In the News

Fair Financing for a Needed Revamping of Penn Station

Draft City Club Comments on Empire Station Project

Numerous government agencies, from the federal to the local realm, are working at resolving problems of the eastern seaboard rail system.  The City Club is particularly interested in the New York City aspects, including additional tracks below the Hudson River, how train lines enter and traverse the City, and how they relate to the vast network of subway lines within the City. 

John West, Chair of the City Club’s Urban Design Committee and a leading expert in planning and urban design, has drafted – with his usual clarity and profundity –  comments on the City aspects of the planning.  His comments focus particularly on the State’s proposal to coordinate needed additional trackage at Penn Station by rezoning lots surrounding the Station in a manner which would impose the cost of at least a portion of the Station revamping on the developers of the designated surrounding blocks.

We publish this draft to enlighten our constituency and to encourage responsive comments.

New York City Should Have a Comprehensive Plan

An opinion about the City Charter and NYC having a well considered comprehensive plan has been published in Gotham Gazette. 

(Photo: Spencer T Tucker/Mayor’s office) From Gotham Gazette

http://www.gothamgazette.com/opinion/130-opinion/8449-new-york-city-should-have-a-comprehensive-plan

Planning One Great City for All

by Stuart Pertz

Should land use planning be more open to the communities that are being planned?  Of course.  A recent report, Inclusive City, Strategies to achieve more equitable and predictable land use in New York City —  http://library.rpa.org/pdf/Inclusive-City-NYC.pdf — thinks so.  A few short years ago, when the City Club had an active Planning Committee, we published a paper that offered similar advice, although from a regional rather than strictly city perspective.

Read the paper here (pdf).

We support the application of the Frick Collection before the Landmarks Preservation Commission

 

June 18, 2018

 

Mr. Fred Bland

Interim Chair

Landmarks Preservation Commission

 

Mr. Bland:

 

The City Club of New York is pleased to support the application of the Frick Collection before the Landmarks Preservation Commission. We find the proposed design for expansion and new construction to be an elegant solution to the museum’s programmatic needs.

 

Many New Yorkers treasure this museum. We recognize it a jewel, and are wary of any change that might compromise the visitor experience. The proposed design promises to enhance the current functions of the Frick and does not seek to introduce new programmatic elements.

 

We especially note how the addition will enhance the library, providing space both for its renowned holdings and new library functions. The design promises to significantly improve the experience of library users.

 

While we approve of this thoughtful design in its massing, scale, and materials, we do have a few concerns.

 

In particular, we ask that the architects continue to refine the modernist connection between the two buildings in the expansion: it seems that the current design tries to use the window proportions in the Hope wing as a basis for what should be a hyphen in a different language, and this contradiction might be the reason this element does not feel quite right. While we are pleased that the garden is being preserved, there are questions about the greenery abutting the new addition. We trust that the addition built to the interior wall of this outdoor room will enhance and not detract from its verdant charm.

 

The interior is outside the scope of this application, but we take this opportunity to request that the design of the new public spaces be refined to feel more like the Frick. Yes, the entry must serve visitors, but the current iteration seems rather bland. Mr. Frick would surely demand more.

 

The only question before the Commission is whether this proposal is “appropriate.” We believe it is, but more than that, we believe that it will serve the needs of this museum for generations to come and still preserve the Frick we enjoy and respect.

 

Jeffrey Kroessler

Chair, Preservation Committee

The City Club of New York

Regional Rail Trunk Line Follow-up

In the interest of understanding how to better prioritize major public infrastructure and how to pay for it the City Club’s Urban Design Committee’s Infrastructure Working Group has organized a panel to discuss the Regional Rail Trunk Line. It chose the trunk line because additional rail capacity under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey and Penn Station is essential, because there are alternative ways to configure and operate the new facilities to maximize the public benefit and minimize the cost, and because it is unclear how the new tunnels will be paid for.

 

On Friday 19 April Hunter College hosted the panel at Roosevelt House before a full auditorium. Dan Garodnick moderated, John West presented the situation (see attached Trunk Line – 5.ppt), Richard Baron spoke for RPA, Karim Ahmed spoke for ReThinkNYC, and George Haikalis spoke for IRUM. For more on what the panelists proposed explore:

How do you think the trunk line should be configured and operated?

Losing Its Way

The Historic Preservation Committee of The City Club of New York perceives that the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s will to discharge its duties to designate and protect landmarks and historic districts has been declining. So writes Jeffrey Kroessler, the Committee’s Chair.  On March 27, the Commission held a hearing, with overflow participation, to receive reactions to a proposal by the

Commission to adopt extensive new rules which would tend to institutionalize its decline.

 

Download the press release and a detailed report by the Committee concerning the decline and the rules.

SUBWAY EXPANSION—ARE NEW YORK’S COSTS EXCESSIVE?

 

 

My City Club colleague John West distributed this, December 14, New York Times article on Friday.  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/14/nyregion/mta-funding-real-estate-value-capture.html

 

It argues that the city’s construction of new mass transit lines, with public funds or debt, is a subsidy to property owners, who should instead be contributing.  For the first time, at a recent MTA board meeting, Carl Weisbrod, board member and former head of the City Planning Commission, argued that “some of the cost should be paid by the real estate development that new service will make possible.”  The MTA will now ask for legislation to make this “value capture” possible.

 

 

(Transit oriented development of the early 20th century,  108th Street and Broadway.)

Linking real estate development to transit charges is not a new concept.  As part of the recent Midtown East rezoning, builders of new high-rise office towers, are required to pay for improvements to designated subway stations.

 

These contributions may or may not be adequate, and it may or may not be appropriate to legislate some form of “value capture” tax as new transit improvements are planned.  But it is illegitimate to ask the public, or any particular constituency, be they riders or real estate owners, to stretch their pocket books unless the system is also held accountable for its costs.

 

A simple Google search found three articles that detailed how expensive our transit system has become.

 

Vox–January 2017–This article reports that the second phase of the Second Avenue subway is budgeted at $6 billion, or $2.2 billion per kilometer, with only $1 billion allocated the MTA’s capital budget.  Yet the $1billion should be adequate, with Berlin, Paris and Copenhagen subways budgeted at respectively $250 million, $230 million and $260 million per kilometer.  Labor costs are only part of the problem, as there are certainly strong unions in western Europe. The size of the stations and the depth of the subway line also drive up costs.   https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/1/14112776/new-york-second-avenue-subway-phase-2

 

Pedestrian Observations—July 2017—Vox reporting relies in part on an article in this public transit blog, written by Alon Levy.  It compares the per kilometer costs of NYC transit projects with those in other countries.  The results are shockingly negative for New York, even when compared to transit construction costs in London and Amsterdam.  Phase 1 of the Second Avenue subway is cited at $1.7 billion, with a London project cited at $450 million per kilometer and an Amsterdam project cited at $410 million per kilometer.  https://pedestrianobservations.com/2011/05/16/us-rail-construction-costs/

 

Curbed—October 2017—This analysis, also by Alon Levy, compares NYC subway’s operating costs to those in other cities.  New York subway’s hourly and per mile costs are exceeded by our PATH system and by the hourly cost of Los Angeles Metro Rail.  They are comparable to the hourly and per mile costs of the Boston T, but exceed cited costs in other cities, including  in western Europe. https://ny.curbed.com/2017/10/13/16455880/new-york-subway-mta-operating-cost-analysis

 

The Comptroller Audits NYC’s POPS

CityLand has published an article on the recent follow-up audit of POPS by Scott Stringer’s office. Read it here

 

It seems that the Department of Buildings remains reluctant to inspect POPS and enforce compliance. Any suggestions as to how best to use the Comptroller’s audits to recover and improve our Privately Owed Public Spaces?

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News on the Elimination of the Arcade at Fulton Street

The Architect’s Newspaper has continued its excellent coverage of the public realm along Water Street in Lower Manhattan and the application to City Planning to eliminate the arcade at the Fulton Street end of 200 Water Street (formerly 127 John Street).

 

https://archpaper.com/2017/10/200-water-street-public-space-rockrose/

 

 

 

 

John:

Thank you for sending on the article on Water Street. You are right, It is excellent.

 

I wish somebody would ask Rockrose or any other developer, who wishes to take back the bonused arcade or plaza space, to pay for it. A fair price would be the capitalized value of the net operating income of the bonused floor area within the building.

 

(I am not always as pro-development as some people foolishly believe).

 

Cheers,

ALEX

 

 

 

Alas, Alex Garvin’s approach to valuing the arcades ignores the value to the public of the space, it accounts only for the monetized value of to a potential buyer in the current market. It is an approach in the legal world that Richard Posner has advocated, and is a minority position among legal theorists.

 

Among economists, adopting such a valuation technique would be ignoring a complete accounting of the value of the space, and would thus be inconsistent with economic theory. For the wider approach to thinking about how to value public assets, Joseph Stiglitz’s famous quote might apply: “the invisible hand is invisible because it isn’t there.”

 

Best,
Lynn

 

 

 

 

Thanks, John, for sending this excellent article. I remember 200 Water Street very well with the corrugated metal entry and the colorful seating. It was unique then and would still be if subsequent owners hadn’t dismantled the installations. I agree that Rockrose and other developers should pay for converting this space and, most likely, they will install boring and un-needed chain stores.

 

Patricia

 

 

 

But we should not be selling off public assets anyway: we should be stopping most of such sales in their tracks. And making a deal just for the sake of making a deal and then moving on with a claim to victory is the time-honored politician’s way in NYC, but not necessarily one that is conducive to the longer term interest of city residents.

The sale of public assets is happening all the time of course, just in this case the Broadsheet Daily brought the case to the public eye for once.

 

What it highlights is that it is happening without due consideration of the principles involved and how the ULURP process to make it happen is so unreliable a method for protecting the public interest.

 

And if, as a democratic city, we do decide that it is indeed in the long term public interest to sell off public assets, there arises the issue of “what price”? The price convenient to the buyer, or the price that values the asset as a public good, or the one that encompasses intergenerational value? Should it be the boom-time price or the economic meltdown price after 2008? Should we sell it the price that will arise before or after the next hurricane?

 

The value of the asset as a public one is also usually far higher that it’s immediate economic use value to the developer, which is why developers always want the monetized price “that we can see,”, one that doesn’t account for its public value, let alone its intergenerational value. It is the easy way out, but not the right way, IMO.

 

Historic districts, individual landmarks, city buildings such as the Clocktower landmark at 349 Broadway or 134 Centre, sidewalks, streets, parkland, libraries, school playgrounds, piers, wharves, waterfront, the air rights from the pier near St. John’s, and yes, the sky over Midtown – they are all are public assets. Why sell them off anyway? What crisis justifies each incremental sale? And how real are the crises used to justify each sale?

 

Looking forward to the time when we have to pay tolls to enter the sidewalk and cross the street as pedestrians.

 

Best,
Lynn

 

 

 

 

Maybe these deals—the original ones, that create these POPs or similar public amenities, not the take back deals—should be designed to include a permanent retirement of development rights. If the potential to reverse the original deal is left alive—that is, if even a dim possibility of future development is not legally extinguished it seems almost inevitable that battalions of high NYC retail lawyers will spend as many decades as it takes to unravel the original deal that sequestered the development rights.

Is this possible? Would the deal have to include ceding of title to the spaces in question (to some public conservancy, or govt department)?

 

OR, Alex’s proposal could work if the law or particular deal included a price setting mechanism that worked to arrive at a figure that was punitively high. (e.g., triple an appraised market value?)

 

Or something! (I think I speak for all of us, there). These deals—in concept and in each application—never could make sense if they were to be only a loan of the space to public use for 20 years or so. And I don’t think they would survive politically if candidly described this way at their initiation.

 

brendan

 

 

 

 

Like Pat Z., I used to work in this area and always thought these delightful touches on and around that building were more or less the only humanizing, amusing, or simply nice physical features for blocks around. (west of the Seaport district).

It’s a pretty barren landscape of glass boxes and the only relief for eye or heart are the occasional, legally-required plaza amenities like these. In my opinion, anyway. Don’t suppose this kind of consideration matters now, but to give credit where it is due and without over-personalizing, this kind of consideration of aesthetics was welcome during Amanda Burden’s tenure. Doesn’t seem to occur at all, anymore.

 

b

 

 

 

 

 

I agree 100%. The Water Street issue has, in my impression, more to do with programming and amenities than with building or even plaza design. Many of the needed design solutions might involve a more modest, “tweaking” approach akin to what PPS and the BID did with Bryant Park—i.e., keeping the basic configuration, but changing (unifying?) the programming, amenities, street furniture, visual access, etc.

 

I also agree with the other comments that there are ways to (1) create stronger incentives for plazas. (2) create stronger disincentives for their abandonment (by neglect as well as demolition and redevelopment); and (3)create strong incentives for the improvement of existing plazas. One that occurs to me is that after a period (could be as long as 50 years) the plaza is revisited for compliance with the current, better regulations, with a mediation component to forestall unreasonable demands or objections. A key issue is that as sites get smaller (e.g., in East Midtown with the new zoning), there is a need and opportunity for more indoor plazas with second floor office lobbies. The new DCP guidelines for outdoor plazas works really well. They could replicate this effort for indoor plazas.

 

The big issue is that the DCP itself, as an agency and as staff people, would likely benefit from getting out of the business of plazas and POPS altogether. DCP gets the blame when things are not as hoped, but never the credit when they are. The plazas involve enormous amounts of review, transaction, and administrative work that is disproportionate to their impact and size compared to citywide rezoning, etc. Rarely if ever do the plazas relate to the agenda of their boss (or that of their boss’s boss—the Mayor). Enforcement is extremely hard for a whole other set of reasons, and yields a “what’s the point” perspective. So, what’s the point?

But from a public interest point of view, the plazas and POPS mitigate unremitting density and can even create meaningful amenities in the highest density zones, if not in other places as well. They can, if improved, play an even more important role as we face an increasing problem with heat islands. If it is true that self-driving cars will reduce the need for on-street parking as well as congestion (I’m skeptical); and thus create opportunity for more greenery and placemaking (I’m hopeful); then a number of small and large plazas might over time be improved by blending private/public investment, design and programming.

 

If not DCP, maybe other agencies can take on the challenge of plazas: The Design Commission, or the SBS downtown unit, or the Parks Department, or the Department of Design and Construction or the Chief Architect? Or maybe it is DCP; and it is like eating unsalted lima beans—it may taste bad for DCP but it is good for the city.

 

In this context:

Water Street could be a distinct model for showing how a series of plazas can create a placemaking as well as an urban design landscape. The over-wide sidewalks and street present the opportunity to test some of the ideas that we may want to explore mindful of self-driving cars.

 

If I were to recommend one immediate step independent of Water Street, it would be a coffee table book and/or study documenting plaza successes, to modify the urban legend that they never work out, and to give DCP (and a good number of other players) credit for their successes. That book/study would also point the way to how modifications might be made in the future, to specific plazas, to the legislation, and to the reviews. The book might be organized around the nature of the challenges: large sites, small sites, and indoor settings. The Department of Design and Construction under Bloomberg created such a book with regard to its design excellence program.

 

Something for MAS or Van Alen or Architectural League or Design Trust or Pratt Institute Urban Placemaking Program or AIA to consider? Certainly, it would have more meaning if done by an entity from outside the city.

 

And it might lead to a discussion of improving rather than undermining or reducing the plaza bonus; and assuming that zoning (I would add mandates to incentives; and some sort of review such as every 50 years) remains the primary implementation tool, what non-DCP agencies might handle discretionary reviews, oversight and enforcement.

 

 

 

 

John is 100% right. Building an agenda around upgrading, activating, enhancing what we already have and succeeding at it will drive more attention to other types of spaces in communities. PPS does just that in cities around the world. NYC, where we all 35 of us live has never seemed to be the city we could do anything meaningful in. We just completed a Placemaking Week in Amsterdam where over 400 people (community activists) came from 46 countries to do, as part of the week, Placemaking exercises in 7 struggling neighborhoods in Amsterdam where significant growth is predicted. We did it with “area” resource teams or managers who are being trained to be community Placemakers. These “Placemaking Weeks” are now happening next in Valparaiso next month where 300 people from Latin America are coming together to tackle many of the issues John describes in his email. Other cities happening next year at Auckland, London (Our International Market Cities Conference), Kuala Lumpur, a second one in Nairobi, and one in China (working with the UN Habitat). There are others, but the point is that globally many cities are moving swiftly to create local activation movements that will systemically change how cities and community leaders work together to shape what we call Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper activations that get around the usual top down design and planning processes that consume so much time and don’t deliver the outcomes desired.

 

The problem here is that most everything is top down and professionally led. Most of the design projects in the last 10 years clearly have not benefited from local engagement in the design process. I won’t name the biggest examples that we believe are significant failures because to the design community they might be considered successes. That needs to be part of a larger discussion which we would be glad to have. Meanwhile take a look at what happened at the Placemaking Week two weeks ago in Amsterdam. (We did a similiar Placemaking Week last year in Vancouver.) We would be glad to be part of this discussion. We have been waiting for a time to come back into the city we live in and care so much about. The politics have been such that it is almost impossible to have this discussion in in any meaningful way.

 

 

 

The politics are indeed tricky.

 

Many agree that it would be great to keep track of, improve, monitor, and re-activate the huge number of poorly designed POPs, to make them the best they can be given that they are low-hanging public fruit and sub-optimal in their current state. Yet there is also widespread and legitimate grassroots discontent with the zoning code that grants the plaza bonuses in the first place. Why? First, the plaza is rarely an equivalent exchange for the FAR removed from the public realm (ex: the awful plaza next the new Silverstein tower by the Woolworth). Second, the fight is usually about a building that is too tall in the first place. They are often mere bones thrown to shut the public up and claim (falsely) that the public interest was maintained. Other examples of bare-bones ‘amenities include a case where we get a small school but without a full-on, auditoriums, full-scale gyms, play-yards, and art rooms, one that is immediately overcrowded due to the lack of planning for density. And third, plazas are routinely awful – dreary, dark, cigarette strewn messes. In many cases, no amount of activation and redesign can improve the situation – it is just putting lipstick on a pig. For every ‘good’ plaza, there are twenty more that are terrible. Last, and most confounding, is that it is very difficult to generate local citizen interest in the plazas because public ownership is so weakly asserted: the popular perception is that these are corporate places, not public places. They are in fact being managed as corporate places, which is part of the problem. The City’s unwillingness to muscle in there on the property rights issue is astonishing to me. You’d think the politicians would get tired of this game and just start calling these places ‘privately managed public spaces.”

 

In Tribeca, we had two of the better plazas in the city at 105 Duane and at the Citibank Building on Greenwich Street. Neither of them of course made up for the actual tower monstrosities that generated the plazas, but each plaza was at least generously and well planted with good seating, creative landscaping that fit the place, and had a mix of light and shade and high quality materials, as well as different spots in which to perch suitable for a variety of potential users. In that way they also radiated in subtle ways a ‘public’ character. Then the corporate overlords of the situations (Related, in one case, and Citibank in another), mysteriously decided to renovate – both plazas lost whatever appeal they once had and have ended up looking like corporatized airport design fantasies rather than something the public might like and want to use. Property signs are everywhere. The community had no input in either redesign. The overlords came to the community board and politely informed them of what was up, and that was that.

 

Why should we care when the current regulatory regime blesses the corporatization and quasi-privatization of these spaces? Interest might be provoked if public ownership was reasserted.

 

Best,
Lynn

 

 

 

If the property owner wants some inspiration on a more active PUBLIC SPACE, just look across Fulton Street at the little pocket park that ALWAYS HAS KIDS, ELDERLY, 24/7. It has one piece of play equipment and benches. Simple. The other is at John/ Front Streets. A well used pocket park.

 

Its by choice that this developer has chosen a blank desolate uninviting space. Commercialization is not the only way to “activate” and by the way, we need some serenity once in a while in the city.

 

BTW- I could use less billboards, less ads on newspaper kiosks, less ads on bus benches, less ads on wi-fi stations, less ads on pull carts, less ads polluting New York’s neighborhoods. Enough is enough. Stop the commercialization of everything.

 

Alexander
Resident of Water Street