Ansonia Tenants Fight Food Emporium

When Karen Kennerly, the executive director of PEN American Center, talks about her fear of the new supermarket that’s coming to the basement of her building, the Ansonia, she conjures images of a West Side apocalypse: truck horns blaring at 5 A.M.; garbage trucks grinding late into the night; streets choked with noxious fumes.

After all, Ms. Kennerly said, deliveries to nearby Fairway Market already can make things so bad on West 74th Street that the din of trucks once ruined a phone conversation with novelist Nadine Gordimer in which the two were working out a strategy to free an imprisoned South African writer.

“She interrupted and asked, ‘What is going on there? Are you out on the street?’” Ms. Kennerly recalled. “When those trucks are going, I can’t hear myself talking on the phone.”

Now Ms. Kennerly and scores of Upper West Side residents who live in or around the Ansonia, at West 74th Street and Broadway, are embroiled in a new battle-less momentous, perhaps, than a fight to spring a jailed writer, but urgent nonetheless. The Ansonia’s owners want to put a sprawling new Food Emporium in the basement of the stately Beaux-Arts building that was once home to Igor Stravinsky, Enrico Caruso, Babe Ruth and Plato’s Retreat, the legendary sex palace. Residents fear that more delivery trucks will overwhelm streets-especially West 74th-already clogged by deliveries to Fairway. So the neighborhood, always quick to spring into action on behalf of a worthy cause, is in an uproar.

“I think it’s a disaster,” Ms. Kennerly said. “The noise, the garbage, the filth-it’s something that only a lover of the city could tolerate. With more from the Food Emporium, [74th Street] is going to be like a dilapidated waterfront.”

In an area saturated with every imaginable culinary convenience, the specter of one more supermarket might not seem so terrifying-but so it goes on the Upper West Side, where battle cries spread quickly among the area’s well-heeled, comfort-conscious residents. This latest fight features snarky exchanges between local officials; a cameo appearance by Gridlock Sam, a.k.a. Sam Schwartz, the bearded traffic columnist for the Daily News ; casual references to Nazis and fascists; and a bizarre theory holding that Christopher Lynn, the flamboyant and irascible City Transportation Commissioner, harbors hidden grudges and dark intentions toward the entire neighborhood. And so the Upper West Side is striking back: In mid-September, scores of angry residents gathered outside the Ansonia to denounce the plan, several carrying signs saying “Christopher Lynn: Clueless Commissioner!” and “Stop the Hotel Insania!”

Mad Hatters

“I think they’re being mad as hatters,” said 74th Street resident Heather Watts, the former principal dancer for the New York City Ballet and now a contributing culture editor at Vanity Fair , referring to both Mr. Lynn and the Ansonia’s owners. “It can’t work. The entire side of my building is two deep in trucks and cars. I don’t see how they can be unloading more.”

“Now I know what it feels like to be a Native American,” said Gretchen Berger, president of the West 74th Street Block Association, the supermarket’s most vociferous opponent. “We’re getting pushed off the land.”

The residents are furious because the Ansonia has agreed to allow Food Emporium to receive deliveries on West 74th Street rather than on Broadway. And on another front, there are stirrings of a building-versus-building feud: The board of the Level Club, a building of luxury condos on 73rd Street, fears that the new supermarket will dump its trash on its street. The board has hired a lawyer.

The Ansonia’s owners, however, are not the sort to respond to pressure-legal or otherwise. The famed building is owned by a 21-investor limited partnership, whose most prominent member is Stanley Stahl, the reclusive owner of Apple Bank who runs a real estate empire from an office high above Park Avenue. Mr. Stahl, the son of a Brooklyn butcher, is said to have little or no role in the building’s day-to-day affairs, but his bank helpfully offers loans to those who want to buy condos in the building.

This battle says less about the Ansonia itself than it does about the new, affluent, service-glutted Upper West Side. An area that already is home to Citarella, Fairway, D’Agostino and another Food Emporium on West 68th Street will soon be on the receiving end of more food . Which begs a question: Can the most overfed neighborhood in New York really stomach a new food store?

The Ansonia’s owners wouldn’t return calls. But Mr. Schwartz, a former city Transportation Commissioner best known for coining the word “gridlock,” said he didn’t think residents had a right to dictate what stores will open in their neighborhood, once that neighborhood had been designated a retail area. “My father had a tiny grocery store in Brooklyn, and we would have loved to keep out the A.&P. that came right to our block,” Mr. Schwartz said. “But we competed against them, and we won.”

The Ansonia’s owners hired Mr. Schwartz to conduct a study of traffic patterns in the neighborhood, and he concluded that the added trucks needed to service Food Emporium wouldn’t cause new traffic problems if space for a loading area were created by doing away with a number of parking spaces on West 74th Street.

So residents had to pin their hopes on Mr. Lynn, hoping he would deny approval for the loading zone. But in July, Mr. Lynn deemed his predecessor’s pronouncements credible, and he circulated a terse memo inviting several opponents to a sit-down to discuss it. He made it clear that he wasn’t in the mood for any dissent: “The discussion will focus upon Sam Schwartz’s analysis,” the memo read. “No other issues will be discussed.” The talks went nowhere.

Mr. Lynn formally approved the designation of a loading area on West 74th Street in mid-September. Not surprisingly, Mr. Lynn’s decision gave rise to a host of dark conspiracy theories, the gist of which was that Mr. Lynn was on a mission to punish the entire neighborhood.

Hitler and Mussolini?

After all, residents sort of reasoned, Mr. Lynn had good reason to be angry at the Upper West Side. At a noisy meeting on Sept. 11, Mr. Lynn had tangled with militant opponents of Donald Trump’s Riverside South project, and it wasn’t pretty. Accounts differ as to what happened, but according to Mr. Lynn, he had been touting his agency’s efficiency when a man in the audience remarked: “Just remember one thing: Dictators like Hitler and Mussolini made the trains run on time.” Enraged, Mr. Lynn left the room.

The next day the neighborhood learned that Mr. Lynn had given the loading-zone plan the go-ahead. Coincidence? “There are people who think that he got pissed off and retaliated by giving [Food Emporium] a loading zone,” said one neighborhood resident.

Mr. Lynn acknowledged his rage at being called a traffic Nazi. “I should stay [at the meeting] for that? No, thank you,” said Mr. Lynn. “Jews weren’t the only ones who died in those ovens. A lot of lesbians and gays did, too.” Mr. Lynn is gay.

Ronnie Eldridge, an Upper West Side City Council member who opposes the Food Emporium project, pointed out that Mr. Lynn is locked in a feud with the West 74th Street Block Association, the most vociferous supermarket opponent. The reason: One of the group’s members, in a reference to recent traffic fiascos around the Queensboro Bridge, had referred to Mr. Lynn as “Mr. 59th Street Bridge.”

The stinger was sure to draw a sharp response-and, according to Ms. Eldridge, it did. “Somebody from his office called me and said he didn’t want anybody from the block association” at community meetings on the supermarket issue, she said.

Mr. Lynn dismissed the suggestion that he harbored hidden hostility toward the Upper West Side. Still, he was more than happy to display his dislike for Ms. Eldridge. “She seems to be more interested in getting press attention than solving particular problems,” he said.

As for solving whatever problems the new Food Emporium might bring, Mr. Lynn promised that the neighborhood would be able to absorb the new traffic. He said that he would instruct Food Emporium and Fairway to stagger deliveries so they wouldn’t overlap, and he would monitor the situation to keep things under control.

“The operative word here is share,” he said. “We have an obligation to pedestrians. We want to keep the sidewalks free, and we’re going to.”

Still, residents are hardly reassured. The Food Emporium is expected to open in mid-1998. And the Ansonia’s owners show no signs of considering other possibilities for the space, as residents had hoped.

“There are so many options for that space,” said Niclas Nagler, a West 74th Street resident who is the assistant general manager for the musicals Stomp and Forever Tango . “There could be a nice restaurant. There could be a theater space-there’s certainly a need for Off-Broadway theaters. But we’re just going to have to bite the bullet and walk around the new garbage and mush on the sidewalks.”

Despite his promises of neighborhood harmony, Mr. Lynn couldn’t help but add a note of realism to the whole affair.

“We have seven and a half million people in New York,” he said. “We’ve got a finite number of streets and sidewalks. All good things come here by trucks. The trucks destroy the streets. That’s a fact of life.”