Monday, May 01, 2006
Fighting New Heights on the Upper West Side
By JOSEPH BERGER
Published: May 1, 2006
When it gets mad, the upper Upper West Side springs fiercely into combat � most of the time, that is.
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Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times
Ariel East, one of two towers being built
on Broadway, between 99th and 100th
Streets. Some neighborhood groups that
oppose the project are seeking rezoning.
Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times
Andrew S. Dolkart of Columbia University
leading a tour of the Upper West Side for
Landmark West, a group that promotes the
neighborhood's architectural preservation.
It was in the book-cluttered apartments between 96th Street and 110th Street where much of the successful plot to defeat a $1.1 billion West Side superhighway was hatched, leaving a governor and a mayor choking in the organizers' dust in 1985. In a smaller skirmish six years ago, residents were upset that a CVS pharmacy had opened on a stretch of Broadway that already had two Duane Reades and a Rite Aid. Petitions, pickets and a boycott followed and, a year and half later, the CVS closed its doors.
Yet, almost no one had any idea about what some see as a much more serious threat to the neighborhood's character. Its zoning is so generous that it allowed Ariel East and Ariel West, two luxury towers � one that at 38 stories would be twice as tall as any other building around it � to be erected opposite each other on Broadway, without the daunting gantlet of a West Side review. Those towers are inexorably rising, and that is why the neighborhood, shocked into action, is hurrying to rezone before developers begin tearing down shops, supermarkets and other low-rise sites and replacing them with other tall apartment buildings.
"The race is to get it finished before new owners start their projects," said Miki Fiegel, president of West Siders for Responsible Development, a neighborhood group pushing for low-scale zoning.
Time is a factor, because right now any entrepreneur who assembles a lot of sufficient size can � without any community review � match the height of the two towers, and there are at least a half dozen spots ripe for such development.
The battle on the Upper West Side is also being played out in various forms in the South Bronx, in Midwood and Red Hook, Brooklyn, and in other neighborhoods as the city struggles with the blessings of low crime and rising home values. But few neighborhoods can match turnouts like the 700 residents who attended a recent meeting at a neighborhood synagogue, Ansche Chesed.
Ethel Sheffer, chairwoman of a Community Board 7 task force that is evaluating new zoning proposals, said older and poorer residents voiced fears that their apartments might be torn down and that they would be pushed out.
"They said, 'There won't be places for people like me,' " she said.
Any rezoning plan must eventually be approved by the City Council.
At stake is the personality of a neighborhood not quite like any of the city's others. It is a raffish mix of writers, leftists, musicians � Judy Collins and Lorin Hollander have apartments here � housing project tenants, the formerly homeless and, increasingly, Wall Street investors.
Politically, it is liberal and generates one of the city's largest election turnouts. Ethnically, it crosses the globe, whiter on the affluent east and west margins, more black and Latino residents in the middle.
According to the 2000 census, of the 52,032 residents in the tracts between 97th Street and 110th Street from Central Park to the Hudson River, 43.3 percent were white, 31.8 percent were Hispanic, 16.7 were black and 5.1 percent were Asian.
The stout old co-op buildings are less expensive and sometimes dingier than those to the south between 96th Street and Lincoln Center, and there are fewer brownstones, more tenements and more than 30 single-room occupancy buildings. Even though the median rent is $756, the median value of the owner-occupied co-ops, condos and brownstones is $328,561.
Many onetime socialists are, to their embarrassment, millionaires on paper. Along Broadway, there are plenty of idiosyncratic shops, but a crop of new banks and chain drugstores have piqued fears about Banana Republics or Gaps to come.
This being the West Side, the rezoning push has set off feuding. The differences among the factions sound technical, but they essentially represent a clash between those who want to keep the neighborhood as close to its present scale as possible and those who think it should do its part in building enough housing for the city's swelling population.
"After all, if neighborhoods everywhere downzone, there surely will be less housing built, and therefore the housing stock will be even less affordable," Hope Cohen of the Community Board 7 task force said in a memo to other members.
It was the absence of major development � in contrast to the spate of high-rise buildings that have gone up in the more genteel blocks below 96th Street � that seemed to lull this usually vigilant community.
"When it came to zoning, people were probably caught sleeping," said Marsha Tantleff, a dental hygienist who lives on Riverside Drive. "They didn't believe it was going to happen up here."
The sense of neighborhood urgency is one reason many West Side residents, typically fussy about the environment, are trying to avoid rezoning and require the time and effort that goes into an environmental impact statement.
The predominant existing zoning along the Broadway corridor sets no height limits as long as the lot is spacious enough. The two towers that started the controversy could be built because Extell Development bought development rights from adjoining brownstones on the cross streets and from St. Michael's Church on Amsterdam Avenue.
Most people seem to agree that the midblocks on the cross streets need to be rezoned differently from the avenues so developers cannot acquire development rights again. By city law, air rights cannot be transferred across zones. But there are sharp differences about what should be done with the avenues, with the Broadway corridor drawing the fiercest debate.
On a walk along Broadway, Ms. Fiegel pointed out clusters of short or shopworn buildings where developers could pounce. More tall buildings, she said, would cast shadows on Broadway, ruining its ambience. Her apartment on West End Avenue will have its light and views diminished by Extell's towers, which are between 99th and 100th Streets.
"Broadway is our main street � it's the place we walk," she said, adding, "It's our town square."
Her group would prefer zoning on avenues like Broadway that would create a street facade of roughly eight stories (85 feet) and permit four to five additional floors on top, but set back from the street. The City Planning Department has recommended allowing not just a denser building with more apartments, but also a taller street fronting � up to 12 stories with total height limited to 17 stories (about 170 feet).
Ms. Cohen said that she thought the department's proposal was "perfectly acceptable" but that she would prefer a zoning category that allowed a range of street heights, from 6 to 10 stories. Variety, she said, would be more in keeping with the "saw-tooth up-and-down quality" of the Broadway streetscape. The total height could be 14 stories (about 145 feet), unless a "community facility" like a post office is included.
In an interview, Extell's president, Gary Barnett, argued that opponents were exaggerating the number of development sites. He said a study that he commissioned showed that only one, a post office on 104th Street, had a footprint large enough for a tall building. He also noted that a building between 96th Street and 97th Street, the Columbia, was almost as tall as his tallest tower. Residents who have not waded into the fracas, like the Very Rev. James Parks Morton, the dean emeritus of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, say that development is inevitable. But they would like to make sure it comes nowhere near the heights of the towers.
"I guess I base my arguments on the way the great European cities, Paris and London, have said that certain areas are sacred in terms of their scale," Dean Morton said.