News from the Fight for a Human-scale City: Weekly Round-up #6

Seasons Greetings To All Who Seek a Human-scale City!

Lots of news this week, but first sign the petition for a humans-scale city here if you have not yet done so.

Thanks go to Darcy Riley, Tribeca Trust intern for help on this week’s round-up.  This round-up is several days late due to a family emergency taking up what little time we had to devote to civic causes. There will not be a round-up next week due to the holiday.  The next round-up is scheduled for New Year’s Day.  And do wind your way to the bottom, where a holiday card awaits.  

And here, behold two photos taken one facing east, one facing west…..

The fantasy of a human-scale place, found at St. Paul's Chapel

These photos were taken with a few steps of each other at the corner of Barclay’s and Church Streets

We are not alone!   No, I don’t mean there are aliens around. I mean that citizens of London (Skyline campaign, here) and Paris (SOS Paris, here) share our cause as they are engaged in similar campaigns in their cities.  They have agreed to prepare a joint letter to the press.  Other cities may join.  Stay tuned for more.

The hearing on the Mayor’s Zoning Proposal was a debacle…. On December 19, somebody from the Mayor’s office called out the AFL-CIO, whose members were apparently paid to attend the hearing.  Hundreds of hotel workers took up all the seats and made the line to get into the building impossible to navigate.  The line snaked all along the outside of the building and did not move (a competing line of men in suits was waiting for   the other entrance.  They were attorney’s representing banks in the Madoff fraud case, which made for an “only in NY moment” for hearings on two ways the public good gets mangled in NY.)   Many, like myself, after two hours of waiting, could not even get into the building to testify.  We had to go back to work.

Some, like Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, waited nine hours to give their four minutes of testimony.  Therefore, Runner up Hero of the Week award goes to Andrew Berman for that waiting job. GSHP, Landmarks West!, and HDC are calling for a second hearing, given how stacked the deck was.  These groups report that during the hearing, the City Planning Commission (which was running the show) was letting the Real Estate Board of New York and their allies go over the strict 4-minute limit and even took the time  to ask those speakers lots of questions.  The pro-side was thus given ample time to elaborate and then  every speaker from the opposition was kept to their 4-minutes and ignored.

 But NY 1 television was there and filmed some of us waiting outside.   To listen to our 2-minutes of fame, click here to see NY1’s video and read the short, but good summary from NY1.

The fight against these zoning proposals goes on.  The next level of it will be about sitting down with our city Councilmembers and making them understand this is not about deal-making as usual, that the Council needs to vote NO and start over with our input.  You can’t just rejigger with “politics as usual” when the starting point is such a conceptually flawed set of proposals. You have to address the issues from a different vantage point. REBOOT!  Next issue will address this matter in more depth.

New Yorkers for a Human-Scale City got an op-ed into the blog “City Limits”.  Read it here and please do pass it around.  It is by Lynn Ellsworth and titled “In Defense of a Human-scale City.”  Thanks to the Op-Ed Project for encouraging the author to be persistent. And on the Joe Rose quote, I should have said, “even Joe Rose”…..(thanks John).

What kind of city do we want-

Send us your events that have to do with protecting your neighborhoods: hearings, meetings, rallies, or events that celebrate where you live.  We will put then into our new event calendar at the website.  We need one week’s notice to put anything up.

Principles for Private Development in the Bronx?  Well, maybe.  Here is the link to an article in Welcome2thebronx that describes proposals for such principles.  They read well, but maybe-just-maybe  don’t go far enough. Methinks that it is the very institutional rules of this game that need to be changed if the problems of gentrification are to be managed.

Citizens Defending Libraries was dealt a serious blow when their councilmember turned against their cause and voted for selling off the Brooklyn Heights library to a developer.  Citizens held a last-minute press conference at City Hall.  It was a sad day for libraries.  When I hear about the billions sitting in a fund from bank penalty payouts over the financial meltdown litigation, when I hear about the billions the Federal Reserve gives banks during the quantitative easing episodes, when I hear about the city not exercising it’s right to buy back Battery Park City for one dollar (see last week’s roundup) when I hear about one of many, ignored proposals for raising money for affordable housing, when I hear about the billions Google keeps off-shore in the Irish-Dutch tax scam… I wonder, who runs our government, anyway? And when, shall we do something about, eh, citizens?


Humorous Aside of the Week:  Republican Borough President for Staten Island Names Streets “Greed”, “Deceit” and “Avarice”.  

This is definitely a tactic worth doing more often.  And who knew Borough Presidents had the power to assign street names?  Well, they do, and President’s James Odder is the Borough President for Staten Island and he decided to use his power recently. He got really mad when the developers (Savo Brothers) tore down a beautiful, non-landmarked Jesuit retreat.  It was a brutal teardown that included dozens of mature trees, all for a new development.  Angry, Mr. Odder used his powers to name the streets  in the development with the words “Cupidity,” “Avidita,” and “Fourberie.”  which mean Greed, Greed, and More Greed.  The Savo brothers were upset too.  How were they going to sell houses with such streets names. They wanted street the usual twee names like “Rabbit Ridge” and “Willow Lane.” ……But, ah, my sympathies are with the Borough President and he must be thinking revenge can be sweet…..  Read all about it here in the Post.

Here is the image the Post published of the Staten Island development.  Thanks to Lower East Side Dwellers for the heads up on this story.  It all makes me imagine new names for the loathed neighborhood destroyer known as 56 Leonard Street, which I would rename “1 Corruption Place.”  The horrible tower next to the Woolworth Building would be “2 Corruption Place” and so on…Would an oligarch want to buy a condo with such an address?  Probably not.  Send in your favorite names for eyesore developments.

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Speaking of tactics not yet tried, two rules have been proposed for our city that I like a lot (this is a joke, people).  Rule #1:  Any tower bigger than the Woolworth Building has to be more beautiful that the Woolworth Building.  What a challenge to architects that would be!  Rule #2: “Parents who buy into new construction that is out-of-scale with respect to the surrounding neighborhood can’t send their kids to the locally zoned public school.”  Rule #3: Developers must divulge Rule #2 to all prospective condo buyers. Thanks to readers for their ideas, and I respect your wishes to remain anonymous. Readers, send in your wickedly humorous suggestions to fight developers with laughter.  And aren’t these proposed rules actually great rules?

The Movement for Justice in El Barrio has been a fierce critic of the Mayor’s zoning proposals, popularly dubbed “ZQA” and “MIH.”  Their anti-gentrification stance has rung powerfully true for people in their neighborhood who came out big time for a candelight vigil against ZQA and MIH, written up in the Indypendent here.


The Never-ending Story of Corruption with Big Real Estate gives us our Quote of the week and our Hero of the Week:

The hero of the week is of course Preet Bharara preetwho was on the radio celebrating (and rightly bragging) over his two wins on all corruption counts against Silver and Skelos.  Go Preet!   The Wall Street Journal went through the testimony of those trials and came up with the quote below, which wins the Quote of the Week from corrupt Adam Skelos, whose worldview is encapsulated in his infuriated wiretapped phone conversation:

“You can’t talk normally because it’s like f— Preet Bharara is listening to every f— phone call,” Adam Skelos said on a wiretapped call played during his federal corruption trial and replayed on Brian Lehrer’s [WNYC] show. “It’s just f— frustrating.”  

Hmmm..   You can laugh your way through the rest of the article here if you subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, but should we be laughing at all?  Why was the Moreland Commission on Corruption disbanded by the Governor at the very moment it started looking into Big Real Estate’s connections to legislation for tax abatements?   Why isn’t Bharara going after the real estate links, which are, after all, at the very heart of the issue of how our government in both the NYC and Albany has been more or less taken over by big real estate?  People hate corruption and the capture of their government by special interests.  If you don’t believe it, read the details of this poll reported in the Wall Street Journal here, where even Republicans report thinking that corruption in Albany is “very serious.”  The Times had a follow-up story about Glenwood Management, a Big Real Estate player who had a crucial role in the corruption cases that Bharara was prosecuting. Read about that here  and note that the article had the best Times headline of the week: “Albany Trials Exposed the Power of a Real Estate Firm.”  The Mayor knows how we feel about corruption, and the Post has even reported that the Mayor is suddenly giving back the “dirty” money from real estate developers, but only the $20,000 that Glenwood gave him. What about all the other developers?  Despite the fake gesture of all of this, read the Post’s editorial for reform that starts with “Your move, Andrew” here.  And, finally, given that I am running out of breath:  vow never to vote for anyone who takes real estate money.

So I’ll say it again:  what we really need is a brand new re-convened Moreland Commission Against Corruption, maybe with Preet doing the appointing.  And if that is too idealistic for you, maybe we just get more fiercely idealistic and actually believe in democracy and reform the City Charter to fund a job like Preet’s –  but one that just goes after our City Council on a full time basis, year round, always.

Why not rebuilt the old Penn Station?  Really.  An architectural firm Atelier &Co. wants to do it and thinks it can be done elegantly. Read their thoughts here.  But that’s old news.  What is new is that Governor Cuomo is making noises about restarting the stalled redevelopment project.  Read the Times here 0n that.  This is worrisome, as there are so many ways this project can go wrong, especially with Big Real Estate firms Vornado and Related having their paws all over it.  Rumor had it a while back that Related wanted to get BMCC out of their digs on Chambers Street and move them to the new Penn Station so that they could build a new all of glass towers along West Street.  See what I mean about bad ideas a dime a dozen?  So far, the only good idea I’ve heard comes from the Atelier guys (see idea below) about rebuilding the old Penn Station.  I’m with them 100% and don’t care what the Architectural Elite has to say on the matter.  Nobody has a better idea and this one at least has beauty and the human-scale city in mind.

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Mayor Obsesses wrongly over tall buildings, gives Developers Fields of Gold to play in    

This one is worthy of an entire op-ed (which I am working on).   In a radio interview on WNYC last week, the Mayor took a caller from Bed-Sty.  The caller criticized tall buildings as a strategy for affordable housing.  The Mayor responded with this quote:   “I couldn’t disagree with you more.  You’re reading it wrong… We are going to manage the development process and intervene in the market….. it is not a surprise in NYC that there is a resistance to taller buildings in NYC,  I think that’s as old as time itself,  but I believe fundamentally that taller buildings are what get us that greater affordability.”

 I will let this heart-breaking quote stand for the moment, as I am working on an entire essay to explain how the Mayor is wrong on this one, as well as how wrong  he is in the manner of intervening in the real estate market, at least given his goals.  His proposal is to juice developer profits by immense sums so that in exchange for playing in fields of gold they will not fight on affordable housing. Please tell me this is a joke!  That’s his market intervention?  There are just so many other ways to get the job done. I think the Mayor has been sold a bill of goods by his real estate team of Beene, Weisbrod, and Glen, who have in turn been sold a charlatan’s bill of goods by people like Edward Glaeser (author of Triumph of the City) and Vishaan Chakrabarti (author of Country of Cities) and Dan Doctoroff, former head of EDC under Bloomberg.  Those guys, FYI, are the hyper-density ideologues.

To hear the entire interview and morning show, click here and go to minute 22.

A group called “While We are Still Here”, gets big Times coverage for Harlem.  Read the story here.  Harlem has been among the worst served neighborhoods for the protections of its scale and character.   The history of it all is so heavy-handed and racist:  demolitions of urban renewal;  the redlining, the stinginess of the Landmarks Preservation Commission about preserving what’s left, the scandalous upzoning of the 125th street corridor.  These are but a few of the multiple setbacks that have shrunk Harlem’s human-scale glory that was once astonishing and a wonder to behold. But all is not lost, as the article attests.  After reading, also check out the great work of the East Harlem Preservation group here.

Ambiguous “Good” News of the Week:  The Times reports that the Riverton Complex which is made up of 1,229 apartments near the Harlem River was sold for $201 million to “A& E Real Estate Holdings”   De Blasio gave the owners $92 million in tax breaks over 30 years and other breaks worth $8.8 million.  Is that a good deal?   975 units will be kept affordable for 30 years, then revert to market rate. That is, I suppose, cheaper than building 975 units, but the kids who are born there now, they won’t be able to move in when they grow up.  Given all that forgone tax revenue, shouldn’t the deal be forever affordable?

How the Seaport was Won Back for the Neighborhood.  We are all giving Friends of the South Street Seaport (FOSS) and Save Our Seaport (SOS) high fives for the  news that Howard Hughes Corp is giving up on their crazy tower on the pier that extended into the river.  How did the neighborhood get such a win?  Correct me if I am mistaken, but I heard that FOSS did some fierce letter writing which ended up triggering a “tripwire” for a federal environmental review with the Army Corps of Engineers.  Hughes then decided to walk away. Kudos to FOSS and SOS.

Bad Idea and Eyesore of the Week (a combined prize!) goes to Brooklyn’s own Bjarke Ingels’ icy cold, anti-human, corporatist renderings for the area around the already over-burdened, over-hyped, and over-developed High Line. Read it and weep here.  Then go sign our petition at  This is the kind of bad, inhuman, architecture that New York  has had enough of.

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Here is the link we promised last week that features Lynn Ellsworth’s interview on WBAI about New Yorkers for a Human-scale City.

at a human-scale...



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