Broadway. The backbone of New York City, the most famous road in the world. Home to the Canyon of Heroes, Trinity Church, City Hall, Macy’s, MTV, the Great White Way, Lincoln Center, Columbia.
A landmark, surely.
In places, yes, but not in its entirety. Broadway’s constantly shifting character may be the secret to its dynamism — an argument both for safeguarding it from further development and for allowing its unimpeded evolution.
After five years of study, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission decided last week that 21 buildings on Broadway that it had considered protecting were unworthy of that honor. In a unanimous vote that took many by surprise, the commission decided that the buildings, all between 89th and 109th Streets, and built between 1871 and 1927, would be excluded from an expansion of the Riverside-West End Historic District.
The character of Broadway is distinct, the commission argued, something quite different from the purely residential blocks of West End Avenue and Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the main arteries of the historic district. It will now include more than 1,250 buildings overlooking the Hudson River from 70th Street north.
Lisa Kersavage, the commission’s director of special projects and strategic planning, explained before the vote on Tuesday that the staff was recommending against protecting the Broadway buildings “because of the heterogeneous and commercial character of the Broadway streetscape.”
The decision has inflamed a debate as old as the landmarks law itself — celebrating its 50th year — a debate as old in some sense as Broadway: If there is too much development, can there also be too much preservation? Where and how can a city grow, and is it the new or the old that gives it its spirit?
If anything, the decision may be the clearest view yet of how the de Blasio administration views its responsibility for the city’s historic buildings, as it tries to satisfy the desire for protecting existing buildings while also ushering in new ones, affordable and otherwise.
Standing at Broadway and 90th Street, now excluded from the historic district, one can easily see what is at stake — and what is not. The Cornwall, on the north side of that corner, is a quintessential prewar building, a 12-story layer cake of luscious red bricks and terra cotta icing with two bays of apartments, filigreed corners and balconies. At its base are a diner, a liquor store, a dry cleaner and a locksmith, all diminutive and neon-lit.
It is a fine example of classic New York City architecture from the Jazz Age explosion, when the city fully came into its own and became the capital of the world.
But this is not the Broadway of the Apthorp, the Ansonia, Zabar’s and Lincoln Center. Spectacular as the building may be, even the authors of the AIA Guide to New York City, that bible of street wandering, call the Cornwall “normal but nice.”
Perhaps the city is lucky to have so many riches that they become normal. That is certainly the view of Michael Slattery, a senior vice president at Real Estate Board of New York, the only major group to mount opposition to the protection of Broadway. Landmark decisions, he said, “should be made on the merits, and it’s not clear any of these buildings fit within the character of this district.”
Even so, preservationists see a contradiction, not least because two previous extensions of the district in the past three years (undertaken by the Bloomberg administration) have included more than a dozen properties on Broadway.
“This is exactly the kind of building you’d find on West End or Riverside, the kind of building the commission deemed so worthy of protection,” Sean Khorsandi, director of advocacy at Landmark West, a preservation group, said while strolling on Broadway on Wednesday, taking in the very solid buildings his group now fears doomed. “Its only crime is its location, not its design.”
Landmark designations limit alterations to the exteriors of buildings, makes wholesale demolition much harder and requires that any new construction fit in with the old. While the Cornwall is unlikely to change, the building to the south gives a sense of what could be built on this stretch of Broadway: a 1987 condominium of 22 stories of glass balconies and red brick panels, as devoid of character as the Cornwall is full of it.
For an even starker example, local residents might simply point skyward, to a pair of apartment towers of 31 and 38 stories that Extell Development opened in 2007. Twice as tall as everything around, they offer incomparable views, while also being an inescapable part of their neighbors’ vistas.
Under intense pressure, the city passed rules in the year the towers opened so that nothing in the area could rise above 14 stories.
That could soon change again. The de Blasio administration is reconsidering those limits through a citywide plan called Zoning for Quality and Affordability. Along this stretch of Broadway, it would allow for buildings as tall as 17 stories, so long as they included affordable or senior housing.
The new limits would be two or three times the height of many buildings on this part of Broadway — tantalizing for developers, terrifying for residents.
Those most ripe for replacement include small, rent-controlled buildings and the 99-cent stores that still outnumber cafes and wine shops.
“These are the buildings that create the rhythm of a neighborhood,” said Michael Gotkin, a local preservationist and landscape architect.
And yet, some of the very buildings that the pro-landmark groups want to protect required the tearing down of older homes, part of the race to build after the subway arrived in 1904.
“Broadway by its very nature is change,” said Robert C. Quinlan, the founder of Quinlan Development Group. He owns about 80 retail spaces across the city, many of which are on the Upper West Side, but also is a member of the advisory council of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a group that helps protect historic buildings. “Preservation is certainly good, but it can be very onerous for businesses,” Mr. Quinlan said.
Correction: June 29, 2015
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the name of a local preservation group. It is Landmark West, not Landmarks West.