A Neighborhood is a Terrible Thing to Waste

BY SAMUEL A. TURVEY (Chairperson, ReThinkNYC) | New York State Governor Kathy Hochul wants to finance the renovation of Penn Station by demolishing the neighborhood around it and erecting a forest of tax-generating supertalls (corporate towers whose height exceeds that in the current and proposed surrounding area). Now we learn that the Federal share of funding for the project could increase from 50% to 80%. This would cut back on the share needed from New York State and should eliminate the need to demolish a large swath of Midtown to pay for improvements at Penn Station.
A wall of supertalls as Hudson Yards is joined by Vornado’s so-called vertical campus to the East surrounding (some would say suffocating) Penn Station. Does the neighborhood portrayed in “Miracle on 34th Street” deserve this fate? | Image via Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

But Janno Lieber, former Silverstein Properties executive, and now head of the MTA, continues to support the demolition of 30th and 31st Streets even if the State no longer needs the funding.

In a recent Commercial Observer piece, Lieber said, “Putting aside the issues of historical character and preservation, the reality is, we have very old office stock…If we want to compete for jobs, especially the first-class jobs of the 21st century, we need modern office buildings and putting them next to the best mass transit is a climate-change necessity and it’s an economic development necessity.” His desire to put aside “issues of historical character and preservation” suggests he believes the loss of historic sites is just so much collateral damage.  We will just have to live with it for the greater good of erecting oodles of Class A commercial real estate whether there is a market for them or not. Stock traders would call this “fighting the tape.”

Chillingly, Lieber ignores the fact that the Penn Station plan will displace thousands of residents and small businesses and destroy irreplaceable historical and architecturally noteworthy structures.

Having a city with only Class A commercial space is like having a stock portfolio with only Large Cap companies–an absence of diversification that is the height of imprudence. | Rendering by Jeffrey Stickman

Seven Penn Plaza–one of the buildings scheduled for demolition–houses dozens of small businesses. Our elected officials love to extol in rapturous terms normally reserved for Mom, apple pie and the Stars and Stripes, their devotion to small business. However, when push comes to shove, elected officials do not hesitate to sell small businesses down the river because small businesses usually occupy Class B and C office space.  It is truly puzzling that Empire State Development (ESD) is the catalyst for this activity. As Lynn Ellsworth of Human Scale New York pointed out in her February 22nd, 2022 public comment submission to ESD:

“The intent of the [ESD] law is clearly to create economic development that is widely equitable and with substantial and visible benefits to unemployed and low-income people. The law does not direct the ESD to use the power of the state to entrench monopolistic positions of large corporations. Yet that is what is happening in this project. Vornado is among three companies (Vornado, SL Green, and Brookfield) who collectively own 75% of all commercial real estate in Manhattan (Hall 2018). By any standard, which is an indicator of a dangerous oligopoly. Vornado dominates local property ownership in the project area through long-term speculative investments. Moreover, Vornado already has a near-monopoly lock on local retail in the project area. Vornado’s CEO specifically mentions these facts in [the company’s public filings]. Nowhere in the UDC Act is the purpose of state power to entrench a quasi-monopoly, especially at the expense of and displacement of an underserved small business sector and a working-class population.”

Lieber’s advocacy of so-called “economic development necessity” derives from ESD’s mania to saddle Manhattan with Class A office towers from river to river. All the ESD needs to do is label “blighted” any neighborhood deemed lacking in sufficient amounts of Class A office space for the State to be abe to demolish it through the power of eminent domain.

This is a end-run around New York City’s land-use laws (ULURP). It is anti-urban and anti-New York. Consider Hudson Yards: It is the epitome of a sterile, self-contained monoculture (apparently urban, but really pseudo-urban), affording its wealthy denizens knock-out skyline views but otherwise maintaining a stand-offish froideur toward the rest of the cityLikewise, the so-calledEmpire Station Complex,” which will be ringed by supertall buildings few can abide and for which there may not even be a market.  As a come-on, every several floors in some of these behemoths will be given over to trees, shrubs and all manner of luxuriant ganglia. These mini-parks pitched hundreds of feet in the sky will, of course, be for the exclusive use of tenants. Meanwhile, down below, the rest of us will be dodging trucks hell bent on the loading docks at Madison Square Garden. The whole idea of a self-contained, 90-story hothouse-in-the-clouds is to shut New York out to the greatest extent possible. This approach to the creation of putatively cutting-edge places in which to live and work is not new and invariably flops wherever it is tried. (See “The Downtown Office District Was Vulnerable, Even Before COVID.” by Emily Badger and Quoctrung Bui for the New York Times).Why should we New Yorkers, who should know better, be doubling down on this sort of thing here?

Moreover, the bruited need for uber-density in the immediate vicinity of transit facilities is overstated. I have lived and worked in every borough and commuted at one time or another from most of the adjacent counties. I also worked in the World Trade Center (84th Floor) immediately upon graduating from college. I appreciated being close to transit but never felt the need to be right on top of it.  A five to ten, or even fifteen-minute walk in one of the world’s greatest cities is a pleasure and something I always relished.

Simply Beautiful. The Empire State Building, the Hotel Pennsylvania and a rebuilt original Penn Station. Is the public better served by spending billions on the airless subterranean Empire Station Complex, which some refer to by its alias—“Vornado’s Campus”—or do we have better options? | Rendering by Jeffrey Stikeman

To see the fallacy of all this, one need only look to Grand Central Terminal, which is on the verge of snatching defeat from the jaws of preservation victory. Grand Central Terminal, the second leading tourist destination in the city, is in the process of being hemmed in on all sides by new supertalls. The grotesque scale of the station’s new neighbors will make the monumental landmark seem shrunken in comparison, like a model depot from a child’s HO train set.  It will also block views of our beloved Chrysler Building.  Our density mavens believe this hideous overbuilding is vital to the proper functioning of the city. But does anyone believe the quality of the city’s urban fabric was enhanced when the Pan Am Building (now MetLife) rose to block the splendid, Paris-worthy views of the New York Central tower and Grand Central Terminal along Park Avenue and Park Avenue South, respectively?

The supertalls on West 57th Street are nothing to brag about, although real estate agents do their best. The pitfalls of living and working in these behemoths have been documented by the media. Irate owners of apartments above the clouds are trapped in elevators disabled by wind sway. They complain of flooding, of their luxury buildings groaning in the wind and the ghostly whistling of wind in doorways and elevator shafts, and of water sloshing about in toilet bowls as the towers sway to and from.  Efforts are made to correct these, and other defects and lawsuits are flying–but, too late, our skyline along Central Park South has already been irreparably ruined.

Twenty-first century employers seem to love working in low-rise buildings whether it is Facebook on the Ninth Avenue side of the Moynihan Train Hall, or Google’s space near Port Authority, or the upcoming St. John’s Terminal offices.  Some may prefer high rises, but there is room for both, and many are opting for what are now being termed “groundscrapers.”

Gratuitously demolishing a vibrant neighborhood which is not blighted will bring no honor to those who support it.  Do we want a thriving Miracle on 34th Street neighborhood, or do we want to live in Pottersville, which is what we will wind up with if we allow our city to become Vornado’s “campus.” At least Mr. Potter professed an affinity for a “thrifty working class” even if he did not mean it. The Vornado and ESD crowd will not even go that far–it is Class-A commercial office space or pack your bags and get out of town.

As to Mr. Lieber’s assertion about climate change, do not buy it. The Governor’s grotesquely misbegotten plan for Penn Station has nothing to do with preventing  climate change. Density near train stations may be desirable, but density immediately adjacent to train stations is a different matter. Only large-scale developers think bigger is always better.  Thinking New Yorkers, from Fran Lebowitz to any random cabby, will tell you this is nonsense.

To understand the science regarding climate change, ignore the “false flag” reasoning employed to justify the demolition of whole neighborhoods, and consult instead the energy benchmarking report initiated by Mayor Bloomberg.  (See the great interactive map at the link, https://energy.cusp.nyu.edu/#/). It shows that older buildings are more energy efficient than new buildings, even ones with the best LEED ratings.  So, go figure.  Janno Lieber should bite his tongue rather than suggest otherwise.  The public interest is at stake. See also Damu Radheshwar, Catherine Paplin and Nancy Rankin’s recent submission to Empire State Development Corporationon the embedded carbon implications of the Governor’s unfortunate plan for Penn Station and vicinity.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of compounding the horrendous consequences of having destroyed the original Penn Station in 1963, we were to rebuild a modernized version of it and preserve or adaptively reuse as much of the neighborhood as possible? | Rendering by Jeffrey Stikeman

I would ask the proponents of the Governor’s plan to take to heart the advice of Fran Lebowitz when we think about New York: “Pretend it’s a city.”  New York is not a corporate campus, nor is it a grab bag for the personal enrichment of some.  We should refrain from using specious arguments about economic necessity and climate change to give a progressive political veneer to radically regressive urban renewal policies that are destined to fail.  New York is a city, and if you cannot see that, please at least try, and pretend.

New York City’s variety and unique feel are what have always made it great and captivated newcomers, helped it retain residents, and attract employers, tourists, the motion picture industry, and immigrants from every corner of the globe. Thanks to its people, New York has more “embedded” human energy than any other city in the world. We should bring that energy to bear in finding a solution to the mess at Penn Station worthy of the greatest city on earth.

–END–

Samuel A. Turvey is Chairperson of ReThinkNYC and Co-Coordinator of the Empire Station Coalition, which is opposed to the Governor’s proposed Penn Station plan and believes a plan that solves transit issues first, including the need for a great above ground station, should precede and preclude any talk of demolishing large swaths of the neighborhood via 50’s style urban renewal. The Coalition is comprised of the 29th Street Association, City Club of NY, CNU NYC, Council of Chelsea Block Associations, Environmental Simulation Center, Historic Districts Council, Human-Scale NYC, RethinkNYC, Limited Equity & Affordability at Penn South (LEAPS), Midtown South Community Council, Penn-Area Residents Committee, The Murray Hill Neighborhood Association, Save Chelsea, TakeBackNYC, and the Victorian Society of New York.

 

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