In His Plans for New York, Vornado’s Steven Roth Is Channeling Robert Moses
It is Robert Moses 101. Vornado’s plans for its “PENN District” development includes the demolition of 55 buildings (more than 40 of which are landmark eligible), the removal of 1296 businesses with thousands of jobs, and the erasure of 2,371 apartments, many with multiple tenants. All of this for the benefit of billionaire real estate developer, Steven Roth, Vornado’s CEO. The state’s official numbers are different, of course. (They lie.) These numbers, however, emanate from the post office.
All of this to be demolished, lost to the city’s economy, lost to the city’s diminishing diverse, truly urban fabric, and lost to the city’s vanishing middle-class. For what? A vaguely defined promise of an upgrade to Pennsylvania Station, which badly needs a real do-over. The cost of this upgrade is vague. How much it will cost the city in lost taxes, jobs, affordable housing, and businesses is not even considered. Where the money to pay for the upgrade will actually come from is also vague and, as the Landmarks Conservancy astutely observed, the money raised will mostly go to the above ground improvements—parks, bike lanes, plazas—that benefit Roth’s own 10 new supertall towers. And as The New York Times pointed out, the plans, cost, and anticipated revenue supposed to go to the station overhaul are all deliberately opaque. What isn’t vague is the $1.2 billion in tax breaks going to Roth. Vague promises but specific losses.
If you believe Steve Roth will fulfill his promises, I have a bridge to sell you. Neither Hudson Yards, by Stephen M. Ross’s Related Company, nor Bruce Ratner’s Barclays Center before it, have lived up to the expectations or the promises. But more on that later.
Yes, Robert Moses 101. Moses was notorious for bulldozing mixed-use, viable urban neighborhoods declared slums for his purposes. Dense, variable buildings—townhouses, apartment houses, tenements, schools, churches, small businesses, factories—all the things that make up a genuine urban neighborhood, lost. And for what? Drab, “towers in the park,” with less density and certainly less diversity than was destroyed.
Yes, Robert Moses 101. Few people understand that height and density are two different things. Stuyvesant Town, for example, is less dense than Greenwich Village with its landmarks-protected mix of buildings. A brownstone block anywhere in the city, with its variety and size of occupancies—single, double, multiple apartment units—can be as dense as many new tall buildings. Urbanism 101, of which little is left midtown.
But real estate money in this case, Steve Roth’s—runs this city now, more than ever. The impact of REBNY (Real Estate Board of New York) is visible at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Planning Commission, Board of Standards and Appeals, everywhere developers want buildings torn down, tax breaks and other benefits. In this case, it is Steve Roth, a major fundraiser for Donald Trump, who knows how to spread his money around. Gov. Hochel seems to respond most to extremely deep-pocketed donors, like bit coin mine owners and wealthy NFL team owners and, in this case, a billionaire developer. Other elected officials (including the mayor) similarly follow the real estate party line and are richly rewarded.
To his great credit, Richard Ravitch—former lieutenant governor and head of MTA in the 1980s, and a hero for mass transit—recently told the New York Times, while noting that the city’s office market is nearly 19 percent vacant, Ravitch told the New York Times recently, “Given what has happened in the commercial market, it’s not going to be a source of revenue for a long time, until the market turns around.” Ravitch was a pivotal opposition voice on Westway and for the trade-in that got the long term, desperately needed funding for mass transit in the 1980s and spared us 12 lanes of unneeded West Side car traffic. Landfill would have created brand new space for a wall of supertalls along the Hudson’s river edge. But look at the city’s gain from defeating the Westway boondoggle—a long forgotten but desperately needed investment in mass transit, a transformed far West Side with a variety of new and restored buildings facing the river and the largest new park in the city since Central Park. Again, urbanism 101. And have you noticed? Vehicular congestion on the West Side Highway is no worse than it was 40 years ago when advocates warned of dire consequences without Westway. Adjustments to the existing highway have speeded up traffic and made other improvements.
Yes, Robert Moses 101. Public be damned. Every community group along the entire West Side and beyond—and their elected officials—is in vehement opposition, just like with Westway
They are all desperately trying to retain what’s left of genuine urbanism in their neighborhoods. Many invoke the name of Jane Jacobs in their staunch opposition. Jacobs’ fight against Robert Moses in Greenwich Village and Lower Manhattan is legendary. Jane was never against tall buildings per se, just what she called “cataclysmic development” that erases genuine urbanism and, in effect, creates a new monoculture. Roth’s Penn Station development, the so-called “PENN District,” is cataclysmic development on steroids.
And lest you think that Roth will ever fulfill his promises, consider what a joke the promises have been from Ross at Hudson Yards or Ratner at Barclay’s Center.
Hudson Yards is built over railyards. It did not bulldoze a robust urban neighborhood like that surrounding Penn Station, but Hudson Yards has had a hard time since it opened. Ross has reportedly has been trying to renegotiate his financial obligation to the former landowner, the MTA, as he will certainly try to do when the failing real estate market resists a full turn-around.
When the three-story mall lost its critical lead store, Neiman Marcus, the Hudson Yards mall was doomed, as are the city’s oversupply of suburban malls all over Manhattan, from Battery Park City to Columbus Circle and beyond. How many apartments have actually sold is hard to know, especially since Hudson Yards’ own numbers are unreliable. And the mega corporations that moved in, like Facebook and Amazon, are now trying to sublet their own over-abundance of underused office space. And Hudson Yards is only half built. The other half is supposed to have six more residential towers, a school and parks.
While Hudson Yards’ payments to the city are reportedly on target, some $5.6 billion in capital costs and tax breaks from the city have gone into it. Trying to calculate and keep track of the extraordinary public funds that go into projects like these is a fool’s errand. Furthermore, the real cost is the effect on the larger city, its neighborhoods, housing and office markets. This is beyond calculation. Robert Moses 101.
Atlantic Yards, begun in 2006 and loaded down with incalculable tax breaks and city and state investments, has not met its promises. Deadlines have been renegotiated, payment penalties renegotiated, promised buildings not built, promised public space atop yet unbuilt platform over railyards not built and a promised atrium at a base of one tower that was supposed to be a major public space was left out of the constructed building. For this development, remnants of a neighborhood—including loft buildings with expensive condos and landmark eligible historic buildings—were destroyed with eminent domain. Robert Moses 101.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what Roth commits to because sooner or later those things will be renegotiated and diminished. The local residents and so-called citywide watchdog groups who signed on to be part of the “citizen involvement” conversation have wasted their time. The promises to them will either not be met or postponed into oblivion. They were pawns in a loaded process and they should have known better. To really get what they bargained for, they should have been part of the fight to cancel this absurdity and start over respecting the city’s review process and public discourse.
The bottom line is not that these mega-developments never meet their promise; that is a given. What they promise is never truly urban; no single developer can create an urban neighborhood. Urbanism evolves. It has many builders, many unplanned surprises that give a neighborhood character, many different activities and economic uses. A real neighborhood is not built or controlled by one private entity. These projects are antithetical to urbanism and what’s worse is that they bulldoze and replace the genuine urbanism built over time by many different people. Robert Moses 101.
Featured image: Molly Wee Pub, near Penn Station, one of the many small businesses threatened with removal should redevelopment plans for the area move forward. Photo via New York Post.