A charmed city, slated for ruin
Review & Comment
“Any City gets what it admires, will pay for, and ultimately, deserves… we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”
The New York Times Editorial Board uttered those fateful words in 1963 upon the demolition of a grand, renowned Pennsylvania Station. The soulless underground network of dreary tubes and uninspiring mall-like plazas that took its place was met with near-universal derision, continuing to the present day.
Sadly, despite the preservationist movement burgeoning from that travesty, history seems fated to repeat itself, or even double down on prior poor decisions. In the coming months, The City of New York faces critical junctures on an astounding number of significant real estate projects. And it is in these crucial moments that not enough balance is being given to considerations other than fulfilling pre-ordained desires or the lustful pursuit of profit.
Most pressing is The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, scheduled for a “carry coals to Newcastle” renovation, with $350 million assigned to unnecessarily gut book stacks, making it harder to actually check out titles (they’ll soon be delivered from off-site locations), while the operating budget is slashed and services are cut back.
Meanwhile, a proposed re-zoning of Midtown East would do away with quaint, smaller tenement buildings that ease pedestrian traffic (and which allow modest first-level stores, offering a range of unassuming but valuable services from shoe repair to hardware) to build only higher into the sky. Subways in the area are already massively overcrowded (a new line on second avenue will hardly pose as a panacea), and many priceless buildings that could be landmarked will be erased from the skyline. One World Trade Center recently announced it was struggling to lure tenants, and it will only have to compete further with the Hudson Yards as those new buildings rise on the far West Side.
So why must we ruin the fabric of a mixed-use neighborhood and build more unneeded commercial space still? If anything, East Midtown East — Long Island City — is the right place for these new projects. Any planned towers could join the Citibank Building, still a lonely early settler, uncomfortably sticking it out in boxy green. But this general premise— to spread commuter flows out, not further inward and upward— is ignored by commuter-rail crowds and titans who simply have too much to gain.
And what of dreary Penn Station itself? With a permit about to expire, the owners wanted to keep their ostentatious circular monster, “The Garden” that smothers from above— a mistake from day one and a death sentence to surrounding city vibrancy— with a new agreement that would run “in perpetuity,” thus cementing the intractability of erecting a new Moynihan Station in the Post Office building on Eighth Avenue, as all tastemakers consider the only reliable rescue for the area’s five decades of shame. Thankfully, our leaders weren’t willing to indulge this blight for infinity, but even the new deal— fifteen more years of the current quagmire— is too long and loophole-ridden.
A litany of other perversions also circle the perimeter: the Folk Art Museum annexed to MoMa currently scheduled for demolition (though perhaps a last-minute reprieve is on the way); same for the artistic hub at 5Pointz (rumored to be converted to condos); Cooper Union selling land for drab new office buildings and still needing to charge tuition; foreign investors lured in droves to new residential super-skyscrapers while Stuy-Town residents face unprecedented rent hikes, “middle-class housing” but a joke, our city less and less “livable,” a mere spectacle for the gilded few shopping at loss-leader retail stores of brand name extravagance.
In each of these instances, a charmed City, like no other place, hangs in the balance, slated for ruin. And recent history is no comfort that a more prudent analysis will be forthcoming.
In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a 2005 re-zoning allowed for sky-high Miami-ready condominiums in a land of limited transportation infrastructure. The early aughts witnessed the neighborhood progressing just fine— it required no salvation or unshackling. Done correctly, development resulting from pioneering creatives could have naturally spread further inland, in a more balanced distribution, but instead we now have the dichotomy of unaffordable, inaccessible gleaming towers on flood-prone edges while lots sit empty and homes are foreclosed in nearby Bedford Stuyvesant and East New York. Yet make no mistake— in time those neighborhoods, too, will catapult from a total neglect to total displacement— old-timers unable to cash in on rapidly improving standards of living before being economically sent to the door.
In 2009, the demolition of Shea Stadium was a promising moment to move the Mets home turf, but instead Citi Field remained stuck in far-away Flushing. Jamaica would have been a more ideal locale, with a central Long Island Railroad Corridor, three subway lines, nearby Courthouses and a community of small businesses that could have cashed in on the crowds. But with our bullish Mayor desperate to have his way, an enormous industry of auto repair shops in Willets Point— the Mets’ adjacent community and the only sort of industry that could exist on lands lacking modern plumbing — must be unceremoniously moved to needlessly create a new faux neighborhood from scratch. The “double down” here would have then been a soccer stadium to eat up public lands of Flushing-Meadows Corona Park, which by chance might just be nixed so that everyday New Yorkers might dare to continue to enjoy free open space and fresh air.
Disparate as these multiple threads are, they are unified by a common theme: that of top-down decisions being hastily rendered in abeyance of a healthy diversity of opinions.
This is not to claim distaste for any and all bold, large scale development. Much has been done, and done well: the original Twin Towers cleared out a dusty Radio Row; the Barclays Center, though oddly shaped, is a sleek ode to mass-transit travel for sporting events; Tad’s Steaks and Peep-O-Rama were thankfully smashed to oblivion to make room for a stunning Bank of America Tower, pristine and graceful in its open-air elegance, with platinum LEED-certification to boot.
But at times, our leaders have given away the store— failing to believe in our metropolis, still traumatized by the bankrupt, “dying city” of yore, or beholden to real estate interests, who are often their campaign contributors.
As an example, Disney and the Marriott Corporation deserve credit for taking the first early plunges into the “forty deuce” sewer, restoring nearly-ruined theaters and returning live performance art to the masses. But it was unnecessary to take the further step of luring chain restaurants to the area. Tourists come from across the country (and the globe) to try (and taste) something different— they’ve announced their willingness to step outside normal comfort zones by merely being here. And while they now head back with new foreign, exotic ideas— walkable blocks, or supporting local arts— they still feast on safe comfort food in a city with an abundance of inventive cuisines. In France, Paris has recently toyed with the idea of banning chain stores from their famed Champs-Elysées — and we should consider the same. Our city is worth it.
It’s not an anti-capitalist position, but rather a desire to partner with business and corporations so that everyone benefits, without any one side being exploited. Done right, these arrangements allow culture to thrive and new industries to emerge, even triumph.
The High Line is a perfect instruction, a new breed of thinking with all these factors coming together: business interests originally wanted to demolish the structure as an anachronism; it took the effort of local community board members to save it; and now real estate developers will profit beyond their wildest dreams. Tourists aren’t confined to a fake-Manhattan cage when they visit, but instead blend right in with locals. Intriguing food, drink, and arts await in the attraction’s surroundings. And in a city that is so often unaffordable and out-of-reach, the cost of entry has been priced perfectly: admission is free.
The lesson of the saga of the original Penn Station, and the related quest of Jane Jacobs against goliath Robert Moses and the thankful death-knell for the LoMex and other ill-advised plans (but not enough— the Cross-Bronx remains a persistent disgrace) is that there is more to consider in city planning than mere monetary gain, automobile access, or the metrics of unit creation. There is the “the order in the chaos,” the beauty of frenetic street scenes that can never be manufactured, no matter how hard any developer may try. A more robust spectrum of viewpoints are needed to ensure that such acclaimed but ethereal attributes remain.
Matthew Taub is a writer and lawyer in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of “Death of the Dying City,” a novel.
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