Our editorial gaze rarely lands on the Big Apple, but a property rights issue in Manhattan’s fashionable East Village that will resonate with farmers and ranchers in the Pacific Northwest has caught our eye.
Nancy Bass Wyden, the wife of Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, owns the Strand Bookstore at 12th and Broadway, a fixture of the city’s literary scene. The business is billed as the world’s largest used bookstore and advertises “18 miles of books” on its iconic red awnings.
The business was started by her grandfather in 1927 on Fourth Avenue in an area then known as Book Row, a six-block area containing 48 bookstores. Her father, Fred, took over the store in 1957 and moved it to its present location. He bought the 11-story building in 1996, reportedly to guard against the rising rents that wiped out much of Book Row. Bass Wyden became sole owner of the store and building when her father died in 2018.
Her trouble began in December when the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission first moved to designate the building as a city landmark.
That sounds like a huge honor, but the designation comes with numerous regulations and restrictions on what an owner can do to the property and a robust bureaucracy to enforce them. Owners who want to make changes of any kind to the exterior must submit detailed plans to the commission, where staff experts will study in minute detail elaborate drawings of the renovations and the materials to be used to document anything that might change the historic character of the landmark.
It would be one thing if Bass Wyden had requested the designation. She did not. This honor was imposed upon her by Mayor Bill De Blasio at the insistence of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
For a New York liberal, Bass Wyden’s arguments before the commission sounded a lot like what farmers and ranchers say when they find themselves on the wrong side of the administrative state.
She said that her family has been a responsible steward of the building, making the protections unnecessary. She argued the designation is nothing short of a taking, eminent domain by another name. She noted that her business operates on a small margin and that the designation could be its undoing, putting at risk her ability to pass the store to her children.
The commission was unswayed.
“It is hard not to feel like my family is being punished for all of the hard work we have done to maintain the building,” Bass Wyden wrote in the New York Daily News following the vote.
The parallels between Bass Wyden’s case and those faced by farmers and ranchers under the heel of state and federal bureaucrats who know better how to manage the land are hard to miss.
She says she will continue to fight. We hope she prevails and that her husband takes to Washington valuable insights on the plight of property owners at the hands of the bureaucracy.