In the News

A Trust Betrayed

by Jeffrey A. Kroessler

The City of New York acquired Governors Island from the federal government in 2003 for $1. That token amount was to assure clear that the island’s future would guarantee a public purpose. Fulfilling that public purpose is the mandate of the Trust for Governors Island. 

Regrettably, the Trust has redefined public purpose to mean private development benefiting private entities. They have proposed erecting two massive towers on the island. One would rise 30 stories, the other 20, alongside several smaller buildings, housing a new climate research center, hotels, and other commercial space. The public recreation ground would be a construction site for the next decade. City Planning is poised to approve their plan.

We want to know: what happened to the grand public park New Yorkers were promised?

The 2003 agreement included specific restrictions on future uses “to ensure the protection and preservation of the natural, cultural and historic qualities of Governors Island, guarantee public access to this magnificent island, promote the quality of public education, and enhance the ability of the public to enjoy Governors Island and the surrounding waterways, thereby increasing the quality of life in the surrounding community, the City, the State and the United States.” Specifically banned were casinos (recently proposed by a mayoral candidate) and residential development.

The current proposal defines public benefit as the financial benefits that would flow to the Trust. The City Club suggests that New Yorkers might place other benefits ahead of the Trust’s bottom line, and the bottom line of its partners. Not to mention the city, which would be off the hook for funding the operation of Governors Island.  

We polled our members – architects, planners, attorneys, academics, preservationists – to rate the best course for the island’s future from zero to five. Zero meant abandoning the island and letting nature take its course. Now that may be an intriguing experiment, but no one seriously embraced the notion. Five meant maximizing development; that is, too much would not be enough. 

The result was about 1.5. Some construction is necessary, and would no doubt benefit the experience of visitors, but no one thought that commercial development of any kind was desirable. We expect that most New Yorkers would agree with us. What the Trust is proposing is about 4.5.

The Trust claims that they need massive new construction in order to generate the $20 million that it costs to manage the place. First, we question whether the city should rightfully rely upon private funding to support our public parks, and second, why private entities should determine what kind of public spaces the public gets to enjoy, and under what conditions. 

A climate research center supposedly justifies 4 million square feet of new space. But that center does not even exist. It is just an idea to fill a small portion of the new campus, alongside the hotel and spas and other commercial uses. If they are serious and not simply dangling this carrot before us, they should create the center and house it in one of the underutilized landmarked buildings. The largest structure, built in the 1920s, could house an entire Army division, more than 10,000 men. Surely there is room enough. But the Trust sees greater benefit in new towers than in crafting a plan to fully restore and utilize the assets in their care. 

If a glitzy new research campus is not what the island’s future should be, what is? The starting point must be that the Trust commit to a robust public realm. This does not preclude new construction, but whatever is built must be specifically for public use. This is a once in a generation opportunity to provide recreation facilities for our schoolchildren. Imagine indoor and outdoor soccer fields, swimming pools, a cricket ground, a track and field complex. Too many public schools lack any such athletic facilities. 

New Yorkers will not benefit from new commercial towers and hotels on Governors Island, but the Trust surely will. This arrangement is but another example of the city shrugging off its responsibility to plan for the greater good and partnering with private interests for crumbs. New Yorkers are not fooled. 

We were promised recreation grounds, not another technology center such as was built on Roosevelt Island. This precious ground must not be handed over to private interests for private profit. It must be dedicated to a public purpose and public uses that any New Yorker would recognize. With this proposal, the Trust betrays our trust.

Kroessler is the president of the City Club of New York

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?

.

.