As a New Yorker, I find it embarrassing to watch Governor
Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio beg, plead, and, yes, grovel to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to reactivate his plan to come to New York. No one needs to be begged to come to New York. Without sounding too much like a chauvinist, let me say: THIS IS NEW YORK CITY! Our competition for being the greatest city in the world is slim. There’s a reason Amazon already has a sizable presence in New York. The prestige and the advantages of being here are huge. Just ask anyone who isn’t here.
Maybe second-tier cities need the big shot in the arm that they think a stadium, convention center, or corporate campus will bring. But New York and its talented workforce sells itself.
As an urban critic, I have listened for decades to the refrain that we need to compete with Shanghai. What an absurd idea! People and businesses don’t come to or stay in NYC because it’s like Shanghai; they come in large part because it’s not. We also don’t suffer to the degree that Shanghai does from air pollution, energy shortages, transportation congestion, and poor water quality. Although we are catching up on some of these dreary metrics.
For decades, city development and planning policies have been based on this Shanghai vision. As a result, not only is the skyline being disfigured more rapidly than at probably any other moment in New York’s history, but deep economic inequities are coming along with it.
What the city and state were offering Amazon was merely the most blatant example of what we have been giving away to corporations smart enough to bargain hard and developers smart enough to know what they can get away with—public objections be damned.
Developers are proposing monstrously tall buildings: some are on stilts; some have 20-story voids or fraudulently labeled mechanical spaces; some are products of arcane air-rights swaps. Zoning policies have not kept up with engineering advances. Developers have taken advantage of loopholes, turning the code into a series of polite but totally ignorable suggestions. The public disgust is so intense that the City Planning Commission has come up with a meager proposal—still full of loopholes—for change in order to head off more serious civic challenges. So far, several neighborhood groups have filed lawsuits to address some of these issues, and others are in the exploratory stage.
Decades ago, urbanists were writing and speaking about steering development toward transit, toward creating or enhancing public spaces, and toward buildings that would be in context with their surroundings, so as not to overwhelm them. But that was when there was unused infrastructural capacity, when public spaces were nonexistent or uninviting, when subways were somewhat efficient and clean. Developers and planners today refuse to acknowledge that hyperdensity equals congestion, that garbage bags piled on the sidewalk rob pedestrians of valuable space, that lively public spaces enhance the value of the real estate and should no longer be eligible for bonuses.
The absurdity of our current situation is epitomized in the demolition of 270 Park Avenue. This is a landmark-quality, 55-story early Modernist tower designed by the notable Natalie de Blois of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In 2012, the building was upgraded to LEED Platinum, earning five years of tax credits, at the time the largest building to be so environmentally upgraded. Now, due to be demolished and replaced with 72 stories (do the math), it will be the largest demolition of its kind. Can one landfill handle this? Does this make sense? In what possible way can this be justified environmentally?
And then there’s One Vanderbilt, adjacent to Grand Central, a bulky 73-story behemoth. When completed, it will be the fourth tallest in the city (for about five minutes). A “public amenity” bonus was given for the project’s creation of an underground connection to Grand Central Terminal that benefits almost exclusively the tenants of One Vanderbilt and its developer. A public amenity bonus for a tunnel, even a well-designed one? Really?
Is there any wonder so much of the public went nuts for the $3 billion tax package for Amazon topped by a helipad? But instead of being a wake-up call for the mayor and governor, they have gone back to Amazon on bended knee. Shameful!
Featured image via 6sqft.com