Tuesday, June 05, 2012

please tell me i'm wrong

The Landmarks Presevation Commission is about to consider a 2nd Avenue Historic District. If they designate it, 2nd Avenue from 2nd Street to St. Mark's will be landmarked and would be preserved in perpetuity or until it falls over.

I don't support it. Maybe someone can convince me I'm wrong.

Here are my four concerns:

1. There are older areas of the neighborhood that are urgently threatened under current zoning. 2nd Avenue is not threatened by demolition: the buildings are mostly overbuilt under the current zoning, so a developer could only build smaller than what exists. So there's no incentive to build. First Avenue is exactly the opposite. The buildings there are smaller than the zoning allows, inviting demolition and redevelopment.

2. There are many architecturally finer buildings in the neighborhood than those on 2nd Avenue. The really fine ones on 2nd Avenue can be individually landmarked.

3. If 2nd Avenue is designated, development will be pushed onto those older, more threatened and finer areas. 

4. New York is in crisis. The tight housing market is pricing artists out of the city or forcing them to choose between their art and living here. But it's not just artists who are being forced into difficult choices by the housing market. Scholars, scientists -- anyone who is devoted to the life of the mind or the creation of cultural products -- is either being pushed either into the rat race or out of the city.

Who remains? Increasingly the wealthy devoted to the life of consumption. The city is gradually becoming a monoculture of nightlife augmented by tourism, a huge nightclub for the rich and their gawkers and their servants. There is nothing in that economy that guarantees a place for the arts or intellectualism beyond the elite artists and elite intellectuals. We've seen it already in the East Village.

The only way to ease the housing crunch is building housing at the requisite scale to bring the wealthy out of older neighborhoods and out of older housing stock. The cost of construction is such that only high-return construction is viable, and that means luxury housing. So New York has got to build enough luxury housing to accommodate the upscale so that the upscale don't invade and occupy the rest of the city.

Luxury development depends on location, and 2nd Avenue will be an ideal location, especially when its subway is finally finished and opened. If the LPC designates 2nd Avenue, then 2nd Avenue will be closed to development. And that seems to me to be a greater loss for the city's spirit than losing the physical structure on 2nd Avenue because there are older and finer buildings in the neighborhood.

Back in 2005, I opposed the upzoning of the East Village because I thought it would further gentrify the neighborhood. When I told this to Brad Lander in a forum, he replied, that's not a worry since the East Village has already been gentrified.

At the time, I simply didn't believe it. I'd lived here for so long, and gentrification had been completed so swiftly that I was still in denial. I firmly believed that there was something of the old cultural character to preserve. But now I see that the neighborhood belongs to NYU students and upwardly mobile singles. Lander was right. Development on 2nd Avenue, like development on Houston, cannot further gentrify neighborhoods that are already completely gentrified.

So why preserve 2nd Avenue? There are older and architecturally finer contexts in the neighborhood, and more threatened. If those contexts are redeveloped under current zoning, those contexts will disappear without easing the housing crunch. You can't build much there -- just enough to destroy the history. But someday the city will need to upzone 2nd Avenue for significant large-scale housing. Why shouldn't it?

Someone please convince me I'm wrong.