Fighting for the Public Realm and the Public Good
November 2nd, 2013, 1:00 pm
By Vin Cipolla, President, MAS Warren St. John’s Shadows over Central Park (The New York Times; Op-Ed; October 29), contrasts the brilliant campaign the Municipal Art Society (MAS) organized in 1987—to protest the then-proposed two 58- and 68-story tall towers—with today’s relative silence as a number of hyper-tall buildings are being constructed in the vicinity of 57th Street. MAS’s response to Mr. St. John’s Op-Ed (The New York Times; Letters; November 1) can be found here. The difference in responses then, and now, highlights the issue: twenty-six years ago, the proposed tall towers were subject to environmental review as well as New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). The seven towers being built now—five of which are planned to be 1,000 feet tall—are being constructed largely as-of-right. In 1987, interested members of the public had an opportunity to testify and review important information related to the building which was to be developed on a publicly-controlled site. The City disclosed a tremendous amount of data regarding casting shadows on Central Park, air quality, traffic and other impacts. Eventually, after a lot of hard work, litigation and negotiation, the proposal was replaced by the Time Warner Center, which has had yet different impacts and has served to catalyze reinvestment in what many forget was once a sleepy corner of the city. In 2013, developers of these new as-of-right buildings are not required to provide the public with any information along the lines of what was required as part of the Columbus Circle development. Both 215 West 57th Street (adjacent and cantilevered above the landmarked Art Students League Building) and 109 West 57th Street (adjacent to the landmarked Steinway Building) were presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which heard testimony about the appropriateness of the new buildings. MAS, along with many other groups and citizens, forcefully testified against 215 West 57th Street, emphasizing our concern about the lack of a public planning or environmental review process. Developers for each of these buildings were able to purchase unused development rights from existing buildings elsewhere on the block and pile it on top of their sites. MAS Testimony to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission regarding C of A for cantilever over 215 West 57th Street can be found here. MAS does not oppose tall buildings; we support thoughtful urban planning. These hyper-tall, mid-block buildings on small lots are an unintended consequence of outdated zoning. Zoning law in New York allows transfer of development rights to be accumulated so that buildings in certain areas can be built sky-high “as-of-right.” The underlying zoning resolution—which is decades old—could not have contemplated such advances in construction technology advances or the international appeal of owning an aerie in Manhattan. This is not a new issue for MAS. As we said in 2011, “zoning …does need to be overhauled to keep up with the demands of a new era….” Clearly this is the case more than ever. We agree with Mr. St. John that the public needs to be engaged in development issues, particularly when the City must balance developers’ desires, and the livability of the our city—and especially the sustainability of our infrastructure and the public realm. MAS took its fight for a new Penn Station and a relocated Madison Square Garden to the public earlier this year. Our campaign led to a City Council vote striking the Garden’s permit to operate in perpetuity, instead limiting it to ten years which will clear the way for planning a new Penn. Our design provocation for a new Penn on May 29, 2013 (videos for the designs presented can be found here), and our creative and sharp use of social media, were in the same disruptive spirit as our 1987 black umbrellas demonstration (using 2013 tactics). Zoning controls balance growth and new development, protecting neighborhood character. For several years MAS has been calling for an overhaul of New York City’s outdated zoning. We are currently working on a study that frames a key choice before the public and our decision makers: we believe that regulations governing the future of our city should include public consultation when new proposals are so powerful as to transform a neighborhood or the skyline. The public should understand the cumulative effect of such projects and not look at them as individual objects. This year, and in the recent past, MAS has been conducting a steady stream of public meetings on zoning and specific zoning issues—including our terrific annual MAS Summit for New York City, with the fourth Summit taking place two weeks ago. The schedule for the Summit can be found here, videos for the two days can be accessed by clicking here. As the time for a new Administration nears, we encourage the public to voice its opinions. As a private and heavily volunteer-driven organization, we need the resources—both passionate participants and financial resources—to have an impact. We like being noisy, providing we’re doing the work to back it up to make it real and secure enduring change. Help us to make sure our city remains diverse, vibrant and livable.