Preserving the Past While Building the Future

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Glancing at a modern city skyline, it’s apparent many if not most of the buildings are less than half a century old. Upon closer inspection, older buildings can be seen as well. In a city like New York, the old mixes with the new in dramatic fashion; the 90-year-old Empire State Building dominates the sky alongside five-year-old 432 Park Avenue.

Who – or what – determines which buildings remain standing and which are razed and replaced? When is it a good idea to renovate an existing structure, and when is it better to bulldoze and build something else? Does historic preservation go too far, despite the need to protect the past from the potential precipitousness of progress?

Knowing the answers to these questions accounts for a large part of big-city real estate development. Many firms in New York and other major cities specialize in the preservation of historic structures as well as lead the way on new construction projects.

An example would be Manhattan-based HFZ Capital Group. Their mission statement: “Developing landmarks for the future and restoring those of the past.”

Since 2005, the New York real estate firm has put an emphasis on renovating historic buildings throughout the city while also leading the way on various new construction projects. Their list of acquisitions and developments includes The Astor and The Belnord as well as One Madison and The XI, the latter set to open by the end of 2020.

As such, HFZ and similar developers across New York have often been the deciding influence over the fate of old properties and key players in the construction of new ones. Simply put, they know a thing or two about why buildings like The Belnord remain standing 100 years after being built, while others like The XI become modern replacements for demolished structures.

One factor that determines the fate of a historic piece of property is the cost-benefit analysis of its preservation. A firm like HFZ analyzes the condition of an older building, assesses the cost of repairs, scrutinizes the potential for profit, and decides whether or not the project is worth the trouble.

This calculus takes into account an assortment of factors, such as incentives and programs designed to encourage the preservation of historic buildings. Local leaders often see it as a net positive to offer developers incentives needed to convert old school buildings and vacant factories into affordable housing and trendy office space.

While public outcry aimed at preventing the demolition of historical landmarks is sometimes influential enough to make a difference, there are plenty of examples of cherished structures being bulldozed to make way for new developments despite overwhelming opposition. An infamous example is the demolition of the Fifth Avenue Bonwit Teller building in 1980. The iconic Art Deco architecture was brought down to make room for Trump Tower.

However, the architectural significance of an older building certainly plays a role in whether or not it meets the wrecking ball. It doesn’t always save an aging and outdated structure, but a building’s iconic status is certainly taken into account when assessing the cost-benefit of renovation versus demolition.

The motive to develop brand new structures – particularly in highly condensed urban centers such as New York or Chicago – is to make better use of the vertical space of a city. Not every new construction project in Manhattan is destined to become another skyscraper, but more times than not, a new building will be several stories taller than the structure it replaces. In New York, this has often meant the demolition of brownstone townhouses and housing projects. In some cases, entire neighborhoods are all but obliterated for the sake of progress.

As sad as it can be to watch these one-time working-class enclaves being wiped off the map, new buildings make better use of the limited space available. What’s more, these replacements are more in tune with Manhattan’s modern demographic.

The result is the world’s most famous skyline being a diverse array of old and new buildings. Historic high rises stand alongside ultra-modern skyscrapers. The same can be said for most other major cities across the world.

While nobody knows what the Manhattan skyline will look like a century from now, it’s safe to say it will still be as diverse as it is today.

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