For many Turtle Bay residents, the fatal crane collapse at 303 East 51st Street on March 15 was more than just an accident that should have been prevented: It was three years of frenzied residential development come home to roost.
A New York Post column published the morning after began, “Katherine Hepburn must be turning in her grave,” in reference to the late actress and one of the more famous Turtle Bay locals. “Shoddy construction by greedy moneymen is destroying the whole Turtle Bay area around Second Avenue, filling the neighborhood she loved with countless world-class ugly buildings,” Linda Stasi wrote. “What they’ve done to Second Avenue in the last few years is criminal. Yesterday it turned deadly.”
Like most neighborhoods in Manhattan, many new condos have gone up recently in Turtle Bay—the area roughly between 42nd and 53rd streets east of Lexington Avenue—and more projects are in the pipeline. But aside from the recently arrested buildings inspector, no criminal activity has been linked to the other developments. Bruce Silberblatt, vice president of the neighborhood residents’ group the Turtle Bay Association, rattled off at least 11 residential projects that are in various stages of development or have recently come on-line.
Since Turtle Bay was last rezoned in 1961 to encourage high-density residential and retail development on the avenues and four- to six-story buildings on the side streets, new projects have consistently risen above the original multi-family brownstones of Turtle Bay, except during economic downturns.
But the latest construction wave that kicked off in 2005 with Harry Macklowe’s 30-story, blue glass condominium on the corner of 53rd and Second Avenue has been the most concentrated in the neighborhood’s history, Mr. Silberblatt said. A year later Related Companies broke ground on the Veneto across the street. Now the two gleaming towers stand like sentries at the northern boundary of Turtle Bay.
Extell converted a 35-story rental tower at 212 East 47th to condos; the Alexander will soon rise at the corner of Second Avenue and East 49th Street, which has ironically been designated Katherine Hepburn Way. Mr. Silberblatt agreed with Ms. Stasi that “Katherine would not be happy with what’s going on here.”
Then of course there is the construction site at 303 East 51st Street where the 20-story crane collapsed. A few doors down at number 211, another apartment building is being built; and next to Green Acre Park a 14-story building has been stripped to its frame in what Mr. Silberblatt called a “gut job," and seven more floors will be added. The list goes on.
One of the comment threads on Curbed following a story about the crane collapse instantly turned into a discussion about the neighborhood’s new buildings. “They are cheap cardboard towers, designed by the Russian mafia, and then thrown in the market with the word ‘luxury,’” one reader wrote.
“The Alexander must be stopped NOW,” wrote another.
“Not all the new buildings are terrible (310 East 53rd is great, IMO; The Vento, not so much, but not horrific), but this is truly awful.”
Some new projects might even be welcome. There are rumors that 315 East 46th will be affordable housing, which the Turtle Bay Association appreciates, though some residents who “feel like it should be a place for snobs where you pay $1.5 million for a closet” disapprove, said Mr. Silberblatt. They will soon be able to look down their noses from the 40-story condo the Zeckendorf brothers plan to build at 823 UN Plaza, which is expected to be “as expensive as the affordable housing is cheap,” he said.
The residential development is unavoidable and not entirely unexpected.
“It’s something that I’ve always thought of as inevitable,” Mr. Silberblatt said. “I always wondered why people hadn’t discovered it yet, then two or three years ago it started.”
The Turtle Bay Association is circulating a petition to keep 303 East 51st Street at its current height of 18 stories, rather than the 30 that are planned. But Mr. Silberblatt does not sound like he expects their campaign to succeed.
“There’s nothing we can do to slow the pace [of construction],” he said. “The only thing that will stall it is if we go into a recession, which looks like it’s happening.”
The crane collapse might also prompt a hiccup in the residential market, albeit a brief one. Susan Krupp, a senior broker at Bellmarc Realty, expects the market in Turtle Bay to slow down until the crane incident is cleaned up.
“It’s just like when a plane crashed into the building on 72nd Street,” she said. “People will forget after a few weeks, and once it’s out of peoples’ minds things will go back to normal. But normal now is not what it was a few months ago.”
Ms. Krupp said Turtle Bay had been on the upswing with increased demand from international buyers looking for a pied a terre and young professionals. Though the bulk of the condos in the four or five new buildings between 51st and 55th streets run upwards of $1 million, she said, on the whole property values on the Upper East Side and East Midtown are still less than other neighborhoods in the city.
Turtle Bay’s demographics have shifted with increased residential development, but it remains a relatively quiet, residential neighborhood.
New bars and restaurants have flooded Second Avenue, mingling with the old-school, white-table-clothed (but reasonably priced) establishments that preceded them.
This Wednesday during a not-quite-spring, warm evening after work the bars were packed with suited middle-aged businesspeople and their thirty-something counterparts who still give off the faintest whiff of college. A smattering of senior citizens perched at quiet spots in the bar and watched sports, ate dinner or drank next to the boisterous post work crowds.
Some bloggers and long-time residents blame the new developments for turning a mixed-income neighborhood into a wealthy, antiseptic place.
In 1860, Turtle Bay was “definitely the wrong side of the tracks," said Mr. Silberblatt, filled with beer factories and tenements—the space now occupied by the UN building used to be home to a giant slaughterhouse. In the 1920’s, the co-ops of Beekman and Sutton Place were built, and more expensive apartments followed in the 1950’s when the El Train was torn down. Turtle Bay also had a substantial portion of rent-controlled units that developers have eagerly converted to market-rate when the original tenants passed away, as was the case for Mr. Silberblatt’s parents.
But the Turtle Bay of today is hardly homogenous. Elderly, lower middle-class people walk around next to yuppie professionals. East of Second Avenue as you get closer to the UN, Turtle Bay morphs into the serene, residential neighborhood long-time residents remember through rose-colored glasses. Nigerian diplomats stroll out of the Japanese Consulate building behind the colossal Trump UN Plaza. Nearby a father and son kick around a soccer ball in the Dag Hamarskjold Plaza.
As a home base for foreign diplomats, Turtle Bay has the transient, yet comfortably dependable quality of an upscale hotel for business travelers. At the same time, the residents who have had roots there for generations lend it a sense of permanence. Lately Turtle Bay appears to have acquired a Murray Hill-esque sensibility thanks to an influx of young people.
Jill Sloane, the senior vice president of Halstead Property, lived on 51st between First and Second when she was 20. “Back then the neighborhood was a nice place to live,” she said. “It was mixed, but you had nothing like those those huge, glass buildings you have now. It’s become much more trendy and younger.”
The demographic shift has not been without its tensions. Lyle Frank, the chairman of Community Board 6 that represents Turtle Bay, said the dynamic between new businesses and long-time residents of the community has been “interesting,” by which he means carefully trod. “There is that [three-block)] stretch of Second Avenue beginning at 53rd that has nearly 20 bars on it. On the one hand it’s been good for the businesses in the neighborhood because people like to leave one bar and go to another, but on other you have people living there who need to sleep.
“You’ve got these places getting liquor licenses, saying they are going to be white-table-cloth dining rooms and then you find out they play loud music and are open until four in the morning.”
He says the State Liquor Authority used to only take action after being alerted, and in some cases sued, by the community boards. Lately, it has been more vigilant about enforcing the “500 foot rule," which holds that if there are more then three bars within 500 feet of each other, they are subject to more state scrutiny.
Now that Sheldon Solow’s massive East River project flanking Turtle Bay has been approved by the City Council, the neighborhood will probably remain in flux for the foreseeable future. Soon, it will most likely be out of the spotlight too.