June 2017
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Recommendations for East Midtown’s Privately Owned Public Spaces

Honorable David G. Greenfield
Chair, New York City Council Committee on Land Use
250 Broadway, 17th Floor
New York, NY 10007

Dear Council Member Greenfield,

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) welcomes the opportunity to offer recommendations for improving Privately Owned Public Space (POPS) in East Midtown. These recommendations are provided in response to the April 26 City Planning Commission hearing on the Greater East Midtown Rezoning proposal. We believe that POPS are an integral part of the public realm in East Midtown and we urge the Council to take our recommendations under careful consideration.

MAS has been actively involved with the rezoning of East Midtown and POPS advocacy for many years. MAS was a member of the East Midtown Steering Committee. We maintain the Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS) website, which is the most comprehensive online resource for information on all 500-plus POPS, and we published the foremost book on POPS, Privately Owned Public Space: The New York Experience (2000), written by Jerold S. Kayden. MAS also co-owns the official POPS database with Mr. Kayden and the Department of City Planning.

East Midtown Open Space

One of the city’s densest areas, East Midtown sees 600,000 people each day. Yet the neighborhood is grossly underserved by open space, with a mere third of the City benchmark for open space based on the number of residents and workers.1 Meanwhile, the 99 POPS in the area account for half of the 39 acres of open space in East Midtown. Demand for open space will undoubtedly become more urgent with the introduction of 28,000 workers under the rezoning proposal.

MAS believes that the City needs to examine existing and future POPS as valuable elements of the urban landscape. POPS provide a respite for area workers and visitors. They also offer opportunities to improve and activate the public realm and reduce potential public health risks, such as urban heat island effect. However, we find that POPS have been largely ignored in the East Midtown rezoning Public Realm Improvement Plan.

With current and future conditions in mind, MAS has the following recommendations for improving POPS in East Midtown:

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East Midtown Rezoning Ignores the Public Realm

Full Title: MAS Comments for New York City Council Subcommittee of Zoning and Franchises on the Greater East Midtown Proposal, ULURP No. 170186 ZRM Manhattan, NY

Background

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) has played an active role in the rezoning of East Midtown. In 2012, MAS engaged planning, preservation, and development practitioners to explore ways to maintain East Midtown as not only the city’s premier business district, but as a vital, working neighborhood. This effort culminated in the report, East Midtown: A Bold Vision for the Future, issued by MAS in February 2013, which laid out a framework for reinvigorating the area’s public realm, improving transit infrastructure, encouraging a vibrant mix of uses, protecting the area’s valuable historic resources, and fostering forward-thinking sustainable design.

MAS and many other stakeholders found the 2013 East Midtown rezoning proposal to be deficient in achieving critical goals, and it was later withdrawn. Mayor de Bill Blasio then formed the East Midtown Steering Committee, including MAS, to spearhead a stakeholder-driven effort. In October 2015, the Steering Committee issued its Final Report, which included recommendations that frame the current Greater East Midtown Proposal – with a few critical exceptions.

MAS recognizes that the primary goal of the current proposal is to incentivize significant expansion of commercial office space to improve the area’s viability as New York’s premier business district. We also acknowledge the effort made by the City to foster and incorporate stakeholder input.

Position

MAS remains steadfast that a number of critical issues need to be addressed before we can fully support the proposal. Therefore, we urge the City to incorporate our recommendations in the following areas:

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Less Disruptive Plan Needed for Belvedere Castle Accessibility

Belvedere Castle in Central Park

Belvedere Castle. Photo: Captain Tucker.

Full Title: MAS Testimony to the Public Design Commission regarding the Binding Report for Scenic Landmark – Belvedere Castle, located in Central Park, Block 1111, Lot 1.

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) commends the Central Park Conservancy for its conscientious attention to accessibility at Belvedere Castle and its diligent efforts to find an appropriate solution that meets the needs of all park users. However, we are unable to support the current proposal. We urge the City to work closely with the Conservancy to arrive at a less disruptive plan for both Belvedere Castle and its adjoining landscape.

Background

Central Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1857. The 843-acre park was realized in the English landscape style, which utilizes naturalistic forms to create a pastoral feel; this is compared to the French style, which uses strict, geometric forms. Today, it is the most visited urban park in the United States, with over 40 million visitors annually.

Belvedere Castle was envisioned as an architectural folly by Calvert Vaux and completed in 1869. Constructed of Manhattan schist quarried from the Park, as well as granite, Belvedere Castle combines Gothic and Romanesque styles. The Castle’s turret is the highest point in Central Park, and offers some of the park’s best views. “Belvedere,” appropriately, is Italian for “beautiful view.”

Position

On June 6th, the Central Park Conservancy presented its plans for alterations to the Belvedere Castle and its adjoining landscape to a joint meeting of the Municipal Art Society’s Planning and Preservation committees. The committees felt that the proposal is not appropriate and determined that further study was necessary.

First, the committees were puzzled by the separation of this presentation into two parts, before two agencies (the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Public Design Commission). We believe a successful resolution to the landscape and accessibility problem is intertwined with and may very well effect the architecture of the castle itself and vice versa.

As to the castle, the committees were unclear about the intention behind its enclosure. Designed as an open-air folly, why not return it to the original condition? Rather than install plate-glass, double-glazed windows, why not restore the 1990s intervention? The committees felt that the proposed windows-non-reflective glass notwithstanding-would create a very disturbing “dead eye” effect.

Most troubling, however, was the excessively powerful form of the twelve-foot-wide ramp leading to the castle with its heavy, muscular masonry walls. As proposed, it would be one of the most pronounced elements in the entire park but would be without any formal or functional justification for its strength and prominence. While Olmsted did employ straight lines, he did so in the service of important processional and ceremonial design intentions. Indeed, the apparent rationale for this form is something that pre-dates Olmsted, namely the reservoir wall and promenade.

Finally, we are concerned that the planting scheme intended to obscure the ramp would only partially achieve this goal. The ramp itself is too high and massive, and foliage would be absent for at least six months of the year.

The committees question whether an accessibility lift was considered among the Conservancy’s design studies. Though we understand that it does not meet the standard of universal design, a lift would greatly reduce the impact of the current proposal.

We appreciate the careful consideration of our recommendations and look forward to working together to find an appropriate solution for this important historic, cultural, and natural resource.

Livable Neighborhoods Program Delivering Final Workshop of the Season Tomorrow

On Saturday, June 17th MAS and the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (SoBRO) will present the final workshop of the Spring 2017 Livable Neighborhoods Program (LNP) workshop season. With a special emphasis on creative placemaking and cultural planning, this year’s LNP participants have been learning how to plan and advocate for vibrant and inspiring public spaces in their communities.

Last weekend, South Bronx residents established the foundation of their community-based cultural planning process by answering the question “What is the Soul of Mott Haven/The Bronx?” via an Image Theater activity developed by Eva Lopez, Director of High School and Parent Engagement Programs at SoBRO.

Participants also learned about the government bodies, agencies and processes that influence land use decisions in the city from MAS’s Vice President of Policy and Programs and how creative placemaking can help address neighborhood issues and promote economic development from the Executive Director of the National Consortium for Creative Placemaking. Finally they heard from the Cultural Plan Coordinator at the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs about the City’s soon-to-be-released cultural plan, CreateNYC.

Anyone interested in learning more about creative asset mapping and SoBRO’s next steps towards cultural planning is encouraged to attend the workshop this Saturday. It will be at SoBRO’s office at 555 Bergen Avenue, 3rd Floor, Bronx, NY 10455. It is free and open to the public.

 

Videos from the June 10th Workshop in Mott Haven/South Bronx

Video 1: Unity Through Struggle

Video 2: And Still We Rise

Video 3: Progression!

Video 4: Stepping into the Future

MAS Comments to CB6 on the Proposed Rezoning of Sutton Place

Full Title: MAS Comments on East River Fifties/Sutton Place Text Amendment, Manhattan Community Board 6, ULURP No. N170282ZRM & CEQR No. 17DCP046M, Manhattan, NY.

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) supports the Sutton Place rezoning proposal, which would prevent out-of-scale supertall towers from being built in this relatively low-rise neighborhood. We applaud the East River Fifties Alliance (ERFA) for creating a model for local stakeholders seeking to influence and improve the zoning of their communities. We are particularly pleased to see the proposal incorporate affordable housing goals, however, we urge the City to work with ERFA and the co-applicants to arrive at an even stronger affordability requirement.

Background

The ERFA proposal is the culmination of an extended, community-based initiative supported by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Council Members Ben Kallos and Dan Garodnick, and NYS Senator Liz Krueger.

To protect the low-rise character of the neighborhood, the ERFA proposal would set height limits on future construction at 260 feet including FAR bonuses and allow developers a maximum of 13 FAR for residential uses with Inclusionary Housing and a 1.0 FAR for community facilities. The project would add 92 affordable housing units in a neighborhood with a median household income of almost $130,000 and provide approximately 84,000 sf of new community facility uses.

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