often also raises housing costs in nearby neighborhoods, just by virtue of proximity. Ellen says that the De Blasio administration has attempted to spread designation more evenly, but, according to McCabe, given the political power required to landmark an area, privileged populations still have a better chance at enacting preservation initiatives. Studies done by both researchers show that neighborhoods chosen for designation tend to be whiter and wealthier than nearby, similarly aged neighborhoods that aren't chosen for preservation.

When done in lower-income areas, landmarking brings an unusual kind of gentrification, according to both McCabe and Ellen, often changing a landmarked neighborhood's income level—but not its racial composition. "After a neighborhood is designated, in the coming years and decades, we see a definite increase in the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood relative to nearby neighborhoods: Wealthier people are moving in people with a higher level of college education," McCabe says. "But we actually don't see any evidence of racial turnover in those neighborhoods. This remains an interesting, puzzling finding for us because typically socioeconomic change and racial change in cities go hand in hand."

It's hard to say what the ultimate effect of landmarking policies is on the housing costs of an entire city, because there's no city of comparable size and conditions, without landmarked districts, according to Ellen. Insofar as they all restrict the construction of new housing supply, many economists view landmarking as similar to other zoning restrictions that limit building height and density. But there's one notable difference, according to McCabe: "Historic districts are the most palatable to the public and also the least restrictive" in that there can still be city-approved construction in historic districts, unlike with some other kinds of zoning. However, Ellen says that such conflation ignores the benefits of historic districts that are "there, but a little harder to quantify," including a bolstering of community identity and tangible link to the past.

"What good economists are doing right now is trying to figure out which land use restrictions we can do away with that would increase the supply of housing without compromising other things," McCabe says. He points to Minneapolis' recent city-wide elimination of single-family zoning, which had long prevented many neighborhoods from building multi-unit buildings, even duplexes. Another reliable solution for stemming housing costs is building more public housing, which McCabe supports but says is mostly unpopular in the urban planning community.

Both Ellen and McCabe have suggested pairing historic preservation initiatives with plans for adding affordable housing or easing zoning restrictions outside the landmarked district, but so far, no such plans have been enacted. One obstacle to such a plan is that, in most major cities, it would require the cooperation of multiple independent city agencies that may not be in communication—and which might have rival priorities. Maybe they can all meet to talk it out in the stacks of the Strand—while it's still here anyway.

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