Community Reluctant to Sacrifice
Park for Temporary U.N. Offices
Community outrage is mounting as the United Nations Development Corporation steps up its plan to claim Robert Moses Park, on First Avenue between 41st and 42nd streets, and replace it with a 35-story building. The building is needed, according to UNDC president and chief executive Roy Goodman, to house temporary
offices while the U.N.’s signature building, the 50-year-old Secretariat, undergoes an estimated five-to-10-year-long renovation.
At Community Board 6’s Nov. 13 meeting, Mr. Goodman tried to mollify the crowd by presenting a proposal that outlines, as a concession for the loss of park, a plan to construct a public esplanade along the East River between 41st and 48th streets, which would be wholly paid for by either the U.N. or the UNDC. The UNDC, a nonprofit agency set up to assist the United Nations with its property needs, is looking for support from Board 6 in the hope of strengthening its request to the State Legislature to de-map the park.
Board members and area residents, however, were not pacified by Mr. Goodman’s offer. Several of the meeting’s attendees demanded to see plans for the building and for the esplanade. Mr. Goodman gestured at a blank blackboard as he described the plan. “This isn’t a plan!” shouted one person, “Where are the drawings?” “The devil is in the details,” board member Bea Disman told Mr. Goodman, “and you have no details to show us.” Mr. Goodman agreed to return to the board with a more detailed plan, adding that the esplanade would be a more than fair exchange for a park that is “decrepit and hardly used.”
Mr. Goodman’s description of the park was met with loud protest from the audience. “You go there Saturday morning and children fill the place!” longtime neighborhood resident William Baltz retorted. “There are no other parks at all nearby, and there are only two other playgrounds in the area,” Jack Collins, executive director of the East End Hockey Association, told The Observer . Asked if he’d be willing to consider the land swap if the UNDC submitted detailed plans for the esplanade, Mr. Collins replied, “No, I don’t think it would serve the same function as the park currently does. What [the UNDC] is proposing is basically a sidewalk along the East River-it’s just a curb.”
Alan Lawrence, another longtime neighborhood resident, echoed Mr. Collins’ concerns and suggested that the UNDC consult with Con Ed to negotiate a takeover of the energy company’s parking lot on First Avenue between 39th and 40th streets, allowing for the needed expansion of the U.N. without taking away valuable park space.
Bruce Silberblatt, a vice president of the Turtle Bay Association, a community organization that opposes the UNDC proposal, said, “If they can provide the community with an equivalent substitute, we wouldn’t be opposed. But that substitute needs to be available before the [Robert Moses] park closes.” He said the T.B.A. is concerned that the UNDC will close the park and “keep us waiting three to four years” while the esplanade is built. Mr. Silberblatt expressed strong disapproval of the UNDC’s lack of concrete plans, saying, “They tried to make an end run, and they are not getting away with it.”
The UNDC declined to comment on its plans for the park and the proposed esplanade, referring The Observer instead to the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for the NYCEDC, told The Observer , “We are working on a plan now that we hope will work for everyone.” She cautioned that the plan is “very preliminary at this point,” and that no dates for construction have yet been set.
When reached by The Observer , Gary Papush, chairman of the parks, landmarks and cultural-affairs committee of Board 6, stated that the board won’t take an official position on the UNDC’s proposal until it’s presented with a more detailed plan. While the board has no authority to give the plan a red or green light, the State Legislature takes the board’s position into consideration in determining its decision. According to Mr. Papush, the UNDC is now delaying its request to the State Legislature to de-map the park until the new proposal is drawn up and the board has taken an official position on it.
-Matthew Ian Grace
Board Approves South
Street Seaport Rezoning
The South Street Seaport is shunned by many New Yorkers, who regard the hyper-commercial waterfront zone developed in the 1980’s as a tourist trap. Some downtown Manhattanites think that’s a shame, considering the illustrious history of the area, which was once the nation’s leading port and remains one of its oldest surviving commercial districts.
In an effort to preserve the historic character of the South Street Seaport Historic District while at the same time stimulating small-scale residential and commercial development, Community Board 1 is proposing a rezoning of the 10-square-block area bounded by the Brooklyn Bridge to the north, Fulton Street to the south, South Street to the east and Pearl Street to the west.
“We think the time has come to restore the area and hold on to a little piece of our history,” Paul Goldstein, Board 1’s district manager, told The Observer . “We have the opportunity right on our waterfront to create something really special. Our zoning will help reinforce that.”
The famous Fulton Fish Market, retail outlets and cultural attractions like the South Street Seaport Museum make the seaport one of the top five tourist destinations in New York City. But the area around the seaport proper is a comparative wasteland. Rows of abandoned warehouses line quaint but desolate cobblestone streets, while nearby rotting East River piers literally sink into the sea. Fetid puddles around the fish market taint the air.
But with the fish market closing in the next few years, and with plans afoot to rebuild the East River waterfront, community members are hoping to rejuvenate the district for tourists and New Yorkers alike. On Nov. 19, at its public meeting, Board 1 passed a resolution supporting rezoning of the area to prevent high-rises from marring the modest skyline.
Uncharacteristically, the board itself is the applicant in the requisite Uniform Land Use Review Process; it has worked with the Department of City Planning for over a year to craft an appropriate zoning plan. According to the Department of City Planning, the district’s current high-density zoning, which dates back to 1961, allows for 635,650-square-foot residential or commercial buildings, with no height restrictions. The new medium-density zoning (used to map other neighborhoods such as Tribeca and the East Village) would limit residential buildings to 382,661 square feet and commercial buildings to 381,390 square feet. The floor-area ratio, which regulates a building’s bulk, would be almost halved.
The board tabled its proposal in the wake of 9/11, but now that downtown cleanup has abated and the rebuilding effort is gathering momentum, the board is formally submitting its rezoning application. In order for the amendment to take effect, the board’s proposal must be reviewed by the Manhattan Borough President and approved by the City Planning Commission and the City Council.
At the meeting, support for the plan among board members was almost unanimous (with 27 members voting in favor, zero opposed and one abstention). The only visible opponent of the proposal was a representative of developer Milstein Properties. For the past 20 years the company has been trying to get approval to build a high-rise on the site of a parking lot it owns at 250 Water Street. Milstein opposes zoning restrictions that would limit its building’s height. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which designated the seaport a historic district in 1977, has consistently rejected Milstein’s proposals, claiming that a tower would overpower neighboring buildings, which average four stories.
Meanwhile, the New York City Economic Development Corporation has analyzed the economic implications of rezoning and determined that developers would receive a
fair return on investment under the
proposed amendment. Local elected
officials, community groups and the Alliance for Downtown New York, which operates lower Manhattan’s busines-improvement district, all support the new zoning as part of a comprehensive plan to restore the East River waterfront and preserve the seaport’s historic character.
Community activists are confident that the rezoning proposal will be approved, despite the formidable political clout of the Milstein family.
“We are the last line of defense in keeping New York City history in this particular pocket in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge alive and well for generations to come,” Gary Fagin, a member of the Seaport Community Coalition and former chair of Board 1’s seaport committee, told The Observer, “A hundred years from now-if we lose-people are going to look at this historic district and see tall towers, and they are going to say, ‘What were they thinking that they allowed this happen?'”
Nov. 26: Board 12, Columbia University Alumni Auditorium, 650 West 168th Street, 7 p.m., 568-8500.
Dec. 3: Board 7, St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, 1000 10th Avenue, 2nd floor, 7 p.m., 362-4008.