Update for Tribecans:
(If you already know the situation, scroll Down “What You Can Do” and for Clocktower News)
By, Lynn Ellsworth, Tribeca Trust
The Current Situation
There are 33 buildings in Tribeca “in speculative play” among developers – some of them already with demolition permits in place. This means that the human scale of Tribeca and its historic architecture are under serious threat. These 33 buildings do not include the current out-of-scale and architecturally disastrous new construction already wreaking havoc our streetscape (56 Leonard, the St. John site, Park Place, etc).
Why do so many blows keep raining down on Tribeca? There are two reasons. First, not enough of the historic fabric of Tribeca is protected by “historic district” status. Second, too much of our zoning down here is C6 or C4. That allows for new construction that rises too high. And then air rights sales and transfers among property lots only makes the height problem worse.
The solution seems obvious: expand the boundaries of the historic districts, downzone Tribeca, and toughen up the rules about air rights transfers. Easy, right? Support for these ideas isn’t even controversial in the neighborhood. Well over half of Tribecans who voted in the last election already signed a petition in favor of these ideas in the STOP DEMOLISHING TRIBECA campaign. Our Community Board has issued multiple resolutions in favor of historic district expansion, and our elected officials (Chin, Brewer, and Glick) have written letters in support of historic district expansion.. In sum, a neighborhood has shown great unity on this question.
So why haven’t we won?
We haven’t won yet because the policy environment under both Bloomberg and now De Blasio is unequivocally poisonous to the very idea of landmarking and historic districts. The creators of that poison are Big Developers (surprise, surprise…) under the cover of their powerful lobbying arm, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY).
Here’s the story in brief. A few years ago, REBNY began a major lobbying campaign to weaken the Landmarks Law. They decided to go on the offensive to change public opinion against landmarking and historic districts. They created a special Political Action Committee and poured millions into the campaigns of politicians both in NYC and in Albany during the last election cycle. They developed anti-Landmarks legislation. Then they began a steady drumbeat of public relations and press releases all filled with scurrilous anti-landmarking and anti-historic district propaganda. They used bombastic rhetoric to accuse historic districts of being anti-growth and anti-affordable housing. They hired consultants to write fluffy and specious “white papers” accusing historic districts of creating the affordable housing crisis. Then REBNY got several press outlets to uncritically publish their misleading material (ex: Crain’s, Curbed, Real Deal, Cityland, and even some NY Times journalists). All this p.r. has paid off: City Councilmember David Greenfield, chair of the powerful land-use committee on the council, now sounds as if he spends his spare time memorizing REBNY press releases. Chalk one up for REBNY.
REBNY’s biggest win to date: they have managed to convince de Blasio that “hyper-density” (meaning giant skyscrapers and over-scaled mixed use developments everywhere) is the solution to affordable housing, an option bizarrely chosen over more progressive alternatives. To make matters worse, REBNY made sure that the most important Commissioners that newly elected Mayor De Blasio hired were friendly to Big Real Estate and their anti-historic district agenda. Talk about “capturing” government! All this while we were civically asleep, working and raising our families and assuming the ship was excitingly in the hands of a new, “progressive” Mayor.
A Big Crisis Is Happening Now
When did we realize that we were in a crisis, a full bore attack on historic districts and the Landmarks Law? Maybe it was when all those insane overscaled towers on 57th Street started going up, shadowing Central Park. Or when legit news outlets starging quoting real estate funded YIMBY as a source. Or when the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) decided to suddenly pull 100 buildings out its decision-making pipeline – without even a public hearing. Or, maybe it was when the Landmarks Commission made the decision to allow a big developer to turn the open-to-the-public Clocktower gallery at 349 Broadway into a private condo for an oligarch. Or, perhaps it was when the LPC began to stall on historic district designations all over the city with excuses like, “we are busy; we don’t have the staff; the other/outer boroughs are more important than your neighborhood, wherever your neighborhood is.” For some, it was when the Commission lent its ears to Big Real Estate and took Broadway out of the brand-new West End/Riverside historic district, despite having previously agreed upon the architectural importance of that iconic stretch of Broadway.
With so many bad things happening so fast, people in the preservation and urbanist world began to wonder: has Landmarks Preservation Commission been told to ‘stand down’ in the face of the affordable housing agenda of De Blasio? The answer appears to be yes. One public good is to be unnecessarily thrown under the bus in favor of another, because Big Real Estate wants it to.
Then REBNY went for a couple of brass rings, both of them prizes for Big Real Estate and bad for the city’s general welfare. They did two things:
- They used their unique access to high-level appointed officials to create a new zoning proposal favorable to their interests, devilishly called “Zoning for Quality and Affordability.” It contained two deadly provisions: up-zoning the entire city so we can build even taller everywhere and a plan to toss “contextual” zoning into the dustbin of history. To make these ugly ideas palatable, City Planning pretended that these things were “essential” so they could build affordable senior housing. Architects proved them wrong on that point, but the press didn’t hear the architects, they only heard REBNY.
- REBNY got its people to introduce an anti-landmarking bill in the City Council called “Bill 775”. It is a proposal for a new law that aims to tie the hands of the Landmarks Commission, weakening its regulatory authority to act in the public good.
We’re in Trouble. The Human-Scaled City is in Trouble. Who Will Fight Back?
It is very much David versus Goliath. The job of fighting to save the Landmarks Law and historic districts has fallen to the smaller, heroically under-staffed non-profits like LANDMARKS WEST!, the Historic Districts Council, and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. With them, there are a huge number of small, unstaffed, volunteer civic groups like Tribeca Trust who also fight. All these groups operate on a shoestring, even those with offices and staff. And a new coalition is emerging, called “New Yorkers for a Human-scaled City.”
The staff members of these small groups have mobilized New Yorkers to write the city council to attend hearings to speak out against the two proposals described above. That is to their credit. But despite widespread public outrage (across economic class, see bottom of this article), success is not assured. City Councilmember David Greenfield from Queens has been in charge of the hearings and he has made it clear – with a voice of contempt – that he hates the preservation groups. Worse, he has a habit of talking as if he spends his mornings memorizing REBNY press releases. So the situation is not good.
What can we do in Tribeca – now?
First, don’t give up. We are still a democracy, technically speaking. All is not lost. But we are in a pitchfork moment in New York City over the next few months. Time to get out your pitchfork a bunch of times. Start now. Write letters, show up at hearings, make calls.
Right now email and call everyone – the Mayor, the Landmarks Commission, your Community Board, and your City Councilmember, (if you are Tribeca, that’s Margaret Chin.).
Tell them the following: (feel free to cut and paste the email addresses below and feel free to use the suggested text in the following paragraph with your email program. That way, you can just send the message to everyone at once):
Dear Mayor De Blasio, Councilmember Chin, Community Board #1, and LPC Chair Srinivasan,
Our requests are simple:
- Extend the boundaries of Tribeca’s Historic Districts.
- Downzone Tribeca. Make it harder to do air-rights transfers to supersize buildings.
- Stop the ill-advised and ill-intended “Bill 775”.
- The citywide up-zoning and elimination of contextual zoning is a terrible idea (aka, “Zoning for Quality and Affordability). It should be withdrawn. It undermines the human-scale of our historic neighborhoods. Start over onthe zoning reform idea.
- Landmarking and historic districts are completely compatible with the creation of other public goods, like affordable housing, so the negative attitude of the administration is unreasonable and just wrong. Stop the poisonous attitude and attacks on the Landmarks Commission and historic districts.
Insert your name
A final word: Take Comfort, We are Not Alone, the Whole City is Angry
What do residents in the poorest zipcode in Lower Manhattan have in common with residents of the richest zipcode? The answer is this: the fight against absurdly tall towers that destroy human-scale neighborhoods. See the picture below from a rally of Chinatown residents against the Extell Tower. Tribeca Trust was there and we agreed with all they said said, although we did not understand when the speeches were in Chinese. But a picture is worth a thousand words
So send those emails to the officials and stay tuned for news of the new, exciting coalition, “New Yorkers for A Human-Scaled City”
Save the date! Come listen to the Clocktower arguments during our day in court over the Clocktower Lawsuit. October 19, 9:30 a.m., 60 Centre Street, Justice Hagler’s courtroom. Hear intelligent lawyers (on our side) making New York legal history with their analysis of the Landmarks Law.