Penn Central Transportation Company v. City of New York

Decision Date26 June 1978
Docket NumberNo. 77-444,77-444
Citation57 L.Ed.2d 631,98 S.Ct. 2646,438 U.S. 104
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Under New York City's Landmarks Preservation Law (Landmarks Law), which was enacted to protect historic landmarks and neighborhoods from precipitate decisions to destroy or fundamentally alter their character, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (Commission) may designate a building to be a "landmark" on a particular "landmark site" or may designate an area to be a "historic district." The Board of Estimate may thereafter modify or disapprove the designation, and the owner may seek judicial review of the final designation decision. The owner of the designated landmark must keep the building's exterior "in good repair" and before exterior alterations are made must secure Commission approval. Under two ordinances owners of landmark sites may transfer development rights from a landmark parcel to proximate lots. Under the Landmarks Law, the Grand Central Terminal (Terminal), which is owned by the Penn Central Transportation Co. and its affiliates (Penn Central) was designated a "landmark" and the block it occupies a "landmark site." Appellant Penn Central, though opposing the designation before the Commission, did not seek judicial review of the final designation decision. Thereafter appellant Penn Central entered into a lease with appellant UGP Properties, whereby UGP was to construct a multistory office building over the Terminal. After the Commission had rejected appellants' plans for the building as destructive of the Terminal's historic and aesthetic features, with no judicial review thereafter being sought, appellants brought suit in state court claiming that the application of the Landmarks Law had "taken" their property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and arbitrarily deprived them of their property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The trial court's grant of relief was reversed on appeal, the New York Court of Appeals ultimately concluding that there was no "taking" since the Landmarks Law had not transferred control of the property to the city, but only restricted appellants' exploitation of it; and that there was no denial of due process because (1) the same use of the Terminal was permitted as before; (2) the appellants had not shown that they could not earn a reasonable return on their invest- ment in the Terminal itself; (3) even if the Terminal proper could never operate at a reasonable profit, some of the income from Penn Central's extensive real estate holdings in the area must realistically be imputed to the Terminal; and (4) the development rights above the Terminal, which were made transferable to numerous sites in the vicinity, provided significant compensation for loss of rights above the Terminal itself. Held: The application of the Landmarks Law to the Terminal property does not constitute a "taking" of appellants' property within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 2559-2666.

(a) In a wide variety of contexts the government may execute laws or programs that adversely affect recognized economic values without its action constituting a "taking," and in instances such as zoning laws where a state tribunal has reasonably concluded that "the health, safety, morals, or general welfare" would be promoted by prohibiting particular contemplated uses of land, this Court has upheld land-use regulations that destroyed or adversely affected real property interests. In many instances use restrictions that served a substantial public purpose have been upheld against "taking" challenges, e. g., Goldblatt v. Hempstead, 369 U.S. 590, 82 S.Ct. 987, 8 L.Ed.2d 130; Hadacheck v. Sebastian, 239 U.S. 394, 36 S.Ct. 143, 60 L.Ed. 348, though a state statute that substantially furthers important public policies may so frustrate distinct investment-backed expectations as to constitute a "taking," e. g., Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon, 260 U.S. 393, 43 S.Ct. 158, 67 L.Ed. 322, and government acquisitions of resources to permit uniquely public functions constitute "takings," e. g., United States v. Causby, 328 U.S. 256, 66 S.Ct. 1062, 90 L.Ed. 1206. Pp. 123-128.

(b) In deciding whether particular governmental action has effected a "taking," the character of the action and nature and extent of the interference with property rights (here the city tax block designated as the "landmark site") are focused upon, rather than discrete segments thereof. Consequently, appellants cannot establish a "taking" simply by showing that they have been denied the ability to exploit the super-jacent airspace, irrespective of the remainder of appellants' parcel. Pp. 130-131.

(c) Though diminution in property value alone, as may result from a zoning law, cannot establish a "taking," as appellants concede, they urge that the regulation of individual landmarks is different because it applies only to selected properties. But it does not follow that landmark laws, which embody a comprehensive plan to preserve structures of historic or aesthetic interest, are discriminatory, like "reverse spot" zoning. Nor can it be successfully contended that designation of a landmark involves only a matter of taste and therefore will inevitably lead to arbitrary results, for judicial review is available and there is no reason to believe it will be less effective than would be so in the case of zoning or any other context. Pp. 131-133.

(d) That the Landmarks Law affects some landowners more severely than others does not itself result in "taking," for that is often the case with general welfare and zoning legislation. Nor, contrary to appellants' contention, are they solely burdened and unbenefited by the Landmarks Law, which has been extensively applied and was enacted on the basis of the legislative judgment that the preservation of landmarks benefits the citizenry both economically and by improving the overall quality of city life. Pp. 133-135.

(e) The Landmarks Law no more effects an appropriation of the airspace above the Terminal for governmental uses than would a zoning law appropriate property; it simply prohibits appellants or others from occupying certain features of that space while allowing appellants gainfully to use the remainder of the parcel. United States v. Causby, supra, distinguished. P. 135.

(f) The Landmarks Law, which does not interfere with the Terminal's present uses or prevent Penn Central from realizing a "reasonable return" on its investment, does not impose the drastic limitation on appellants' ability to use the air rights above the Terminal that appellants claim, for on this record there is no showing that a smaller, harmonizing structure would not be authorized. Moreover, the pre-existing air rights are made transferable to other parcels in the vicinity of the Terminal, thus mitigating whatever financial burdens appellants have incurred. Pp. 135-137.

42 N.Y.2d 324, 397 N.Y.S.2d 914, 366 N.E.2d 1271, affirmed

Daniel M. Gribbon, Washington, D. C., for appellants.

Leonard J. Koerner, New York City, for appellees.

Patricia M. Wald, Washington, D. C., for the U. S., as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether a city may, as part of a comprehensive program to preserve historic landmarks and historic districts, place restrictions on the development of individual historic landmarks—in addition to those imposed by applicable zoning ordinances—without effecting a "taking" requiring the payment of "just compensation." Specifically, we must decide whether the application of New York City's Landmarks Preservation Law to the parcel of land occupied by Grand Central Terminal has "taken" its owners' property in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.


Over the past 50 years, all 50 States and over 500 municipalities have enacted laws to encourage or require the preservation of buildings and areas with historic or aesthetic importance.1 These nationwide legislative efforts have been precipitated by two concerns. The first is recognition that, in recent years, large numbers of historic structures, landmarks, and areas have been destroyed 2 without adequate consideration of either the values represented therein or the possibility of preserving the destroyed properties for use in economically productive ways.3 The second is a widely shared belief that structures with special historic, cultural, or architectural significance enhance the quality of life for all. Not only do these buildings and their workmanship represent the lessons of the past and embody precious features of our heritage, they serve as examples of quality for today. "[H]istoric conservation is but one aspect of the much larger problem, basically an environmental one, of enhancing—or perhaps developing for the first time—the quality of life for people." 4

New York City, responding to similar concerns and acting pursuant to a New York State enabling Act,5 adopted its Landmarks Preservation Law in 1965. See N.Y.C. Admin. Code, ch. 8-A, § 205-1.0 et seq. (1976). The city acted from the conviction that "the standing of [New York City] as a world-wide tourist center and world capital of business, culture and government" would be threatened if legislation were not enacted to protect historic landmarks and neighborhoods from pr cipitate decisions to destroy or fundamentally alter their character. § 205-1.0(a). The city believed that comprehensive measures to safeguard desirable features of the existing urban fabric would benefit its citizens in a variety of ways: e. g., fostering "civic pride in the beauty and noble accomplishments of the past"; protecting and enhancing "the...

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