Brooklyn Boro

Brooklynites: Put in your two cents about the role of historic districts in NYC

Both celebrated and criticized

August 25, 2016 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Researchers want local residents to participate in a survey about the role of historic districts in New York City's urban life. Shown above is 24 Middagh St., the oldest house in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, the first neighborhood in the city to be landmarked. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Studies show — and Brooklynites can confirm — that fast-paced change can be disruptive to communities.

Historic districts can buffer residents from some of this disruption. Questions have been raised, however, about the negative side effects of this designation.

Now researchers at Columbia University want to know your opinion about the role of historic districts in New York City’s urban life.

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Professor Erica Avrami of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation is conducting an online survey to understand how local residents value (or don’t value) the social, environmental and economic aims of historic district preservation.

Survey participants will rate the importance of features like historic architecture, views and skylines, walkability and street life, and rank goals such as promoting tourism, increasing property values, preventing the displacement of residents and limiting new development — all topics that count as everyday conversation to many Brooklynites.

While any New Yorker can fill out the (anonymous) survey, the researchers said that participation by residents and business people within Brooklyn Community District 2 could be critical.

Community District 2 (which includes Downtown Brooklyn, Boerum Hill, Bridge Plaza, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and the Brooklyn Navy Yard), is home to eight historic districts. One-third of the historic districts in Brooklyn are located within Community District 2. (The adjacent Cobble Hill Historic District lies within Community District 6.)

Historic districts called into question


In 1965, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Brooklyn Heights as the city’s first historic district. Today, there are 139 historic districts and historic district extensions in all five boroughs.

“This half century of land use policy has been both celebrated and criticized in recent years,” Dr. Avrami told the Brooklyn Eagle on Thursday. “Historic districts, in particular, have been called into question as a potential factor in the displacement of lower-income residents, the lack of cultural diversity in landmarked neighborhoods, the perceived stifling of architectural creativity and economic vitality, and the inefficiency of older, often lower scale, buildings.”

This debate raises important questions about the public policy rationale for preservation, Avrami said.

Decisions about what to preserve is traditionally based on historic, cultural, and aesthetic criteria. Today, however, “preservation is compelled to justify its public benefits using economic, environmental, and social metrics that are not traditionally part of its decision-making framework,” she said. “In short, different constituencies are applying different indicators of success to, and expecting different outcomes from, preservation.”

Ultimately, the survey “seeks to identify shared aims and indicators for the future,” she added.

The results of the survey will be made publicly available through a white paper in late 2016. Avrami hopes the results will help to chart new avenues of research that can improve preservation policy.

“The most important thing people should know is that preservation is a form of public policy that is meant to serve all New Yorkers,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether someone lives in an historic district or works in a preservation-related field, the NYC Landmarks Law was established to benefit the city at-large. So anyone can take the survey and have their voice be heard.”

The survey (find it here) will be open until September 30.


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