Monday, November 29, 2010

NYU NIMBY musical chairs

While the West Village is hosting a town hall meeting on the future of NYU expansion at Our Lady of Pompeii, basement, Carmine & Bleecker, 6:30, East Villagers ought to be alarmed by NYU's decision not to build on its own campus. All voices at the town hall will ask NYU to build in the financial district, but NYU may be looking for closer locations more attractive to their students. That's would be our neighborhood.

Although the EV and the 3rd & 4th Avenue triangle have been recently rezoned to cap heights, there are still plenty of available development sites here. 3rd Avenue still allows the same bulk as prior to the rezoning, and it allows more bulk than the NYU dorm that already stands on 3rd Ave at 10th Street. (It's only 5.31 FAR. Under the new zoning, 3rd Ave allows 6.5 FAR for dormitories!) And they can build as high as 12 stories on 3rd Ave -- the current dorms there are only two stories taller than that.

And then there's El Bohio, the old P.S. 64. It's already standing, requiring minimal construction, and it is a huge lot. A dormitory there would end all hopes for a community center. So there's plenty to worry about.

When NYU unveiled its plans to build on its own campus, it seemed to me a great relief. The I.M.Pei site is already high-rise, full of wasted, unused, inhospitable concrete plaza space that feels like and looks like a wind tunnel. But NYU's ambition overreached with a plan of excessive height, including a hotel, that riled the locals.

The underlying problem for NYU is its limited endowment. Unlike universities with huge endowments, NYU depends on tuition. So it thrives more like a corporation than a university. It needs more students -- it needs expansion in a way that some other universities don't. So the problem of NYU expansion is not likely to go away. The question is, where will it go?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chinatown Partnership bypasses the Chinatown planning process

Chinatown Partnership presented its Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID) proposal to CB3 Tuesday night without going first to the Chinatown Working Group (CWG), the community-wide planning process for Chinatown's future.

Setting aside whether the BID is a good or bad idea -- like most planning ideas, it is a mix of both, and judgment depends on perspective and interests -- going to the CB without going to the community seems a premature and unwise choice for three reasons:
1. it by-passes and ignores the ongoing community process in Chinatown
2. it undermines the viability and effectiveness of that community process
3. it risks dividing the community by promoting the BID without full discussion within the community.

Chinatown Partnership has been promoting a Chinatown BID to clean Chinatown streets and promote tourism and economic development. But the small businesses, who will pay for the BID, are not all in favor. Some small businesses don't see why they should have to pay for services that the city ought to supply. They also worry that a BID will create a quasi-governmental bureaucracy that will formulate policy that will not serve small businesses, but may serve big capital or power-brokers in Chinatown. Increased taxes from the BID will be passed onto small landlords who would be compelled to pass these increases to small businesses whose profit margins are already narrow. Yet these small businesses have historically been providing low prices that have benefited the local community. The increased push for tourist dollars over the small business economy that has long dominated Chinatown is not without controversy. And once a BID is created, it is almost impossible to dismantle, even if the BID turns out to be harmful to small businesses.

Tuesday night at the CB3 meeting, Margaret Chin repeated several times that the BID should be an issue of self-rule. I agree. CB3 should follow the will of the Chinatown community on this, including the local small business community and the Chinatown Working Group.

The Chinatown Working Group represents a moment of great potential for Chinatown. Members are drawn from businesses, residents, labor, social services, arts organizations, parks organizations, parents of school children -- you name it, CWG includes it. CWG is also completely open to any organization in the community. Even Chinatown Partnership is a member.

At this critical moment of great hope and expectation, Chinatown Partnership's choice to take an end run around CWG would be ill-considered. The right and fair place for the discussion and planning of a Chinatown BID should be in the CWG, where all of Chinatown interested parties can speak equally and freely to hash out the issues.

In addition, CB3 or CWG or some independent source should try to discover which kinds of businesses (large, small, restaurant, produce, boutiques, pharmacies, hair salons, wholesale supply, lumber, sidestreet, avenue, neighborhood location, etc.) support the BID and which oppose. The same should be evaluated for residents (owners, renters, neighborhood location, income, immigrant, native, working within Chinatown, working outside, salaried, temporary). A study of the consequences for all those sectors should be drawn up as well. Without full information, the BID is a shot in the dark, and many could get hurt.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Bowery efforts and events

Two Bowery townhouses from around 1800 are immediately threatened with demolition, 206 Bowery and 35 Cooper Square. I've included a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission from an advocate for 206. Most of its content applies to 35 Cooper Square as well: they are both townhouses, both have been reviewed by the Commission, neither has been landmarked yet, both are in imminent danger of demolition. Send a letter, if you can.

three Bowery events upcoming:

Tenement Talks, November 16, 6:30pm
Bowery: Past, Present & Future with David Mulkins
at the Tenement Museum Visitors Center 108 Orchard,
An illustrated talk on the legendary street by the chair of the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors co-sponsored by Bowery Boogie

Lionel Rogosin's 1957 On the Bowery
return engagement at the Film Forum Nov. 19-25
"Rogosin is probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time"
--John Cassavettes
(Susan Wasserman, Dir. of the Gotham Center, will speak at the Friday, Nov. 19, 7:40 screening and I'll be speaking at the 7:40 screening on Saturday Nov. 20)

Bowery History: a celebration
at Dixon Place, Nov. 30, 6pm cocktails, 7pm showtime
161 Chrystie Street
An evening of cocktails, music, performance, film and speakers
for the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors


On the Bowery: an historical exhibit

at Whole Foods, Bowery & Houston, 2nd floor
by LESHP for the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors

Here's the letter to the LPC from Ralph Lewis:

November 5, 2010

Hon. Robert B. Tierney, Chair

Landmarks Preservation Commission
Municipal Building
1 Centre Street, 9th Floor
New York, NY 10007

Re: Landmark Status for 206 Bowery

Dear Chairman Tierney and Commission Members:

As a community leader who cares deeply about New York City and the community histories that make it such an incredible city, I am very concerned about the preservation of the legendary Bowery. At this critical time of change along this avenue, I want to thank the LPC for putting the Federal-style rowhouse at 206 Bowery through your rigorous landmark process. I understand that its case was recently closed, so I urge you to designate this house a NYC landmark as soon as possible.

Built in the early 1800s, 206 Bowery is one of the oldest buildings in the City not currently landmarked. A rare, actual house in Manhattan, its architecture appears today almost exactly as it was built 200 years ago; and its Federal style design is both unique and finite. This house has participated in many waves of NYC’s cultural and commercial growth, and its very existence tells an essential New York story of survival and resilience. It is extremely important to me and my community that structures of this age and character are preserved, so that future generations can understand The Bowery’s heritage through the landmark designation of buildings like this one.

I’m sure that the Commission is aware of the unplanned development currently taking hold on The Bowery with a speed not seen in other neighborhoods. The community is grateful to the LPC for equally protecting its historic character. 206 Bowery is a wonderful example of the intimacy that once was downtown Manhattan, and it stands in stark contrast to new, bigger buildings where both large and small, new and old, make each other look better by comparison. This architectural diversity will insure that The Bowery remains one of NYC’s most unique avenues.

Lastly, I want to thank you for recently designating 97 Bowery as an NYC landmark. Its addition to the growing list of landmarked Bowery buildings continues to create an historic district, making The Bowery an economic and educational destination for residents and tourists alike. 206 Bowery can only contribute to this success.

206 Bowery needs and deserves the immediate attention of preservation laws to ensure its survival, so that its special house-ness will continue to reflect the irreplaceable Bowery. With so much at stake, it is vital that the Commission act with urgency to landmark 206 Bowery.

Respectfully submitted,

Friday, November 12, 2010

chop chop buzz buzz - oh what a beautiful tree it wuzz

EV Grieve posts a story close to home -- condo owners on my street want to cut down a willow tree in their back yard. The heading above comes from one of the comments there.

Saturday, November 06, 2010


Tomorrow, Sunday, the Asian American Writer's Workshop is holding its Page Turner Festival
PowerHouse Arena, 37 Main St Brooklyn DUMBO

At 3pm, I'll be moderating a panel with Richard Price, inspirer and writer of HBO's award-winning "The Wire" and novels Lush Life and Clockers, and Henry Chang, author of the Detective Yu Chinatown Trilogy, including this year's Red Jade. We'll be discussing the impact of gentrification in the streets of the community from their writer's perspective.


On the Bowery
, the groundbreaking 1957 realist film directed by Lionel Rogosin (founder of the Bleecker Street Cinema) IS BACK at the Film Forum, November 11 through Thanksgiving (and beyond?). It played for a week in September and was so packed they held it over and now brought it back. The newly mastered, beautiful B&W movie is accompanied with a documentary about its historic significance and the remarkable story of its making. (I'll be speaking about the documentary and the Bowery at the November 20 7:40 screening, in case you hadn't had enough of me.)


Our exhibit on the history of the Bowery is still at the Whole Foods (yes, at Whole Foods, you don't have to tell me the irony of it) in the public space (hey, it's public space -- I say use it!) on the second floor. It's about raising awareness of the truly astonishing history of the Bowery and encouraging people to get involved in protecting the Bowery. Here's an intro youtube packed with history

The exhibit flyer and the exhibit card (see how many faces and places you can recognize)

Thursday, November 04, 2010

An exchange on community preservation

I'm posting an exchange between me and a commenter on this blog about landmarking and community preservation, addressing the question of whether landmarking in all contexts gentrify and raise real estate values, and to what extent landmarking can be successful in preventing eviction and preserving affordable housing. It begins with "Can the Bowery be preserved?"

Rob wrote:
If you've gone to the city's Oasis map [below, with my comments] and looked at the historic preservation in community district 2, you've seen that about three fourths of CD2 are protected by landmarking [including the soon-to-be South Village District not yet shown in the map], including the west side of the Bowery, some of which was protected only recently.

So it's possible to protect. It takes organizing and political maneuvering. But it's possible.

The Bowery is particularly sensitive: it runs deep into Chinatown, so what the city does with the Bowery has reflexes there. In contrast to CD2, there's virtually no protection in the LES/EV (CD3). Why has CD3 had so little preservation? It's not the buildings themselves: tenements were constructed during one of the most fertile moments of fa├žade design in New York. You can see it everywhere here.

Can the community be preserved? That's much tougher. But if Chinatown is stabilized as an immigrant destination, and grows, parts of the Bowery may also be protected from rampant gentrification.

Commenter responded:
I think you're right with regard to landmarking. That is the one element of preservation that may actually succeed, not least because it's driven by wealthy people, and benefits wealthy people. It's exactly the aspect of preservation that does the least for poor/middle class people, and arguably even hurts them. Older, scenic buildings that give a neighborhood charm are valued first and foremost by residential property owners who have invested in the neighborhood. As their number goes up, landmarking goes up too. People holding down two full time jobs don't have time to attend community board meetings. I don't have the numbers, but I'd wager that the West Village has some of the highest incidence of landmarked buildings. Doesn't prevent Marc Jacobs from renting storefronts, or landlords from rolling inventory into market rate, as soon as they are able to do so. Ironically, as ugly and noncontextual as new developments can be, they actually increase the supply of housing and therefore make rents lower than what they would be otherwise. A place like Avalon Chrystie, which is 80/20 I believe, actually contributes a chunk of apartments that are "affordable" (for lack of a better term.) In other words, preserving the buildings is exactly what the gentrifiers want, and it's unclear to me that doing so has any positive effect on economic diversity in the long term.

I'm all for it, by the way, because I think they look pretty, and new buildings are mostly crap, but I don't see how it will ultimately "save" Chinatown.

It's true that landmarking increases property value of the existing building if it's a house, like a townhouse. I'm not sure the effect on a tenement. Studies I've seen compare landmarked houses with non-landmarked houses, not tenements. More to the point, I've not seen a comparison between a landmarked house and a non landmarked house that was demolished and redeveloped into a 23-story hotel. My off-the-top guess is that the latter appreciated far more than the former.
That's the rational for landmarking a tenement: the tenants, being regulated, won't be evicted regardless of the appreciation of the tenement's landmarking designation (if tenements appreciate as houses do) as long as the owner doesn't demolish, and landmarking prevents demolition.

The most affordable housing is current affordable housing. So preserving tenants where they are has that advantage over 80/20 which brings additional gentrification/displacement pressures as well. It's hard to imagine that the tenements of Chinatown would appreciate much in their narrow streets.

In any case, the issues you address, anon, are exactly the right issues to address. We had this debate in the EV rezoning: should we welcome development for the sake of 20% "affordable" housing, or hold out for no development at all (or minimal development).

I think you are absolutely right that the 23 story hotel will create greater returns for the owner of that particular property, but it will likely depress values in the surrounding properties, which would benefit from a uniformity in pre-war architecture. Landmarking is almost always a burden for the owner, but a benefit to the surrounding owners who will benefit from the fact that the restricted owner will not be allowed to cash in by maximizing his asset.

The thing about affordable housing in tenements is that is only moves in one direction. People do relocate, even when they have amazing, way below market rents. People die. An apartment that was once controlled/stabilized and then brought to market rate will never go back. So it's just a matter of time, given external pressures in the neighborhood, that the tenement apartments will shift over to newcomers who pay market. It happened above Grand, and it will happen below too.

What I don't really understand is why people would want to live in a neighborhood where none of the amenities cater to them. If I were immigrant Chinese and were being priced out of peripheral Chinatown by LES gentrification, wouldn't I just rather move to Sunset Park or Flushing? I mean, what value do I get from being surrounded by hipster boutiques and oyster bars? Clearly this is far from the case in core Chinatown, and I believe core Chinatown will continue to survive in some form. But when the writing's on the wall, what's point of fighting market forces?