The problem with limitless landmarking

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is poised to impose protected status on six sites that staffers say played a critical role in the gay-rights movement and may do the same with five buildings said to “represent” the historical contributions of the old sheet-music-publishing business, aka Tin Pan Alley. This is fresh proof that the whole landmarking process needs to change.

The “gay history” preservation impacts the old home of writer James Baldwin and the buildings where off-off-Broadway were born. But few claim the buildings themselves are anything special or even intrinsically evocative of that history. The same is true of Tin Pan Alley.

We were all for landmarking — on a city, state and federal level — the Stonewall Inn, because it marks a widely understood historic moment. But you have to draw a line at sites of major significance or you’re simply pandering to special interests at the expense of current owners, whose properties routinely lose value from landmarking.

It’s rather telling, in fact, when no one’s willing to raise donations for a nonprofit to pay market price and preserve a “historic” site.

A response to the foolish demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station, the landmark commission’s mission is to prevent mindless destruction. But a mandate to preserve buildings with architectural, historical and/or cultural significance has proven prone to abuse.

It also leads to comic debates — such as fighting the Tin Pan Alley landmarking by noting that lots of racist music was composed there. (Too bad for the opponents that they can’t identify any Confederate generals who joined the biz.)

Plus, this city is full of places that once hosted industries as “significant” as Tin Pan Alley, and ones that may someday be so seen. (Save the Troma building!)

Even for a good cause, arbitrary power is still arbitrary power. At the least, owners should be paid the fair value of what landmarking costs them: Give the commission a budget to cover such payments, so it has to choose, not just take.

The fact is, one reason New York makes so much history is that it hosts constant change. Freeze enough of the city in amber, and you drive the next history-makers to go somewhere else.

Heck, maybe what’s really needed is an un-landmarking procedure, to reverse foolish decisions and give the future room to breathe.

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