On Jan. 1, the next mayor — either Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate,
or Joe Lhota, the Republican — will face a fiscal cliff of unpaid bills. Schools
will need to be saved, union contracts negotiated — the future of New York
In his 12-year tenure, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg built a gleaming Oz of new
parks and plazas, skyscrapers and bike lanes. This didn’t stop plenty of
terrible buildings from going up. But a focus on streets and architecture redrew
whole swaths of the city: Brownstone Brooklyn boomed, the High Line opened,
industrial wastelands became waterfront playgrounds. Urban living became a
cause, a public good. Design, down to the curbside and the public bench, was no
longer an afterthought, although the city became increasingly unaffordable to
The next mayor can keep architecture and planning front and center or risk
taking the city backward. Courage, guile and not a little art will be required
to meet the obvious challenge: building on the good parts of Mr. Bloomberg’s
urban vision, but also doing some course correcting. The social welfare of all
cities is inextricable from their physical fabric. A more equitable and livable
city is ultimately smartly and sustainably designed. New York’s competitive
future depends on getting this right.
Some moves are no-brainers: extending the bike lanes, bike shares, the plaza
program, rapid-bus service, the High Line and the No. 7 subway; pushing forward
with charging stations for electric vehicles, preparations for the next
Sandy-like storm, and PlaNYC 2030, Mayor Bloomberg’s guidelines for a greener
It would also be hard to find a cogent argument against extending the Bloomberg
administration’s Design and Construction Excellence Program, which raised the
bar for public buildings like branch libraries, fire stations and police
precincts, spreading new work by gifted local architects and by some stars, too,
across the five boroughs.
At the same time, the billionaire mayor, unbeholden to special interests and
devoted to data, attracted competent and dynamic commissioners, whom he let run
departments as they saw fit. And he hired a powerful deputy mayor, Daniel L.
Doctoroff, who cooked up major renewal projects across the city. The American
Institute of Architects has floated the notion that the next mayor should
appoint a deputy for design and planning. The city relies on zoning, a blunt
instrument, to shape communities, which leaves us with atrocities like
Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue development.
A new deputy mayor could coordinate parks, schools, transportation, landmarks,
buildings and small-business development — now controlled by agencies that have
too often failed to work together — in ways that might streamline construction,
save tax dollars and foster neighborhoods. A deputy mayor for design could also
help rethink some undercooked Bloomberg initiatives, like redeveloping Willets
Point in Queens as a shopping mall; rezoning 73 blocks of East Midtown; and
awarding $150 million in taxpayer money to redo the New York Public Library
building at 42nd Street before there was even a solid renovation plan. (That
plan may yet be forthcoming, as library officials promise, but, meanwhile,
branches across the city are starved for cash.)
Everything worth doing in New York comes down to money, of course: who has it,
how to get it. Building even one new PATH station ends up costing billions of
dollars. Cognizant that government can’t pay for everything, Mayor Bloomberg
trusted developers and the rich to share his sense of public duty. That produced
some innovative public-private ventures, like Brooklyn Bridge Park. But it also
fueled the mantra of disgruntled New Yorkers that much of Manhattan was becoming
a corporate retreat, illustrated by the conversion of St. Vincent’s Hospital in
Greenwich Village into the site for yet another luxury condo complex, and by
One57, a 1,000-foot apartment tower for Russian oligarchs and other
zillionaires. Now rising across from Carnegie Hall, it is a blight on the
By contrast, recent residences for the formerly homeless in Los Angeles and San
Francisco have been buildings of architectural distinction — boons to their
cities. One of the lessons of Via Verde, a pioneering mixed-income development
in the South Bronx, which has thrived since opening last year (I drop in from
time to time on the gardening club), is that a modest premium for green design
and architectural excellence produces social and economic dividends. A new mayor
could encourage more exceptional designs like Via Verde for at least a
percentage of subsidized housing projects.
And he could also work with Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban
development, which helps oversee the New York City Housing Authority, whose
residents account for nearly 5 percent of the city’s population. The authority
houses many of New York’s poorest citizens in often bleak and marooned projects.
Understandably wary of politicians after decades of broken promises, residents
view with suspicion any talk about repurposing parking lots for schools or
retail. There was a backlash, including from the mayoral candidates, after the
Bloomberg administration proposed leasing some public housing land for
market-rate development. But these ideas are still worth exploring, if focused
on improving and diversifying neighborhoods and knitting them into the fabric of
the city — and if done in collaboration with, and to benefit, residents.
The new mayor ought to try to tackle another housing challenge, posed by the
city’s changing demographic: there are more single households, thanks to the
young urban migration and the silver tsunami, that gathering wave of
urban-minded retirees. The city’s current housing stock doesn’t come close to
meeting growing needs. Outmoded regulations and onerous state requirements get
in the way of addressing this issue, like scores of others. The city’s
brick-and-mortar costs are twice as high as Chicago’s. In some parts of town,
developers must still add parking for every new housing unit and retail space.
It’s time to redo the books and take a hatchet to rules that only make it harder
to live here.
Living in the city is one challenge; getting out of it is another. A direct
train to and from LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports has long been dreamed
about. Other cities around the world have been investing heavily in
transportation. London has boomed where it has recently renovated its trains and
hubs. All the hoopla about developing East Midtown and Hudson Yards to attract
global business assumes a smooth and swift shuttle to the airports.
That’s a joke today. The Shanghai Metro began operations in 1995 and has a
network of 300 miles, with more than 300 stations. New York City pondered the
Second Avenue subway for decades, poured billions of dollars into constructing
the first measly miles, and is still years away from a single functioning
The one-seat airport train ride would at least take the city a step into the
21st century, and there happen to be ideas out there about how to get this done
and paid for. Like all big, complicated transit projects here, this one would
require the new mayor to get the Port Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation
Authority and the New York state and federal governments on board, which is
where courage and guile come in, along with the bully pulpit.
Like pushing for a one-seat ride, fixing Pennsylvania Station means getting the
responsible parties — Madison Square Garden, the railroads, city and state
agencies, private developers, and, above all, the governor — to sit down at the
same table and negotiate, because the mayor’s authority is limited. The governor
should have plenty to gain, since the stakes could hardly be higher for the
region or the upside greater. It’s the mayor’s role to drive that point home.
One more thing, for the moment. We’ve had a technocrat as mayor who speaks
fluent Wall Street. We could use a bard.
I mean someone in tune with what makes the city hum at street level. Brooklyn’s
renaissance hasn’t just been about cheaper housing costs. Areas like
Williamsburg and Park Slope are every bit as unaffordable to most New Yorkers as
SoHo or Chelsea. Brooklyn’s attraction — to residents and start-ups — has to do
with its neighborhood feel, characterful architecture, intimate scale and
Yes, the city benefits from attracting more rich people, but economic diversity
is not just a campaign slogan. A big part of what keeps the city competitive has
to do with its pedestrian-friendly streets; lively, inspired public spaces; and
eclectic neighborhoods and populations.
The threat now is not just that longtime African-American residents are quitting
historic areas from Harlem to Fort Greene because New York no longer feels as if
it were still their home. It’s also what an executive at a giant bank in Lower
Manhattan said after Hurricane Sandy: companies like his weather floods because
they’ve got insurance. But the shopkeepers and small businesses, which supply
downtown with its lifeblood, struggle to afford the city even when there’s no
disaster. If they leave, he told me, the major employers will follow, because
the neighborhood will no longer be worth staying in.
So a new administration must protect and promote local merchants, along with
residents, in areas where they’re being priced out. New York’s neighborhoods
need to remain magnets for young entrepreneurs, workers, artists and dreamers.
That generation moves to the music of the streets.
THE last two empty parcels at Battery Park City have been developed, more
than four decades after this innovative neighborhood-from-scratch, built on fill
from the original World Trade Center site, was proposed.
Called Liberty Green and Liberty Luxe, the two buildings are red-brick rental
towers from Milstein Properties, which has built four other buildings in Battery
Park City. They are a block west of the West Side Highway on North End Avenue,
on side-by-side lots and in various stages of completion.
Liberty Green, a 22-story-high-rise with 191 studio to three-bedroom apartments,
is the farthest along. In May, tenants began moving in. In mid-July, about half
of the apartments, which range in price from $3,350 a month (studios) to $9,050
and up (three-bedrooms), were leased, according to Charles Zehren, a Milstein
spokesman. One-bedrooms start at $4,025; two-bedrooms are $6,600 and up. Renters
can get incentives of one month free on a one-year lease, and two free months on
a two-year lease.
Liberty Luxe next door, which will have 280 rental units over 32 stories, will
open this fall, Mr. Zehren said.
Though Milstein’s portfolio across the city is mainly rentals, its four other
Battery Park City properties, which all use the name “Liberty” — Liberty House,
Liberty Terrace, Liberty Court and Liberty View, totaling 1,300 units — are to
some degree hybrids. The landlord has set aside blocks of apartments in each one
of them as rentals, brokers said.
Both Liberty Green and Liberty Luxe were conceived as condominiums, too, with
the Marketing Directors, a brokerage firm, tapped to handle sales. Why Milstein
scotched plans to sell the units in the two new towers is unclear; a question to
that effect directed at the spokesman was not returned.
But Pierre Moran, an associate broker with DJK Residential, who has sold homes
in Battery Park City for 23 years, believes the change of plans came about
because buyers were turned off by Milstein’s prices, which would have been about
$1,300 a square foot, versus the $1,000 more typical in the area.
Mr. Moran, who took a few clients by the buildings, said he had been deterred by
the fact the agents there did not want to negotiate.
Stylewise, the exteriors of Liberty Green and Liberty Luxe blend with their
neighbors in Battery Park’s northern, newer section, with traditional facades
and sliding windows, similar to those at Tribeca Green, a Related Companies
rental across the street.
Like Tribeca Green, the two buildings have environmentally friendly features.
Since 2000, the Battery Park City Authority has mandated that new buildings in
the neighborhood be energy-efficient.
Cabinets and floors are made of bamboo, which can be harvested sustainably;
apartments have master cut-off switches so all lights can be turned off at once;
and rainwater is collected and reused.
What may differentiate Liberty Green and Luxe from their predecessors is a
52,000-square-foot community center under the base of both buildings, connected
by a plaza.
Created by Asphalt Green, the not-for-profit organization known for its Upper
East Side sports complex, the center will have a basketball court, a
5,000-square-foot fitness center and an auditorium, all of which can be accessed
from newly refurbished baseball fields on the complex’s eastern side, said Carol
Tweedy, the executive director of Asphalt Green.
There will also be a 25-yard pool, whose outlines are now visible; it will offer
free swim lessons for public-school students during the day, Ms. Tweedy said,
adding that the entire facility is supposed to open in November.
The completion of the skyline in Battery Park City comes at a crossroads moment
for the neighborhood, which was conceived in 1968 by the State of New York as a
way to redevelop a moribund shipping area. Trade Center dirt later filled in
rotting piers, though it was not until the 1980s that construction really ramped
up. Today the area has 34 residential buildings and a population of 13,000.
Many in the real estate community have complained about the development
arrangements, which require landlords to pay ground rents to the state. For
condo owners, that can mean common charges 15 percent higher than for comparable
units elsewhere, brokers say, adding that home sales can be hurt as a result.
(For renters, those extra fees are folded into monthly payments and may be less
The rents can also vary wildly among properties, some of which went up during
recessionary periods and others in booms.
But in May, to help level the playing field, the authority decided to equalize
the ground rents in 11 of the dozens of buildings in Battery Park City, though
Liberty Green and Luxe were not among them.
Under the old system, residents could have paid $804 million over 30 years, but
under the new system, those fees will total $525 million, said Gayle Horwitz,
the authority president. “It was really important,” she said, “to bring
stability to the neighborhood.”
The Bloomberg administration’s proposal to rezone
125th Street in Harlem cleared a major hurdle on Tuesday when the area’s three
City Council members signed off on a compromise plan that would limit the height
of new buildings, add moderately priced housing and provide financial aid to
businesses displaced by the rezoning.
The proposal was then approved by the Council’s Zoning and Franchises
Subcommittee in a 10-to-1 vote. The agreement between the City Planning
Commission and the council members, Inez E. Dickens, Robert Jackson and Melissa
Mark-Viverito, virtually assures the plan’s passage by the full City Council
later this month.
The rezoning of 24 blocks of Harlem, stretching from Broadway east to Second
Avenue, and from 124th to 126th Street, centers on 125th Street — a cultural
touchstone for African-Americans in the city and beyond. It has led to
widespread opposition in the neighborhood because of concerns that it will
change the character of the low-rise street and speed gentrification in the
area, including forcing out long-term businesses and low-income residents.
But Councilwoman Dickens, who represents central Harlem, and who led what she
and others involved described as contentious negotiations during the past three
weeks, said on Tuesday that the agreement would provide sufficient protection
for the neighborhood, which is among the poorest in the city.
“This has been one of the most challenging and difficult issues that I have ever
faced, personally and professionally, because the rezoning of 125th Street will
change the fabric of my district, my community, my home forever,” she said. “I
said if there were no protections for my community, there would be no rezoning.
After many hours of deliberations, disagreements and debate, I do believe the
City Planning Commission heard me loud and clear.”
The rezoning would remake 125th Street, one of the city’s liveliest streets —
and home to many small businesses like clothing stores, pawn shops and hair
salons — into a regional business hub with office towers and more than 2,000 new
The compromise was reached after an all-night negotiating session that started
on Monday evening. It reduces the height limit on new buildings to about 19
stories from 29; creates a $750,000 loan program to assist 71 small businesses
that would probably be forced to move; and allocates about $5.8 million in
improvements to Marcus Garvey Park.
Residents who spoke at recent community meetings were worried that rezoning,
combined with changes already under way in the neighborhood, would soon make
Among projects planned for 125th Street are at least two hotels, two shopping
malls and a tower that would be the headquarters of a new Major League Baseball
cable television network.
In recent years, the street — which only a decade ago was still dotted with
abandoned buildings — has become home to national retail stores, including
Starbucks and Old Navy, and to the offices of former President Bill Clinton. The
area has also seen a flurry of new residential construction, with the average
price for a new apartment hovering around $895,000.
Perhaps the most significant change to the plan reached during the Monday night
negotiations is the Bloomberg administration’s agreement to expand the number of
low-income residents in Harlem eligible for moderately priced housing.
As part of the federal calculation that is used by the city to determine average
household income levels, a family of four earning $61,450 can qualify for
low-income housing. That figure is about double the average household income in
Harlem, city statistics show.
During negotiations, the Bloomberg administration agreed to set aside about 46
percent of the 3,858 new apartment units the city would allow to be built as
part of the 125th Street rezoning plan to families earning no more than $30,750
“It is a milestone,” said Amanda M. Burden, the Planning Commission chairwoman.
“It’s something we haven’t done before.”
Some opponents remained unsatisfied.
Erica Razook, general counsel for Voices of the Everyday People, or VOTE People,
a community group opposed to the rezoning, said the last-minute concessions by
the Bloomberg administration only highlighted the flawed nature of the process.
“An issue like affordable housing should not be discussed by a couple of City
Council members and the Planning Commission behind closed doors — it should have
been discussed publicly,” Ms. Razook said. “They waited until the last minute
and then decided, ‘We’re going to try to squeeze in some stuff about affordable
housing to give everyone political cover.’ ”
I expect Norman Foster’s design
for a new residential tower at 980 Madison Avenue to infuriate people. Rising
out of the old Parke-Bernet Gallery building, a spare 1950 office building
between 76th and 77th Streets, its interlocking elliptical forms throw down a
challenge to a neighborhood known for an aversion to bold contemporary
The tower’s height, roughly 30 stories, hardly helps its cause; as with other
luxury high rises reshaping the Manhattan skyline, its scale is clearly driven
by economic considerations. Defenders will point out that the Carlyle Hotel
across the street is slightly taller, but the reality is that the Carlyle’s
setbacks make it virtually invisible when viewed from the street. Lord Foster’s
tower would have a far stronger visual presence, soaring above the apartment
buildings flanking it to the north and south.
With a little trimming, though, this could be the most handsome building to rise
along Madison Avenue since the Whitney Museum of American Art was completed 40
The project approaches the existing building with gentleness, respecting its
integrity without resorting to historical mimicry. And its glistening forms
reaffirm the city’s faith in progress, suggesting that Lord Foster has a better
grip on what makes New York tick than architects who have worked in the city all
Designed by Walker & Poor, 980 Madison’s austere limestone facades and urban
roof garden were meant to replicate the stylish look of Rockefeller Center,
completed a decade earlier. But the building signals the end of an era, not a
beginning. Its low, subdued profile is the antithesis of Rockefeller Center’s
soaring monumentality, giving it a curious sense of incompleteness. And within
two years Manhattan would move on to embrace International Style Modernism with
the completion of Lever House.
The building suffered through a major renovation in 1960, when the roof garden
was stripped away and replaced with a fifth floor whose horizontal windows
clashed with the formal rhythm of the windows below. Yet even after the addition
it retains a straightforward elegance, serving as a bridge between Beaux Arts
monumentality and classical Modernism.
Lord Foster was enlisted as someone who has handled sensitive historic sites,
even if the results have been somewhat mixed. In his recent addition to the
Hearst Building on Eighth Avenue he plunged a faceted 46-story office tower
through the original 1920’s structure with stunning force, and the collision
between the two is mesmerizing. But an earlier design for the courtyard of the
British Museum simply smoothed over the differences between old and new, an
approach that benefited neither.
Here, Lord Foster approaches the 1950 building with care, as if leery of riling
old ghosts. The unfortunate fifth-story addition from the 1960’s would be
demolished to make way for a spectacular roof garden framed by lush grass. And
the tower is set at the building’s northern edge, closer to 77th Street, giving
it a connection to the block between Madison and Fifth Avenues and preserving
some of the current views from the Carlyle Hotel.
Most ingenious is the delicate way Lord Foster links the old and new structures.
A slender exposed elevator core rises from the old building, connecting the 77th
Street lobby to the glass tower. The tower’s petal-shaped floors begin 30 feet
above the old structure’s roof level, so that the two buildings barely seem to
The tower’s underbelly forms an entrance canopy at one end of the garden. From
the street it would seem as though the tower were floating above the old stone
base, its elliptical shaft stretching up to the clouds.
As with all of Lord Foster’s recent buildings, the forms are generated by
environmental as well as aesthetic considerations. The tower’s interlocking
ellipses and uneven heights visually reduce its scale, giving it a more slender
profile as it rises. The elegantly curved forms were designed to limit wind
resistance; the fluted glass cladding will collect solar energy.
But the tower’s outsize height is a problem. Manhattan was shaped by the hubris
of developers struggling against the constraints of the street grid, and its
beauty is a result of wild juxtapositions of scales, styles and architectural
periods. But I’m not sure a luxury high rise should be allowed the same freedom
as a major civic building.
Unlike Renzo Piano’s planned addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art two
blocks south, the Foster tower will serve the interests of a wealthy elite, not
the public at large. We’re not talking about, say, a project that addresses the
city’s desperate need for middle-class housing.
And the argument that the tower’s height is in keeping with the Carlyle’s is
misleading. One of Madison Avenue’s most comforting features is the way its
scale shifts as you walk north from the corporate towers of Midtown and approach
its residential neighborhoods. You read the street differently as the pace and
The tower need not conform to the height levels of its neighbors, but it should
at least establish a visual dialogue with the 16-story residential tower
immediately to the north across 77th Street. The challenge will be to scale back
the height without sacrificing the elegance of the tower’s slender proportions.
These decisions will play out in haggling between the developer, Aby Rosen, and
the Landmarks Preservation Commission, not in a design studio. (The building
lies within the landmarked Upper East Side Historic District; the commission
plans a public hearing on the project on Oct. 24.)
Lord Foster is not a social critic; his job, as he sees it, is to create an
eloquent expression of his client’s values. What he has designed is a perfect
monument for the emerging city of the enlightened megarich: environmentally
aware, sensitive to history, confident of its place in the new world order,
resistant to sacrifice.
Still, you cannot help but marvel at the project’s sophistication as a work of