How Historic Preservation Can Be Oppressive and Self-Defeating

The Strand is a mecca for all book lovers in New York City and many others around the world. It contains 18 miles of shelves loaded with books—new books, used books, pristine coffee table books, tattered paperbacks, and most importantly of all, books that just can’t be found anywhere else. The space inside is irregularly shaped and built on many levels, creating many nooks that invite quiet browsing.

But, as the New York Times reports, this storied emporium is threatened by New York City regulation. It’s not that the government needs to step in to prevent the store from harming its neighbors or the general public. Far from it, as it provides an amenity, not only to the neighborhood but to the nation. But New York City wants to designate it as an historic landmark. The difficulty is that this designation will make it harder and more expensive for the store to make repairs and adapt itself to changing market demands—change that today is intensified by online competition.

Historic preservation regulation thus raises profound questions of justice and liberty. To be sure, the Strand is a beautiful place that provides aesthetic pleasure even to those who do not buy its books. But why should the Strand have to pay for their pleasure by shouldering higher costs? It is just to require businesses to internalize the costs they would impose on strangers, but it seems unjust to require them to provide benefits to passersby. Economists may see no difference between eliminating negative externalities and maintaining positive ones, but the neglect of that distinction does not comport with a common sense of justice.

And we could make a more utilitarian argument for the distinction between positive and negative externalities that might appeal to economists. If the government imposes additional costs on the owners of beautiful exteriors and interiors, at the margin people will make exteriors and interiors less beautiful to avoid those costs. Even if a building has already been built, a new prospective buyer who would put it to its highest and best use may be deterred because of the fear that down the line he will be saddled with more maintenance.

There’s at least a partial solution to this problem. If the government wants to designate a building as an historic landmark, it should have to pay for the additional costs of maintenance from public funds as well as the diminution in its use value from the regulation.

This requirement would would have an additional benefit. In a crowded city like New York, various groups sometimes use historic preservation to prevent changes that will harm them in particular. For instance, apartments owners may fear that a new building  might block their views. Designating an old one as an historic landmark preserves their vistas. Forcing the city to pay for the additional costs would create some pressure to resist such unjustified designations. A place that is too much attached to the past because of private rent seeking will miss out on some architectural wonders of the future.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on December 18, 2018 at 14:13:28 pm

McGinnis is quite correct:

Compensate the property owners for their loss.

Looking from the other side of the coin, we find something quite intriguing.
In Seattle, a waterfront renovation is underway (I'll skip the details). The City however has determined that such renovation will result in "untold" benefits to the nearby property owners and thus will impose a tax of $258,000,000 over ten years on those owners who neither asked for it, controlled it or otherwise influenced it.
These are small businesses, and yes, a Book Store among others who cannot absorb such costs.
Who determines this benefit?
Why are not the general citizenry asked to absorb the costs associated with this Public Improvement District as surely the new waterfront will be enjoyed by the entire populace?

So here, curiously enough is another example of private agents being required to pay for the *positive* externalities resulting from the actions of the Municipal government - not the property owners themselves.
It would appear that come what may the governing bodies of this nation are free to impose costs and extract monies and property from the citizenry in order to support the governments notion of what is beneficial.

read full comment
Image of gabe
on December 18, 2018 at 15:34:17 pm

I spent many an hour browsing through the rows of books at Strands when I worked for Con Edison which had it's headquarters only about three blocks away. That was a different time, when Broadway and 4th Ave. was called "Book Row" because it had used book store after used book store and they all eventually closed because they couldn't afford the rent increases. That was 30 years ago and I still get enjoyment from reading my purchases today.

read full comment
Image of Bob Manderville
Bob Manderville
on December 18, 2018 at 18:07:21 pm

Just the latest example of preserving the mistakes not learned from...

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.