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New York Post

 

New York on the Block

November 29, 2008

By Julia Vitullo-Martin

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The pause in New York City's building boom may have one side benefit: It gives everyone a chance to think. As projects skid to a halt and buildings get stopped in mid-construction, developers - and their neighbors - have an opportunity to reassess their plans and consider different options for the future. Can that gorgeous but crumbling church on the corner be saved with neighborhood support? Is an old industrial warehouse a candidate for rehabilitation rather than demolition? Could a clever architect renovate that empty commercial skyscraper for residential? This is the time to think about the importance of old buildings in New York's urban fabric - and how to preserve those worth keeping.

MORE: 10 Endangered Buildings Worth Saving

The city does a better job than most in preserving its heritage. Since the 1964 obliteration of Penn Station in the Wagner administration, New Yorkers have tended to be wary of any and all proposed demolitions (sometimes even when the building is of questionable value). Since 2003, when Robert Tierney became chair, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has designated some 2,300 buildings in the five boroughs.

But wonderful buildings still slip through the cracks. Just last month, the 109-year-old Bay Ridge Methodist Church in Brooklyn, known locally as the "Green Church" because of its distinctive green ashlar construction, was destroyed. The Bay Ridge Blog called it a crime, and it's hard not to agree.

Other beloved buildings evade the wrecking ball but are allowed to deteriorate so badly that demolition becomes inevitable. The law even has a term for this: Constructive demolition. P.S. 64, for example, a glorious 1906 former public school across from Tompkins Square Park, has been stripped of its terra cotta and allowed to fall to pieces by its owner, who has been fighting the neighborhood, the Landmarks Commission, and seemingly the entire city government since he bought the building from the city in 1998.

And then there are the prized landmarks that get stuck in limbo, like lost souls unable to find their way to heaven. Moynihan Station, for example, which was to be built in the James A. Farley General Post Office on Eighth Avenue as a sort of resurrection of Penn Station, is now utterly stalled.

But it's not just individual buildings that matter - so do groupings of structures that constitute a whole greater than its parts, like the exuberant bungalows in the Rockaways in Queens. Successive mayoral administrations up until Bloomberg tried to regulate them out of existence using punitive building and environmental codes. Now the bungalows are back in fashion, but years of neglect have ruined many of them. Planner and long-time preservationist Alex Garvin believes that the gorgeous Art Deco apartment buildings on the Grand Concourse (roughly 149th Street to Mosholu Parkway) in The Bronx should be landmarked as a group. They represent the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world outside of Miami's South Beach. For good measure, the neighborhood also has Orientalist, Mediterranean, and Tudor buildings - as joyous a mix as any place on earth.

And there's New York's heritage of its magnificent - now often decaying - capital plant. Take the hundreds of miles of beautifully designed, curving, well-landscaped parkways built in the first half of the 20th century. No other city has such a trove of lovely roads, yet they are often treated atrociously, with, for example, ugly Jersey concrete barriers replacing iron or wooden railings.

Then there's the most beautiful subway station in the system - the closed and blockaded City Hall IRT station, with its glorious Guastavino ceiling tiles seen by no one. Or the McKim Mead & White Con Ed steam plant, barely used, on the Hudson at 59th Street. Surely this is a candidate for adaptive re-use?

In other words, there are many ways for New Yorkers to lose (or squander) their prized buildings and sites. Here are a few treasures worth saving - and what might be done - offered in full recognition that one person's landmark may be another person's pile of junk.

Moynihan Station sits, in all its lost glory, at the top of any landmark list. With his superb insight into the soul of New York, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued in 1992 that reconstruction of the Farley Post Office could give New Yorkers back a gorgeous Beaux Arts Penn Station. Moynihan's simple proposal would have kept Farley's façade while completely remaking the interior. State and city officials gradually transformed that into a far more expansive plan that would match profits from private development with government subsidies to pay for construction of the station. By 2007, the project had grown large and complex, involving two major developers (Related and Vornado), transit entities (including Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority), and Madison Square Garden, which was to move across the street. The deal fell apart in April of this year - and Moynihan Station has languished ever since. This is a tragedy on so many grounds. New York needs a great Penn Station - but so does the surrounding neighborhood. Can Mayor Bloomberg's ambitious Hudson Yards project possibly work without Moynihan? Not likely.

Houses of worship probably comprise New York's largest category of both cherished and vulnerable buildings. Yet the combination of their financial troubles from declining congregations and the amount of money to be reaped from development of prime sites mean that they're often very hard to save. Almost every neighborhood in the five boroughs has at least one handsome church or synagogue - and nearly all are vulnerable. The West Side of Manhattan, for example, is a virtual repository of endangered houses of worship offering lessons of both hope and despair. Hope can be drawn from the example of the Methodist Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, at West End Avenue and 86th Street. Designated a landmark in 1981 over the bitter objections of its congregation, which wanted to redevelop the site, St. Paul and St. Andrew has flourished ever since. With an ecumenical, generous approach that welcomes all comers, it has become one of the most popular and loved churches in Manhattan.

Yet two blocks east at 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue sits a chastening example. The 1890 French Romanesque West-Park Presbyterian Church stands empty, shrouded in scaffolding. Street people live, eat and sleep on its front steps as its red sandstone façade crumbles around them. Neighboring residents have formed a group, Friends of West-Park, to raise money for repairs, but the congregation has rebuffed them in favor of demolition and development of a 21-story tower. That deal now seems stalled - as the church building declines into "constructive demolition." A note of warning for other neighborhoods: though surely worthy of preservation, the church building was excluded from the West Side Historic District in 1988 after lobbying by the congregation.

The Henry Hudson Parkway is partially landmarked as part of Riverside Park from 72nd Street to 125th Street, yet its splendor is being "nibbled away," in advocate Hilary Kitasei's term, by poor and careless maintenance. An author who's writing a book on the parkway, Kitasei notes that it was designed by Robert Moses and his men in conjunction with Riverside Park - one of the first instances of covering over a railcut with a park and road to give citizens access to the previously closed-off waterfront. While the park is managed lovingly by the Parks Department, the road is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation, which, says Kitasei, doesn't even have a landscaper anymore. "DOT just goes out and covers up graffiti with paint, for example. Look at the lovely stone retaining wall in the 80s that's been painted battleship gray. Look at the huge signage and the bad repairs. DOT has a system of contract-driven, ad hoc project uglification."

A solution, she believes, would be to get Scenic Byway designation, which comes with funding. The city has never applied, though the road is eligible. "If we only had a chance to explain this to the mayor, I know he would understand and take advantage of Scenic Byway's invitation," Kitasei says.

Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn is an old Irish and Italian neighborhood of row houses and distinctive deep gardens, often laid out in front rather than in back of single-family homes. The neighborhood was designed as a unit by surveyor Richard Butts in 1846, and developed in the late 19th century. Brooks of Sheffield, a journalist who blogs on preservation issues, notes that the surrounding neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, and Park Slope have large historic districts, which has the unintended effect of putting development pressures on Carroll Gardens. The blog calls the neighborhood "a black hole in this sea of protection." Historic districts are tricky to define initially and even trickier for property owners to negotiate later, but it's clearly one strategy here. It's also worth noting that public transportation is limited in Carroll Gardens - just the F line - so that overly intense development would be too automobile-dependent, which is contrary to the Bloomberg administration's new green emphasis.

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Retaining these and other sites like them is immensely important for the city and its neighborhoods. But there are caveats. One is that New York became the dominant global city in the 1990s by disregarding quite a few of the points made here. As Columbia University professor of history Kenneth Jackson argues, New York beat out other world cities - think of Paris - by giving preference to aggressive development policies over preservation. Paris's physical plant could not begin to handle the scale of New York's economy. Second, landmarking can actually enhance property values - think of the Upper East Side Historic District or the more recent designation of Sunnyside in Queens - but it can also deprive a property owner of value, such as the designation of New York University's Modernist Silver Towers.

Third, and perhaps most important for preservationists, landmarking can deleteriously affect non-landmarked buildings. NYU, for example, intends to build substantially more dorms, classrooms, and other facilities in Lower Manhattan. Now that it can no longer develop Silver Towers, it will look elsewhere in the Village. When that day comes we may regret that Silver Towers, in all its superblock isolation, are off limits.

But at least now, with the cranes coming down and the developers taking a break, there's time to argue and really think about what deserves our protection.

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/11292008/postopinion/opedcolumnists/new_york_on_the_block_141428.htm

 

 
 
 

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