What would happen if city planning departments everywhere decided, willy-nilly, that the building practices of two, three, four generations ago would now become law? No new building would be allowed to punch through the 6-story ceiling of the old neighborhood. And, well, if the city needed to grow, it would just have
to find other ways to do it.
This was never an issue in the Ohio Valley river town where I grew up. Not that Owensboro, Kentucky, was an architectural backwater. I've always had a soft spot for this little ode to Mies, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1962.
But as Louisville gets ready for its Rem-tacular close-up, Owensboro, the economically flatlined "capitol of western Kentucky," has never been under imminent threat from a rogue invasion of tall buildings. And yet, in the 1960s and 70s, Owensboro, Kentucky, did put a couple of intrepid toes — literally, two — in the shallow end of the Pool of High-Rise.
Given the results, the low-rise people
of Owensboro probably wish planners had just capped their "skyline" early and called
it a day.
It all started when Gabe's Shopping Center opened
at the southwest corner of 18th and Triplett Streets
in 1959. Built a generation before the strip mall, with parasitic ubiquity, began to chew up ever-larger
swaths of the urban fabric in places like Owensboro, making such developments the paradigmatic trope of a suburbanized America — Owensboro's population within the city limits is the same 55,000 today that it was in 1959 — Gabe's Shopping Center was nonetheless and, for all intents and purposes remains, a strip mall.
Originally anchored by a W.T. Grant's dime store on
one end and the Bi-Lo drugstore on the other, Gabe's Shopping Center today looks out across its parking lot
to the antiseptic glare of the new-ish BP station and convenience store on the corner.
The BP, a model of spotless corporate efficiency, seems to look back with a mix of pity, shame, and reproach. For unlike so many other older shopping centers that have long since been retooled into slick little cash registers with cupolas on top (often with shiny gas stations out front), Gabe's somehow never caught up with the times. Always a little shambly and forlorn, it stands like Moses looking over into the Promised Land, a ghostly reminder of a vision that did get fulfilled, just not here.
Indeed, the BP station serves as a "dis-intimation" — a "putting the dogs off the scent" — of the largeness of vision that once held forth on this site. For a shopping center wasn't the only thing Gabe Fiorella opened at 18th and Triplett in 1959. Where the BP now stands
was the second generation of a restaurant — Gabe's — that for more than 60 years, starting in 1922, was
fine dining in Owensboro, Kentucky.
On the point of the corner was a bigger-than-life-size statue of Gabe himself. With his trademark red jacket, black trousers, white shirt, and black colonel string tie, Gabe — tonsured, smiley-toothed, black-horn-rimmed Gabe — stood atop a 6-foot pedestal on a revolving platform, his right arm raised, forearm right-angled
from the elbow, hand straight, and palm forward in a perpetual hello. Really more of a stereotypical "Indian" "How!" Round and round and round, 24 hours a day. "Welcome to Gabe's!"
And in late 1963, Gabe Fiorella completed construction of Owensboro's first tall building. There, on the southern edge of the little world Gabe was building at 18th and Triplett Streets, Gabe's Motor Inn — a 13-story cylinder of a hotel, clad in a rainbow of pastel-painted panels — was a slice of Miami in western Kentucky. By the time I was a kid in the early 1970s, Gabe's Tower — swimming pool at the top; restaurant-in-the-round just below; and still rising alone from a field of one- and two-story houses — was the undisputed marvel of Owensboro, Kentucky.
:: :: ::
IT WAS at about this time that Owensboro built its second — and last — tall building. "Designed" to "house" the elderly, Roosevelt House — now Roosevelt I, to distinguish it from the much smaller Roosevelt II, which went up next door in the early 1980s — put 18 stories of federally subsidized concrete right on the small city's main thoroughfare. It's a real HUD* special.
Like Gabe's Tower, Roosevelt I was, and remains, a "tower in the field." Except for a handful of 6-story bank buildings downtown and a few buildings of similar height scattered elsewhere, Owensboro is at heart the same 1- and 2-story town it was in 1963.
The difference is that the charmless Roosevelt I hasn't a trace of the earlier tower's whimsy or optimism. At the very least, the town's tallest building could have offered the town's eldest residents — who live here, after all, only because they have to — the town's best views, opening north to Owensboro's beautiful old residential neighborhoods and parks and to all of its old-growth trees, with the Ohio River and Indiana farmland in the distance.
Instead, every apartment window looks east and west, to the placeless borderlands of strip malls and storage sheds, where wall-to-wall privilege comes with a brass chandelier and a double-height atrium on a quarter-acre lot. One after the other.
Presumably there will continue to be a waiting list for Roosevelt I, so long as enough people need the kind of social welfare that the building provides. But in every other way that matters, Roosevelt I is a building with no character and no future. Ask anyone in low-rise Owensboro to name the worst building in town, and you will hear the same quick and fatal judgment as when Roosevelt 1 was completed in the mid 1970s.
Owensboro's business and municipal leaders had welcomed the previous decade's construction of Gabe's Tower as a sign that Kentucky's stepchild city — then and now, the state's third largest — was finally ready to join Louisville and Lexington at the ball. (It never did.)
But in a town small enough to make everyone's "backyard" the same, the decision to build Gabe's was a Not-In-My-Back-Yard initiation rite — and, as it turned out, Roosevelt I practice run — for Owensboro's rank and file, who sought vigorously, albeit without power
or money or voice, to keep a tower that tall (!) from being built.
Four decades later, Gabe's is an endearing folly, a bit
like New York's long-embattled 2 Columbus Circle (which, coincidentally, was completed the year after Gabe's, in 1964). The tower has been an economic disaster for most of its peripatetic life; has long since traded in its period pastels for a tellingly conservative pale gray with black stripes; and, by right, should have been demolished years ago.
And yet, Owensboro can't quite seem to let go of its quirky landmark. Last month, Gabe's Tower was sold for $280,000 to a developer who promises to make it, once again, a hotel.
:: :: ::
NONE of this would be worth mentioning if the New
York City Department of City Planning wasn't pushing a reactionary rezoning of the East Village and Lower East Side that, if successful, will set these Manhattan neighborhoods back a hundred years.
First and last stop of generations of the families who arrived at Ellis Island between 1890 and 1924 and, later, home to outsiders of all sorts, the traditionally low-rise (and low-rent) East Village and Lower East Side have been gentrifying for the better part of two decades. In response to this growth, these neighborhoods have recently seen some of the more creative and exciting building projects in a city where a good building can be hard to find. Now, the City wants to put an end to all that with a "contextual" rezoning that has these New York neighborhoods headed back to the future — of Owensboro, Kentucky.
Here are three of the recently or nearly completed buildings that have prompted this move:
195 Bowery (condominium on the Bowery at Spring Street); the location,
at the eastern terminus of Spring Street, is an especially appropriate place for this tall building, which provides west-to-east orientation along much of the length of the street
The City is vetting its plan with neighborhood political and community organizations now, with formal public review expected to begin sometime this fall. If the plan becomes law, buildings like 195 Bowery, BLUE, and the Hotel on Rivington (aka THOR), will no longer be permitted within the rezoned precinct, an enormous swath of about 114 blocks that constitutes the substantial core of the East Village and
Lower East Side.
It's doubtful that even a building like the New Museum of Contemporary Art, now going up at 235 Bowery, would pass muster.
Here's what City Planning has in mind instead. In each example, the top two images represent the "problem,"
with the bottom image as the "solution":
The City proposes that most buildings put 6 stories to the street line, with setbacks continuing up to 8 stories; and that in targeted micro-precincts some buildings be allowed to start at 8 stories and max out at 12.
Although neighborhood representatives — from Community Board 3 (which has political oversight of both neighborhoods) to grassroots groups like the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and Good Old Lower East Side — agree on the plan's basic direction, they want even more aggressive downzoning: an absolute 6-story cap plus additional protections to prohibit owners of existing lower buildings from building additions up to the cap.
But all of these constituencies — including the
City — have this in common: They believe that the
problem in the East Village and Lower East Side is overdevelopment. They believe that the solution — the best way to enable these neighborhoods to manage growth pressures while guarding against the long-term negative impacts associated with overdevelopment in traditionally low-rise areas — is to preserve these neighborhoods, more or less as they are, in perpetuity. To embalm them, if you will. And they believe that implementing severe height caps is the shortest
distance from point A to point B.
In short — forgive the pun — tall buildings are the enemy. Tempted to agree? Don't be fooled.
For while building heights are indeed squashed in the
City's plan, that floor area has to go somewhere. Look at
the graphics. The plan calls for every square inch of every parcel in the rezoned area to be built on and out and up until every city block is literally solid — a squat, flat-topped money-making machine in three dimensions. The taller buildings that make it out alive — 195 Bowery, BLUE, THOR, to keep with our examples — are left as lonely "towers in the field." Just like Gabe's and Roosevelt I.
So while the City's plan for the East Village and
Lower East Side is decidedly anti-height, it is hardly anti-
overdevelopment. Still dubious? Meet Avalon Chrystie Place:
Completed in June 2005, this behemoth is the product of a real estate deal between the City, who owned the land, and AvalonBay Communities, a publicly traded luxury apartment building developer based in Washington, DC. The building stretches its enormous, anonymous, corporatized face along an entire block of Houston Street, the gateway between the East Village to the north and the Lower East Side to the south.
Rezoning advocates argue that restricting building heights to 6 or 8 or 12 stories will preserve "neighborhood character." But this characterless building — along with its smaller AvalonBay cousin across the street — has nothing to do with the neighborhood. Nor would even a 6-story rezoning have anything to say about the spread of Avalon Juniors in half-block-long installations across the East Village and Lower East Side.
The fact is, the plan now being brokered by neighborhood groups and the City is the AvalonBay Welcome Wagon. It is made by people who do not understand what taller buildings can do and what they are for. And it is death to the very neighborhood spirit that community activists say they are trying to keep alive.
:: :: ::
AMONG residents of the East Village and Lower East Side, antipathy toward taller buildings can be rooted in everything from jealousy over property values (aka greed) to an almost desperate nostalgia for a pre-Starbucks downtown.
The City appears to be using these fears to serve
its own development interests in the area, which may themselves be calculated to mask other failures, as we shall soon see.
(And if you think the City's proposed height caps are about creating a more sensitive urban environment, ask yourself why City Planning has lifted not a finger against the proposed plan for the World Trade Center site, although the plan itself produces buildings that are
2 – 4 times larger and bulkier — with all the attendant negative impacts on sky views; sunlighting and daylighting; congestion; shadows; and wind effects — than its own zoning laws allow. Come to think of it, ask Amanda Burden** that question.)
Whatever the specific agendas, both neighborhood groups and the City say that making the heart of the East Village and Lower East Side a Tall-Building-Free Zone is the best way to achieve a healthy urban environment, stimulate economic diversity, and regulate people flows in these neighborhoods.
They are mistaken on all three counts, and this inability to think clearly about taller buildings hints at a blind spot on "tall" with worrying consequences for New York's future.
To see this, one need look no further than the City's PlaNYC2030 sustainability process, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced to great fanfare in December. (The City promises more details in the next few months.)
The City's plan to take taller buildings out of the
East Village and Lower East Side mix flies in the face
of both the premises and the stated goals of its 2030 plan — a plan which, in other ways too, leaves these neighborhoods conspicuously out of New York’s sustainability future.
According to City Planning, New York's population is projected to grow from 8.2 million in 2005 to 9.1 million in 2030. Nearly a quarter of these extra 900,000 people will settle in Manhattan, which will grow from 1.61 million in 2005 to 1.83 million in 2030. That 220,000-person top-up is about a quarter of the projected population of San Francisco in 2030.
Announcing these numbers in a press release the day after Bloomberg's 2030 speech, City Planning director Amanda Burden said:
This population analysis is vital for us as planners to create the conditions for growth and to meet the challenges that it brings. Through an unprecedented number of rezonings we have sought to channel new housing and economic development opportunities near the City's extensive transit system while limiting growth in auto-dependent neighborhoods. emphasis added
Translation: The East Village and Lower East Side aren't getting the Second Avenue subway*** for at least another 25 years, although "adding transit capacity"
is one of PlaNYC2030's top ten goals.
Memo to downtown: More transit, yes, just not here.
The truth is, Burden's statement reveals the City's proposed rezoning of the area to be a cynical effort to stifle current growth so that the Second Avenue subway doesn't become (any more) necessary for these neighborhoods (than it already is). This may be politics. But it's no way to build a city.
Easing congestion and creating open space are also among the 2030 plan's goals, but here too there is a disconnect. "We cannot allow crowding on our subways, streets and sidewalks to grind our economy to a halt," reads an item introducing this issue. But none of the suggested congestion measures mentions streets. And planning for the "public realm" is limited to putting a park within a 10-minute walk of every New Yorker and adding trees.
Why not make these goals more effective by linking them to the practical efficiencies of building tall?
Incentivize developers of taller buildings in the East Village and Lower East Side to (1) buy the larger amount of land that would be required to build a shorter and wider building of the same size; (2) build a taller, narrower building on less land instead; and (3) deed
the difference to the City for a public park.
Use a similar strategy to induce tall building developers
to build near street corners and deed the corner itself back to the City, to be developed as passive public open space. Apart from syncopating the pedestrian rhythm of these neighborhoods with serendipitous "sidewalk clearings," these "open corners" would function as pressure valves, preventing the pedestrian bottlenecks that tend to occur at street corners.
It's been a truism for some time now that, as we settle into the long-term trend of ever-greater shares of the world's populations moving to cities that are already pressed for space, tall buildings are a necessary part of any urban sustainability toolkit. Nowhere is space at more of a premium than in New York. And yet, the City's 2030 plan never even mentions the size and shape of buildings as a sustainability issue. In New York of all places, this is both shocking and unconscionable.
The only way for New York to be sustainable is for it to
be efficient. That means every neighborhood growing and every
neighborhood pulling its weight. It means the City must nurture the East Village and Lower East Side renaissance by making these neighborhoods the sorts of places that many of Manhattan's New 220,000 will
want — and be able — to move to.
That includes completing the long-overdue Second Avenue subway (failing which, the State-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority should re-program Second Avenue itself as a dedicated light rail corridor — which it could do in much less time and at a fraction of the cost).
And it includes providing for taller buildings that will enable more people to visit, live, and work in these neighborhoods.
It's bad enough that the City's rezoning and 2030 plans assume that the East Village and Lower East Side won't be the kind of magnet that will require them to make such provisions. Taken together, the plans will starve these neighborhoods to the point that they won't be
The real danger here is not overdevelopment — it's underdevelopment.
:: :: ::
FOR the most part, those who don't want tall buildings in low-rise neighborhoods like the East Village and Lower East Side will not be swayed by arguments like this. They just don’t want them. Period. For these people — let's call them NIMBYs, shall we? — tall buildings are out of scale, out of context, out of character, and out of luck.
And so we wade, at last, into the foggy, furry deep of preservation society politics. New York City enacted its landmarks law and established its Landmarks Preservation Commission in the immediate wake of the demolition of Penn Station in 1963. But ever since Landmarks Preservation was created and Brooklyn Heights named the City's first historic district in 1965, preservation in New York has been conducted on two fronts: individual buildings and discrete neighborhoods of buildings.
And with development pressures mounting, especially in Manhattan, more and more of the City's preservation battle lines are being drawn around neighborhoods. Preservation is less about keeping good buildings in
than about keeping all buildings of a certain kind out.
Put bluntly, preservation has become the stalking horse
for a development agenda pegged to anti-tall,
It's not surprising that development pressures are most sharply felt in Manhattan, which includes 44 of the City's
78 historic districts; indeed, the existence of these historic districts contributes to the pressures.
What is worrying is that the preservation culture that these districts represent has, over the last decade or so, prompted residents of large neighborhoods like the East Village and Lower East Side — neighborhoods that are older but not architecturally significant at a level that would qualify more than a few blocks or so for historic district designation — to demand that their neighborhoods nonetheless get similar protections.
Residents of these neighborhoods are asking City Planning to do for them what the Preservation Commission cannot. In the process, downzonings like the one proposed for the East Village and Lower East Side are making City Planning the most powerful preservation agency in the City.
:: :: ::
ALL of these actors seek to justify the quarantining
of taller buildings in low-rise neighborhoods with
appeals to Aesthetics and History. But their efforts — which are looking less like preservationism and more like isolationism — often have little to do with how we in cities like New York actually see and experience buildings over time.
None of us wants to have her or his urban comfort zone challenged. We like our familiar buildings and streetscapes and corners and views. But the two tall buildings of Owensboro remain jarring and out of place after 30 and 40 years only because nothing grew up around them — because they are "towers in the field."
How did this happen? Substitute "no federal highway" for "no Second Avenue subway" and you'll start to get the picture. Although Owensboro is strategically nestled in a spot that is 200 miles or less from St. Louis to the north; Louisville, Lexington, and Cincinnati to the east; and Nashville to the South, it has no direct interstate access to these places, and it shows in the economy. For decades, Owensboro has sought federal funding for an interstate highway that would enable it to attract both the people and the business — and the construction of new buildings to support them — that only that kind of transportation access can secure.
Instead, federal highway appropriations for Kentucky have invariably been channeled toward the "golden triangle" of Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati; the closest interstates are 40 and 60 miles away; and Owensboro has Gabe's Tower and Roosevelt I.
Together with the political surrender and indefinite postponement of the Second Avenue subway's downtown legs, onerous height restrictions will do essentially the same thing to the East Village and the Lower East Side. They call it "contextual" zoning.
To be contextual, of course, one needs a context,
and for downzoning advocates The Context of these neighborhoods is an ontological truth set down ages ago and never to be changed: Tenements it was and, by god, tenements it shall ever be (with a wink and a nudge to AvalonBay).
It's hard to imagine a more un-New York sentiment.
Indeed, when Alain de Botton, in his recent book
The Architecture of Happiness, critiques the notion of a "national architecture," he might just as well have been writing about neighborhoods. Here, I take the liberty:
...no [neighborhood] ever either owns a
style or is locked into it through precedent. [Neighborhood] architectural identity, like [neighborhood] identity overall, is created rather than dictated by the soil. History, culture...and geography will offer up a great range of possible themes for architects to respond to...At issue...is not so much what a [neighborhood] style is as what it could be made to be. It is the privilege of architects to be selective about which aspects of the local spirit they want to throw into relief...An adequately contextual building might thus be defined as one which embodies some of the most desirable values and the highest ambitions of its era and place — a building which serves as a repository for a workable ideal.
This appeal for a more generous, open, evocative attitude to contextuality carries with it an implicit recognition of the basic physical reality that every new building formally recreates the context. The most dramatic New York example of this may be the Twin Towers. Completed in 1972, the towers never came into their own
as part of an urban composition until construction
was completed in 1987 on the four adjacent towers
of Cesar Pelli's World Financial Center.
The fearmongering obsession with taller buildings in low-rise settings — "Can you even imagine what the Lower East Side would be like with six or seven or eight times the number of BLUEs, THORs, and 195 Bowerys?" — derives its power from aestheticizing these buildings; from treating each one as if it would have the power
to administer its "shock of the new" at the same
voltage 10 or 20 or 50 years from now as it did on ribbon-cutting day.
But that's not how buildings "work" on us in New York. Here, where new buildings are coming at us all the time, every new tower mutes the shock we felt on first seeing the one that preceded it down the street. The new tower itself is muted once the next one comes along, and it is in this perpetual reinvention that buildings are forever being absorbed deeper and deeper into a new urban scenography.
We are conditioned to detest the archetypal developer of big buildings who, having been through it before and before and before with nervous neighbors, dismissively sighs, "They’ll get used to it." But the fact is that in dynamic New York, this is profoundly true: We do get used to it.
This cuts both ways, of course, since we get used to certifiable schlock (AvalonBay) as well as to the aesthetically adventurous. In both cases, the best way to rid ourselves of the shock of the new is to build more new. But it is for this same reason that we would do better to spend our time working for the latter, so that the original shock will give way to endless delight rather than to endless despair.
De Botton observes that the wary trepidation that typically greets the announcement of a new building today is an historically recent phenomenon:
Bath, England: The Circus, with the Royal Crescent
When bands of workmen arrived [in the eighteenth century] to sketch out the crescents of Bath or Edinburgh’s New Town, as they cut their way through brambles and hammered measuring ropes into the earth, few tears would have been shed at the impending destruction. Although there were no doubt some old and noble trees standing on what would become residential streets, though there must have been burrows for foxes and nests for robins, these succumbed to the saw and the shovel with only passing sorrow from their previous denizens, for what was planned in their place was expected to provide more than adequate compensation.
Citizen confidence, de Botton notes, would have been fueled by the confidence of the architects. John Wood the Elder at Bath and James Craig in Edinburgh each
were fired by the prospect of bringing a legendary city into being, a new Athens or Jerusalem, and in this ambition found the confidence to overcome innumerable practical challenges involved in turning green fields into attractive streets. Having a belief in a special destiny, a sense of standing at a privileged moment in history, may well be misguided, but it also provides an indispensable and therefore not unprofitable means of ensuring that beauty will have an opportunity to prevail.
Not so today:
We are prone to falling into a series of illogical assumptions which hold us back from being more demanding of architects: we presume that manmade beauty has been preordained to exist in certain parts of the world but not in others; that urban masterpieces are the work of people fundamentally different from, and greater than, ourselves....
Given the low quality of so much of what is built in New York, one could almost forgive NIMBYs their overzealous oversight of the urban environment — almost — except that among the great variety of taller contemporary buildings out there, there are some good — and even a few great — ones. The existence of such buildings makes us responsible to create the conditions for more good and great examples to be built in New York, including in the East Village and Lower East Side.
But architects can't design in a vacuum. They need opportunities. The downzoning of these neighborhoods
would remove 114 blocks of opportunity in the very type
of neighborhood where the City most needs to learn how
to build taller.
Perhaps de Botton is right that NIMBYs are motivated, ultimately, by a deep sadness over the diminished quality of the taller buildings that they see about them. But the proposed 6- to 12-story "leveling" of the entire core of the East Village and Lower East Side — a leveling that preempts every possibility of anything better — reads more like vindictive spite. Given the projected needs of the City over the next few decades, it borders on cruelty.
For this leveling is based on a leveling of another sort:
the willful refusal, against all evidence to the contrary, to make any architectural distinction between buildings above a certain height. Those who make this self-absolving refusal pretend to vacate themselves from any responsibility to even consider such buildings.
Is that dorm really any worse than this one?
Is a whole neighborhood of Avalon Chrysties really preferable to one with a variety of building sizes and styles and uses?
:: :: ::
JANE Jacobs wrote that "[m]ost city diversity is the creation of incredible numbers of different people and different private organizations, with vastly differing ideas and purposes, planning and contriving outside the framework of public action. The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop — insofar as public policy and action can do so — cities that are congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans, ideas, and opportunities to flourish...."
Jacobs understood that cultivating a neighborhood's variety — not turning it into a museum — is the key to healthy growth. She called it messiness. It's hard to think of a more apt way to describe the defining New York-ish, Walt Whitman-esque quality that has coursed through the East Village and Lower East Side for generations.
What's more, every new generation has redefined
what messiness means for these neighborhoods, and it's
a New Messiness of urban form — more exuberant, more rhythmically syncopated — that is trying to cut through
with buildings like 195 Bowery, BLUE, and THOR.
Neighborhood NIMBYs are convinced that tall buildings represent a threat to their urban environment. In fact, taller, thinner buildings tend to make better neighbors than do short, squat buildings with the same floor area. They create better opportunities to preserve land. And for people on the streets, sidewalks, and surroundings — including adjacent buildings — they provide more and larger views of the sky; more sunlight and daylight; and smaller shadows with shorter duration. These are just the laws of physics.
But the reality also is that the wealth that the East Village and Lower East side need to keep them going demands that these neighborhoods provide, in the mix, the privacy, quietude, and the views that only taller buildings afford.
Let's assume for a moment, though, that the downtown rezoning does pass. Gentrification in the East Village and Lower East Side slows down for a time, as wealth looks
for more hospitable places to build tall. Eventually, all of
the rezoned area is built out and filled in as a patchwork layer of solid 6-story blocks with no space on the ground but block-sized plazas on top. Visible from here, 6 stories in the air, are the top 10 stories of 195 Bowery and BLUE and the top 15 THOR, presiding over the bleak plazascape like the Standing Stones of Downtown
AvalonBay owns so much of these neighborhoods now that the City has actually given the company naming rights — it's Avalon Village and Lower East Avalon now, with plans to rename Houston Street as Avalon Way.
Still, for whatever inconceivable reason, people still want — have to? — live here, and it is at about this time that wealth comes calling again.
What does the City propose to do with its "contextual" neighborhood then? Chip out a piece of a block every time a taller building is needed? Or perhaps we’ll just leave the 6-story building blocks as they are and build towers on top — a kind of Corbusian Radiant City on a grid of 6-story platforms. (Talk about New Yorbanism!)"Radiant City" by Colin Lee
:: :: ::
THIS is a ridiculous conceit, of course, but it highlights the ridiculous logic of the prevailing all-or-nothing to approach to height in the East Village, Lower East Side, and other traditionally low-rise neighborhoods. Here's an idea:
- Create a new class of tall buildings for these neighborhoods, starting at 15 stories and
capped at 25.
- To minimize the bulk of these taller buildings,
require that the ratio of street-facing width to
height be no greater than, say, 1:5.
- Regulate the frequency of these buildings by
requiring a minimum distance between them —
similar to what Rudy Giuliani, when he was Mayor, did with sex shops and strip clubs
across the City.
- Incentivize developers to build such buildings nearest where there are opportunities to create more public open space with a public park or an open corner.
Simple planning and design standards like these would calibrate people flows while enabling taller buildings to do what only taller buildings can to invigorate low-rise neighborhoods.
Norman Foster made
a pertinent observation recently in the course
of advocating for his (apparently ill-fated) design (right) for 980 Madison Avenue to Landmarks Preservation. Foster's design calls for
a clustered pair of oval towers — the tallest, 30 stories — to be placed atop the five-story Parke-Bernet Gallery building (1949). The building, whose
limestone façade stretches the length of the Madison Avenue block between 76th and 77th Streets, is situated within the Upper East Side Historic District, and this was the occasion for the Landmarks hearing.
Foster argued that a tall, slender addition to the original building is especially appropriate as a preservation strategy, since the new tower's slender height in contrast with the low horizontality of the existing structure would actually strengthen the older image (while recreating the context).
For the same reason, the low-rise texture of the East Village and Lower East Side makes these neighborhoods an ideal canvas for taller buildings — and this is true at least in part because "tall" buildings need not be especially tall here to register as tall and thus to excite the fabric of the neighborhood.
New York will need tall buildings of all sorts to accommodate the projected growth of the next several decades. So why not make the East Village and Lower East Side an Architectural Enterprise Zone — a laboratory for how to build tall on a smaller scale?
This would enable the East Village and Lower East Side to engage New York's sustainable future with a degree of common sense that builds on the growth that is already happening there. Whatever else the blanket rezoning of
these neighborhoods as a 6- to 12-story preserve is, it's
not common sense and it's not engaged leadership.
The fact is, both the City and the neighborhoods are in
deep denial about the inexorability of growth in New York. Growth is an ongoing, multi-generational project, and the groundwork for good growth has to be laid now. By fighting every building that seems to them too tall, too large, or too modern, and now trying to get these selfish impulses written into law, all collaborators on the City's downzoning agenda are sabotaging New York's future by refusing to prepare for a time when all neighborhoods will have to include taller buildings.
:: :: ::
ONE needn't spend much time in the Upper East Side Historic District to see that surrounding neighborhoods pay a high price for the City's determination to preserve an entire low-rise enclave, especially one this large. It is impossible to take a neighborhood like this one out of the City's development mix without putting extraordinary growth pressures on surrounding neighborhoods. Indeed, much of the area is zoned as a "limited height district" — maximum height, 60 feet — but walk just a block or two in about any direction from the district perimeter, and this is what you'll start to find:
Introducing buildings like this to the Upper East Side Historic District would be the height of absurdity. But opening up the district's Madison Avenue commercial corridor to distinguished taller buildings on the scale of Foster's proposal (or even a little smaller) would relieve growth pressures on adjacent neighborhoods, making less necessary such monsters as have been going up just outside the District for a while now.
The fact is, New York's preservation culture has become a luxury the City can no longer afford. The example of the Upper East Side Historic District points to a set of questions that should — sooner rather than later — prompt a wholesale reassessment of the City's preservation / downzoning agenda:
- Why should City Planning and Landmarks
Preservation continue to protect select neighborhoods from development and
increase protections for others, when
these neighborhoods can accommodate
additional growth and while surrounding areas get buried in a thicket of oversized buildings?
- Why shouldn't every neighborhood have to
participate in sustainability?
- Why wouldn't they want to?
:: :: ::
OF course, that last question is the kicker. Last week's meeting of Manhattan Community Board 4 exposed the continuing rift over plans to build a small condominium tower on the 19th-century campus of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, which lies in the heart of the Chelsea Historic District.
The campus, a Collegiate Gothic double quadrangle in brick and brownstone, was built on what came to be known as Chelsea Square, a full city block given to the seminary in 1818 by Clement Clark Moore (author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas"); the land had been part of his estate. The oldest surviving building dates from 1836; several others are more than a century old.
With many of these buildings in sad disrepair, General briefly considered abandoning its campus, before deciding in 1988 to embark on a decade-long, $68 million restoration campaign. Still more than $20 million shy of its goal, the financially strapped seminary realized a few years ago that the most practical way to complete the restoration — and keep itself in New York — was to sell most of its unused development rights. After deciding to raze a decrepit, nondescript 1960-ish office building on the campus and selecting the Brodsky Organization to develop the vacated site, General partnered with Brodsky to commission the Polshek Partnership to design a building.
The first proposal, in fall 2005, was for a 17-story, nearly all-glass structure that would house the seminary's library and administrative offices on the lower floors, with Brodsky's luxury apartments above.
Rendering: Polshek Partnership
A coalition of community groups calling itself Save Chelsea Historic District (SCHD) — whose president, Robert Trentlyon, also sits on Community Board 4 — worked to mobilize the neighborhood against the building, and last fall Polshek presented a second try.
The new design is a two-building strategy. The library and apartment tower is now 15 stories (down from 17). There is more brick, less glass. And it is slightly less bulky, the result of housing the administrative space — 30,000 square feet — in a small second building designed by Beyer Blinder Belle.
The neighbors still don't like it. In a July 2006 letter to the Villager community newspaper, Trentlyon wrote that SCDH's "one issue" is "preserving the integrity of the Chelsea Historic District and the 75-foot height limit" (emphasis added) — a reference to the height cap put in place for the area by the Chelsea rezoning of 1999, known as the Chelsea Plan — and, indeed, as The New York Sun reported of last week's meeting, "...some opponents wore stickers that read, '75 Feet Is The Limit,' and clapped their hands and yelled 'bravo' when community members took the stage to criticize the project."
Some residents have gone so far as to suggest the seminary should sell off its student housing to avoid building tall. Sell off the student digs? This is a seminary — hello? And where, pray, are the seminarians going to afford to live then? Chelsea?
Trentlyon goes even further. Repeating an "alternative" he has mentioned on previous occasions, Trentlyon told the Sun that "there are other nonprofit organizations that would be interested in purchasing and restoring the property without building a highrise. 'I know for a fact that affordable housing developers would love to take over the whole block, developers who would preserve the buildings…It’s not like if they left, they’d put an amusement park in there.' "
For the sake of scuttling one 15-story building, Trentlyon is saying, we should throw out an institution that has a nearly 190-year vested stewardship over this land and its buildings.
Residents of low-rise neighborhoods behave — often badly — as if they are somehow entitled to live in a neighborhood free of taller buildings. One is reminded of the insatiably snotty little princess in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the brilliant 1971 film adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1964 children's story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The Veruca Salts of Preservation are saying, "I want my property values, my unobstructed views, and my cute little neighborhood — and I want them now!!!" And to hell with everyone else.
This may be the way to preserve select neighborhoods, but it's not the way to preserve the whole city. Long-range sustainability planning for New York can succeed only if it is a whole city process — if it requires all of us to take responsibility for all of it, by more equitably distributing the demands of growth across every neighborhood.
Decisively turning back the proposed downzoning of the East Village and Lower East Side thus represents an important opportunity that may not return for some time. For should this downzoning become law, it will consolidate New York's move away from a whole city approach.
Together with the Chelsea Plan of 1999, it will signal the ascendancy of those "New Yorkers" whose selfish, dogged fixation against tall buildings of any kind has nothing whatsoever to do with the real-world growth demands that will be placed on New York's doorstep over the next few decades. And if history is any guide, NIMBYs are not inclined to loosen their grip on the law, once they get it in their teeth.
Will NIMBYs be persuaded against the East Village and Lower East Side downzoning before public review of the proposed zoning law begins this fall? Why should they, when they are the ones who now have City Hall's ear and its sympathy? They are winning.
That hardens the obligation on the rest of us to make
the public and the media and City Hall understand — and understand today — that downzoning these neighborhoods is against the best interests not only of the neighborhoods but of the City as a whole.
Because one way or another, a whole city future for New York has to mean taller buildings for everyone.
:: :: ::
MAKE no mistake, though. Charting a taller future for
the East Village, the Lower East Side, and other low-rise neighborhoods will require profound courage and sensitive leadership — especially given that there are so few examples from which to imagine what such a future might look like. In architecture, as in so much else, most people like what they know, and this drives the cultural and economic prejudice against the new. This is a fact of life, but it is also, as de Botton rightly observes, a reactionary fallacy:
The property developer's [and, I would add, preservationist's—JL] reflexive defense of existing tastes constitutes, at base, a denial that human beings can ever come to love anything they have not yet noticed. But even as it plays with the language of freedom, this assertion suppresses the truth that in order to choose properly, one must know what there is to choose from.
...We should be free to imagine how much tastes could evolve if only new styles were placed before our eyes and new words in our vocabulary. An array of hitherto ignored materials and forms could reveal their qualities while the status quo would be prevented from coercively suggesting itself to be the natural and eternal order of things.
Idealistic? Yes. True? Yes! For who knows what kind of
tall buildings might be possible in 50, 20, 10, or 5 years — or even tomorrow?
Rising 23 stories at a svelte 60 feet wide, one of the most surprising and elegant buildings to go up in New York in recent years is Christian de Potzamparc's tall and slender LVMH Tower on 57th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues.
Can next-generation tall buildings like this, along with others at a slightly smaller (lower, thinner) scale find a place in the more dynamic and sustainable urban form aborning — literally, trying to break out — in the East Village and Lower East Side? We should all hope so. But in their simpleminded and shortsighted determination take taller buildings off the table in these areas, neighborhood NIMBYs and their pacifiers at City Planning are stifling the spirit and practice of innovation New York will need to find out how.
Which circles us back to a question that has been hovering in and around much of this exploration: What is the unique spirit of "tall" that can produce the tall buildings that are culturally fitted to the East Village and Lower East Side?
Obviously, one has to start by asking: What is the unique spirit of these neighborhoods themselves? The Greek god Dionysus is associated with all forms of the carnal, sensual, erotic, ecstatic, rapturous, and sublime, i.e., with the earthy and worldly as the means of accessing the divine (more Jesus, less Christ); with fluidity, porosity, blending, and plurality; with intoxication, excess, and wild, fearless experimentation; with the naked, raw, and elemental; with liberation from self; and with a raging at the fetters of convention — so I'm not the first to opine that the East Village and Lower East Side has been the most Dionysian precinct of the City. For its promiscuity of the flesh, yes, but mainly for its promiscuity of art and ideas, resulting in every kind of embodied critique of cultural and political norms.
One can argue that it was Allen Ginsberg who decisively made it so, having gotten his from Walt Whitman. Which is fitting, since Whitman, the prototype of the modern New Yorker, was the original American Dionysius. "I am large," wrote Whitman, "I contain multitudes."
In his recent book, Built upon Love: Architectural Longing after Ethics and Aesthetics, McGill University architectural historian Alberto Perez-Gomez (drawing on a 1986 essay on Platonic theories of love by Canadian poet Anne Carson) crystallizes the Dionysian impulse in architecture in a way that suggests how the spirit of this precinct might animate the spirit of its buildings:
Falling in love, according to Socrates, is both madness and a revelation of the world as it really is. The Greeks associated love with Dionysus, god of madness, the feast, and transgression. The divine essence of madness is the origin of Greek tragedy and the Western work of art. For Socrates, the initial mania is the most important moment to grasp…Unlike earlier poets, who were distressed by the force of Eros, Socrates vindicates mania because one can keep one’s mind only at the cost of shutting out the gods. The incursions of Eros instruct and enrich our lives: prophets, healers, and poets conduct their art by losing their mind. Erotic mania is the instrument of this intelligence: it puts wings on the soul of the demiourgos. The architect/creator (always a craftsman of materials, never a creator ex nihilo) may share this experience by making works that have a similar effect on society.
The taller buildings I'm proposing for the East Village and Lower East Side are especially well suited to play this Dionysian role. To understand why, it helps to be reminded of the primal reason that the best tall buildings appeal to us. For that, more Greek: In his Theogony, the Greek poet Hesiod, thought to have been a contemporary of Homer, tells the story of how the Greek gods came to be. Perez-Gomez explains:
'First there came into being Khaos,' wrote Hesiod, 'and afterwards Gaia [deep-breasted Earth] and Eros [the love that softens hearts], the most beautiful of the immortal gods.' Khaos, [Plato's] humid 'primordial space/substance'...is a neuter name; it cannot produce children. Instead, it causes other divinities to 'come into being.' Gaia, on the other hand, is feminine and does bear children, but her offspring are her two future male partners, Ouranos (Sky, crowned with stars) and Pontos (Sea). Both are 'brought forth,' not sexually conceived....This is where Eros comes in. In the absence of a male sex, primordial Eros 'softens' the first creative entities and causes them to bring to light what was hidden within them.
After drawing the night sky out of herself in a moment prior to human time, Gaia copulates permanently with Ouranos. Ouranos covers Gaia and discharges into her without stopping. Before the cycles of day and night that mark human temporality, before the birth of Olympian light, the earth and sky were compulsively united — but not from prior sexual attraction since the two divinities had never been separated....
Hiding in Gaia’s bosom, Kronos (Time) grabs the genitals of Ouranos and castrates him with a sickle. The blood of Ouranos falls onto the earth and his genitals fall into the sea. This violent act separates the earth from the sky, the feminine from the masculine, and thus marks the beginning of human space-time. In daylight, the division between earth and sky is now visible
to all….At night, however, when the horizon disappears and the sky again unites with the earth, their earlier primordial state seems to return, reminding humanity of a potential wholeness pregnant with creative force....
:: :: ::
WE are flaneurs in New York — always out there on the streets, cheek by jowl with our buildings. And the tall buildings we find the most endearing are those whose forms find a way to draw us, from our places on the street, closer to the sky.
So how would a Dionysian tall building — a tall building for the East Village and Lower East Side — do that?
By earthly means. The Dionysian progression from the carnal to the sublime, from earth to sky, is always firmly rooted in the body. Our "achieving" the sublime depends on our ability to continually see the body, continually touch the body, continually engage the body, whatever form that body takes.
When the body is a very tall and wide-from-the-street building, this narrative experience is always disrupted in one way or another. Viewed from the street, the great width of such a building makes it difficult — except vaguely, through peripheral vision — to visually access the whole body as a vertical line from street to sky. And when tracing the view from bottom to top, great height makes it impossible to see the top once you get there.
It's not necessarily in a good way that buildings like this seem "not of this world." Much as we adore the Chrysler Building, it resolves its height as a spire because it has to: For a very tall and wide-from-the-street building, that's the only way to make the earth-sky connection — and it's a connection that gets made only at the top.
A relatively narrow 15- to 25-story building is tall enough to show us the sky while being small enough to allow us to "take it all in" — to see the body, touch the body, and engage the whole body as an earthly object pointing us to the heavens.
In "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,"
Louis Sullivan in 1896 asked:
How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions? How shall we proclaim from the dizzy height of this strange, weird, modern housetop the peaceful evangel of sentiment, of beauty, the cult of a higher life?
Sullivan answered with his famous invocation that a skyscraper "must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force
and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing."
This can be just as true of a building that rises 20 stories as of one that rises 80. Which is why the 22-story Flatiron Building is one of the best-loved tall buildings in the City.
By critiquing the architectural status quo. Just as the Dionysian promiscuity of art and ideas in the East Village and Lower East Side has produced countless embodied critiques of cultural and political norms — from anarchist politics of Emma Goldman; to the bebop of Charlie Parker; to the poetry and activism of Allen Ginsberg; to Jack Smith's transvestite film fantasias; to the rock experimentalism of John Cale and Lou Reed; to the underground journalism of the East Village Other; to Richard Foreman's experimental theater; to the graphic art of Keith Haring; to the glam-soul melancholy of Antony and the Johnsons — a Dionysian tall building here must forge a connection to the sky in a way that embodies a critique of architectural norms.
The reason Gwathmey Siegel's new condo tower — the so-called Sculpture for Living — doesn't work at Astor Place in the East Village is not that it's too tall but that it doesn't express its height in an unambiguously and unapologetically Dionysian way.
Of course, Perez-Gomez writes that Dionysus is the "god of madness, the feast, and transgression," and one might ask whether transgression is still possible in a neighborhood with buildings where apartments start at $1 million.
The truth is, the geography of transgression is always shifting in New York — SoHo to Chelsea; the East Village and Lower East Side to Williamsburg (and back) — so it's a mistake to aestheticize the geography itself, as if transgression can happen only in this or that neighborhood. And it's a mistake to assume that transgression and wealth must be mutually exclusive, even if they often are.
But this much is certain: Whatever of its Dionysian self the East Village and Lower East Side may seem to have misplaced for now, more Sculptures for Living and more cookie-cutter assemblages from AvalonBay is not the way to bring it back.
Ultimately, though, we are building for the long term. Just as yesterday's Class B and C office buildings are being retrofitted as today's luxury condominiums, we are building an environment that will last for generations. We must leverage the economic opportunities that are now before us to build the taller buildings in lower-rise neighborhoods that resonate with the particular energies of those neighborhoods and that could be put to any number of uses, if need be, in the next and the next and the next generation.
The persistence of Gabe's Tower suggests that a building with character can always be redeemed. What New York needs is not more restrictive zoning: Fortifying high-rise walls around low-rise neighborhoods only fans the New York flames of fast money and slow politics that are already burning on both sides of the fence. Nor is preservation best served by cutting buildings — and, in the process, New York's sustainability future — off at the knees. What New York needs is more intelligent zoning and more compassionate preservation that nurtures the design and construction of better buildings everywhere in the City.
In the East Village and Lower East Side, that means buildings of many shapes, sizes, heights and colors. Including BLUE.
* U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
** Director of the New York City Department of City Planning
*** One of New York’s great urban myths. Initially floated as a concept in 1929, construction on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) project — which calls for a new east side subway stretching from 125th Street down to the Financial District in Lower Manhattan — finally began in 1972, only to be abandoned a couple of years later during the City’s fiscal crisis. The project began to build momentum again in the mid 1990s, and funding is now in place for Phase 1, which would run from 96th to 63rd Streets. Phase 1 construction is expected to begin this year and “completed in a little over seven years,” according to the MTA. Beyond that, no timetable is forthcoming.