Community Boards

Second Ave. Subway Land Seizures

Have U.E.S. Residents Up In Arms

With the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s declaration earlier this year that it hopes to break ground on the Second Avenue subway by late 2004, the reality of a subway that was first envisioned in 1929 and since dismissed as little more than a public-works pipe dream by many a cynical New Yorker has suddenly became very palpable. But standing alongside the cheering longtime proponents of the plan is a new and growing contingent of Upper East Side residents who are alarmed at the prospect of a protracted period of noise and mess in their neighborhood.

Particularly disturbing to many is the city’s recent revelation that it intends to invoke its right of eminent domain to seize apartments and businesses in the path of the subway’s proposed entrances. The very idea has some Upper East Siders keeping their attorneys on speed dial as they consider mounting a serious legal challenge.

At Community Board 8′s July 16 meeting, residents spoke out in opposition to the $16 billion plan, which calls for stations to be constructed on the Upper East Side at the 72nd, 86th and 96th Street intersections of Second Avenue.

“What will happen to our homes when they begin to excavate? We don’t want eight to 16 years of construction in our homes. I think it’s absolutely deplorable,” Mary Silva, an East 86th Street resident, told the board.

The city has said that the seized property will be used to construct subway entrances and the ancillary spaces needed for the stations’ emergency exits, ventilation systems and power substations. But with the increased levels of noise, dirt and rodents that the construction will bring to the neighborhood, residents have taken little comfort in the M.T.A.’s assertions that the subway-entrance locations are not yet set in stone.

“We’ve already had people commenting that they’re willing to sell and move out just at the idea of a subway entrance,” Daniel Seligman, a resident of 301 East 69th Street (one of the buildings slated for an entrance), told the board at the meeting.

Board 8 passed a resolution in January 2002 opposing the use of private property for the subway entrances, but declined to take an official position on the proposed entrances and ancillary facilities at the July 16 meeting. “This is just the beginning of a dialogue,” board chairman Charles Warren stressed, saying the board would likely pass a resolution stating its final position once the city finalizes the locations.

Though the neighborhood has known of the Second Avenue subway plan for years, the potential seizure of property has put the issue on the front burner. “Prior to hearing that it was going to be in our building, I didn’t hear any objections to the Second Avenue subway,” Carol Ferrante, president of the co-op board at 301 East 69 Street, told The Observer . At the meeting, however, Ms. Ferrante told the board that “we are putting up a legal and political protest,” adding that her building is thinking of hiring an engineer to investigate alternative sites for the entrances.

According to The New York Sun , the M.T.A. will try to minimize disruption to the neighborhood by looking first to displace businesses like the Barnes & Noble on 86th Street and the Rite Aid Drugstore on 96th Street-businesses that the agency believes can best bear the brunt of the change. But some argue that not enough due diligence in site selection has been done, pointing to businesses like Patsy’s Pizzeria on 69th Street and Second Avenue, which the city seems likely to seize in lieu of the state-run Off-Track Betting parlor next-door.

Most troubling to residents, however, is that they don’t know which properties the city intends to seize-or when the city will do it. Though the subway’s construction is anticipated to last at least 16 years, the M.T.A. says it’s unlikely that the station entrances will be the first ground broken. Still, with work beginning as early as the end of next year, some locals fear their lives may be uprooted with little advance warning. The M.T.A. says it’s required to give only one month’s notice in exercising eminent domain-though there is an additional four-month waiting period before it can alter the property it takes over, in order to meet any legal challenges-but the M.T.A. also asserts that it intends to give more than the legally required notice before seizing any property.

-Petra Bartosiewicz

Breakfast At Tiffany’s-Sure, But More Shrubbery?

The 1961 movie adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s sealed the jewelry purveyor’s status as an institution, known for its pop-culture cachet as much as for its wares. But recently, Community Board 5 (whose district includes the famed 727 Fifth Avenue address) voted to oppose the flagship store’s motion to retroactively legalize two planters that have been installed in front of its entrance and, concurrently, refused to permit the addition of one more, demonstrating that Tiffany’s, iconic institution or not, is still subject to the board’s scrutiny.

According to the application submitted to Board 5 by Tiffany & Co., the store wanted a total of six white stone tubs, with increased security as the stated reason. At its July 10 meeting, Board 5 voted to reject the plan, 25 to 9, with one abstention. (Tiffany’s spokeswoman Linda Buckley had no comment.)

Not surprisingly, the overriding concern was that the planters are further obstructing foot traffic on one of the city’s most heavily trafficked corners.

“In front of Tiffany’s is one of the most congested streets with pedestrian traffic, typically around the holidays,” Board 5 chairman Kyle Merker told The Observer . Mr. Merker added that Tiffany’s might be taking advantage of post 9/11 fears to further beautify its property. “It seems 9/11 is the excuse for everything,” he said.

Mr. Merker also suggested that although the idea is well intentioned, it’s likely to set a bad precedent: “If we go down this path of everyone having planters,” he said, “they’re not all going to be well maintained [like Tiffany's].”

To confuse matters, several weeks earlier, at its June 12 meeting, the board gave JP Morgan Chase & Co. the nod to put planters in front of its 522 Fifth Avenue location. But, said the board, that was different. Apparently, the bank’s request squeaked in just before the board decided to put its foot down. “The tide has turned,” Mr. Merker told The Observer , “Last month, the board was sympathetic to Chase, [but] we’ve dealt with so many planters. People have seen enough planters, with security being the reason.”

Also, he said, “I assume the board felt that the security risk at Tiffany’s isn’t as great as at the headquarters of an international bank.”

Board member Vikki Barbero agreed that Tiffany’s shouldn’t be given special consideration. “Planters are beautiful,” she said, “but they already have [enough] there. It was overkill. It looks like a barricade. Who’s to say that Tiffany’s is better than everyone else?”

Alice Adesman, another board member, was one of the minority who supported the motion: “It’s not for security. You don’t worry about the space. It’s for making the place lovely for tourists and for New Yorkers. It’s important to keep the establishments beautiful, whether high-end or low-end.”

Aesthetics, important though they may be, did not carry enough sway for the board. And while it was clearly not happy that Tiffany’s had failed to approach the community prior to installing the planters, this was not, according to Mr. Merker, the reason for opposing the motion. “It’s just a case of people finding it easier to ask for forgiveness than permission,” Mr. Merker told The Observer of the preemptive installation. “The board has a long-standing history of not approving items that have been installed illegally. That wasn’t the reason this time. We [just] didn’t feel [the planters] were appropriate.”

The fate of Tiffany’s application, currently pending, will ultimately be decided by the Department of Transportation.

-Elon Rafael Green

Two Schools Move One Step Closer Toward Getting New Building

No one said that the countdown to ribbon-cutting wouldn’t get tangled up in red tape. In their quest to construct a joint-use building on the Upper West Side, a dance company and a school for children with special needs took yet another jump through the hoop at Community Board 7′s July 1 meeting-thanks to a wrinkle in the local zoning code that needed ironing out.

In January, the Ballet Hispanico and the Stephen Gaynor School came before Board 7 for the first time to request permission for a disposition of their pending property at 146 West 90th Street. The board supported the measure to transfer ownership from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to the city’s Economic Development Corporation so that the E.D.C., in turn, could sell the property to the dance company and the school, which have entered into a joint venture-paid for by each institution’s capital campaign-to construct a 42,000-square-foot, 10-story building that will connect to the Ballet Hispanico’s current property on West 89th Street. The construction should begin this fall, and the building is slated to open in time for the school year in September 2005.

The new space will allow the growing dance company-which currently has 650 students and 13 professional dancers-to expand into the top three floors. And the Stephen Gaynor School, an independent nonprofit school for children from 5 to 13 years old with “learning differences,” will vacate its current West 74th Street location and occupy the lower seven floors of the new building. The move will allow the school to expand enrollment from 120 to 165 students and to begin a community reading program.

At the July 1 board meeting, representatives for the ballet and the school now sought Board 7′s approval to alter the zoning resolution that governs the site. Thanks to the expiration last year of a federal statute, called an Urban Renewal Plan, that governed the Upper West Side for over two decades, the two institutions have new leeway to release themselves from a restriction that limited the potential size of the building to 13,092 square feet. Their latest request to the board was to free the space from the jurisdiction of yet another building code, called the Large Scale Residential Development Plan, which had been added in the 1970′s to modify the now-expired U.R.P.

Following the board’s unanimous approval of the measure, Scott Gaynor, director of the school, told The Observer : “We’re grateful to Community Board 7 and New York City for giving us the opportunity to expand our services and address more children in the Upper West Side community.”

The board’s decision will be sent to the office of Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields for a period of 30 days, after which the matter will go before the City Planning Commission for a public hearing and a final vote.

Meanwhile, Board 7 members have what land-use committee co-chairwoman Hope Cohen described as “an exciting land-use training program” seminar to look forward to in September.

-Benjamin Ryan

July 24: Board 2, New York University Law School, 40 Washington Square Park South, Room 110, 6:30 p.m., 212-979-2272.