Volume 76, Number 40 | February 28 - March 6, 2007

A special Villager supplement,

Designing a better community

Villager photo by Alessandro Busá

Blue, a new upscale condo tower on Norfolk St., towers over the old Essex Street Market. A rezoning being considered for the East Village and Lower East Side would cap heights, preventing buildings as tall as Blue from being built.

Trying to maintain a way of life before it disappears

By Michael Rosen

This place, the neighborhood or neighborhoods, community or communities we live in — the Lower East Side, Loisaida, the East Village, part of Chinatown, call it what you will — is undergoing a scale and pace of change wrenching the life, many of our lives, from here.

Change is inevitable — neighborhoods change, as the city, state and nation do. But much of our wrenching change is allowed too easily — it does not have to be; we have the wisdom to live otherwise.

The zoning governing our space is grossly inadequate. Everyone should know that Ludlow St., at 50 feet wide one of the narrowest streets in New York, is slated to become a canyon of high-rise hotels and apartment buildings. People should know that Avenue C is losing its last hardware store and a shoe-repair shop is hard to find. Bodegas are losing their leases to clubs intended as out-of-neighborhood destinations. Banks, other chain stores and franchises are occupying corner retail locations and will continue to drive out locally owned commercial places: the places where you know the store owner and other workers, where they know what type of bread you buy and want to know how your parents, your lover, your daughters and sons are.

Towers sprout and the square footage of a few remaining parcels of land can enable buildings certainly taller than any yet constructed.

The existing zoning contains weaknesses encouraging owners of existing and to-be-constructed buildings to lie about their calculations and intentions, and encourages their architects to self-certify these lies with little chance of city scrutiny; the city’s ability to evaluate architect and engineer self-certified plans is near to zero and the city’s ability to enforce the actual use of a building once it is operating is, quite literally, zero. One recently constructed building on 11th St. between Avenues A and B is a floor to two floors taller than allowed because the parking in the basement and first floor was self-certified to be an ancillary use for condominium owners only, but the parking is open to the public. One building now under construction on 12th St. between Avenues A and B is two to three floors larger than it would have been because some of the lowest floors are defined as a rectory. But what is a rectory? Does a rectory have to adjoin a church? Does it have to house clergy, and then what, exactly, is clergy? Can any members of that church live in that rectory space? And at the end of a two-, five- or 10-year lease (because there is no requirement on the length of a lease that defines a “rectory”), who in the city is going to see that the space is maintained as a rectory or other community-facility use?

No one, of course, is going to assure this use.

Then there is the tragedy of dormitories allowed under our current zoning. Richard Kusack and others fought the 15 floors of 81 E. Third St., more than double the height of surrounding buildings, permitted by the Department of Buildings, in part, as a “dormitory.”

Colleges and universities once built dormitories on their campuses. But urban colleges and universities do not necessarily have the possibility of on-campus development. The state of higher education seems to favor the leasing of dormitory space, rather than ownership. After all the fighting, the developer of 81 E. Third St. was allowed to legalize the extra height of the building by entering into a 10-year dormitory lease with New York Law School — cancelable after five years. We are already at least one year into what is in fact a five-year lease. In a few years, at the expiration of this lease, will the extra floors remain empty until another dormitory lease is entered into with another college or university? Will these apartment spaces, one by one, out of sight and beyond awareness, be leased as residences and eventually sold as luxury condominiums with unsurpassed views?

These are small instances: a parking garage, a rectory, a sliver dormitory. But one by one these and many other instances pile up and by their height and weight crush the character that makes this place our home. Our diverse ethnicities and income levels, our extraordinary range of interests become mostly homogenized in a relatively rich way.

The crucible of our diversity, doubt, dissent and creativity is tied in direct ways to the walkup height of most of our buildings, to affordable rents, to slow streets and the possibility of gathering places and dialogue — neighborhood coffee- and teahouses, local bars, community gardens and their casitas, affordable storefronts and miraculous community centers.

Whose progress?

The soul of our neighborhood is not tied to BMWs, Mercedeses and Hummers parked on our streets, to a rash of fashionable restaurants, trendy hotels, guarded clubs and high-rise doorman luxury apartment buildings (though I live in one). If one measures “progress” in these ways — by these and other indicia of class wealth — then our soul is lost and the ability to achieve a consensus and common ground with our city leaders on the measure of our community’s health is hard to achieve.

In an interview entitled “Modern-Day Robert Moses” and recently published in the New York Observer, Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff quotes Mayor Bloomberg saying, “If you want to solve the problem of gentrification, you should have crime go up, the schools get worse, the parks get dirtier.”

“Gentrification is a natural product of market forces,” Doctoroff continues.

However, as opposed to what the mayor and his deputy mayor say, those who make and enforce the regulations and laws governing community development control how communities retain their character or evolve — akin to digging the route of a canal and channeling the flow of water through it.

Our city leaders control the size and density of buildings, the mix of commercial, residential, manufacturing and healthcare uses allowed here, the rules governing tenant-landlord relations, the structure and uses of our public spaces — including our streets — and more.

This past December, the Department of City Planning was given an 11-Point Zoning Plan unanimously adopted by our Community Board 3.

The 11-Point Plan constitutes a core of principles endorsed by the Lower East Side Coalition for Accountable Zoning, a wide coalition of neighborhood nonprofit organizations and individuals formed to encourage City Planning to proceed immediately with the environmental impact study phase necessary for enacting the zoning change our community is requesting, before we are completely lost to a hotel, club, restaurant and luxury apartment building neighborhood — displacing so many here with an active forgetting of the sliver of magic that we are.

Planning has done nothing since the community showed wisdom, understanding, sophistication, clarity and unanimous consensus this past December in the 11-Point Zoning Plan.

Choosing to do nothing has nothing to do with allowing “natural market forces” to unfold. Doing nothing allows building permit after permit to be applied for and approved as property owners rush to exploit the current and inadequate zoning law and economic demand, to build high-rises or empty existing buildings of affordable apartments and finally construct penthouses on top of the newly rehabbed luxury units.

Bland new world

Doing nothing allows the state of staleness captured by Adam Gopnik in a recent “Talk of the Town” in The New Yorker to swell. This quote is long, yet warrants repetition:

“It is the sense that the recovery has come at the cost of a part of its identity: that New York is safer and richer but less like itself, an old lover who has gone for a face-lift and come out looking like no on in particular. The wrinkles are gone, but so is the face. This transformation is one you see on every street corner in Manhattan, and in Brooklyn, too, where another local toy store or smoked-fish emporium disappears and another bank branch or mall store opens. For the first time in Manhattan’s history, it has no bohemian frontier.

A bookstore closes, another theater becomes a condo, another soulful place becomes a sealed residence. These are small things, but they are small things that the city’s soul clings to.”

We cannot legislate bohemia, or a city of affordable housing or any other particular Eden, but we can create the context for these to flourish or we can do nothing, allowing a gentrification that is nothing more than a class homogenization and subsequently lament the destruction of what was.

Asked by the Observer what he thought about the comparison between himself and Robert Moses, Doctoroff answered that, “With very few exceptions, we really have made an effort to reach out to local communities and understand their needs. Moses was a believer that it was experts who were able to divine what was best for the community or the city on the whole.”

With our community’s 11-Point Zoning Plan, we have stated our needs as clearly as possible.

But the city is doing nothing, which (at the risk of repetition) is doing an active something.

Not all, or even most of all, is bleak. Our city granted landmark designation to the former CHARAS/El Bohio community center, the old P.S. 64, this past year. It was wise to do so. In her speech at the final designation hearing, Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz stated: “With the designation of P.S. 64, recognition of the importance of the grassroots community and historic preservation movements come front and center… The outpouring of that [Lower East Side] community was the strongest and most amazing expression of local concern for the preservation of a landmark in an ethnically and economically mixed community that I have witnessed. No professional, outside expert can define better than the local resident what is significant in a local community.”

Shop locally

We have more opportunities to define what our community might be. An increasing number of franchises, chain stores and, for the moment, only few big-box stores (for example, Kmart on Astor Pl.) are in this neighborhood, but these numbers are increasing. Second Avenue Deli is replaced by a Chase bank. A laundromat becomes a Dunkin Donuts. One busy corner is taken by Starbucks then another by Max Brenner - Chocolate by the Bald Man and our avenues increasingly resemble what a strip mall designer would show as a Las Vegas caricature of the Lower East Side.

We have the choice to shop locally. When we do, we sustain small business owners who maintain our local economy. We endorse our diverse identities and fight the fiction that it is worth trading community for so-called “lower prices.” We choose personality and creativity over uniformity.

Formula Retail Regulation (F.R.R.) zoning should be adopted here. Such zoning requires that stores be unique, prohibiting chain and franchise retailers from opening establishments that follow the same generic formula as their other locations. It is, in the end, the only true hope for local merchants, designers, artists and artisans — for their creativity and entrepreneurial dreams.

Safe streets

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, Robert Sullivan commented that New York, long “an inspiration to other American cities looking to revive themselves,” has lost its way as far as pedestrian, alternative and mass transit is concerned. As an example, Sullivan noted the case of the bicycle rider recently killed on the Hudson River greenway by a drunken driver along a pathway completely separated from the road. Mayor Bloomberg, asked what was being done by the city to ensure bicycle safety, commented that bike riders should “pay attention.” “Even if they are in the right, they are the lightweights,” the mayor said. (By the way, Sullivan neglected to mention that it had been The Villager which asked the mayor this question.)

I was hit by a taxi while riding my bike along First Ave. near the United Nations the Monday before Christmas. The taxi didn’t stop. I ended up — bruised, swollen and a bit broken — at one of our nearby hospitals. A month later, also along First Ave., I was run to the curb by an articulated bus. At 50, I am hardly an aggressive or inattentive bike rider. I continue to ride because I believe in minimizing carbon and other exhaust emissions, because I believe in alternative transportation and the type of city we could and should have with wise leadership. Our congresswoman, Nydia Velazquez, and city councilmember, Rosie Mendez, as Margarita Lopez before her, are courageous advocates for pedestrian and alternative transportation, as are David McWater, David Crane, Susan Stetzer and the whole of Community Board 3. I hope and trust that our other locally elected officials — who supported landmarking the former CHARAS/El Bohio/old P.S. 64 — will be as supportive as Velazquez, Mendez and C.B. 3 have been as our community seeks funds to study transportation and reconfigure street design to mirror the needs of our residents. There are no wise reasons that certain avenues in our community are not permanently shut to combustion engines in favor of grand pedestrian ways, piazzas and shopping. Century-old photographs of the Lower East Side show streets filled with pedestrians and pushcarts, with families and neighbors — not streets given over to motorized vehicles and their free storage.

The logic of giving over such public space to one use and one group of users, including vast acres of free storage, makes sense only if we continue to fetishize the automobile as post-World War II America did. But we have had time to mature from that adolescent affair, to take back our streets and use them wisely for the grand urban interest they once and should again serve. For inspiration, we have to look no further than Copenhagen, Bogota, Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Grand Rapids, Mich., to learn that cities built for pedestrians and micro and mass transportation, that focus on shared and open urban spaces, are vibrant, sustainable, desired places. Our politicians, wise and responsible, will surely help study these opportunities and bring them to be.

Jane Jacobs died last year. As Reverend Billy says, “When you live your life making more Life, Death fits in it, because you didn’t cheat Life by making bullets and bombs. Life making Life.”

We have the same opportunity, with these issues and surely more.

Rosen is a steering committee member, East Village Community Coalition

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