Friday, June 18, 2004

Power Struggle

From the June 18, 2001 issue of New York Magazine

Power Struggle

The scramble to keep the lights on this summer has already cost a fortune and enraged environmentalists -- and it's only going to heat up when the mercury rises. If we don't get smarter about energy sources for the city, in two years it's California, here we come.

By Amanda Griscom

It's not the hottest day this summer that Jim Castle fears most. It's the third scorcher in a row. After three days over 90 degrees, New York City's brick and concrete buildings have soaked up so much heat that virtually every air conditioner in the city is running full-blast. That's when the city's energy consumption hits what Castle and his colleagues in Albany call "peak load." And compared with New York's needs on an average day, the amount of electricity required to keep the city running nearly doubles.

As the operations manager of the Independent Systems Operator, a not-for-profit Albany company that regulates the energy supply for New York State, Castle oversees a control room that rivals the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, eyeing the needles drawing spikes across the seismographlike chart recorders that track the city's electricity usage.

If a heat wave pushes the demand for electricity beyond the expected peak, Castle issues what's called

A "max gen pickup alert," ordering each of the ten active power plants and hundreds of smaller generators on the city's power grid to run at maximum capacity. This is when he starts to get nervous: The longer the plants run at full throttle, the likelier it is that he'll hear the alarm that indicates one of the generators has buckled under the strain.

"They're heavy mechanical devices, and when you run these facilities all-out for days, you're increasing the likelihood of equipment failure," says Castle. Many of New York's power plants are more than a half-century old, and tubes can rupture, pumps can fail.

"If we don't act fast, we could see ourselves in a California scenario in two years."

What happens next all depends on how lucky we are. In order to shore up diminished supply, Castle will try to increase the amount of energy flowing from upstate and New Jersey through the transmission lines that run into the city. If those cables max out, he'll initiate emergency operating procedures: First, he'll order previously designated office buildings to switch off some lights, elevators, and air conditioners; then he'll tell Con Ed to put out a news alert asking the public to turn off unneeded appliances; finally, he'll call for a "5 percent voltage reduction," a small-scale controlled brownout that cuts everyone's electricity by a barely noticeable amount. If all goes well, the crisis will fade with the heat.

If demand continues to outstrip supply, the transmission lines that run into New York City are at stake, and Castle will check the map at the ISO command center that displays their status. If he sees the blinking lights that signal an overload, he'll put in a call to Con Ed's West End Avenue control room and issue the command for rolling blackouts: "Time to shed load."

On July 13, 1977, 8 million New Yorkers were plunged into darkness when lightning struck transmission lines north of the city and fried every wire on the power grid. For 25 hours, New York was paralyzed: Thousands got trapped in subways, cars backed up in gridlock without traffic lights, and looters rampaged. By the time the lights went on, three people had died and police had made nearly 4,000 arrests. In the wake of that disaster, Con Ed added new lines, installed safety gauges to prevent overloads from cascading into neighboring networks, and maintained so much reserve energy that for the past two decades, New York's power system has seemed invincible.

By the time California began to implement rolling blackouts last fall, it didn't seem quite so invincible anymore. In November, ISO officials announced that our reserve capacity for this summer would be 5 percent below New York State's reliability requirements. In March, the mayor told a group of Wall Street executives that "no one can tell you we're not in serious danger this summer." And in May, President Bush announced that his team of energy-policy experts predicted the entire Northeast could be facing an energy crisis this summer.

As of now, the city's reserves are back up to state requirements -- but only because of controversial last-minute moves by Albany. These reserves should be sufficient for a normal summer, says Maureen Helmer, energy chairman of the Department of Public Service, but "if we have a very hot summer, the city could be facing difficulty." And it will likely be hotter than last year, meteorologists say, because La Niña has faded.

"I am confident, at this point, that the people of New York will not have to feel it the way the people of California have had to feel it," says Richard Sheirer, director of the mayor's Office of Emergency Management. Still, he's prepared: When hot weather hits, "for the first time, my watch commanders will be checking in every evening with Con Ed to get a projection of how much usage they expect for the next day, what reserves they have, and how close we are going to be to the cusp."

To forestall the crisis, state officials spent the past several months building emergency turbines and recommissioning every last scrap of energy-producing equipment that could be put to use in a heat wave -- including old, dirty plants and even privately owned backup diesel generators that can pump extra power back into the grid. "We're going to squeak through the summer," says Carol Murphy, executive director of governmental affairs and communications for the ISO. "But we have a razor-thin margin." And even this margin is based on a fleet of new emergency turbines the Pataki administration commissioned in November without going through the traditional environmental- and public-review process required for most power plants.

Unlike California's, our problems aren't simply the result of a convoluted deregulation process. Driven by population growth, a dramatic increase in the use of computer equipment, and Pataki's 1995 cutbacks in the state's energy-efficiency program, the demand for electricity in New York City has surged nearly 10 percent in the past five years. But no major new plants have been built here for decades. "It is more difficult to build power plants in the Con Ed grid than anywhere else, because of three things," says Steven Sullivan, a spokesman for the ISO. "There's extremely limited space, what space is available is extremely expensive, and the resistance groups within the communities are extremely sophisticated."

Since the majority of our current power plants run on oil and natural gas -- as opposed to coal, nuclear, or hydroelectric power -- the price of the energy they produce has risen dramatically along with the costs of those fuels. That's not a shock if you've looked at your Con Ed statement lately: New York City's electricity bills, traditionally among the highest in the country, rose almost 40 percent in the past two years. And the worst may not be over. Based on market activity in May, "I believe prices are going to be much higher this summer than they were last summer," says Bryan Kimmell, president of Strategic Energy Management, a consulting group for the energy industry in New England and New York.

California handled its energy crisis by importing electricity from bordering states -- albeit at exorbitant prices. But the Con Ed grid, which accounts for more than a third of the state's electricity load, can't rely on its neighbors: There are only three transmission hubs through which power can flow into the city. And there's only so much power those lines can carry. Picture a bottleneck in the Holland Tunnel and you'll get the idea: A heat wave this summer would fill transmission to capacity, like the tunnel on a Friday afternoon in August.

"Transmission is a huge issue," says Kimmell. "In terms of its ability to bring power in, New York City is more restricted than anywhere in the country."

In energy-industry terminology, New York is what's called a load pocket, a region where the design constraints of the electricity grid dictate that local generators must supply most of the power -- in our case, 80 percent. For at least the foreseeable future, it's likely to stay that way: Adding additional transmission lines to import more power is trickier than it seems. There are two kinds of transmission lines -- copper cables that run underground and aluminum cables that must be suspended from huge, hideous towers -- and the suburbs around New York City are too densely populated to make room for the former and too concerned about property values to tolerate the latter. Even if Con Ed could find a place to put such lines, New York State Public Service Commission officials estimate it would take at least five years just to get them approved.

"These guys go from boredom to sheer terror in about a second. The adrenal response is extraordinary."

The controversial new turbines cost the Pataki administration half a billion dollars, but they won't solve the problem for long: Based on relatively inefficient technology, each produces about one tenth the energy of a mid-size plant. And if demand continues to rise, they will no longer be sufficient to meet the city's needs within two years, experts say. In fact, ISO officials say New York City should increase its generating capacity by more than 40 percent over the next five years. To do that, we'd need to start building large-scale power plants -- and soon. "They take at least two to three years to build," says Sullivan. "We need to get our shovels in the ground now. If we don't act fast, we could see ourselves in a California scenario two years from now."

From the outside, the suburban Albany building where Jim Castle and his team manage New York State's power grid is nameless, windowless, and completely anonymous. "If Saddam Hussein showed up in town, we wouldn't want him to know which place to bomb!" explains one of Castle's employees. Inside, it's the nexus of every wire in New York. Five men, four of whom are wearing plaid short-sleeve shirts, sit at boomerang-shaped computer consoles, glancing back and forth between the hives of monitors in front of them and the "Big Board," a 30-foot-high, 80-foot-wide concave display with a map showing every major power plant and transmission line in New York State. On the base of the board is the all-important "enunciator panel," an LED screen with red numbers that track the state's electricity needs in megawatts.

Burly, bearded, and jocular, Castle spends twelve-hour shifts leading a team that makes sure that number matches the amount of energy the state's generators are putting out. Since electricity can't stay in the grid, the amount of energy coming into it must always match the amount being used. Too much and wires will melt; too little and a power surge will disrupt the flow of energy through the grid. Because all the grids are connected, a problem in New York could have consequences in Maryland.

To ensure that everything runs smoothly, the team holds conference calls throughout the day with generator operators to assess available supply and with Con Ed to forecast demand. Every hour, it reviews bids from various generators and matches them with wholesale buyers including Con Ed. Every six seconds, it makes last-minute adjustments to fine-tune the balance.

"There's never a moment when these consoles aren't manned," says Castle, peering down from the glassed-in gallery above the floor. "These guys can't go out to the local diner for dinner." If nature calls, he says, they have to make sure someone else is covering for them.

The excitement is sporadic but certainly intense. "These guys will go from boredom to sheer terror in about a second," Castle says. "I've been in there when things just start falling apart with no advance warning at all -- it could be a storm, or some equipment failure -- and the adrenal response is extraordinary." It needs to be. When a power plant blows a pump or a line "trips off" -- not uncommon occurrences -- Castle's team has to reroute the flow of energy or find an alternative supply. Within a matter of seconds.

Since the stakes are so high, Castle puts all of his operators through aptitude tests, simulated catastrophes, and then a psychological exam to see how they operate under pressure. He himself learned to handle the stress in the Navy, where he graduated from the advanced electronics program at 19 and rose to become the supervisor of electronic technicians on the U.S.S. Nimitz, a 1,100-foot aircraft carrier, by 21. After eight years in the military, he got a degree in electrical engineering at Syracuse and went to work for NY State Electric & Gas before helping to establish the ISO.

The control center runs with the precision of a military agency, but it has the geekish camaraderie of a Silicon Alley start-up. "Hey -- I betcha don't know what the difference is between a mho and an ohm!" jokes Castle, jabbing one of his colleagues in the side. He and one of the other operators furrow their brows. "Just like the words, they're opposites -- one's a measure of resistance, and one's a measure of conductivity!" Both of the operators slap their foreheads in mock exasperation.

"Even if I come in at 5:30 in the morning and leave at 7:30 at night, I'm not ready to go home," Castle confides later in the spare, corporate-looking lobby. "I just go out there and sit in the control room. Guys will ask me questions and I'll just sit there and sorta soak it in. And I'll just think, I can't believe it . . . what an awesome job!"

Before Pataki's New York State Power Authority announced that it was building eleven emergency turbines, Tony Gigantiello was a school custodian who ran high-pressure boilers. Before that, he was a city engineer who ran air-conditioner turbines in the basements of skyscrapers. With a Magnum, P.I., mustache and the square stance of a linebacker, he's an unlikely choice to become the Erin Brockovich of Astoria.

On a blustery morning in winter, Gigantiello climbs onto a plywood stage erected for the day just north of the Queensboro Bridge. As a small crowd of neighborhood residents cheer and half a dozen TV cameras focus in, he delivers a passionate screed about why the new NYPA turbines shouldn't be put in his neighborhood -- or anyone's. "This is not a nimby fight," he says, his husky voice rising to a yell. Albany is distorting statistics to underrepresent the state's energy supply, he says, so Pataki can keep electricity prices down and voters happy for the upcoming election. The turbines that will be polluting his neighborhood by June, he continues, aren't even necessary.

He's referring to research by Ashok Gupta, energy economist of the Natural Resources Defense Council, that shows that New York City will have more energy available this summer than the ISO has predicted. By calculating the supply of electricity on a plant-by-plant basis, he's come up with numbers that call into question Albany's official conclusions -- and even the predictions of a summer energy crisis that the Pataki administration used to make its case to build the emergency turbines. "They made the decision to build the plants," says Gail Suchman, an environmental lawyer. "Then they grasped for numbers that would enable them to justify it. NYPA circumvented the law."

"If customers are going to be able to pay their utility bills, they have to be breathing."

One by one, Astoria residents who belong to the community group Gigantiello leads, choke (Coalition Helping to Organize a Kleaner Environment), step onto the stage to argue that there's already too much pollution in their neighborhood because of existing power plants. A young woman born and raised next to the Poletti plant in Astoria says she was diagnosed with lung cancer at 27, having never smoked a cigarette in her life. A father who lives in a nearby housing project remembers a night last summer when he checked himself and each of his five children into the emergency room with asthma attacks. City Council chairman and mayoral candidate Peter Vallone takes the microphone to condemn "environmental racism." As he speaks, a hundred yards behind the stage, construction workers are putting up the cement walls that will surround the new turbine.

Besides blighting the landscape and lowering property values, power plants and turbines also spew particulate matter, microscopic soot made up of metals and carbon. When inhaled, the particles can become embedded in the lungs and pass into the bloodstream, causing and aggravating heart and respiratory illnesses. Whereas much of the environmental debate has traditionally focused on greenhouse gasses, particulate matter is becoming a major concern. In April, the EPA issued a report confirming studies that found strong links between the recent rise in levels of particulate matter and a rise in death rates.

New York City has one of the highest rates of particulate-matter concentration in the U.S., which is the main reason local emergency rooms treat 46,000 pollution-related asthma attacks a year, according to a 2000 study by the Clean Air Task Force. Already, New York has 2,290 deaths a year related to particulate-matter pollution. If the standard for particulate-matter pollution supported by Christine Whitman's EPA were enacted by the Bush White House, New York would already be well above it.

The problem is especially bad in areas zoned for industrial development, generally also home to minority and low-income communities. All eleven turbines are located in such neighborhoods, many of which already have other polluting facilities like bus depots and waste-transfer stations. choke is only one of the organizations that have protested NYPA's decision to build turbines without subjecting them to the normal environmental-review process. There's also Williamsburg's Stop the Barge and El Puente, the Bronx's Nos Quedamos, the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park (uprose), and Communities United for Responsible Energy (cure), an umbrella organization that coordinates their efforts. In April, a dozen community groups represented by Gail Suchman of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest filed a lawsuit against NYPA to stop construction on the turbines. Although they lost -- they filed an appeal, which will be heard June 29 -- their case received endorsements from national environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Advocates.

One of their less likely allies was Silvercup Studios, the Queens filming location for The Sopranos and Sex and the City, which filed a separate suit arguing that the proposed turbines on the Queens waterfront would interfere with owners Stuart and Michael Suna's plan to make the area "the Hollywood of the East Coast." In April, the State Supreme Court ordered NYPA to halt construction on those two turbines, on the grounds that the agency had failed to consider whether they would interfere with business development and pose an environmental threat to the community. On the evidence of Gupta's numbers, the Judge ruled that NYPA and the ISO couldn't make a convincing case that New York was facing an imminent energy crisis in the first place. NYPA appealed the decision and was granted a temporary stay that allowed the agency to continue construction.

So how did we get into this mess, anyway? Although New York's energy problem is different from California's, both share some roots in an unanticipated demand for electricity. Like many other states, we simply didn't see it coming. With a healthy reserve margin and little political interest in conservation or increasing the power supply, New York hasn't built a major power plant in 30 years.

But there's plenty of blame to go around. When Governor Pataki took office in 1995, he took his cues from what Reagan did on a national level in the eighties. He shut down the New York State Energy Office, then charged with planning new plants, and reduced or eliminated many conservation and alternative-energy programs in preparation for his deregulation efforts.

In 1997, when he opened New York State's power market to competing energy suppliers, Pataki ended Con Ed's regulated monopoly on every aspect of the city's electricity-production-and-delivery process. Con Ed remains the owner and operator of the electricity grid, but it was forced to sell off its generators and allow other companies to pump energy into its wires. (In media terms, the grid would be Time Warner's cable system and the energy would be content from MTV or Showtime.) For the first time, New Yorkers could choose their energy provider the way they picked their long-distance carrier, and receive two separate bills: one from Con Ed for their use of the grid and another from an energy provider for the power they used. (Since there's no way to route electricity from a particular generator to a particular consumer, independent providers simply determine how much energy their customers are using and pump that amount into the grid.) Since then, New Yorkers who receive electricity bills from Con Ed have really been purchasing energy it buys from other companies.

In the wake of Pataki's decision, a new generation of energy companies scrambled to claim a slice of New York City's $8 billion energy market, buying up Con Ed's old plants and applying for licenses to build new ones. All the companies -- including KeySpan, Enron, Orion Power Holdings, and 1st Rochdale Cooperative -- control different parts of the process. Some own power plants; others purchase that power and distribute it to consumers.

The theory behind deregulation -- for New York, California, and about 30 other states -- was that a free market would encourage companies to build new power plants, which utilities never had an incentive to construct. With consumers free to choose energy providers -- known as energy-service companies, or escos for short -- companies would compete to supply electricity at the lowest possible rate.

So far, though, the deregulated market hasn't been very competitive here. Fewer than 2 percent of New Yorkers have switched from Con Ed to another energy provider -- many don't even know they have a choice -- and the anticipated price decreases haven't panned out.

Neither did the expected new plants -- new generating companies like Keyspan and Orion have been producing energy in plants they purchased from Con Ed -- partly because New York is such a difficult market to enter. "If you're a developer who wants to build a plant and you're deciding between Texas and New York, you have to consider that you're going to spend a lot more resources trying to get into New York," says Lance Brasher, a lawyer who represents power companies at Skadden, Arps in Washington, D.C. "The process is far more cumbersome in New York. The regulations are all the same, but you have to jump through a lot more hoops to get the same approval and you have a stronger element that is resisting."

As of yet, none of the generation companies that want to do business in New York have been able to get the necessary permits to build new plants. "There are proposals to build as much as 4,000 megawatts of additional capacity in the metropolitan area," says David Flanagan, a spokesman for the New York State Public Service Commission. "It can be frustrating," says Liam Baker, an asset manager at Orion, which is in the process of getting approvals to build a new plant on the site of an old Con Ed facility in Queens. "You have to deal with a cornucopia of agencies: the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Health, the Economic Development Corporation, the Department of Transportation, and the ISO. It's a process that could definitely be streamlined."

But though deregulation is largely responsible for getting us into this mess, it may also be the best hope we have of getting out of it. As generation companies expand and upgrade existing Con Ed plants, they're learning how to cooperate with communities. At choke's request, for example, both Keyspan and Orion have agreed to "repowering programs" to clean up the existing plants as they add new capacity.

Deregulation gives companies an incentive to upgrade older, less efficient plants with modern technology that's also cleaner. Since new "combined cycle" generators operate with roughly twice the fuel efficiency of older "simple cycle" technology, all of the power plants in the development pipeline will use that system. "Think of power plants as if they were cars," says the ISO's Steven Sullivan. "If you had to drive upstate in a Honda Civic, it would be a reliable, relatively inexpensive trip. But what if you had to pull your grandfather's 1965 Mercury Marquis out of the garage? The Marquis is a gas guzzler, and if you run it pedal to the metal the whole trip, it'll be superexpensive and you'll have a breakdown."

Tommy Thompson pops the escape hatch on the top floor of a midtown co-op and dashes across a gusty stretch of rooftop with the frantic resolve of someone trying to catch a getaway chopper. He halts suddenly, cocks his head back, and scans the sky. Nothing. He peers into the canvas tote bag that dangles from his elbow, removes a black box the size of a toaster, and places it at his feet. Then he tilts his face into the sun and widens his iridescent blue eyes. It seems completely conceivable that he's trying to summon a flying saucer.

Thompson is a renewable-energy guru, and he's figuring out the proper placement for an array of solar panels he's going to install on the roof of this 800-unit apartment building. The black box is a device that helps him determine the angle of the sun. "The exposure up here is dy-no-mite," he shouts. "This is the highest building around, so we don't have to worry about shadow." His eyes dart toward the power plants that line the Queens side of the East River. "No Dark Side here!"

Thompson is one of the few energy experts in New York City thinking outside the grid. "The bottom line," he says, "is that if customers are going to be able to pay their utility bills, they have to be breathing!" A reedy jokester given to wearing a purple fanny pack, Thompson directs the sustainability division of 1st Rochdale Cooperative, a two-year-old not-for-profit esco focused on improving clients' energy efficiency and providing the cleanest energy possible.

In December, 1st Rochdale launched its "Green Apple Initiative," aimed at installing solar panels, microturbines, and emission-free fuel-cell generators onto 1,600 New York City businesses and residences over the next ten years. Metered by 1st Rochdale, such installations will pump electricity directly into buildings, bypassing the grid and its attendant pressures. While they won't meet all of a building's energy needs, 1st Rochdale provides electricity from traditional generators to make up the shortfall.

Though it requires a considerable investment, using diverse energy sources makes economic sense in the long run. Richard Perez, an energy researcher at suny Albany, found that New York's peak-load periods correspond to the days when the city gets maximum exposure to the sun. Since those are also the times when prices spike and supply gets scarce, solar panels are one obvious solution.

"We are at an energy crossroads," Gupta says. "Free-market forces, environmental regulations, and technological innovation are dramatically changing the landscape of the energy industry." Even the Pataki administration is beginning to catch on: Six years after eliminating the New York State Energy Office, the governor in January doubled his funding for subsidies to offset investments in clean technology and energy-efficient appliances; soon after, he proposed tax credits for energy-efficient buildings.

Two years ago, architect Robert Fox oversaw the completion of Condé Nast's 4 Times Square headquarters, the first building in New York to incorporate renewable-energy technology, in the form of fuel cells on the fourth floor and solar panels built into the upper part of the structure's façade. "A building that is environmentally smart is economically smart," says Fox, who predicts that by 2005, every new building that goes up in New York will incorporate energy-saving measures.

Since Fox paved the way, dozens of existing buildings, from the New School to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, have made plans to install rooftop solar panels. And the Building Congress recently launched an outreach program to educate real-estate owners and commercial tenants about conserving energy with insulated windows, efficient heating and cooling systems, and sensors that shut off unneeded lights and appliances.

But the most ambitious energy innovation could be a building Fox has planned with developer Douglas Durst, a proposed office complex that would occupy a full city block between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues and 57th and 58th Streets. It would include its own power plant -- six gas turbines with emissions filters -- with sufficient generation capacity to stand independent from the city's grid. "The Durst building is a model of the way we should build buildings in the future," says Thompson.

Many of the tenants will need the energy. The space not used for offices will serve as a telecom hotel, Fox explains, "one of the energy-guzzling buildings that's partly responsible for causing such a huge increase in energy demand."

Friday, June 11, 2004

125th Street/River to River study - Advisory Committee comments

Subj: 125th Street/River to River study
Date: 6/11/2004 12:52:01 AM Eastern Daylight Time
From: Reysmont
To: WestSideHtsNYC

125th Street/River to River study

Advisory Committee comments April 28, 2004

DevelopmentThere are many unrecognized historic resources in Harlem. Historic preservation should be a priority in this study, perhaps meriting its own specialized category.

New commercial construction tends to be aesthetically unattractive, lacks architectural innovation and does not reflect Harlem’s historic architectural character. 125th Street is a unique corridor and should be treated with architectural sensitivity. Several recent development proposals in the East Harlem Triangle area are happening without adequate community input.

125th Street has lots of one-story buildings. These are opportunities for new development. The critical mass of national chains has been reached. The city should emphasize preservation of local businesses to maintain a balanced diversity of retail uses.

However, a greater variety of retail (including some stores that are present downtown) may be appropriate on 125th Street so that residents do not have to travel downtown to shop.

There is a need for a comprehensive housing strategy to address the need for affordable housing. In addition, attention should be paid to NYCHA tenants’ associations if proposed developments would affect NYCHA residents.

The city seems purposely vague in describing development opportunities. Legitimate public participation must be part of this planning process. The study should include an analysis of upper-story vacancies on 125th Street (patterned after a similar study in the South Bronx). The private ULURP application for the rezoning of Harlem Hotel site should not take place separately from a potential corridor-wide rezoning.

The rezoning proposal should consider MX zones that allow a diversity of uses. The city should also consider zoning districts that have low retail square footage to preserve local businesses and also consider new opportunities for light industry.

Some new commercial signs are out-of-scale and detract from the corridor. The city should consider zoning bonuses and tax incentives to encourage local businesses and cultural organization in new developments In addition to 125th Street, the city should explore potential residential and retail opportunities along the intersecting avenues. The city should investigate other cities’ mechanisms for monitoring design.

TransportationPhase I of the proposed Second Avenue subway should serve East Harlem through 125th Street instead of stopping at 96th Street.

The study should evaluate the feasibility of light-rail service along 125th Street.

In addition to traffic congestion, the study should include specific recommendations to improve pedestrian mobility to create a more walkable community.

The 1967 Model Cities plan recommended transportation solutions on 124th and 126th streets.

These recommendations never came to fruition and should be revisited.

New culture-related activities are critical to the revitalization of 125th Street.

Cultural development activities should not necessarily target tourists, but should also attract NYC residents.

Culture-related uses enhance the demand for restaurants and related business activities.

Urban Design

The city should use caution in approaching the idea of a “24-hour” corridor. Noise pollution is an issue in the residential neighborhoods surrounding 125th Street during the day and night.

However, enhancing some night-time activities is important. Pests are a problem, perhaps more around 125th Street than other parts of the city.

The city should implement LEEDS standards in all new commercial construction

The west-side waterfront around 125th Street is inundated by city services including a salt pile, the bus depot, and the Marine Transfer Station facility. These items should be removed.
Salt piles should be covered to reduce impacts on surrounding uses.

The planning process should include binding requirements to ensure that community recommendations are integrated in a meaningful way over the long-term.

The Department of Sanitation should be included in the interagency team.

The planning process should ensure continued benefits to minority populations. Examples should be considered from other cities, including Atlanta and Washington DC.

The city should define the beneficiaries of the opportunities that are proposed. Establish a communications process to ensure clarity

The city should hire black and Latino participants for the interagency team. The interagency team should clarify its communication process with the Advisory Committee, especially for notifications of future meetings.

Make sure that all future venues have proper acoustics so that all comments can be heard.

Subj: Public Hearing Marine Transfer Station - Scoping Session
Date: 6/11/2004 12:47:54 AM Eastern Daylight Time
From: Reysmont
To: WestSideHtsNYC

Publichearinginwo74.ZIP (172197 bytes) DL Time (TCP/IP): < 1 minute

Public Hearing Wednesday June 16 at 5:30 PM at Roberto Clemente IS 195 625 West 133rd Street between Broadway and 12th AvenueThis meeting was originally schedule to take place at CB9M offices but was changed by Sanitation without consultations or explanation.

We strongly encourage all community residents to attend and make your voices heard, with respect, facts and articulation of the community needs. All organizations receiving this mesage please pass it to your e-list and other organizations.


Jord (George) Reyes-Montblanc
Community Board 9 Manhattan
565 West 125th Street (off Broadway, corner of Old Broadway)
New York, NY 10027Tel: (212) 864-6200Fax: 212-662-7396

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Sugar Hill: Reclaiming a Place Where the Music Once Played

New York Times
June 6, 2004

Sugar Hill: Reclaiming a Place Where the Music Once Played

Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times
THEY TOOK THE `A' TRAIN Home buyers have made row houses, like these on St. Nicholas Avenue, some of the hottest properties in Sugar Hill.


Published: June 6, 2004


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HEN Duke Ellington made "Take the `A' Train" his theme song in 1942, he established forever in music what everyone already knew. Sugar Hill was the place to go, the place to be, in Harlem. He lived on Sugar Hill and so did his collaborator Billy Strayhorn, who scribbled down the tune when the homesick band was playing in Chicago.

Sugar Hill, a ritzy neighborhood for the black bourgeoisie. Sugar Hill, the mythic center of the Harlem Renaissance between the World Wars. Sugar Hill, the good life.

For decades, African-Americans all over the country dreamed of living on Sugar Hill, but throughout its history, it has drawn people of all hues and nationalities.

"The biggest misconception about Sugar Hill is that at any time it was all black," said Willie Kathryn Suggs, a former ABC television producer who became a realtor after buying a Sugar Hill town house two decades ago. "Of all the Harlem neighborhoods, it has always been the most diverse."

The word "hill," too, is misleading, because the neighborhood, part of Hamilton Heights, perches on a bluff high above the Harlem Plain. When affluent and influential African-Americans began moving in after World War I, the name "Sugar Hill" came into use, probably because "sugar" was said to signify money and the sweet life. David Levering Lewis, describing it in "When Harlem Was in Vogue," wrote that in 1929 "Sugar Hill, a citadel of stately apartment buildings and liveried doormen on a rock, soared above the Polo Grounds and the rest of Harlem like a city of the Incas."

In its broadest geographic definition, Sugar Hill extends westward from Edgecombe Avenue to Amsterdam Avenue. The southern boundary sometimes is placed at 145th Street, or into the West 130's where the topography starts climbing toward Coogan's Bluff. But the heart of Sugar Hill is in the Hamilton Heights-Sugar Hill Historic District between 145th and 155th Streets, from Edgecombe Avenue to a border approaching Amsterdam and squiggling down to Convent Avenue.

In those few blocks lived pioneering civil rights activists like W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, Roy Wilkins and the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr.; writers like Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston; musicians like Paul Robeson and Cab Calloway; and professionals like Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to become a United States Supreme Court justice. Even into the late 1950's, Sugar Hill still delivered the good life, older residents recall, but by the 1970's, many of the row houses had been divided into rooming houses and heroin was sold on the streets.

Another renaissance is under way as Sugar Hill addresses regain some of their old cachet, pumped up by the hot real estate market and by the neighborhood's activist tradition. Prospective buyers come from downtown, Europe and Asia to bid on 19th-century town houses, some priced at considerably more than $2 million. African-American professionals have rediscovered the neighborhood. Actors by the dozens rent in historic apartment buildings.

The Hamilton Grange Public Library, which closed all but the first floor in the 1970's, recently completed a $1.2 million renovation. Jazz headliners downtown head uptown to jam at St. Nick's Pub. The Dance Theater of Harlem has its headquarters on West 152nd Street. When the 16th annual Hamilton Heights House and Garden Tour takes place today, half of the properties being shown will be in the heart of Sugar Hill.

The neighborhood has not fully returned to its old glory, however. The stately apartment buildings do not have the liveried doormen of days past, for instance. "It is the extremes right now," said Nora Cole, an actor, who on a Saturday morning was weeding one of two pocket parks maintained by volunteers on Edgecombe Avenue above Jackie Robinson Park, the old Colonial Park.

A SOLID core of well-to-do African-American families passes properties from generation to generation, yet other residents still toss disposable diapers into the Edgecombe pocket park, Ms. Cole said. Overall crime rates have dropped more than 60 percent in the last decade, according to statistics from the 30th Precinct, but drugs are still sold on some street corners.
Paula Hill, with three children under 8, says the attraction is space, which sometimes includes a backyard, and the parks in every direction. But most of all, it's the sense of community, she said. "In seven years in Greenwich Village nobody knew us, but here we have a parents' network to help each other out and address issues like schools," she said. Through it, more than 90 families keep in touch online.

While many children attend private schools in the city, a group of parents has established the Hamilton Heights Academy, an alternative school with a diverse socioeconomic mix and a progressive curriculum, within Public School 125. Ultimately to have kindergarten through eighth grade, the academy will enroll about 100 students next fall in kindergarten through second grade. Also in the neighborhood is Mott Hall (Intermediate School 223), with an academically rigorous program in math, science and technology for the fourth through eighth grades.

Until the Eighth Avenue elevated railroad reached 145th Street in 1879, the area was mostly rural, a country-home favorite because of its cool breezes. Alexander Hamilton's last home, the Grange, originally stood at what is now 143rd Street and Convent Avenue. The national memorial was moved to 287 Convent Avenue in Hamilton Heights in 1889.

Residential development took off between the 1880's and World War I, spurred by subway construction in 1904. Many lots are only 16 feet wide, but architects like Henri Fouchaux and Frederick P. Dinkelberg designed block-long compositions for white upper-class clients.

Luxury apartment houses followed in the early 1900's. The Colonial Parkway Apartments at 409 Edgecombe became Sugar Hill's most desirable address with tenants like Jules Bledsoe, who sang "Ol' Man River" in "Show Boat." The six-story Garrison Apartments, originally named Emsworth Hall, built on Convent Avenue in 1910, opened as an African-American co-op in 1929. When an apartment becomes available, it is quickly snatched up, says Nancy Love, an agent with the Corcoran Group. A two-bedroom apartment listed at $300,000 was on the market less than a week this spring.

More recent construction includes the 1956 Hillview Apartments, which since 1999 has been popular among foreigners seeking pieds-à-terre in Harlem. A prewar building on Convent has just been converted into the 10-unit Sugar Hill Condominiums, which quickly sold out with prices ranging from $339,000 to $449,000. The Bradhurst Urban Renewal Area south of 143rd and east of Edgecombe is being developed for middle-income families, adding a chain supermarket and pharmacy within walking distance of Sugar Hill.

The biggest real estate activity is in row houses, many of which haven't been on the market in decades, if ever. More are on the market now because the owners are dying or becoming too infirm to climb the stairs.

Some properties are little more than shells. Lawrence Comroe, a vice president at Corcoran, said that a facade without a roof runs around $575,000 and up.

At the other end of the spectrum is a 114-year-old town house with well-maintained original details like basket-weave lattice, offered for $2.3 million.

In between are town houses in need of considerable renovation. Lorraine D. Gilbert of ReMax Upscale Properties sees more buyers restoring rooming houses to their original single-family status, but buildings "without issues" — claims from tenants — command higher prices.

But anyone planning to rent or buy in the neighborhood should consider more than real estate values, the people who live on Sugar Hill say. It's not just high ceilings, parquet floors and gracious space. It's involvement, beginning with the early N.A.A.C.P. leaders and continuing today among parents working for better neighborhood schools.

Even in the worst of times, Sugar Hill residents speak up. A small group of female volunteers in 1985 reclaimed an eyesore triangle plot at St. Nicholas and Convent Avenues. Led by Luana Robinson, the women created a Convent Garden, today a jewel of green space with lush grass, flower beds and a gazebo.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Thinking about Markets and the Mayor's Affordable Housing Plans

The Manhattan Institute’s
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city’s planning, housing, and development
A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow

Thinking about Markets and the Mayor's Affordable Housing Plans

Julia Vitullo-Martin, June 2004

Choose the one that doesn't fit among these three Bloomberg Administration promises to:

1. produce 65,000 units of affordable housing by building 27,000 new units and preserving 38,000 units

2. cure chronic homelessness once and for all

3. end overdevelopment in Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx

If the mayor really fulfills his third promise, to end overdevelopment, he's going to blunt any chance for success with his first two promises. What he calls "overdevelopment" is in fact the most direct route to affordable housing. For the truth is that the vast majority of "affordable" housing in New York always has been - and probably always will be - built by the private sector. Most of the housing in the boroughs that the mayor has reviled as "overdevelopment" is simply privately built affordable housing. In other words the townhouses selling for $250,000-400,000 and apartments renting for $1500 and below are targeted at households earning $50,000 to $85,000 - the households the mayor proposes to help with his $3 billion program called, without irony, "The New Marketplace."

Political difficulties arise - and voters become agitated - because this new housing is often cheaper and denser than what the neighborhood had before. But then that's the essence of "affordable" - the moderate-income household buys a smaller, more austere residence than preceding wealthier households. But it gets a residence that is usually better than the one it just left. Yet even as buyers have been snapping up the townhouses, the mayor has been denouncing them and proposing to have them outlawed through downzoning. "Each of these homes, they're probably 15 feet, 14 feet wide, they're going to sell for $400,000, people are going to be on top of each other," he said at a political rally in Staten Island last year. Well, yes, because the small townhouse is what moderate-income households can afford right now.

The mayor's top planners see the contradictions. City Planning Commission chair Amanda Burden noted at a public hearing in Staten Island, for example, that downzoning would conflict with the mayor's simultaneous push to create affordable housing. And don't we want these home owners to stay in New York, and therefore don't we want this housing? Otherwise the cops and teachers and firefighters who would buy these townhouses are going to cross the Goethals Bridge and just keep going to New Jersey.


The private sector contribution gets lost in today's acrimonious debates in part because the term "affordable" has become the handy euphemism for subsidized, non-market rate housing. But why should we relegate affordable housing to government? The private sector has always hugely outstripped the public sector in building and managing housing, including housing for moderate-income households. City government should only be turning to public funds as a last resort, when the private sector has failed. But the opposite is happening in booming New York: the private sector is succeeding wildly, building on every vacant and underused lot it can find in the five boroughs. We don't need the government building housing these days, when the private sector is doing such a good job.

But we do have a problem - which is that the costs of building in New York are about a third higher than in other cities, including high-cost cities like Boston and Los Angeles. The elevated costs of development may not matter so much for, say, luxury housing in Manhattan, but they make all the difference at the lower end of the market. The first step in making housing affordable is to bring down artificially high costs. Here the Bloomberg administration has been admirable, proposing extensive rezoning to permit residential development in formerly industrial areas, encouraging live-work development in blighted areas, analyzing and restructuring the building codes, and opposing the many destructive laws, such as the lead paint abatement law, coming out of the City Council. The administration is also aggressively using a revitalized Housing Development Corporation to attract private developers with low-cost financing. It is offering low-cost loans for renovating long-vacant apartments and is setting up a tax credit for building new housing in poor neighborhoods. But the administration will undermine these efforts if it insists on combating what it calls overdevelopment, which amounts to combating affordable housing. The mayor’s excellent programs will not work well unless they also bring down costs and encourage new construction.


As expensive as it is to build in New York, building government-sponsored new units is - as the mayor sees - the only solution (though a flawed one) to the city's ludicrously expensive system for housing homeless households. The city now pays $100 a night or $3000 per household per month for what is nearly always derelict housing. On virtually his first day in office, Mayor Bloomberg did the math and wondered why the city wasn't just building new housing rather than throwing money out the window in rent.

The numbers astonish. Over the last decade, the city spent $4.6 billion - or 10% of its entire fiscal 2005 operating budget - on building and maintaining shelters. The budget for the Department of Homeless Services alone exceeds $700 million, a 75% increase over 2000, according to the mayor. Despite the mayor's efforts, during his tenure the homeless population has increased by 27%,according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

He vowed this month to make "the condition of chronic homelessness effectively extinct in New York." His five-year plan is intended to decrease the roughly 38,000-person homeless population by two-thirds, build 12,000 units of supportive housing, and greatly reduce the time and number of people living in the shelter system. Taking his cue from the NYPD's successful crime-fighting system, the mayor intends to reconfigure outreach social services, tailor strategies to particular neighborhoods, and monitor progress neighborhood by neighborhood, so that trouble spots are identified early.

Surely the mayor is correct in assailing the city's reliance on shelters as its principal strategy for homelessness. The temporary safety net has become both expensive and semi-permanent, with a typical family spending 11 months in a shelter. And he is also surely correct in recognizing that the thousands of chronically homeless people who are substance abusers or mentally ill or both are not going to be able to live on their own in private housing. They need supportive services, which the mayor intends to continue with the many excellent agencies now working with the city.

But what about the other households? The mayor has several ideas for reducing both expenditures and homelessness. The city will work with landlords, tenant associations, and community groups to keep people from losing their homes in the first place by emphasizing mediation to stave off at least some evictions. Every household that can be kept in regular housing is a household not draining the city of $3000 per month for temporary shelter. The city will also work with government agencies to figure out non-shelter housing for former prisoners, probationers, substance abusers, mentally ill patients, and youngsters who have aged out of foster care. It's possible that intense management focus on individual problems will reduce the shelter population somewhat.

Reducing expenditures will require the Bloomberg administration to continue what's it's already been doing quietly: looking very closely at every applicant, and disqualifying as many as possible. The city shouldn't be in this business to begin with and certainly shouldn't be financially accountable for housing everyone who comes to New York. At least one in six families seeking housing is a recent arrival from elsewhere - out of town, out of state, or out of the country. The so-called "right to shelter" was established in a series of court rulings and unfortunate consent degrees in the Koch administration, making the city of New York uniquely responsible for anyone and everyone's homelessness. A household that has been in New York for 24 hours can insist that the city find them a place to sleep by midnight of the day they arrive at the intake center.

The Bloomberg administration needs to go back to court and get this destructive right-to-shelter rescinded. The city has spent billions of taxpayer dollars and tried many different approaches over 25 years. None has worked in the past, and we have no reason to think that billions of dollars more will work in the future. New York City needs to get itself out of the shelter business.

It also needs to normalize its housing markets, as scholar Peter Salins has been arguing for years. Mayor Bloomberg, a former businessman, well understands this. No one knows for sure how much of the homeless problem is attributable to non-housing problems like mental illness and substance abuse, but certainly at least one-third. But some important portion of the homeless problem is attributable to malfunctioning housing markets, which the administration is trying to address in several productive ways, including new construction.


The Bloomberg administration has thrown down the gauntlet with its June 24 plan to end homelessness as we know it in New York. It has allocated $12 million to pay for tenant counseling and eviction prevention services in six targeted neighborhoods over the next year. It plans to pay for the rest of the plan by using savings achieved from reducing the shelter population.

Meanwhile, the Department of City Planning has been wrestling with the details of implementing the mayor's attack on overdevelopment. The signs are good so far. City Planning has been judicious in Staten Island, for example, suggesting some sensible reforms on parking and sidewalks without proposing anything too deleterious. But as the 2005 mayoral campaign heats up, the mayor will have to resolve the contradictions in his three promises. Let's hope he isn't swayed by his own rhetoric to halt housing construction in the boroughs.