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When Protecting the Building May Mean Killing the Business

January 13, 2019

by Jennifer Tiedemann
January 13, 2019

For more than nine decades, the Strand Book Store has been a New York City institution. But could making it a designated city landmark actually put an end to this piece of New York history?

None other than the Strand’s owner says yes.

In early December, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission held a hearing on a proposal to make the Strand Building a city landmark. Nancy Bass Wyden—who owns both the business and the building in which it operates—strongly opposes the city’s efforts to formally “preserve” the building because, she argues, making the building a landmark would severely limit her ability to alter, improve, or make needed repairs to the building without crippling financial costs and a deluge of red tape.

In a new video for Reason TV, Wyden likens the city’s push to putting a “bureaucratic noose” around her family’s business. The Strand is one of the country’s most famous bookstores (how many bookstores can boast that they have 18 miles of books to peruse?). It’s been in her family for three generations, and she hopes to pass it along to the next. But ironically, efforts to preserve the building that the Strand inhabits may kill the business that made it historic.

That’s because with landmark status comes more rules and regulations from the city—which are not only more onerous to navigate, but also more expensive. Should Wyden want to make any change to the building—even something necessary like repairing a window—she will have to get approval from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. In a new op-ed for CNN, Wyden writes that such rules are dislocating to small businesses—and it could even end up killing hers: “The labyrinthine process for such approval places a burden that would cost us time and money—as it does every other small business that is so designated. Maintaining the building would require hiring landmarking experts, architects and lawyers. This additional cost, on top of our already thin margins, could very well grind the Strand into bankruptcy.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission will vote next month on whether to designate the Strand Building as a New York City landmark. Unfortunately for Wyden, she doesn’t have much if any recourse to fight the Commission should they vote in favor of preserving the building. “I’ve been told that nobody wins with Landmarks, but I want to fight them because it’s just so wrong, and so unjust, and so unfair, and we can’t let them keep running over everybody in their way,” Wyden told Reason.

Wyden’s—and the Strand’s—plight is a great example of why states should enact stronger private property rights protections, such as the Goldwater Institute’s Property Ownership Fairness Act. The Act requires government to compensate property owners when its regulations undermine property rights and decrease property values. If the Act were law in New York State, the city would have to pay Wyden for taking away her right to repair and improve her property.

The Act is already law in Arizona—and it’s been used to positive effect. In Tucson, local developer Mike Goodman bought up run-down buildings near the University of Tucson, with plans to replace them with upscale housing—much needed in the booming college town. But after Goodman had acquired all of the necessary permits and begun construction, the Tucson City Council passed an anti-demolition ordinance that applied to any building over 45 years old. Goodman took the city to court, and ultimately, a judge found that the city would have to pay Goodman if it was going to prohibit him from improving his property. The Act works because it achieves a smart balance between allowing government officials to stop property uses that threaten public health or safety while still preventing them from inflicting costs on property owners when health and safety are not in question.

Obviously, protecting public health and safety is not an issue when it comes to the Strand—just classic government overreach (more than one-quarter of Manhattan buildings are designated landmarks!). An unelected council of 11 city officials shouldn’t have the power to bury a nearly-century-old business by stealing its owner’s property rights.

Jennifer Tiedemann is the Deputy Communications Director at the Goldwater Institute.



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