Scaffolding is going up at 31 Desbrosses to tear down the great Sonn Whiskey Warehouse. 67 Vestry is still under threat. 59 Franklin has a demolition permit. Occupants are being kicked out of 59 Warren. The demolition permits are everywhere. Towers keep springing up at our borders. Indeed, developers are about to cut out the very heart of what is left of Tribeca South. We have petitioned against these things. We have written letters. We have researched. We have argued with our elected officials. Yet we are losing. Is there anything else we can do?
The short answer is yes, sort of. The long answer is here in 12 points. If you are ready to take action, go to the bottom of this post for a suggestion of what to do.
Can Anything be Done? The Long Answer
1. Understand that the firms that make up Big Real Estate capital are set on tearing apart our neighborhood. Their dreams of a “Wall Street North” south of Chambers and the building of a glass tower wall along West Street are coming to fruition. The demolition of West Broadway between Murray and Warren and the demolition at 51 Park Place bear witness to that. Other demolitions are imminent in Tribeca East on Broadway and in Tribeca North along West Street. Towers are coming up at 56 Leonard, 19 Park Place, at Warren and West, and at the so-called 5 Franklin Place development. Artists and rent-stabilized residents and small businesses are being forced out as I write this.
2. None of these tragedies make New York a better place. None of them bode well for the economic diversity of our neighborhood. All of them harm the integrity of our historic districts. In the long run of history, they will all be counted as mistakes and blows to the character of our city. We will wonder at the Mayors and the Preservation Commissions that stood idly by and let it all happen.
3. Tribeca is not unique in this regard. Hudson Square to our north is but a shell of its former self and is about to be destroyed through Trinity’s ill-thought redevelopment plan. What’s left of the Seaport is about to take a terrible blow. Stroll down 6th Avenue between Tribeca and the Village. See for yourself how many over-scaled new towers are coming up on what was once a pleasant connection between our neighborhoods. Look at the towers that have overtaken 57th Street. An entire historic block of Yorkville is soon to come down (as if Yorkville has not already been brought to its knees…).
4. Everywhere you turn, you can see that our historic, distinctive city is being eaten alive by those Lords of Misrule who represent Big Real Estate. To them, New York is just a lot of unrealized floor-area ratio waiting to be built up. They do not care about history, urbanism, quality of life, sunlight, beauty, or about anything that makes our city livable. While it is true that our government is supposed to care about those things, it cannot do so if it is “captured” by a special interest like that of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY).
5. Everyone, this generation and future generations, is losing in this needless destruction of historic buildings. Every one of those buildings could easily be re-developed with a philosophy of adaptive re-use. So don’t listen to those who offer false solace and meaningless bromides like “change is inevitable” or “the city cannot be preserved in amber.” What change? Big change? Small change? Ugly change? Planned or unplanned change? Change is something we can and must shape as residents and taxpayers of our city. And the amber thing is just laughable — I can’t think of a single preservationist who thinks the city needs to be preserved in amber. It isn’t even what they’re talking about. It never was. The phrase is just deliberate obfuscation by the real estate fanatics.
6. Who is to blame for this reckless destruction of our collective historic patrimony? We could blame ourselves for not acting years ago, but then, some people did act. They were just ignored. We could blame a select few of our neighbors who participated in making these deals happen, as in several cases (ex: 56 Leonard) it was Tribeca residents who participated in the financial deals that allowed these buildings to go up. But why blame them? They were just doing what the rule-makers encouraged. We might blame ourselves for not grabbing our metaphorical pitchforks and marching on City Hall or Municipal Building, but really, what kind of democracy is it when the only tool you have is a pitchfork march? We all work. We are ferociously busy. Who can go to public hearings to protest at 10:00 in the morning?
7. So really, we need to blame our Landmarks Preservation Commissions under Guiliani and then under Bloomberg. Everyone knows the Landmarks Preservation Commissions do what a Mayor wants. Those Commissions could have acted. They chose not to.
8. But don’t we have a new Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC)? We do. And a this point, only the LPC and the Mayor could stop the destruction of Tribeca. They could calendar immediately the extension of Tribeca’s historic districts. We have in fact begged the Commission to act. We have made a case of great merit. The buildings we asked for all deserve inclusion in our historic districts under any metric of accounting. But I have heard nothing back. Power has been silent, and silence speaks louder than words. Of course, why should I be surprised? It has been a long-term approach of the LPC to ignore requests for historic district designation until Big Real Estate picks off the properties it wants, at which point historic district designation becomes moot. So the question is, for those of us who live here and want things to be different. How long will we let this short-sighted way of operating continue?
9. If we want to change anything, we have to look very, very hard at our new Mayor.
He too has been silent on the issue. Apparently he doesn’t want any more historic districts if they interfere with the ambitions of Big Real Estate. Is it because he is listening to the self-serving advice of REBNY, the real estate lobby? Most likely. Don’t forget that REBNY is the same lobby who thinks that neighborhoods like ours should be torn down and replaced with towers (as argued by REBNY’s favorite right-wing, anti-regulation economist, Edward Glaeser in his destructive book, “The Triumph of the City”). And If you didn’t know, REBNY has been on an anti-historic district rampage for years, issuing ideologically-slanted policy statements against historic districts on their website and in editorials everwhere. REBNY even finances lobbying campaigns to take down the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
10. We should not let this happen. Tribeca – including the parts of it that do not have any landmark status at all – is one of the greatest ensembles of 19th century and early 20th century mercantile buildings in the entire United States. It showcases the development of early industrialization and emergent modern capitalism (when it was still about the small guy rather than giant corporatism). It also showcases the meshing of an immense agricultural supply chain from all over the world, ending here at the waterfront and moving inland where it merged with a nascent banking and commercial sector. That great commercial confluence that can be seen here, in what is known these days as Tribeca South, North, West, and East. Moreover, our buildings showcase something else of equal importance: what great urbanism is supposed to look like. No city in America has what we have, and we are incrementally allowing it to be demolished. What folly!
11. What New York has to offer the world is not a sea of glass curtain wall and skyscrapers. Skyscrapers are not unique. Many cities have more of them and taller ones. The greatness of New York is that it offers the world the visceral, kinetic reality of a great, distinctive, historic city, one of spectacular neighborhoods that are connected to its history, places that don’t look like anywhere else, neighborhoods that are livable, like ours, that have sunlight at street level.
12. So if you want a last chance at saving Tribeca, you have to take your metaphorical pitchfork to City Hall. At the very least, you must write the Mayor and ask him to intercede on our behalf with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to expand our historic districts. And you have to bind your vote in the next election to what you say to him in that letter.
Here’s a link. Write the Mayor. (if the link doesn’t work in your browser, try copying this link into your browser): http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/index.page. It takes you to a “fill in the blank” page on the Mayor’s website. Tell him your vote depends on his supporting historic district extensions, Tribeca’s in particular. Tell him not to bend to real estate interests. Tell him affordable housing does not preclude historic districts.
And here is a vimeo slideshow of what is happening to our city. My daughter took a lot of the pictures. I have added many renderings of new construction all over the city, some of it proposed, most already begun. Note it is NOT about modernism, it is about inappropriately over-scaled buildings destroying the historic character of our city. Click on the embedded slide viewer below to begin (soundtrack still being worked on…). Happy New Year!