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Garment Center Historic District On The Cards

In the eyes of preservationists, the building at 315 West 36th Street, between Eighth and Ninth avenues, is a landmark. The 16-story Art Deco loft building with an arched entry, was built in 1926, by famed architects George and Edward Blum.

Five years ago, Manhattan-based developers Walter & Samuels Inc. erected an upscale, 20-unit residential condominium complex atop this structure. Today, many view this project as an example of preservation-friendly redevelopment that should be a model for the future.

To ensure that many of the Garment Center’s buildings of architectural note follow such a path, Trust for Architectural Easements—a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that aims to preserve historic neighborhoods—has proposed creating a Garment Center Historic District.

Buildings which fall within the district’s boundaries will be listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

“One of the reasons behind the concerns for this area’s preservation is the development pressure coming from Moynihan and Hudson Yards development projects,” said Robert Benfatto, district manager for Community Board 4. “There are fears that the area will lose its historic significance if it’s not protected.”

Sean Zalka, area manager for the Trust for Architectural Easements wrote in an e-mail response that he sees the area as an “endangered” pocket. He believes that as adjacent neighborhoods like the Hudson Yards to the west and the Farley Post Office/Madison Square Garden begin to gentrify, there will, by osmosis, be a desire for property owners in the Garment Center to follow suit. The move is thus, an attempt to counter that, he added.

Expressing a similar view, Simeon Bankoff executive director of the Historic Districts Council said, “This is being proposed for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Garment Center is an important part of New York City that deserves recognition and some level of protection in the face of the overheated real estate market.”

Ironically, however, the initiative will do little to halt any demolition, alteration, or redevelopment of the designated buildings as long as they’re privately-funded projects.

A “historic” designation may be of three types—at the city, state, or federal level. While all of these confer government recognition that a building, a structure, a site, or an entire district is a cultural heritage, worthy of protection, they differ in the degree of their statutory authority.

Unlike a city designation, a listing on the National Register won’t have a regulatory dimension to it, explained Anthony Wood, a leading preservation expert in the city.

But a major reason its proponents chose to go ahead with it is that the process of nominating a district onto the National Register is usually less cumbersome and faster than getting it locally designated by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Also, it’s believed that a national designation would facilitate a possible future attempt to secure a local designation.

New York City currently has 90 locally-designated historic districts. While a local designation—guided by the New York City Landmarks Law of 1965—is the most powerful legal safeguard against anything that threatens their historic integrity, a listing on the National Register is largely ornamental. A property or a district is protected only if a federal government project tries to deface it.

Nonetheless, a national designation comes with a host of other benefits. “The honorific prestige imparted through the National Register recognition provides increased status to the neighborhood, often prompting increased community investment and attracting heritage tourism,” said Zalka.

Other than accentuating a place’s historic value, a national registry listing offers property owners several financial incentives in the form of tax breaks.

The homeowner or a commercial property owner can get a federal income-tax deduction if he participates in the preservation of his or her property through what is known as “historic façade easement” (or a “historic preservation easement”).

This is a voluntary, legal agreement between an owner and a non-profit organization that prevents the exterior of a historic building from being demolished, drastically modified, or falling into a state of disrepair.

At its full board meeting, held last week, Board 4 voted to approve the sponsorship. On June 17, the historic district proposal will be reviewed by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the state agency in charge of determining a site’s eligibility for inclusion on the State and National Registers.

The proposed district occupies a jagged-edged, rectangular swathe of Midtown, roughly bound by Sixth Avenue on the east, Ninth Avenue on the west, West 35th Street on the south, and West 41st Street on the north.

According to a report prepared by the trust, it comprises a cluster of 251 buildings, constructed from an assortment of materials including brick, stone, concrete, metal, terracotta, glass, asphalt, and synthetics.

The majority of these were built between 1896 and 1931. 14 were constructed after 1958. A number of buildings that predate the development of the Garment Center also survive. They include a church complex, hotels, a pre-Civil War firehouse, and many tenements.

Most of the buildings in this area are commercial lofts, typically 12 to 30 stories tall, which housed offices, production facilities, and showrooms dating back to the heyday of the Garment Center during the 19th century until the 1930s.

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