Published in The New York Sun, November 29, 2006
Bonfire of the Landmarks
By Edward Glaeser
Once again, the dark clouds of a real estate battle darken the sunny cooperatives of the Upper East Side. The neighborhood's great paladins of preservation are sharpening their verbal rapiers to wage war against those nefarious malefactors, the developers who make Manhattan more affordable by building more housing. The great melee on Madison, the fight over new construction on the old Parke-Bernet building, is starting.
Glamorous neighborhood activists will fight developer Aby Rosen and architect Norman Foster for the hearts and minds of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. That commission has the power to block or change any development plans for the site. Sunday, Tom Wolfe wrote a fiery broadside against the allegedly increasing control that developers have over the once independent Landmarks Preservation Commission.
As a student of land-use battles, I am in heaven. Not since Kevin Kline tried to persuade the Landmarks Commission by quoting Richard II on proportionality has a zoning fight been so exciting. I spent last night dreaming about the educational novella that Mr. Wolfe could write to further his cause. Perhaps the developer turned stoic of "A Man in Full" will try to build a shopping mall atop the New York Public Library only to be stopped by the brave opposition of Charlotte Simmons and the less despicable characters from the "The Bonfire of the Vanities."
But my enthusiasm for the fight does not cause me to forget that this is an important battle. There are real benefits and costs from blocking this project. On the benefits side, blocking the project will preserve the view from the Carlyle and save neighbors from the curse of too much modernism as they throng to St. James Episcopal Church.
On the costs side, blocking new development ensures that Manhattan will stay unaffordable. New supply is the only way that middle-income people will be able to afford the city. When supply is choked off, people must pay more for housing, and firms in New York must pay higher salaries to their employees. The mayor has courageously fought for and achieved an increase in granting construction permits because he knows that the city's economic vitality depends on its affordability.
The core issue in this battle is respect for private property. Aby Rosen, not the community, owns 980 Madison Ave. The Landmarks Commission's stripping him of the ability to build would represent a great step in state power over private property. It seems odd for members of the normally non-socialist urban haute bourgeoisie to support so enthusiastically such a massive expropriation of private property.
Seen in this light, the Landmarks Preservation Commission is not a bastion of good government, but an appointed agency with a vast amount of relatively unchecked power. Over the past 40 years, the Landmarks Commission has created 85 historic districts and designated almost 23,000 buildings as landmarks, giving it control over vast tracts of the city's most valuable real estate. The power of the commission is certainly one explanation for the decline in granting building permits and the reduction in the height of new buildings. Mr. Kline's oration was not for naught. Twelve floors got lopped off the project he opposed.
The commission is filled with decent people trying to do what they think is right, but the composition of the commission leads them to put too much weight on aesthetics and too little weight on economics. I am sure that the Foster tower atop 980 Madison will be beautiful, but even if it were not, the tower would have economic benefits, and those benefits need to be weighed against any aesthetic costs. The mayor has the skills and incentives to weigh aesthetics and economics. I am less sure about the commission whose 11 members must include three architects, one landscape architect, and a city planner. These professions have a dangerous track record of putting aesthetics ahead of everything else.
The appointed and unsalaried nature of the commission also tilts the battle in favor of the charismatic abutters over the middle-income beneficiaries of new construction. If I were serving as an appointed, unsalaried member of the commission, I would find it hard to withstand the appeals of a great actor or writer. Perhaps, I could remind myself that they were acting in their own self-interest in what objectively is an extreme example of Nimbyism, but their eloquence would surely cause my concerns to wilt.
I am not enthusiastic about a powerful Landmarks Preservation Commission that can impose its aesthetic vision on the city unchecked. We have elected representatives who have their flaws, but they have incentives to take into account the needs of the city beyond the concerns of abutters. If the Landmarks Commission doesn't allow 980 Madison to rise, I hope that the mayor and City Council will rein the commission in.
Mr. Glaeser is the Glimp professor of economics at Harvard, director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.