Gowanus Historic District Shelved, Not Nixed

The New York State Preservation Office has decided not to move forward with a plan to designate the Gowanus Canal area as a state and national historic district. The designation, which has been in the works for about a decade, was shelved after the state received a substantial number of notarized letters from property owners objecting to it, as The New York Daily News reported last week.

However, contrary to what that article implied, it is still possible the area could one day be designated if residents favor it. A member of pro-designation community group FROGG, who asked not to be named, told us the letters came in because another community group went door to door with a notary and gave misleading information to homeowners about the designation and wrote letters on the spot.

At issue is whether or not designation would in any way hinder development or restrict what homeowners could do with their property. The state preservation office said it won’t. “It’s honorific,” said the FROGG member.

Whatever Federal review might be necessary is already required because the Gowanus Canal Historic District has already been deemed eligible for designation. Official designation would let owners get tax credits if they voluntarily seek to restore or redevelop their properties in the area. Above, part of the site in the area where Lightstone is building a development as it looked in September.

Click through to the jump to see the letter the Preservation Office sent to Gowanus area residents about the matter. The “fact sheet” to which the letter refers is a post we ran in March.

Update: A letter sent out to residents by community group Gowanus Canal Commmunity Development Corp. opposing designation can be viewed on the website of the Gowanus Alliance.

Re: Gowanus Canal Historic District


As you may know, review of the Gowanus Canal Historic District by the New York State Board for Historic Preservation, scheduled for March 13, 2014, was postponed in order to allow the City of New York time to study the proposal and prepare comments.

Over the past two months, we have received a substantial number of objections from property owners and we have perceived a high degree of concern about the potential effects of the listing among neighborhood residents. Although the National Register is a benign program that provides honor and some financial incentives for preservation without placing undue restrictions on owners of private property, the New York State Historic Preservation Office values and respects the rights of property owners. Therefore, we have decided not to pursue listing the district at this time.

I have enclosed a fact sheet, originally published in The Brownstoner, which addresses misunderstandings and misinformation about the National Register. The SHPO will be happy to continue working with property owners who wish to pursue listing of individual buildings in order to take advantage of tax credits. Unfortunately, not all buildings in the district will meet the criteria for individual listing; please consult with us for specific information about whether or not a building will qualify before you begin a project.

If you have further questions about this letter or about the National Register, please feel free to contact Kathleen LaFrank, National Register Coordinator, at 518.237.8643 x 3261.


Ruth L. Pierpont
Deputy Commissioner for Historic Preservation
New York State Preservation Office

14 Comment

  • Shortsighted, and frankly, stupid. Being placed on the State and National Register of Historic Places is not like being landmarked by LPC. Residents and building owners were certainly handed a load of hooey. As FROGG said, the designation is mainly honorific. Being on the NR does not carry with it NYC LPC rules. You aren’t required to file anything, or do anything.


    What it does mean, and what Gowanus will lose out on, is the ability to get a hefty state and federal tax credit for major work done on a NR property. I believe it’s a 40% credit. If one is buying an old factory to fix up for residential or business reuse, that’s a significant amount of money saved. Ditto for all of the row houses within the proposed district. There were quite a few. I hope that when the state comes back to designate the site, which is extremely important, and should be designated, people are more sensible.


    BTW, one can point to any number of important projects in cities all across the country, including ours, made possible in large part because the district or building was on the National Register. It’s a powerful federal tool in revitalizing our historic building stock. The projects do not have to return the building to its former use, and are used all the time to make old factories and mills into residential buildings, as well as revitalizing historic downtowns. Gowanus really missed the boat here, pun intended.

    • I think about 80% of this is a Gowanus pissing contest and it was FROGG and not the Gowanus Canal CDC or a group aligned with them spearheading this effort. I’m in the district and it would have been nice to have the option of being able to apply for grants or tax credits.

      Submissions to SHPO were FOILed (by both sides) and the notary for many objections was the same person. Some of those actively opposed own property including parking lots in the proposed district so I think the yard just waiting for the imminent rezoning and the opportunity to cash out.

      Perhaps the recent Building of the Day in Red Hook could have benefitted from the listing.

      • The sample letter uses the outrageous scare tactic that “approval” subjects the property owners to permit review by the historical boards (federal and state). The canal area was already identified as “eligible” — that identification years ago triggered the Section 106 process (which requires the permitting agency to include the historical impact in its review). So there will be no change in current permitting requirements.

  • Totally agreed, even if I hesitate to say stupid about almost anything. Turning down free money would seem to fit the bill.

    It would be interesting to see the letters of objection — I wonder if there was a lot of stock language being pushed by a single group out to property owners and if the Q&A mentioned would or could have addressed most of the concerns.

    • Just added a link above that shows a letter opposing designation.

      • I just read their letter. I don’t usually call things “stupid” either, but…. Their letter was full of inaccuracies, to put it nicely. Also using the LPC as the big boogie man was lame. I can think of a whole lot of historic districts and individual buildings in NYC that are on the National Register, but are not landmarked by LPC. It is far more common for a LPC designated site or district to seek NR status afterward.

        I also love how people who are not historians, architects, archeologists, or architectural historians are able to state with great authority how a building or a district is or is not worthy of being on the Register, or landmarked, for that matter. Their expertise seems to be derived solely by their ownership of said building.

        • Some of them own multiple properties. Scuttlebutt in the hood is that Lightstone’s lawyer bombarded SHPO with questions and requests for information.

        • Just so we are clear ownershp of said building is exactley the type of right thatt gives ultimate say in said building… not a group of people with an agenda, or is this not America anymore? are property rights important? if you want a museum open one in your house!

  • you never know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. Aren’t such districts created to preserve history for everyone? Why would the self-serving preferences of a few have any more bearing than the will of the population as a whole?

  • I remember when this came up on Brownstoner, and how people reacted with a lot so scorn, until it was pointed out that it was more about tax credits and a positive thing for the area (I have to admit that I was one of those who over reacted). Now I feel bad that this is not happening; I hope that they do revisit the request. I know that it will not create any kind of mandatory historic district where no building can be altered. Property owners would still be free to do what they want.

  • This article is a perfect example of the unfairness and one sided aspect of this application and the people behind it. Gowanus is a manufacturing/industrial zone. the fact that a minority of non-conforming users can try ro impose a program that has very little to do with growing manufacturing and more to do with residents that feel thier use trunps the use of commercial/ industrial users who feel this program does not help business and in fact have not been able to answer if this program could further isolate the ability for inverstment in core improvements not related to historic astetis, however could trigger oversight and recomendations that would not be feasible even with the tax credits mentioned. If it does not make sense for bussinesses, it should not be presented as a program that is for residents, the majority of properties are not homes, they are bussinesses. But No one talks to the bussinesses……Again!!!!!! bottom line their are better tools to serve our community, This is not one.

  • i cant wait to see the personal attacks…. let the fooishness begin…just make sure you live or work in gowanus!

  • last thing if i have not already put my Foot in my mouth here,,,,, Everything has an unintended cosequence, or adverse affect, no one is Smart enough to understand the direct and indirect results until they manifest themselves . positivley or negatively.. even the result of the best intentioned idea needs to be disussed and to the best of our ability understood..up till now the discussion has not happened, property owners have legitamate questions and have the right for qualified answers, all we get is this is GOOD, and you are evil and stupid if you dont agree, not a very open minded way to engage your niehbors. if I may Step off the Deep end here and ask someone to study the corelation between our cities revokation of STOP and FRISK and the increase on violence. i think the parents of the children injured by criminals would not see the same upside to a Government policy imposed for the so called greater Good of a community… Just my opinion, Sorry in advance for offending any particular segment of our city here, i will certainly follow jonah hills example if needed….