A Preservationist Explains Why Gowanus Could Be Listed as a Historic Place

gowanus-canal-1905

We contacted Preservation Program Analyst Daniel McEneny at the National Register of Historic Places to clear up lingering questions about the effort to designate the Gowanus Canal area a historic district. What he revealed: The National and State registers are more or less interchangeable. An owner of a listed property is free to demolish or alter his or her property. And, most surprising of all, an “eligible” property, which the Gowanus area has already been for eight years, is almost as good as listed. Read on for more details.

Brownstoner: What are the criteria for designation and why might an area such as Gowanus be eligible?
Daniel McEneny: To be eligible for State and National Register listing, a property or district must represent a significant theme in local, state or national history and be intact enough to illustrate that theme. Significant themes might include architecture, industry, commerce, invention, engineering, planning, science, economics, social history, or any number of other subjects. Integrity means that the property or district retains aspects of location, setting, design, materials, workmanship, feeling and association that relate to the identified theme.

The Gowanus Canal Historic District is significant as a cohesive collection of industrial and manufacturing facilities and associated resources located adjacent to the Gowanus Canal that together represent the development of water-borne transportation and industrial development in a South Brooklyn neighborhood between the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-1960s. Factories and industrial operations in the Gowanus district were directly associated with the canal as a primary source of materials, power and supplies; the majority of the single and multiple family residences in the neighborhood were constructed so that the workers could live close to their places of employment. The character-defining features of this district are those that illustrate its industrial past. A full copy of the draft nomination is available on the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) website: www.nysparks.com

BS: Is designation as a Historic Place the same thing as landmarking?
DM: State and National Register listing and the New York City Landmarks program are very different. Though related by similar mission statements, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is authorized by a local law that is intended to protect and to regulate the changes made to historically significant buildings and districts within the five boroughs; thus, LPC reviews and regulates any changes that private property owners make to historic buildings that have been designated as city landmarks.

The State and National Register programs are authorized by state and federal laws intended to ensure that state and federal agencies take historic preservation into account when planning projects. The registers are among the tools that the SHPO uses to identify historically significant properties across New York State. The SHPO does not regulate the actions of private property owners. Rather, the SHPO functions in a consulting role when listed or eligible properties are using state or federal funds or require a state or federal permit.

If a property owner wishes to alter or demolish a historic property listed on or eligible for the registers with his or her own money, he or she is free to do so. No consultation with the SHPO is required. This also applies to new construction in listed or eligible historic districts. A private owner is required to consult with the SHPO only if that owner is receiving funds from a state or federal agency or needs a permit or license from a state or federal agency. However, if a property owner wishes to demolish or alter a property that is a New York City landmark, he or she must seek the approval of LPC.

Although the SHPO often works in partnership with LPC, State and National Registers listing does not automatically lead to designation as a New York City landmark. LPC has its own criteria, which are different from the National Register criteria. LPC has expressed no interest in designating the Gowanus Canal Historic District as a local landmark.

BS: How does designation affect an area?
DM: The Gowanus Canal Historic District has been eligible for the National Register for eight years. Under the federal and state preservation laws, the SHPO consults on all state and federally funded, licensed or permitted projects that are eligible. The change from an “eligible” district to “listed” on the National and State Registers that was supposed to occur last week was largely honorific. Whether people realized it or not, the SHPO has been present in Gowanus for quite some time and that role is not going change if the district is not listed.

State and National Register listing does provide some substantial benefits to property owners. The project sponsors were very motivated to upgrade the district’s status from “eligible” to “listed” because that would make the district’s historic building stock eligible for state and federal rehabilitation tax credits. Between the New York State and the federal tax credit programs, private developers can recoup up to 40 percent of their investment on substantial rehabilitation of income-producing historic properties in the district. This tool has been used by owners all over the state and the country to upgrade their current facilities, by entrepreneurs looking to start up new and clean industries in existing warehouses, and to convert existing building stock into residences. Homeowners can receive 20 percent of their investment in rehabilitation as a New York State income tax credit, up to $50,000. However, the credit is only available to buildings and districts that are listed on the registers.

BS: Do you know of any similar areas that have been designated?
DM: There are more than 5,500 districts and individual properties listed on the National Register in New York State. These include a variety of property types and represent a great diversity of themes. Some encompass individual houses, others small villages or hamlets; there are many large urban neighborhoods, and several take in immense rural agricultural areas. Many, many mills and industrial complexes have been listed, and often these make the most compelling investment tax credit projects. Examples of properties either listed or in the process of being listed that are somewhat comparable to Gowanus include the Brooklyn Navy Yard (soon to be nominated), the Wallabout Industrial Historic District (listed), Brown’s Race Historic District in Rochester (listed), Johnson City Historic District in Johnson City (listed), American Grain Complex in Buffalo (listed), Pierce Arrow Factory Complex in Buffalo (listed), Taylor Signal Company in Buffalo (about to be nominated), Warrensburg Mills Historic District in Warrensburg (listed), and Orange Mill Historic District in Newburgh (listed).

BS: Why was the vote delayed 60 days?
DM: Under the State Historic Preservation Act, any mayor or chief elected official has the right to request a postponement of the State Board for Historic Preservation’s review of a property in their jurisdiction in order to give them sufficient time to prepare written comments. The city of New York requested such a postponement so that city agencies would have the chance to review the inclusion of their properties in the district.

BS: Anything else we should know or that you would like to add?
DM: Historic and cultural resources help to establish a community’s distinctive character and sense of place. The New York State Historic Preservation Office helps communities achieve the social, cultural, economic, and environmental benefits of historic preservation. These include stimulating economic growth, creating jobs, promoting tourism, building sustainable communities, and enhancing the qualities of life.

Photo of the Gowanus Canal in 1905, Brooklyn Public Library via New York State Historic Preservation Office

13 Comment

  • A “Preservationist” Explains…

  • daveinbedstuy

    I don’t know to what extent they are trying to make all of this a historic district but, from what I have see, most of the “industrial/commercial” areas are nothing more than a run down eyesore and THOSE should be redeveloped.

  • I am still very suspicious of this move. I still think that it is an effort by a group of preservationists to freeze the area as it is, or only allow only a narrow type of residential redevelopment from existing buildings. A place like the Navy Yard has a history that we can all be proud of and is worth preserving. But the history of Gowanus is an embarrassment that we should all try to forget, except to learn from it so it doesn’t happen again.

    • Cate

      Just to clarify: If you look at FROGG’s web site, they say designation will preserve the area and prevent development. That may be true insofar as tax credits may encourage some owners to preserve or restore. But for those who wish to develop, they are free to build, alter or tear down anything they want. They don’t have to check with anybody about it.

      • Tax credits for historic preservation will help “preserve”. In preserving, historic buildings would not be replaced by tall steel and glass towers–as seems to be doing on with the Lightstone property. It the program gives owners a financial incentive to hold on to their properties and businesses given pressures to sell out to developers than it could be said that it prevents development. But development and redevelopment are both development, and supporting redevelopment seems to be what many in Gowanus have been calling for for years.

    • How are you going to learn from history if there is nothing left to study?
      Anyway, I think that the superfund remediation will put a lot of pressure on owners in the area; all the better if this designation makes it easier for some owners to keep and renovate the existing properties in a preservationist manner. I am all in favor of anything that it makes it more likely that the Carroll Street bridge will live on as it is.

    • you should find out about the rich history in Gowanus; there is much to be proud of in Gowanus, especially as a nation.

  • sixguinness

    “Factories and industrial operations in the Gowanus district were directly associated with the canal as a primary source of materials, power and supplies… ”

    Add pollutants and sewage to that list.

  • GREAT PICTURE…TOO BAD IT LOOKS NOTHING LIKE THAT TODAY! GOOD THING SOMEONE TOOK A PICTURE AND PRESERVED IT, BUT THE BARGE HAS LEFT THE CANAL WITH REGARDS TO PRESERVING WHATS THERE NOW. OTHER THAN THE AMAZING BRIDGES AND THE CANAL ITSELF, THE REST OF GOWANUS NEEDS TO BE MODERNIZED OR WE WILL HAVE A DIFFICULT TIME PRESEVING JOBS… TOURISTS BELONG ON CONEY ISLAND.
    MY JOB NEEDS PRESERVING. THE CANAL WAS BUILT FOR INDUSTRY, YET NO ONE SPEAKS ABOUT PRESERVING THE BLUE COLLAR JOBS THAT BUILT NEW YORK.

  • It appears that NYSHPO has withdrawn the application as of May 12th. Nearly 42% of the 422 properties listed were of absolutely no historic significance. The Property Inventory section of the nomination itself listed 84 sites as “Non-Contributing”. Another 23 are “Vacant Lots” and 19 are “Parking Lots”. Approximately 50 additional structures included as “Contributing” were built after 1950 and document nothing of historic consequence. Many more should be condemned or have already been entirely altered. Just because a structure is old does not make it noteworthy and fantasizing something is historically genuine and significant does not make it fact. Saying that the Gowanus Canal itself is historic is one thing, but attempting to elevate parking lots and utilitarian garages, some decidedly quite mediocre and others in irrevocable states of decay, as somehow “historic” fails to serve the public interest for true preservation.