Is The Brooklyn Heights Historic District a Mistake? Heights Resident Sandy Ikeda Thinks So

Sandy Ikeda is a professor of economics at SUNY Purchase, and a resident of Brooklyn Heights. He’s also a very personable and bright guy, as your correspondent can attest, having gone on two Jane’s Walks through the Heights that he led, one several years ago and one this April. On each occasion he showed extensive knowledge of the neighborhood, including information that I, a resident of thirty years, didn’t know.

IMG_8039For example, I learned that the townhouse on Clinton Street in the photo above served, in the time just after the conclusion of World War II, as a halfway house for Japanese-Americans who had been interned in camps during the war.

IMG_8040Then there’s this plaque on the townhouse at the corner of Clinton and Livingston, that identifies it as having been the clubhouse of the Brooklyn Excelsiors, baseball champions in 1850, and one of whose pitchers may have invented the curve ball. The Excelsiors were lineal ancestors of the Brooklyn Dodgers, my first love in baseball, even though I lived nowhere near Brooklyn at the time.

Despite his knowledge of, and obvious love for, Brooklyn Heights, Sandy has argued here that the designation of Brooklyn Heights as a landmarked historic district was a mistake. He says he and others have benefited from it; they “enjoy the quiet and charm of a place nearly frozen in time – we basically live in a museum with restaurants.” The problem, he says, is that the restrictions imposed by landmarking have constrained how owners may use or dispose of their property and, for a more far-reaching effect, have limited the supply of housing over the whole local market, making it less affordable for all.

These were “Jane’s Walks,” and Sandy is an admirer of Jane Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities examined the question, “What makes cities work?” She championed the idea of the “neighborhood,” an area incorporating a mix of uses: residential, commercial, and public (schools, libraries, police and fire, parks) and a mix of old and new buildings housing people of diverse economic means. She opposed attempts to impose order or rationality through “urban renewal” schemes that were popular in the 1950s and ’60s. Neighborhoods, she thought, should be allowed to develop organically.

Jacobs also fought against the construction of highways through urban neighborhoods, which destroyed large parts of them and created divisions where none had existed before. Sandy noted with approval the efforts by Brooklyn Heights residents to keep Robert Moses from routing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through Brooklyn Heights, an effort that caused Moses to re-route the highway to the edge of the bluff atop which the Heights sits, and to create the Promenade above it. Like Jacobs, Sandy saw Moses’ original plan to route the highway through the Heights as a heavy handed government intrusion into a neighborhood; one that would alter its character for the worse.

How, then, did landmark designation, which was brought about by local residents (though no doubt some were opposed) violate Jacobs’ principles? She believed neighborhoods should develop organically, but also (according to this brief bio) was “[a] firm believer in the importance of local residents having input on how their neighborhoods develop.” I didn’t put this question directly to Sandy during our Jane’s walk, but I think his answer would have been twofold: first, by tying their own hands with regard to the disposition of their properties, owners at the time of landmarking were also tying the hands of future generations of owners who had no voice in the matter; and second, that the wishes of the neighborhood’s residents in this respect were outweighed by the city’s need for greater density (which Jacobs also advocated) and the affordable housing this would make possible.

I haven’t found any indication that Jacobs took a position, pro or con, concerning the landmarking of Brooklyn Heights, which occurred a few years before she left New York for Toronto. I have learned, though, that Brooklyn Heights was her first home in New York City. She and her sister Betty lived on a block of Orange Street that, some time after they moved out, was demolished to make way for Moses’ Cadman Plaza housing development.

As Sandy and I walked along the Promenade, I asked him if, had Brooklyn Heights developed “organically,” we would be seeing a phalanx of high rises to our right instead of the backs of townhouses and their gardens. His first response was, “Yes,” but then he quickly added, “Well, you can’t really tell.” That’s true; real estate markets have their ups and downs, as do cities as preferred places to live. It’s also possible that the owners of townhouses along Columbia Heights might have made a pact not to sell to any developer. How enforceable that would be, and how long it could be effective, are relevant questions. It’s not unknown, though, for property owners to refuse a deal that would be lucrative in the short run in order to preserve a pleasant ambiance and the prospect of long term appreciation in value. This is just what happened when the owners at 75 Henry Street, part of the Cadman Plaza high rise complex, voted to say “no” to a developer’s offer that would have resulted in the construction of a new high rise on the location of the Pineapple Walk shops.


For better or worse, New York, and Brooklyn in particular, is now considered very desirable. My guess is that the Heights, without landmarking, would today have the phalanx facing the water and many, though not all (some still survive in Midtown East), stretches of attractive row houses (as in the photo above) demolished and replaced by tall buildings, casting many shadows over the neighborhood. The Columbia Heights phalanx would make the Promenade a less attractive place to visit. I think the Heights would still be largely a “residential monoculture,” as that seems, in economic terms, the “highest and best use” as determined by market demand. We’d still have restaurants, probably more of them, and perhaps more high end retail.

What Jane Jacobs may not have foreseen when she wrote her first two great books was that her beloved West Village would be overrun by, well, people like me: people who could afford $350 a month (in 1973) for a one bedroom in a gut rehabbed tenement; people with jobs in law firms (like me), ad agencies, or banks, but who harbored artistic pretensions and were looking for authenticity, instead of the sterility of the Upper East Side or, heaven forbid, the suburbs. This began a trend of gentrification that led to what my friend David Coles describes here. Much of the West Village, like the Heights, became a landmarked district. It also became devoid of what Jacobs praised: a mixture of uses and of people of differing economic circumstances.

The Heights went through a similar process of gentrification, well described with respect to Brooklyn generally by Suleiman Osman in his The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn. The early gentrifiers were in the vanguard of those seeking designation of the Heights as a historic district. Today it is a much less economically diverse community than it was in the 1960s and before, and commercial rents have risen considerably, forcing out some locally beloved stores, the latest being Housing Works. I believe, though, that these changes would have happened with or without landmarking. Any new high rises built in the Heights, because of its proximity to water and its pre-existing charm. would have commanded very high rentals or asking prices. Their combined effect would have been to make the neighborhood less attractive, but not enough to make it affordable for those of moderate means.

Jane Jacobs may not have foreseen gentrification, nor the ability of private developers to disrupt neighborhoods by (sometimes surreptitiously) acquiring assemblages of land and purchasing air rights in order to put up massive structures. I asked Sandy if he believed that private, as well as government, entities could impose on neighborhoods in ways that frustrated Jacobs’ notion of organic development. He unhesitatingly replied, “Yes.”

The question is, was the landmarking of the Heights worth it on a cost versus benefit basis? I would say it was. To Sandy’s first objection, that it puts a burden on property owners in the district, I would say: should the burden become too great for a majority of them, they may petition the city to remove it. To the objection that it constrains the supply of available housing, I would say that the constraint, in the case of the Heights, is minor. My further answer would go to less economic than, dare I say, historic and romantic considerations. I think it’s important to save some neighborhoods, like the Heights and the West Village, as reminders, imperfect as they may be, of what the city once was like, and of the history that played out in them; not only, as in the case of the Heights, that Washington’s army camped here in August of 1776 and that he planned his troops’ escape from Long Island here, or that many great artists, writers, and political figures have made homes here, but also in the more impressionistic words of Truman Capote in his A House on the Heights:

These houses bespeak an age of able servants and solid fireside ease, invoke specters of bearded seafaring father and bonneted stay-at-home wives: devoted parents to great broods of future bankers and fashionable brides.

Landmarking couldn’t save residential or commercial diversity in the Heights or the West Village, but lack of landmarking wouldn’t have, either. Indeed, it would likely, in my opinion, have made things worse.

Photos: C. Scales for BHB.

Share this Story:

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Reggie

    How does landmarking constrain the use or sale of property in the historic district? Aren’t other regulations like zoning more determinant?

  • CassieVonMontague

    Excellent article. Well done, Claude.

  • A Neighbor

    Oh, the free market. A wonderful concept, but we would be a neighborhood of high rises. (Just as cars would be unsafe, food adulterated, etc)

    Jane Jacobs was brilliant, yes. She reminded us of the importance of the many things we love about our neighborhood — a community, eyes on the street, etc. But, guys, let’s not forget. She was writing 50 years ago. What she didn’t foresee, not surprisingly, was the enormous inflation in the real estate market. The land in BH is worth ten times what it was in her day, and, given an opportunity to maximize its value, developers would buy up every brownstone, tear them down, and build (much more economic) high rises.

    The ‘restrictions’ on poor BH building owners? We all bought property subject to those restrictions — and paid a price that reflected those restrictions. No injury.

    Mr Ikeda may be a free market guy who decries landmark restrictions, but, as a resident, he has apparently chosen to enjoy the result.

  • Claude Scales

    I believe the fifty foot limit on new construction in the Heights Historic District came as part of the landmark designation. It means a developer can’t offer a premium price to an owner based on the profit that could be anticipated by building a high rise. There are density limits that apply outside the historic districts, but they don’t prohibit high rise construction; they just limit it.

  • SongBirdNYC

    The flip side of landmarking, of course is the dogged preservation of buildings at all costs. The eyesore on the corner of Monroe and Clark is one. How long has that rat-infested dilapidated building stood in ruins? The other is the Brooklyn Heights Cinema? Why were two plans that would have maintained the cinema rejected by landmarks thus forcing the owner to sell when there is a building down the block that was approved? (20 Henry street is new construction that is in keeping with the spirit of the neighborhood architecture.) There were zero historical details left on that building. What sense of history are we saving by preserving that facade (when there is SO much living history in the neighborhood that IS preserved)? It makes no sense to me. I’m sure there are details about the proposals and negotiations that I don’t know. But I think the cinema was a gem and it added so much value to the neighborhood.

  • petercow

    So he must have been happy with what happened to the old Penn Station, and would have been happy to see Grand Central Terminal destroyed (as Penn Central Corp. argued it had the right to do, all the way to the Supreme Court).


  • Andrew Porter

    I read arguments all the time on real estate blogs about how Landmarking ruined NYC, denying property owners the right to the maximum return on their investments. By that reasoning, all zoning and landmarking laws everywhere deny the rights of the owner over the rights of the city and individuals to quiet enjoyment of their residences.

    As long as he’s set up this straw man, how about getting rid of all those ugly parks? They could be replaced by hundred story high apartment and office buildings, and make lots of money for someone.

    Of course, this guy decided to move to the Heights instead of, say, somewhere else, where the owners replaced some low-rise building with a super-tall, which maxed out zoning rules. He’s all talk, no action.

  • Andrew Porter

    A quick Google search brought up a lot of material about him. I believe he could be described politically as a Libertarian.

    Read his article, “Shut Out: How Land-Use Regulations Hurt the Poor,” here:

  • Sandy Ikeda

    Dear Claude,

    Thank so much for this write up! It’s always a pleasure to see you on my Jane’s Walks, and I’m always pleased when someone criticizes my arguments in a balanced and civil manner, as you’ve done here.

    Please forgive this longish comment, but my concern with landmarking (not necessarily with individual buildings but with entire districts) is not so much with what current residents can do with their landmarked property, which is something one should really be aware of before buying in a landmarked neighborhood. I’m more worried that

    1) as a lot of economists doing empirical research have shown (e.g. the restrictions on height and new construction that landmarking imposes significantly reduces the supply of residential units in a given neighborhood and, other things equal, drives up housing prices;

    2) the extent of landmarking in NYC – I believe it’s currently around 139 districts in NYC and about 25% of Manhattan and growing – exacerbates the housing-supply problem and contributes to higher housing prices city-wide (there are obviously other forces involved as well); and

    3) these high real-estate prices mean less economic and land-use diversity, which in our neighborhood means a growing mono-culture, as more and more mixed-uses are converted into luxury housing.

    Do I love living here? Of course I do. It’s not just the charm, of which BH has aplenty, but the convenience of location and perhaps the best access to subway lines anywhere in the City. Have I personally benefited from landmarking? Yes – more by accident than foresight, but yes. The market value of my apartment has shot up astronomically in the past 23 years owing in no small part to landmarking. So in arguing against the landmarking of whole neighborhoods I’m arguing against my own economic interests and in favor of people and families who can only afford to live in the kind of multi-family construction that Brooklyn Heights does not permit. Where do these families go? To other neighborhoods (presumably not landmarked) and other cities perhaps. But certainly, as some might say, “not in my backyard!”

    If you’re in favor of “affordable housing” you cannot consistently argue that “housing should be a source of rising long-term value” nor support the volume of landmarking we see in this city.

    Sandy Ikeda

  • Reggie

    Got it. The old guard might have negotiated both at the same time but the height limit is still a zoning restriction, not something inherent to the historic district. And CVM is correct, great long-form post!

  • Jorale-man

    As others here have pointed out, it all comes down to zoning. Think of the great neighborhoods and cities of the world: Beacon Hill in Boston, London’s Marylebone, much of Paris and Rome. They retain their global appeal because developers weren’t allowed to just stick out-of-context high-rises everywhere they pleased. NYC is a city that, by and large, gives the real-estate industry free reign to build as high and ugly as it wishes. This may be fine for midtown, but would be disastrous for a neighborhood of small, narrow streets.

  • Claude Scales

    Thank you, Sandy. I do appreciate the argument that the city may have been overly generous with landmark designations. Of course, that’s easy for me to say, as a resident of the first neighborhood to have been so designated. I believe that the Heights would have remained essentially a residential monoculture even without landmarking, because of its location on or near the waterfront, with the accompanying views, and its convenience for commuting to Manhattan. Greater residential density would have – ceteris paribus – reduced housing prices somewhat, both in the Heights and nearby. Still, I think the game was worth the candle.

  • Andrew Porter

    Look how China has destroyed the old neighborhoods in Beijing and Shanghai and other cities, making them into supposedly world-class cities while destroying the very things that made them interesting for those visiting.

    If everywhere looks aline, what’s the point of going anywhere else?

  • Jorale-man

    Exactly! Most of the world cities Americans love to visit for their historic charm and beautiful architecture didn’t just happen they way by accident. Those city planners saw a greater good in preservation. Some (including Paris and London) still allowed for some high-rises but they kept them confined to a particular area, not mixed in with old historic neighborhoods.

  • Cranberry Beret

    The building at Monroe/Clark is being renovated now. Its poor condition (and resulting slow renovation) was a longstanding problem more attributable to a cheapskate landlord and rent stabilization laws than to landmarking. (I’m sure the libertarian will complain about rent laws too!)

  • Claude Scales

    From what I recall, Sandy expressed support for the preservation of buildings that have great architectural or historic significance.

  • Cranberry Beret

    The cinema is a red herring. The business wasn’t profitable even with below-market rent in the old building. Even if the earlier plans were approved, they wouldn’t have saved the cinema (despite the ploy of “save the cinema!” used for sympathy by the building owner, and notwithstanding the unrealistic beliefs of the cinema operator). I miss the cinema as much as anyone and wish it was still there, but no need to confuse this discussion with misinformation.

    As for the 70 Henry building itself, this is where the libertarian case against landmarking really falls apart. I looked at the economics of this site quite extensively. There was actually quite a bit of historic material there that could’ve been used for a really nice restoration of a unique 19th century commercial building. One person’s “it’s just a wall” is another’s “let’s work with what we’ve got.” The preservationists were right to fight the earlier plans, because otherwise every future developer would be encouraged to look to run-down buildings in the neighborhood, claim there wasn’t anything worth saving and seek demolition.

    So in this case, landmarking preserved what was left, and it turns out this didn’t prevent anyone from maximizing the economic value of the site. The original owner got top dollar when he sold (he did far better than the owners at 30 Henry who sold a building which actually got demolished). This is because the buyer who got the plan finally approved had a savvy architect who realized someone could do a minimal amount of preserving “the wall” to placate the Landmarks commission at a pretty modest cost compared to the overall construction costs of this project and with little effect on the overall returns. The original owner, or the typical developer with less vision, would have howled about diminishment of value, but that was short-sighted because the current owner only had to spend very little extra to make this project a hugely profitable winner.

  • Eddyde

    I’d bet if there were high-rise towers along Columbia Heights they wouldn’t be “affordable” housing.

  • Quinn Raymond

    This is a really interesting and nuanced article. I appreciate both Claude and Sandy’s points. It’s a complicated issue.

    1) Sandy is absolutely correct that zoning can constrain housing availability, driving up housing costs (and also investments for existing owners).

    2) At the same time, one of the reasons Brooklyn Heights is desirable is because it’s a transit-oriented, human-scale, walkable neighborhood. It would be entirely possible to make more communities like this in our country if developers and city planners had any vision. They might lack the historical charm and the Manhattan views, but otherwise they would function very similarly.

    The coming tidal wave of abandoned malls might make great building sites for such communities– imagine “affordable” versions of Brooklyn Heights available to everyone?

    Could be nice.

  • Klaus K.

    The concern for “affordable housing” on the part of
    promoters of real estate development is a chimera. They are simply donning progressive arguments about the “affordability crisis” or “the need for high wage blue collar construction jobs” in order to achieve what they have wanted for decades – a free hand to demolish the fabric of the city for private enrichment.

    As a long time supporter of historic preservation, I have noticed that pro-development people simply shift from one argument to another in their opposition to preservation. Whether it’s
    REBNY, Nikolai Fedak and his YIMBY blog, or now (with all due respect) Mr. Ikeda of Brooklyn Heights who surely could have chosen to live in a non-landmarked neighborhood, they all like to sound very principled, reasoned, and full of concern for the commonweal in their efforts to delegitimize and demonize historic preservation. Sometimes it sounds like they’d like to be rid of zoning laws as well.

    A perennial old anti-preservation chestnut focuses on private
    property rights, yet in NYC at least, the landmarks board tends to avoid landmarking a structure against the will of the owner when possible. In the case of Brooklyn Heights (as well as in other Brooklyn neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Crown Heights, and others), the majority of the property owners sought out landmark status. They welcomed it. In fact, there are parts of Crown Heights
    that are still trying to get landmarked. Anyone who purchased property in an historic district after its landmarking surely knew about it and should have purchased property in a non-landmarked area if this was an issue for them. In my experience, buyers tend to seek out properties in historic districts rather than avoid them.

    Another common anti-preservation canard is that preservation
    was not economically efficient because it “cost more to renovate than tear down and build anew.” However, in today’s de Blasio era, pro-development types instead attack preservation as “limiting employment opportunities for blue collar workers” by preventing wholescale re-development of the city. Because they care so much about their workers, of course.

    They attack historic preservation in the name of affordable
    housing, yet we are in the middle of a building boom (and there are plenty of non-landmarked buildings outside of high priced neighborhoods ripe for redevelopment, not to mention plenty of empty lots especially in places like the East Village and upper Manhattan). There is a veritable forest of supertalls and megatowers going up in Manhattan, Long Island City, and even in brownstone Brooklyn, yet why don’t developers offer up some of these new apartments to help ease the city’s affordability problem?

    Developers will never build affordable housing without being
    forced to do so. If NYC’s historic preservation laws were wiped away tomorrow – certainly a wet dream for many members of REBNY – the result will not be affordable housing. A lot of what attracts people to NYC will, however, be demolished forever in favor of shiny glass and steel “starchitecture” better suited to Shanghai or Dubai.

    And besides, affordable housing in and of itself should not
    be the city’s highest or only aspiration. Detroit and Buffalo are full of affordable housing. In fact, when many parts of brownstone Brooklyn, like Fort Greene and Stuyvesant Heights, were landmarked, there was zero interest on the part of the development community in building new projects in
    such areas. Even in the 1990’s it was rare to see new construction in areas like these without massive city and state subsidies and tax abatements. If anything, landmarking helped stabilize and later raise the value of many Brooklyn neighborhoods to a point where the real estate developers started to take interest. If Manhattan had not continued to be “unaffordable” for many post-collegiate young transplants to the city, we would never have witnessed the phenomenal transformations of places like Williamsburg and Bushwick.

    Mr. Ikeda cites a study (which is no longer posted at the link provided) by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University linking preservation to the affordability “crisis,” yet there are many, many studies that show the positive effects of historic preservation:

    Also, for the record, I do not believe Jane Jacobs would have been against historic preservation. While she was a proponent for density and urban life, I seem to recall she placed great value on human scale development such as one finds in NYC’s historic districts. Yes, she favored organic evolution in urban neighborhoods, but organic evolution is incremental and gradual. There is nothing incremental, gradual, or organic about Pierhouse at Brooklyn Bridge Park, 9 DeKalb, Hudson Yards, One57… well the list really could go on and on.

  • Banet

    To say that housing prices are inflated because too much of NYC is landmarked seems like a philosophical argument more than one based in fact.

    Yes, as you claim about 25% of Manhattan is in a Landmark District (27% to be exact, but that of tax lots, not acreage. It’s a much smaller percentage of acreage). But it’s only 3.4% of the tax lots citywide. As I’m sure you know the vast majority of New York City residents live outside Manhattan.

  • libertyftw

    The most half-baked part is that removing historical status would somehow make BH more affordable. The issue isn’t only that he character of the neighborhood would be destroyed by high rises.

    It’s that the eyesore high rises would have a $1.8 million minimum for a studio. That’s…not a solve for a diverse neighborhood or “increase in supply.”

    If community boards and (god forbid) city planners were smart enough to include architects that understood public space, design, the known and unknown needs of the Brooklyn living space (as they apparently did in the early 1900’s), we probably wouldn’t need that designation.

  • Quinn Raymond

    It’s true, he’s a Libertarian. I try not to hold it against him. Unfortunately, the points in the article you linked to are factually accurate– especially the one about mandatory parking minimums.

  • Andrew Porter

    There are really no city planners with any power here, though there is a NYC agency for this. There is, however, the Regional Plan Association; here’s a link to their home page:

  • Quinn Raymond

    If you’re interested in urban planning from that era, the best book is Raymond Unwin’s 1909 masterpiece “Town Planning in Practice”

    It should be noted though that high-rises were uncommon at that time not due to the wisdom of urban planners, but because the technology to build them was brand new and not widely available.

    NYC did not have comprehensive zoning until 1916.

  • petercow

    That’s great, Claude.

    So suppose you have an arch. significant house next to one deemed, ‘not so much’.

    That is destroyed, and a new POC McMansion goes in, or a “Feders” mid-rise – which the owner markets as “being next to a beautiful historic home!”

    What do you think that does to the value of the historic property? The neighborhood?

  • Claude Scales

    That would be a problem. It’s not the same as the Penn Station/Grand Central issues. I believe Sandy was in favor of preserving them. I’m not defending his argument against designating historic districts.

  • Reggie

    I think you are muddying the distinction between the actors and the rules and procedures that they operate under. Their are architects on community boards and many planners received degrees in architecture before getting their planning degrees.

  • Reggie

    Theoretical planners have more power than Department of City Planning (DCP) staff who make decisions and guide the City Planning Commission? Don’t get me wrong; there is much to criticize about DCP but your assertion is far from accurate.

  • petercow

    Show me a “libertarian”, and I”l show you a 15-year old and/or an idiot, every time.