The historic preservation regulations governing New York City’s landmarked buildings make it costly for owners to maintain their buildings and can render buildings impossible to renovate or sell. Acknowledging the unique burdens placed on landmark owners, the city instituted a development rights transfer program in 1968 that allows landmark owners to transfer unused development rights more widely than other property owners. However, because the required review process is lengthy and uncertain, few transfers have occurred since the program’s creation.

Given the tremendous contribution that landmarks make to New York City, we need a more effective program to allow property owners to use untapped development rights to obtain funds needed for maintenance. We propose amending the zoning text to allow non-profit landmarks to transfer their development rights anywhere within their community district, as-of-right, as long as the development rights can be used within existing building height and setback constraints.

Increasing the market for development rights would create value for cash-strapped landmarks, enabling them to maintain their buildings without sacrificing their mission. The program could also impose a fee on transfers for use by the local community or create a fund to help maintain landmarks throughout the city.

Everyone in the city benefits from the preservation of landmarks, but only owners bear the cost of preserving them. Let’s create a process that—by appropriately increasing density—enables landmarks to sell unused rights to raise the necessary funds to maintain their historic buildings.

 Image: Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.