One of the more obvious ways in which Lower Manhattan is being radically transformed before the eyes of people who live here is the proliferation of new buildings. A less apparent, but still significant, driver of the ongoing local metamorphosis is the rate at which older buildings — in some cases, historic — are being modified.
A window on this transfiguration is offered by the Municipal Art Society (MAS), a highly regarded non-profit that advocates to protect New York’s legacy spaces and support thoughtful planning and urban design. The MAS has created an interactive online map called “Altering Historic Properties,” which tracks applications filed with the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) throughout the five boroughs to change properties that are legally protected landmarks.
The area of this map that focuses on Lower Manhattan documents, in addition to 24 new buildings currently under construction, 76 buildings where the owners have petitioned for rooftop additions, plus 11 more where developers hope to add some other form of annex.
The same database indicates that 120 buildings are the subject of applications for changes to storefronts, while alterations to windows are sought for 30 more, and the owners of 21 protected structures are seeking permission to adorn them with signage that requires sign-off from the LPC.
A map from the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission shows (in yellow) that less than one-third of Lower Manhattan is covered by the protection that comes with designation as a Historic District.
This underscores an anomalous condition in Lower Manhattan: the oldest part of New York City, although it contains many individual landmarks, does not have the blanket safeguard that would be conferred by designation as a Historic District. While Lower Manhattan has small Historic Districts surrounding Stone Street and Fraunces Tavern, slightly larger enclaves surrounding City Hall and the South Street Seaport, and overlapping protection zones through parts of Tribeca, there is no overall legal protection for the community as a whole. Within Historic Districts, all buildings are accorded a baseline level of legal protection, which entails heightened official scrutiny before any structure can be demolished.
A second map, from the LPC, illustrates that Lower Manhattan, while home to more than 100 individual landmarked structures, is mostly not covered by Historic Districts.
“When property is put inside a Historic District,” explains Lynn Ellsworth, a co-founder of the Tribeca Trust, “it comes under a body of regulations that govern all future development of that site. The owner is no longer free to simply knock down an old building and put up a new skyscraper.” She adds that many Tribeca building owners, “are supportive of the idea behind a Historic District, but a few big property holders who have clout are very difficult for politicians to say no to.”
To view the map referred to here, click here.