Tales of the Fight for a Human-scale New York – weekly Round-up Oct. 30th, 2015

Once upon a time, residents decided to regain control of their city from Big Real Estate

Doing something about it will require citizens to act.

This is the first of a weekly series – a round-up of news from around the city to tell the emerging story of the fight to wrest our future out of REBNY’s hands.

A.  The Beginning: Awakening from Civic Sleep

1. New Yorkers for a Human-scale City is in soft-launch. It is a coalition of 62 civic organizations across all five boroughs, from the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors to the Movement to Protect the People in Flatbush. They want Big Real Estate out of government, policy reform that protects the remaining historic fabric, and a planning vision centered on a human-scale vision for our city. Sign the petition here, and read the article here in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Tribeca Trust, 29th Street Association, and Mark Miller of NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan are providing joint co-ordination.

Does this photo make you shudder for the future of New York City- (1)

2. Community Board 2 voted unanimously (hurrah!) to oppose the misguided and ham-fisted plan to mess with the Gansevoort Market, which is in a historic district. Sign the petition and read about it at Save the Gansevoort’s facebook page here. Best quote from the hearing was from Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), “I think this needs to go straight back to the drawing board” – which – needless to say – might as well be said for most of the stuff architects and developers are coming up with across the city.  GVSHP is gearing up to fight more for the South Village historic district. It also wants to fight this  perverse use of the not-so-legitimate air rights from Hudson River Park (how do parks get air rights, anyway?) What is key about this case is that developers are saying that anything low-rise must be made high-rise, in a historic district no less. That is a hoary developer argument often made by “the cultured despisers of historic districts” which is a quote from  the very smart J. Peter Byrne, a Professor of Law at Georgetown.  You can read his paper, “Historic Preservation and Its Cultured Despisers here.

3. Public testimony against the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s de-calendaring effort continues. This is a deeply unpopular move on the part of LPC.  Tribeca’s two buildings will be heard November 5 and more Manhattan buildings on November 11. Read about the story here at the Historic District Council. What is perplexing in this drama is that many of the buildings being discussed in these hearings are better off in expanded historic districts rather than as individual landmarks. Why isn’t that being considered? (Don’t answer,  but in that city on the hill, that city here democracy had not turned into oligarchy, expanded historic districts would be a normal thing, not a crazy civic fight lasting 10 or more years).

4. Friends of Elizabeth Street Garden continue to fight the conversion of their park to affordable housing units. Go here.

5. City residents all over continue to argue against the upzoning and contextual-zoning proposal diabolically named “Zoning for Quality and Affordability.” For example, on Thursday, November 5, 2015 at 7:30 PM, The Dyker Heights Civic Association in Brooklyn is co-sponsoring a public forum regarding the Zoning for Quality and Affordability Text Amendment at the John Hughes Council Knights of Columbus located at 1305 86th Street, Brooklyn.  Co-sponsors of the forum include the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance, Manhattan Beach Community Group, Marine Park Homecrest Civic Association and the Bay Ridge Conservancy. Contact Fran Vella-Marrone, President, Dyker Heights Civic Association via email or cell at 347-866-4945.

6. Residents of Chinatown and the Lower East Side have been marching on City Hall in loud and crowded rallies, the latest on Wednesday October 28th, demanding that their community be downzoned and given contextual zoning. Tribecans have been found in their midst also shouting for De Blasio’s head. The background is that Carl Weisbrod, head of City Planning, had previously rejected their community-based plan for their neighborhood. The same group has been fighting the “Extell Tower From Hell” (see photo). Contact 212-358-0295.

Building From Hell


7. The Committee for Environmentally Responsible Development has been organizing the “Stand Against the Shadows” March on 57th Street Sunday November 8th at 10:30 a.m. at Columbus Circle. Bring a black umbrella to symbolize the shadows cast by the giant shadows of the horrific new towers coming up all along 57th Street. Contact 212-877-4394 or elfreud@aol.com

stand against the shadows

8. Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park are fighting the good fight: The American Museum of Natural History wants to expand construction into the beautiful park called “Teddy Roosevelt Park” taking away one of the most beautiful spots on the Upper West Side. A town hall was held in protest on October 6 and the petition against this terrible idea can be found here.  Big institutions and churches are not our allies, alas.


9. DNAInfo reports the fun news that “Tribeca’s Ghostbuster Firehouse is now a $350 (why so expensive?) lego set.” This is an “honor” that such an iconic building deserves, right? What nobody else told you was that the building was designed by Alexander Stevens in the Neo-renaissance style in 1903. See the article about the legos here.  The charming photo below is from LEGOS press release.


10.  Tenants in New York’s public housing projects said that the De Blasio’s plan to build housing on the green space around the projects would make them “ants and sardines”  See the article in DNAinfo here.   Sounds like another ham-fisted move by Bloomberg, then de Blasio, no?  There is merit in the idea of some building in some parking lots in some parts of the public housing endowment, but given the way the past two Mayors are in league with Big Real Estate, this is likely to be a bungled idea so my sympathies are firmly with the NYCHA tenants.

11.  The WSJ reports  here that residents of Cobble Hill are “disheartened” over the Mayor’s willingness to destroy a mid-rise neighborhood with a truly awful, over-scaled high-rise, hyper-dense development on the site of the Long Island College Hospital.

To the “disheartened” residents of Cobble Hill, maybe it is time to recall Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics, sung to the tune of Toreador from Bizet’s Carmen.  In this case, they were sung by the immortal Joe Adams in the 1954 movie, “Carmen Jones”.  In the scene, Joe Adams is a boxer explaining to his fans how he has won so many fights.  As the chorus builds, the boxing ring becomes a metaphor for life itself.  So, to the tune of the “Toreador” song:

“Stand up and fight, until you hear the bell,

“Stand toe to toe, trade blow for blow, 

Keep punching until you make the punches tell,

Show the crowd what you know,

Until you hear that bell, that final bell,

Stand up and fight like hell.”

By Oscar Hammerstein

(link here to hear it on Youtube, and drag the slider to second 1:22 to cut to the chase for the stirring chorus.

On the Dark Side:  The Enemy Builds its Forces

– As long foreseen, the city is moving on a nasty and questionable transfer of air rights from Hudson River Park to the St. John’s terminal area between Tribeca and the Village: 5 towers to rise up, making a terrible mess of that stretch of the waterfront, privatizing views and light. This pig is dressed up with a bit of lipstick, but is still a pig. What’s the lipstick? Some temporary affordable housing is thrown in to make it look like this is worth the sacrifice of the other public goods. Read about it here at GVSHP.  This story is about a city and state government that understands NOTHING about planning. We need to pitchfork the lot of them out of office.

– Sally Goldenberg of Politico Pro reports “the de Blasio administration is willing to use eminent domain in certain circumstances to advance its affordable housing plans” Read about it here.  Eminent domain has its uses I am sure, but in the once case it ought to have been used, it wasn’t.  Why didn’t our city grab from Larry Silverstein the lot behind the Woolworth Building to make a park? Why did it let a city-destroying tower rise up there?  That would have been a credible use of eminent domain.

– “St. Patricks and other city churches could sell air rights worth $1 billion to developers across a large portion of midtown, under a proposal aired Thursday”. See WSJ article (paywall) here. Obviously, air rights need greater regulation than exists today.  Government made the air rights rules, government can change them.sty tow

– Also tragically underreported, but as least covered by WSJ is the air rights transfers allowed in the Sty-town deal with Blackstone. It is a not-very-good affordable housing deal that took place last week. See article from Oct. 22 (paywall) here.

– The proposed 63-story residential tower at 1 West 29th Street was heard at the LPC who is reserving its decision for some vague future moment (probably a less public one so as to avoid the rightful outrage of the citizenry). For more, go to the page at the Landmarks Conservancy page here.


– The Real Deal reports that Sheik Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Thani of Quatar bought 44% of the five-buildings on the far west side that Big Real Estate Brookfield Partners is constructing. Depressing image below. Go to Real Deal here for the full story.  Maybe it is time to consider regulating real estate capital. There is far too much of it sloshing around here in the most speculative and destructive way.  We regulate air pollution, why don’t we regulate “city-pollution” or more accurately, “city-destruction”?



Two Cultural Events for the Fan of the Human-scale City

  1. The great documentary film-maker Frederick Wiseman has a new documentary about the human-scale neighborhood of Jackson Heights.  It opens this coming week November 5 at the film forum.  More info here.

2.  An exhibit at 31 Chambers explores [A Jane Jacobs Victory for the Human-Scale City], otherwise known as the Battle for Downtown after Robert Moses tried to shove an expressway through it. Opens October 27th, through February, at the Visitors Center, 31 Chambers Street.  Monday-Thursday 9-5 and Friday 9-1 p.m..


Orwellian Quote of the Week:

In a hearing over the effect of a skyscraper next to a church, The Chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Meenakshi Srinivasan noted, while citing precedents from a prior decision:  “the transfer of bulk necessarily would result in a very tall tower next to a low rise landmark, and that in making the finding of “harmonious relationship” between new building and landmarks, height is not necessarily the determinative factor.”

As my daughter likes to say, SERIOUSLY?  Alas, the Chair is serious.  The quote is from a summary of a hearing, as reported by the New York Landmarks Conservancy in the article from above.  It is almost as Orwellian as the Commissioner two years ago who exclaimed, to an architect proposing modernist out-of-context new construction, that it was wonderful the way he got around “the tyranny of the the context!”  Honestly, why is that guy even serving on the Landmarks Preservation Commission if he regards context as tyranny?  Stand up and fight, people, or its all over.

Failed Marketing Message of the Week:

What is this supposed to be..a fashion victim who rides a swing suspended from heaven while looking lost amid retina-burning glass skyscrapers?  If you understand it, let me know.  Spotted at Columbus Circle Mall)

Creepy marketing of the week





Recent Posts