Preservation Vs. New Construction: Could NYC “Landmark Away” Its Future?

We’ve worked in hundreds of landmark buildings around New York City and across the country. Restoration for historic buildings is one of EverGreene’s core competencies and much of our work comes as a result of preservationists who fight to keep the city’s architectural history alive. We believe that preservation is not only important for the city’s history, but also economically smart. We also believe that having criteria for imbuing significance on a building is also important.

Archdaily writer Rory Stott, in his article on New York City landmarks, wrote that diversity and checks & balances are essential for the city – or ANY urban area to be successful – financially, aesthetically, socially, creatively…almost any  “-ly.” This would include having a built environment that reflects what New York City was, where New York is now and what New York aspires to become. And these clearly don’t need to be separate districts or “preservation petting zoos.”

Take the High Line. In 2012, Travel + Leisure, named the High Line one of the top 10 most popular landmarks…in the world. It is historic preservation at an urban scale. Along the High Line, development has been ferocious: from the soon-to-be Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District to the soon-to-be headquarters for Coach in Hudson Yards, there have been dozens of buildings and billions of dollars of construction. Architects and designers including Neil Denari, Zaha Hadid and Foster+ Partners are bringing aspirational design to New York that keeps the city vibrant and relevant. Yes, the neighborhood has changed, rents have risen and many people have been forced to relocate, but jobs have been created, new people are living in the neighborhood and people from across the globe are flocking to walk that 1.2 mile stretch. While this reinforces what Francis Morrone says – that the flaw in Bloomberg’s policies is that it will “push up process and force all but the richest to leave New York,” one might argue that the displacement of people and businesses around the High Line in Manhattan helped to spur the growth, development and innovation in Brooklyn, Astoria and other hip locales in the region. No world-class city can remain alive and be static

The High Line has had enormous consequences – good and bad – for the City. But there are smaller rumblings happening all over New York where preservation and development, contemporary and historic design are working together to improve the City.

The new Harlem Hospital, designed by HOK, opened September 2012. Within the hospital are a series of WPA murals that were removed from the old hospital, stored for several years while the new building was constructed, then re-installed in a new space specifically designed for them. The murals, commissioned in 1936, are tremendously interesting and important. They were among the first federal government commissions awarded to African Americans. They depict scenes of African American heritage and, like the Georgette Seabrooke mural, “Recreation in Harlem,” scenes of everyday life.  The restored murals can be viewed in some of the public spaces at Harlem Hospital and, in a grand gesture, portions of Vertis Hayes “Pursuit of Happiness” mural have been translated into glass panels to form a primary façade along Malcolm X Boulevard. Historic, contemporary and aspirational combined in a single building that will have a tremendous impact on an entire neighborhood.

Preserving historic structures and artworks that have lasted the test of time and have gained significance over many decades or centuries is not “landmarking away” New York’s future. But the American Folk Art Museum, which Stott features an image of in his article, is different. A handsome, award-winning building, it is just over a decade old. It was designed by notable architects, Billie Tsien & Todd Williams. What should be the criteria for granting significance to such a young building? Clearly, saving every building will greatly restrict New York City’s growth. Not every building (or public space) qualifies as significant, but without criteria, like those established by the Secretary of the Interior, it becomes almost impossible to determine what to save and what to raze and reuse for a higher and greater (and yes, economic) good.