Beautiful Brooklyn Heights

It might surprise you to learn that the first neighborhood to be protected under the 1965 Landmarks Preservation Law in New York City was not in Manhattan – it was Brooklyn Heights. I have had the pleasure of being in the area several times in the past few months, and regardless of the time of day, I find it to be an extraordinarily beautiful and gracious neighborhood. Since I love to take an unplanned walk in the city (a dérive, see my initial post about it here), one of my daughters and I took off on a beautiful warm early spring day to enjoy a walk in Brooklyn Heights.

Brooklyn Heights

Surrounded by Dumbo (see my love letter to this neighborhood here) , Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, and Downtown Brooklyn, getting to Brooklyn Heights is quite easy via public transportation. You can take the 2-3-4-5-N-R-W to Court Street-Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn, the A-C-F-N-R-W to Jay Street-MetroTech, or the 2-3 to Clark Street.  Before setting off on our walk, we had wood fired pizza at Dellarocco’s, which I highly recommend (214 Hick’s Street, off Montague Street). On the way there we walked past block after block of beautiful townhouses.

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I always find myself drawn to the water, and was unable to stay away from the gorgeous Brooklyn Heights Promenade. One of the more recent additions to Brooklyn Heights, the promenade was completed in the 1950’s.

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Rows of of lovely townhouses and apartment buildings face the promenade and gaze toward lower Manhattan.

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The promenade ends at the Brooklyn Bridge (for instructions of how to walk across the bridge from Brooklyn, see this post). John A. Roebling, the 19th Century engineer and designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, lived in Brooklyn Heights.

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The views from the Brooklyn Heights can be incredible. Here is a view toward the Statue of Liberty at sunset.

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Benches line the promenade for relaxing while strollers, both pedestrians and those containing children, move along the pathway.

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The view of lower Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights is extraordinary.

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The Brooklyn Heights Promenade eventually merges into Brooklyn Bridge Park.  Jane’s Carousel, dating from 1922, invites all to stop and take a ride on a hand painted wooden horse, to the sound of authentic calliope music.

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Brooklyn Heights has attracted writers and artists since its inception, and walking around the neighborhood it is easy to see why. Benjamin Britten to W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman to W.E.B. DuBois, Arthur Miller to Lena Dunham – all have found inspiration in the quiet beauty of Brooklyn Heights. Truman Capote, another resident, wrote Brooklyn Heights:  A Personal Memoir, in which he famously states, “I live in Brooklyn. By choice.” More and more people have made this choice over the past two decades. which has made this one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City.  The average price for a two bedroom apartment is $1,712,000 (compared to $1,149,000 for Brooklyn on the whole), and for a three bedroom it is just under $4,000,000. Townhouses can go for considerably more than that, but most people who live here consider the neighborhood well worth the cost. Brooklyn Heights has come a long way from Capote’s 1950’s description of street gangs and alley cats, but the allure of the area endures.

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Governors Island

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I wrote recently about Coney Island, and how easy it is to feel you are taking a mini-break from New York City without leaving the city itself. I recently spent a day on Governors Island, in some ways more disorienting (in a good way!) since you are simultaneously surrounded by nature and yet experiencing spectacular views of lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty.

Governors Island sits a mere 800 yards away from Manhattan and is even closer to Brooklyn (400 yards). Originally reserved for the Governors of the New York Colony during British rule, the American Continental Army used it to their advantage and fired on the British from the island during the Revolutionary War. After American Independence, forts were built on the island for coastal protection, and Castle Williams (which is still standing) was later used to hold Confederate prisoners of war during the Civil War. When material dug out from Manhattan to create the first subway line was used to enlarge Governors Island, it became first an Army base and later one for the Coast Guard. By 1996, however, the Coast Guard had ceased to use the island, and it began to be redeveloped as a public park. Fort Jay and Castle Williams, as well as 22 acres of the island, have been declared a National Monument – the remaining 100 acres belong to the city and are in the middle of a ten year plan to revitalize Governors Island for use by the residents of New York.

Getting to Governors Island is somehow both easy and difficult. The ferry leaves from lower Manhattan (just north of the Staten Island Ferry terminal) on the hour starting at 10 AM, and leaves the island to return to Manhattan on the half hour. The cost is $2 roundtrip, but is free if you are a resident and have an idNYC card (if you are a resident and don’t have one, what are you waiting for? there are so many great discounts and benefits, check out the card here). The actual ferry ride is only seven minutes long, but if you miss one (as I did, slower than expected subway traffic on the 4 getting me there just a few minutes after the 10 AM ferry left) it’s a long wait.

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One entertaining thing to do in the area if you miss a ferry is to watch helicopters take off and land just north of the Battery Maritime Building.

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Once the ferry is ready to load, it only takes a few minutes before you are looking back at the Battery Maritime building as the ferry leaves lower Manhattan.

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Within a few minutes you arrive on Governors Island at Soissons Landing.

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The constant odd juxtaposition of quaint old buildings, green lawn, and spectacular views of the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan is disorienting, but in an exciting way.

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One view of Castle Williams.

If you pass the old historic buildings and follow the signs for the newest part of Governors Island Park, The Hills, you can find the longest slide in NYC, three stories tall and 57 feet long. My advice on a sunny day is to be sure you are wearing long pants – that metal slide gets HOT!

The Hills was constructed using so much landfill it would require 1806 subway cars to transport it. Much of it came from the demolition of some buildings and parking lots elsewhere on Governors Island. Some of the actual hills were created using pumice, because any heavier material would push the existing landfill into the harbor.

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A plaque marking the National Park Service site, Castle Williams, with fantastic views of lower Manhattan, which is just a few hundred yards away.

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Wonderful views of the Statue of Liberty can also be seen from the western edge of Governors Island.

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Ferries return on  the half hour, with the last ferry back at 6 during the week and 7 on the weekend.

Returning back to Manhattan, you can feel as though you have taken a trip to another country, one where you gazed at the city as though it was a movie backdrop or a mirage. I highly recommend taking the journey.  I found I appreciate the city so much more when I have seen it through a different angle – even one that technically lies within the city limits.  Governors Island is open daily during the summer season, which lasts roughly the end of May through the end of September. For more information check out their website here.

It’s terrace season!

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Gorgeous view of midtown Manhattan from a private rooftop terrace on the Upper West Side

I have recently been working with several buyers who either require private outdoor space, or have been lucky enough to find it included in an apartment they love for other reasons. Spring and summer are definitely “terrace season,” as outdoor space takes on a special appeal on sunny, warm days. In fact, one buyer I was working with lost out in a bidding war on an apartment with a large terrace directly facing Central Park, after months of little interest while it was listing during the winter. The listing broker even told me that we would have definitely gotten the apartment if we had been bidding the same amount back in the cold and gloomy months of January and February, but in late March/early April, the same apartment had a much broader appeal.

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A peek into a Beekman Place private terrace from a terrace at Southgate

Other buyers of mine, while not looking specifically for an apartment with outdoor space, found one with two large terraces, one with East River views, and fell in love. I have written before about the value of a view of nature from an apartment, as well as the value of a city view, and those intangible emotional benefits are heightened when the view is not contained behind glass, but rather experienced while also taking in the information obtained from other senses. To be on a terrace and seeing the East River, while also feeling a warm breeze, smelling the flowers you have placed in planters, and hearing the sounds of the city, is to be immersed in the experience.

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Ready for an al fresco dining experience in midtown Manhattan

There are multiple types of outdoor space, and some people have strong preferences for one type over the other, while others just want any opportunity to experience the outdoors from within their home. The least versatile is a Juliet balcony – enough to step outside and check the temperature or take in a few deep breaths of the summer air after a storm, but not enough to even place a chair. Larger than that are balconies, commonly boxy squares in postwar apartments, often with enough space for a few chairs and a table. The larger outdoor spaces tend to be true terraces (outdoor space with the building underneath it instead of something jutting from the building) or private gardens. Gardens tend to be most common in townhouses, or in the garden level apartments in converted townhomes or brownstones. Garden level apartments have the disadvantage of not being the sunniest apartments, with some exceptions, but for people who like the idea of children or pets playing in a ground-level garden, they can be highly valued. Large terraces are perhaps the most prized outdoor spaces, and relatively rare. A terrace with an iconic view – of Central Park, of a river, or a spectacular city view – can greatly increase the value of an apartment.

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A look at several of the terraces in the Beekman area with a view of the East River

So how much does outdoor space affect the value of an apartment, if you have one – or how much more do you have to pay to get a place if outdoor space is a priority to you? As with everything else in NYC real estate, it depends upon so many variables – the location, the apartment itself, whether the building is a condo or a coop, walk-up or elevator, etc., etc. However, the value of outdoor space is often about 25-50% of the apartment’s price per square foot – higher if the terrace has a great view or is attached to a spectacular apartment, lower if it is on a lower floor or attached to a small apartment.

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Even on an overcast day, it’s a killer view from this private terrace on Central Park South

The most valuable outdoor space is the very one my buyer lost out on this spring – unobstructed views of Central Park (enough to increase the value of an apartment by 50% even from park-facing windows with no outdoor space) from a large terrace. Is outdoor space worth such an increase in price? As with so many other aspects of NYC real estate, that is up to you – for some, they may feel that they wouldn’t really use outdoor space and don’t want to spend the extra money, while for others, outdoor space is the most important aspect of their home search and they won’t consider a place without it. What I have learned this spring, though, is that timing is extremely important. If I am representing a seller who has an apartment with outdoor space, I would strongly recommend trying to list during the warm weather months if at all possible. Conversely, if looking to purchase an apartment with outdoor space, jumping on something during the winter can lead to a relative bargain compared to getting into a bidding war when the outdoor space is showing at its best. If you are interested in buying a home in NYC with outdoor space, or if you have one to sell, feel free to contact me (with no obligation) at julie.brannan@corcoran.com.

Central Park in winter (with photos)

Last week we missed having three feet of snow in the city as the storm veered east by about 50 miles, but we still had enough snow to make Central Park a winter wonderland. This made me think about the advantages of living near the park, and that they are not limited to warm weather months. My sister, who lives in Vermont, says that it’s important to find a winter weather sport to enjoy there so that one doesn’t get too much cabin fever during the long winter. There are far too many things to do in New York City for anyone to get cabin fever (although most cabins are larger than the average NYC apartment, I would speculate!), but it is important to be able to enjoy the outdoors and commune with nature year-round even in the city with so many indoor things to do.

There are two outdoor skating rinks in Central Park: Wollman Rink (now Trump Rink) in the southern part of the park, and Lasker Rink near the Harlem Meer in the northern part. Both rent skates and have a fee to enter, but Lasker Rink is less expensive and often less crowded. However, the views of the skyscrapers looming over the edges of the southern part of the park do make the views a little more picturesque at Wollman (Trump).

Every time it snows, certain areas of the park are well known as prime sledding spots. The best are both mid-park on the east side, Pilgrim Hill (enter at Fifth and 72nd) and Cedar Hill (enter at Fifth and 76th). Pilgrim Hill is steeper and Cedar Hill a little more gentle, but both get very crowded on a snow day. Bring your own sled, of course (or use a garbage bag or an empty pizza box in a pinch).

Every year, Central Park hosts a Winter Jam one weekend, mid-park near the Bandshell. Snow machines are brought in to create (or augment) snow and there are opportunities to learn snowshoeing, skiing, and kicksledding (equipment provided for all of these but lines can be long). There are also snowman building contests and a chance to sled, as well as pop-up food vendors.

After the park has received enough snow, you will see cross-country skiers and snowshoers in the park, but you don’t even need special equipment to truly enjoy the spectacular beauty of Central Park covered in white. Whether appreciating the permanent residents of the park (statuary) with a new layer of frosting to upgrade their look, seeing that someone has already cleared the Imagine mosaic in Strawberry Fields (do it yourself if no one else has), or appreciating a fresh look at the contrast of the stately buildings surrounding the park with the dazzling white of the park itself, Central Park in winter shows that the value of living in New York City within walking distance of the park is a year-round benefit.

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Long Island City

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Do you look back now and wish you had bought into Williamsburg or Dumbo 10 or 15 years ago? (I know I do.) Today’s dérive (an unplanned walk in an urban environment) takes place in a neighborhood that you may be feeling that way about in the very near future – and in fact, many of the true bargains are already in the past – Long Island City, Queens. One subway stop from 59th and Lexington (on the N and Q lines) and from Grand Central (on the 7 train), or from 53rd and Lexington (on the E train), this neighborhood is much more convenient to midtown Manhattan than most areas in Manhattan itself, has a thriving arts scene, and a park on the East River with magnificent views of the Manhattan skyline.

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Long Island City (LIC) was its own actual city until joining greater New York in 1898. The area was originally the home to numerous factories and bakeries, but now many of these spaces have been or are in the process of being transformed. The Silvercup Bakery site was converted in 1983 to Silvercup Studios, the largest TV and film production studio in the Northeast United States. “Sex and the City” shot there, and current shows shot at Silvercup include “Elementary” and “Girls.” The sign is visible from many areas in LIC and from the 7, N and Q trains as you head toward Queensboro Plaza. The iconic Pepsi-Cola sign, visible from most riverfront areas of Midtown East in Manhattan, sits in front of the former Pepsi factory, now being converted to residential condos.

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In my walk around Long Island City, I was drawn as usual to the waterfront – in this case, a beautiful sprawling park along the East River. Hunter’s Point South Park (a city park) and Gantry Plaza State Park meander for about a mile along the shores of the East River. The views of Midtown Manhattan from here are extraordinary.

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The rapidly changing nature of this neighborhood has its pluses and minuses, as is typical when an area is redeveloped. The building covered in graffiti from multiple artists, 5 Pointz, was painted over despite protests and has now been demolished as the site is being replaced by a residential condo development. On the other hand, since the contemporary art museum PS1 (named after the school building it took over) merged with MoMA in 2000, the museum attracts approximately 150,000 visitors a year to LIC.

The first open house I ever worked in real estate was for a friend and colleague who sold a townhouse in Long Island City for a record price, but one that was still a fraction of what one would pay in Manhattan, or Brooklyn. Queens has come a long way since Claude in Hair (the tribal rock musical on Broadway) claimed to be from Manchester, England, to disguise his shame at hailing from Flushing. Long Island City is already transforming, and while it is still possible to find relative bargains here, a beautiful landmarked townhome or a new development condo with a city view won’t be even relative bargains soon. I was recently asked at a party for advice on investing in a new area (not an uncommon topic of conversation once someone learns you are in real estate) and I recommended Long Island City. The largest producer of fortune cookies in the United States (4 million per day!) is in LIC, but if you decide to make a purchase in the area now, you might be able to create your own luck.

Dumbo

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If you have ever been to Paris, you will know the experience of feeling that every street frames a picture-perfect view. It’s not difficult to take a good photograph in Paris – the city displays itself in such a way that every shot turns out to be achingly gorgeous. I love New York City, and particularly enjoy walking around the city in an unplanned way (a dérive), and wonderful photo opportunities are easy to come by (particularly in Central Park, in my opinion). It wasn’t until a recent walk around Dumbo in Brooklyn, however, that I had the same experience I had in Paris – an area so photogenic that it was hard to put my camera (phone) down.

An acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, the neighborhood is a relatively small swath of real estate largely between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges along the East River waterfront, and also continuing a bit east from the Manhattan Bridge. Originally a manufacturing area called Fulton Landing after the ferry stop that was the only way to get there from Manhattan until the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, by the 1970’s industry had largely moved out and the area had its new (endearingly silly) name. In the constant cycle of reinvention that exists in New York City, the area is now a hub for the arts, and for the tech industry – holding 500 tech businesses within a ten block radius. In 2007, the New York City Landmarks Commission made Dumbo a historic district, and since then the value of residential real estate in the area has soared.

To get to the area from Manhattan, there is still ferry service, but it is also easily accessible via subway. I took the 4 subway down the east side and transferred at the spectacular new Fulton station to the A train. One stop toward Brooklyn and I emerged ready to experience a walk around Dumbo. It is helpful to remember that the ground slopes down toward the river in this neighborhood, and with the Brooklyn Bridge on one side and the Manhattan Bridge on the other, it would be difficult to lose your sense of direction here.

Heading down Washington Street, I was quickly struck by the charming nature of this area. The streets are largely cobblestoned as in Tribeca, the repurposed industrial buildings (now residential) are warm rather than imposing, the ground level shops are interesting rather being cookie-cutter national chains, and the geometric shapes formed by the angles of the bridges to either side frame every view perfectly.

I am always drawn to waterfront if it is nearby, so I continued to slope down toward the East River. To my surprise, there were small rocky/sandy sections along the river that looked more like a beach than a riverbank! Of course, the views of the bridges to each side here were even more spectacular. Jutting out into the water toward the Brooklyn Bridge, I saw the famous Jane’s Carousel, built in 1922 and helpfully covered so that it can operate year round (tickets are only $2). Looking back toward Dumbo, I could see the ongoing construction that is continuing to transform the waterfront. St. Ann’s Warehouse is converting an old tobacco warehouse to house its theater offerings (“Where theater meets rock and roll” – well, you had me at “theater” but I like where this catchphrase is going!). Because the shell of the building is landmarked, they will build an entirely modern facility like a nesting doll within the shell but not touching the walls of it.

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Walking along Water Street, one block away from the waterfront, I enjoyed looking at some of the colorful graffiti along some of the buildings under construction, but did wonder how much longer any of that will be around this rapidly transforming area. Passing Jacques Torres’ famous chocolate shop, I decided not to go in – this time. Continuing past the Galapagos Art Space while looping back to Washington Street and preparing to walk back to Manhattan along the pedestrian path on the Brooklyn Bridge (highly recommended; see my photo tour of the experience here), I realized how many experiences were left for me to experience when I come back – pizza at Grimaldi’s, a ride on Jane’s Carousel, decadent hot chocolate at Jacques Torres – and decided that my next trip to Dumbo will be sooner rather than later.

There are no real estate bargains to be had in Dumbo these days, but if you have the money and the desire to live in a beautiful center for the arts that happens to be tucked away from the bustle of the city – but with killer views of it – in my opinion, it is well worth the cost.

A photo tour of a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge

Whether you are fortunate enough to live and work in New York City, as I do, or are an occasional visitor, a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge is a magical experience – and free as well as good exercise as added benefits! The following is a series of photographs I took on a clear morning in late December (temperature was 38 degrees F, not bad in the least if you dress correctly), walking from the Brooklyn side to Manhattan. First of all, unless you plan to walk across both ways (which is not a bad idea if you have the time), the walk toward Manhattan is the more dramatic one. I also recommend this direction for the morning or evening hours – in the morning, the light is behind you and highlights what you are photographing, and in the evening of course the city lights are at their best. If you walk this direction on a sunny afternoon, the sun will be in your eyes as well as backlighting the buildings, ruining your photos.

I will be showing how to get on the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway from Dumbo – many suggest getting on it deeper into Brooklyn, but first of all, to be near the Brooklyn Bridge and not talk a walk around Dumbo is a tragic loss of opportunity (my next blog post is about my walk around this incredibly charming area), and secondly, all you get from the traditional route is a gradual incline up to the bridge with no significant views. You need to be good with stairs to take this route, however. After your walk around Dumbo, head away from the river on Washington Street, and soon signs will helpfully point out where you take a set of stairs up to meet the pedestrian lane.

It’s not a long walk, but allow plenty of time to stop and appreciate the views, and how they change as you walk over the East River. Keep looking to your left to catch views of the Statue of Liberty and later the downtown skyline featuring One World Trade, and to your right to see the Empire State Building and the rest of the midtown skyline (I particularly enjoyed seeing the Empire State, Chrysler, and 432 Park together, suggesting a skyline willing to encompass both the old and the new).

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Some perspective on New York City’s evolving skyline

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It seemed that 432 Park Avenue would keep going up forever – whenever we would become accustomed to the height of this impossible-to-miss new addition to the New York City skyline, it would add another few floors. However, it has finally topped off; it is the tallest residential building in the Western hemisphere, taller even than the Empire State Building.  432 Park, although officially not as tall as One World Trade because of the height added by its spire, will actually have occupied floors higher than One World Trade. Amazingly it will not hold the title of tallest for long, as even taller buildings are already in the works. All this new development is controversial – as a general rule, change is often difficult, and when the degree of emotional attachment to something is higher, so is the potential reaction.  There is no question that Manhattan’s skyline is being changed. However, it’s important to keep in mind that New York City historically has continued in a state of transition rather than a steady state, and this has contributed significantly to its very nature as a city.

Many gorgeous old buildings were demolished in New York before the passing of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (an early site preserved was that of Carnegie Hall in 1967, thank goodness). For example, the Hippodrome was a theater with a seating capacity of 5200 on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th, its history only marked today by the name of the enormous parking garage on the same site. The original Metropolitan Opera House and the original Madison Square Garden were lovely buildings, long since destroyed. The Vanderbilt Residence at 57th and Fifth, the largest private residence ever built in Manhattan, was once where Bergdorf Goodman now sits. A particularly egregious example is the original Penn station, which was graceful and airy. Outrage over its demolition in 1962 to make room for a larger (completely soulless) station and the current Madison Square Garden led to the founding of the New York Landmark Preservation Commission. The Commission’s first hearing was about the fate of the Astor Library – which was preserved and now beautifully houses the Public Theater. The 11 commission members include at least three architects, one historian, one city planner or landscape architect, one real estate agent and one resident of each of the five boroughs, who discuss possible landmarks brought up by the Commissioner, and hold public hearings on Tuesday mornings. This process is not infallible, of course – owners who learn that their building might be considered for historic preservation sometimes destroy either the building or its significant architectural details. It’s also easy to understand the point of view of the owners who might fear that the future value of their property could be affected.

I had an interesting conversation about this issue recently with a friend who is who is getting his Master’s degree in Historic Preservation at Columbia. In an early class, the students were assigned a building to assess and make a presentation in class regarding whether it should be preserved. He was the only one in class to argue that the building he had been assigned could be demolished, that within the area there were better examples of this style of architecture with stronger esthetic and cultural value. His professor told the entire class that this was the point of the exercise – that the goal of historic preservation is not to save everything, but to balance the need of the city for growth with its desire to preserve the best examples of its past. New York City is and should remain a place where a variety of housing can be found; from old brownstones to postwar white brick buildings, from prewar coops to new developments.

Yes, it can be hard to adapt to a new skyline. The Eiffel Tower in Paris was almost universally hated by the French when first erected. Our own original World Trade Center, which radically changed our skyline in the 1970’s, was initially criticized, then accepted, and finally missed. The first Waldorf Astoria hotel was a spectacular building, the largest hotel of its time, and where the inquiry on the sinking of the Titanic was held. It was demolished in 1929, however, to make way for an icon of the NYC skyline that is universally beloved – the Empire State Building. This city has always changed and must continue to do so to retain its fundamental character, like the English language which in its constant borrowing and creating of new words has led to a strong and evocative language. With proper controls in place to ensure that the best examples of our past architecture remain, New York City can continue to evolve and embrace the future, while respecting its past.