Friday, April 1, 2022

New Demonstration Program Now Approved By NYC Landmarks Commission: Related Companies and Vornado Will Use Public’s Love of Historic Districts To Spur Development Working With Disney


It’s history in the making!  Not since New York City’s Landmarks laws and programs and Landmarks Commission were ushered in back in the early 1960s has anything new and exciting been done in this area.  Looking back, it’s always be more of the same old, same old, or, put another way, more of the same old, save old.

But that is not to say that the public doesn’t love its landmarks and historic districts; it absolutely does!  And that love of the quaint, the old and the curious that acquaints us with our past and where we came from is about to be harnessed by two giant developers of real estate, Related and Vornado, who have gotten the go ahead from the city’s Landmarks Commission (LPC- Landmarks Preservation Commission) to show what they can do working with another company that is expert about what the public loves and should love about its history and its past.  That company they will be working with is Disney.

The intention of the new demonstration program will be more and better development in the city while the public will, at the same time, be more deeply, efficiently and broadly connected with its sense of history and with the continuity that informs our city populace of where it came from as reflected by the ever evolving range of architecture that has resplendently bedecked NYC over past decades and centuries.

The public loves its landmarks and its historic districts; it’s one of the city’s most terrifically popular programs.  And the way that New York is imbued with a rich history that can still be observed and absorbed by viewing many parts of the city is one thing that attracts tourists. The attraction of tourists drives an important city industry.  However, the real estate professionals appointed by the mayor who serve on New York City’s Landmarks Commission have noted that landmarks and historic districts pose problems for the public.  They, therefore, invited some of New York’s premiere developers to consult and see what could be suggested using some of the industry’s infamously creative cleverness.

One problem with historic districts is who gets to enjoy them. Partly because they are so desired and sought after as places to live, they have a notorious proclivity to become enclaves for the wealthy.  Because they freeze and preclude further development and density, they also preclude expansions to invite additional populations in to enjoy residing there.  Another problem the professionals on the Landmarks Commission were eager to solve is that this locked-in low density is often, due to history, in central areas of the city from out of which other areas of the city grew.  Those central areas are often, in the professionals opinions, exactly the wrong areas to have low density.  Moreover, historic districts such as Brooklyn Heights and Greenwich Village often sit atop transportation hubs and the confluence of subway and bus lines around which it is important to gather greater density and development.

The Related Companies/Vornado demonstration program will address these issues by working with Disney plus, introduce into historic districts and landmarks benefits not possible when creaky old structures cannot be retrofitted with new technology.  The program will involve relocating a number of landmarks and historic districts to more optimal areas.  Actually, a better word for what these relocations will involve is `re-creations’ of what gets moved to new areas.  The programmatic term that Vornado and Related have decided to use to describe the transfers to new locations is “reestablishments.”  The reestablishments will allow leeway for there to be significant improvements integrated into them at the new locations.

“None of what we are talking about is without precedent,” said Landmarks Commission Chair Sarah Carroll, “for instance, in Staten Island, we have the Historic Richmond tourist and visitors museum site.  This involves historic structures brought to that location from all over the island to form the full collection of its 40 structures.”  And she noted that, in practice, with the passage of time, most buildings in historic districts transition from being what was once actually at a site to being de facto recreations of what was previously there: Facades have to be redone (brownstone, while soft and easy to quarry and carve, is an exceptionally short-lived material that is never actually replaced with the same dark sedimentary, often riverbed, sandstone), cornices need to be replaced and such ornamental replacements are most typically done more safely with fiberglass design duplications.  In Brooklyn Heights, 123 Joralemon Street, one of the historic district’s most conspicuous historic buildings, a carriage house, is not historic at all; looking circa 1880, it’s a 1993 replacement (designed as if servicing an adjacent mansion) for a 1952 ranch house that looked like it belonged in Queens.  So, in this case, what’s really historic?  

123 Joralemon Street- The historic 1952 house is on the left

 123 Joralemon is an example and lesson in how tastes change and how the flexibility of new construction can accommodate this.  The exterior of the building fits in exactly the way people currently think it should to comport nicely with the rest of the historic district.  When built it was built in 1993, the interior of the structure felt like it fit in with the district that way too, but since then the entire interior has been extensively renovated by a new owner to be the most modern thing imaginable, lots of glitz and glass that’s straight out of the Jetsons. . . But stick a gaslight outside and who would suspect!

Side by side- Will the real Joralemon Street imposter please stand up?

The demonstration program may start small while thinking big, hoping to get its legs under it and to give the developers a chance to prove to the real estate professionals at Landmarks that they are entertaining the right notions in green lighting this program: The candidate historic real estate location that is up for selection for the first relocation is just one single block length’s worth of buildings, 19th Street’s Block Beautiful in the Gramercy Park neighborhood, between Third Avenue and Irving Place.  Where will it be moved to?– That’s where they are thinking big!: Sunnyside Yards in Queens.  In Sunnyside Yards there will be room for many future additional relocations.

The "Block  Beautiful"

The “Block Beautiful” relocation gives Disney the opportunity to show off a transformational talent for which it thinks it is especially suited in a way that will superbly advantage the new program.  The “Block Beautiful” is cited as one particular example of changing fashions: “destoopification.”    No, that is not a typo for “de-stupefaction,” that is, instead, a name for a phenomena where buildings in New York City with the traditional style of front building stoop, inherited from the old Dutch designs, became déclassé and townhouse owners all over the city modernized by removing the stoops and creating new entrances on the lowest floor.  That also allowed extra flexibility creating more rooms if separate apartments were created in the building.  But with stunning architectural whiplash, things have changed again in areas like Brooklyn Heights were once-removed stoops are being put back again as hedge-funders gussy up purchased buildings that are again owned and occupied by one wealthy family.

In the dusk of architectural history, stoops can sometime be a `sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't' proposition.

What Disney with its technology will be able to do is teach the history of architectural fashion change by having the same established historic section display different era facades on different days of the week. To an extent this can be accomplished by projections overlaying different lighting changes, but it will also require storing things like stoops that will have to be rolled out and locked into place certain days.  In this regard the reestablished areas will have the advantage of large areas that will be in taller back structures that, with clever design, will not be readily observable.  Says Ms. Ona Lott, a Disney executive and representative about its design capabilities, “at our Florida Epcot center, the new modern, futuristic and big, may be cheek by jowl with our ancient Moroccan Casbah, but you don’t notice the former when you are enveloped in and looking at the latter.”

Putting stoops back in place when they are no longer grandfathered normally can raise all sorts of property line issues, but this won’t be an issue in the reestablished areas as the Vornado, Related, Disney joint venture will privately own the entirety of all the land, including all streets, sidewalks, park and green areas.

Another advantage the reestablished areas will have is there will be well thought out technology using the same sort of tunnels and unnoticed passageways that Disney uses at its theme parks for its Disney characters to appear where and only where they are supposed to.  This will make sanitation and garbage removal a far more aesthetic proposition.  Think of the way things are now says Ms. Lott, the Disney exec: “You have a row of buildings all from the 1800s and outside people are throwing away their 50' flat screen TVs as they graduate to bigger 4K, 8K (or soon 16K) models.  That plus a tangle of discarded routers and USB wires and flavored vodka seltzers is just not very historic.”  Now, in reestablished areas, such trash will head out to the landfills via hidden tunnels that nobody thinks about.  In place of the missing trash, Disney will periodically manifest historically appropriate trash depicted on its own ultra-realistic large flat screens.  And there will be no garbage smell to go with it unless you press the accompanying scent button.

Back at 19th Street, between Third and Irving, it will now be possible to put up a series of new towers like those that have been going up on Third Avenue for some time now.  Proving that a good job can be done reestablishing the “Block Beautiful” at its new Sunnyside Yards location will make it possible to move on to the next goal of reestablishing Gramercy Park at Sunnyside.  “The reestablished Gramercy Park will be quite an attraction, so much so that we are thinking we might actually make it just a fraction larger,” say Ms. Lott, “We will surround it, as before, with a hotel and most certainly the Players Club and the National Arts Club (formerly the mansion with enormous library of Samuel Tilden).” Meanwhile, Vornado and Related will have a whole city block to build on where Gramercy Park formerly stood.

Gramercy Park as seen from above at its current location- one whole city block!

Things will lead one to another.  A reverter clause affecting Gramercy Park’s chain of title and deed means that when that park property is built on, Union Square will again be privately owned. “It’s complicated real estate stuff,” Related VP David Chablis explained.  So Union Square will also be reestablished as one of the linked greenways of the Sunnyside Yards history learning center.  Visitors to the reestablished Union Square will again get to visit the old S. Klein’s department store on its border, because, with the restablishments, it will be possible to rewind the historical clock to any time that’s desired. . .

. . .  But, wait, Union Square, wedged between the Greenwich Village and Gramercy Park historic districts is not a historic district, right?  That’s another advantage to the program; how with more flexible modification, historic destructs can be more easily created and expanded, even retroactively.

Nobody living in what are currently historic districts will be required to sell what they now own, but they will be entitled to first dibs discount acquisitions on properties in the reestablishments.  If they do sell, they may make hefty profits.  Moreover, if they exercise their first dibs options, they and the heirs taking reestablishments property from them will all have continual access to the reestablishment areas without ever having to pay a perimeter fee.  For its maintenance and upkeep and the teaching and education that will be provided in the reestablishments Disney will be paid a fee financed with perimeter fees paid using people’s phones much the way that new York metropolitan area drivers have been using E-ZPass® to pay for bridge and highway tolls.  The areas will be designated with barely noticeable circumference wires rather like certain Jewish neighborhoods have set out the eruv perimeters for Jews observant of the Sabbath in this way.

Vornado, Related and Disney will be working with New York’s three public library systems to research historical accuracy.  This can be useful, because, in Brooklyn, for instance, the Brooklyn Library has taken over the Brooklyn Historical Society, and, now having subsumed it, has renamed it the Center for Brooklyn History* (there is thought of adjusting the name further to “The Center of Brooklyn History”).  Vornado and Related said the fact that the boards of the city’s library systems have been filled with people from the real estate industry and people who work for content control companies like Disney will help ensure the needed corporation in adhering to the desired historical narratives to be communicated.

(* The Center for Brooklyn History is currently closed, physically closed, to the public, but is providing virtual access to some history, plus is providing a “grab-and-go” history supply service in its lobby.)

Mixed in with the reestablishments of New York’s well known historic districts, the Disney company will be integrating duplicates of some of its Disney theme park history re-creations like its Disney Main Street (some building may be done by Alexandria, Virginia and Potomac, Maryland Builder/Developer EAY).  The city is expected to benefit terrifically in that the new historical areas that can be visited and the much more efficient way that they can be taken in are expected to be a huge draw from tourists in the future.

Work by Alexandria, Virginia and Potomac, Maryland Builder/Developer EAY

Because the reestablishment areas will be evolved with the special Disney touch, thinking and creativity, the areas can be copyrighted.  Said Dr. Kols, Disney’s Director of Historical Affairs, “The old adage that `history is written by the winners’ has the corollary that `those who get to write our history, get to own it, . . ahem, . .  copyright it.’”  “Of course, any such copyright ownership is subject to ‘fair use’ commentary” said Dr. Kols. . . , “as determined by the courts reading our lawyers’ briefs.”

Mayor Eric Adams is exceptionally happy with the proposed demonstration program.  In fact, without Adams the program would not be happening. The program’s legalities would be exceptionally tricky, even likely tripping up on various Constitutional prohibition entanglements, except for the New York State provisions (Executive Law Chapter 18, Article 2-B) that allow Adams, as mayor, to suspend laws and do what he wants pursuant to his declaration of the Covid emergency.  Adams says that if the New York City Public Advocate wants to use his standing to challenge any of his actions, the Advocate will have the opportunity to do so with the statute of limitation for a mandamus challenge commencing with the actions that Adams is taking as of this April 1st.