What Landmarking and My Daughter’s Sock Monkey Have in Common

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On January 24, 2012, a City Council subcommittee voted to approve the landmarking of several blocks of buildings in Downtown Brooklyn. On February 1, City Council, as usual, did what its subcommittees recommended.

But I’m really of two minds on this issue. REBNY is certainly opposed, and so is the lawyer in me. Once the government starts telling a property owner what he (or she) can’t do with their building — well, that prevents the owner from achieving maximum returns. It’s a form of taking, really. And certainly many of my clients —multifamily and condo building owners who are threatened by landmarking — would heartily agree. Add to that the fact that we can’t freeze our city in time. There are always new immigrants, new businesses, and new energy coming in, and we need to provide new buildings to meet that.

I see my own kids growing up — it happens so fast — and as my daughter graduates from stuffed animals to X-Box, we don’t keep every worn-out sock monkey. On the other hand, there is still a pride of place for her favorite old stuffed bear. And the history buff in me recognizes that there is a role for a community to honor its roots. Sometimes it does that by honoring a particular architect, or preserving a particularly special building. As we move forward, we pay homage to our past.

So it all comes down to a balancing test: Is this building of such historical importance, and so central to the people, that we can impinge on the liberty of the individual property owner?And when you look at it that way, I’d say an entire neighborhood (or even an entire block) should never be landmarked. No matter how much I love my daughter’s “Barbie phase” now, I am not keeping them all in the basement after she’s done with them (sorry Marley).Similarly, 62 Court Street? You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s a stucco facade that’s falling apart! Or 52 and 56 Court Street, which are nicer buildings that have a more designed granite and marble facade  but to grant them the honored status of landmarked?

Those buildings may have been beautiful in their day, but now they’re fossils. The strip may be a bazaar of useful retail, but it ain’t beautiful, and it certainly makes no sense to landmark the shells.On the other hand, when I look at the BellTel lofts building, which was landmarked a couple of years ago, I think, “that’s an incredible building.” And taking a building that had a prior use, in this case as a phone company headquarters, and refurbishing it to the next use so it can grow and change — that’s an incredible thing.

So here’s what I propose for future landmarkings: a balancing test for individual buildings. For Downtown Brooklyn would have told City Council, landmark the Municipal Building, a reminder of Downtown Brooklyn when it was majestic in the ’20s. And landmark 75 Livingston, one of Brooklyn’s true gems as well as one of my personal favorites, 191 Joralemon Street – a classic example of the 1920’s art deco style that exudes history when you stand in front of it. But leave the rest of the neighborhood free to grow.