Really saving New York City

Hotel Pennsylvania (1919) is slated for demolition. (boweryboyshistory.com)

Authorities in the Big Apple, including, it now seems, the state’s new governor, Kathy Hochul, have bought into a vision of Manhattan’s future that privileges the greedy moguls of high finance and their camp followers in high office. So what else is new? You’d think that as a woman the new governor would want to flee her predecessor’s priapic project as fast as her legs can carry her. But no.

What is new is that instead of ruining the city building by building, as has been the way for decades, the entire area around Pennsylvania Station, nine square blocks, is to be torn down and rebuilt with skyscrapers from horizon to horizon. The old district – 13 landmark and landmark-eligible buildings, and at least 50 in all – will be replaced by glitzy towers and transformed into a sterile wasteland of wind corridors and dark shadows alternating with the sun’s glare reflected in hundreds of acres of glass. Meanwhile, workers, residents and visitors will enjoy endless construction sites, street closures, detours, and traffic snarls around the busiest transportation depot in the western hemisphere.

In a letter to Association for a Better New York chairman Steven Rubenstein urging him to hear an alternative plan by ReThinkNYC, its chairman Samuel Turvey wrote:

The Governor’s plan does not differ markedly from her predecessor’s. Much of the neighborhood would still be needlessly demolished, “supertall” buildings loathed by everyone except, it seems, governors of New York, will still add unsustainable density to the vicinity, blot out the sun and obscure the skyline, and, when the dust settles, Penn Station will still be trapped in the basement of a hockey rink.

This is more than a matter of whether to rebuild Penn Station to the original 1910 design of McKim Mead & White. Hochul’s plan for the neighborhood would blot out that opportunity altogether, substituting a half-assed remodel amid its plan to redevelop the area. High on the list of legacy architecture set for demolition would be the venerable Hotel Pennsylvania, also designed by McKim Mead & White and right across Seventh Avenue from Penn Station. The plan, formerly the Empire Station Complex and now called the Pennsylvania Station Civic and Land Use Improvement Project, was recently opposed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which described it as “hauntingly reminiscent of the failed ‘urban renewal’ strategies of the 1960s.”

Penn Station today is not on anyone’s list of landmarked buildings, nor should it be, but press accounts have suggested that unidentified preservationists want to landmark both Madison Square Garden, which squats atop Penn Station, and Two Penn Plaza, the 29-story tower also built on top of the station. That is a ridiculous idea. Landmarking those two structures would spell doomsday for rebuilding Penn Station. Turvey stresses that ReThinkNYC and the Empire State Coalition, the alliance of which it is a part, oppose any such steps. He adds:

We are not sure who is behind using preservation laws to protect Madison Square Garden and 2 Penn Plaza but it may well be a very cynical ploy by someone to detract from the fact that the State of New York, [real-estate mogul] Vornado and the Dolans [owners of the arena] would like to see the Penn neighborhood obliterated to make way for a Maginot Line of supertalls, an underground Penn Station and a dated track plan. That becomes a reality only after destroying numerous historic sites, displacing residents and hundreds of small businesses.

Cynical ploys may be the mother’s milk of New York politics. It’s surely not for nothing that historian Vincent Scully wrote after Penn Station’s demise: “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” Do we want to set the current Penn Station in cement? Do we want urban renewal in NYC? I don’t think so. Sam Turvey well encapsulates the situation:

To paraphrase Jane Jacobs, we could not save the original Penn Station but we can save New York. We can dothis, in part, by having the courage to rebuild an architectural masterpiece that should never have been destroyed andby letting logic, need and geography rather than political infighting and man-made jurisdictional limits define ourfuture transit operations. If we get this right, we will not only save New York but will unlock the region’s true potentialin ways that will burnish the legacies of all who fought to make this happen for generations to come.

***

A continuation of the public hearing held by the New York State Development Corporation in December on much of the above, which has been described as 90 percent in opposition to the Empire Station Complex, begins at 5 p.m. today at the link below:

https://us02web.zoom.us/w/81376225529?tk=QM-hbBP0oqmERx2cR1U1A3XPG7fnQwjBsbfUhieqx6g.DQMAAAAS8mao-RZGSGxyZkozaFRkZUlsdTJjNW1OZVlnAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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20 Responses to Really saving New York City

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  4. Has the governor and others looked at the real estate market lately? There are so many vacancies. NYC may never return to glory. Unfortunate but true. Poor leadership!!

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    • A very big reason, Steve, why New York should not proceed with this anti-urban plan. Who will fill those towers? Look for Lynn Ellsworth’s excellent testimony in opposition to the plan at yesterday’s hearing before the Empire State Development Corporation, which I expect to run as a guest post in the next day or two.

      Like

  5. Peter Van Erp (aka Peter Khan) says:

    Congratulations David! You must have hit close to the mark to have attracted a multi post troll (Giovanni il Primo, to rename it).
    I’m afraid that New York is doomed to a long slow descent over the next decades, as they try to keep the existing underground infrastructure dry and operating, and drive out more small businesses by the construction of these huge monsters.

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    • John the First always has interesting things to say, even if they are not necessarily pertinent to my posts. He has been writing for a long time, and usually at length, so much so that I often feel I have little time to reply adequately. Lazy Reader is another frequent and thoughtful commenter, possibly the same individual as John the First. I cannot tell.

      I think that if NYC decides to rebuild Penn Station as it was originally designed (with tweaks for the modern era), and if they remove MSG and rebuilt it as it was originally designed by MMW, and if they use those redevelopments to model further development in the Penn vicinity and beyond – big ifs I grant you – then NYC can experience a magnificent efflorescence. I cannot believe the state and city will ultimately go through with something as stupid as what’s being proposed. Yes, I know, money money money. I still cannot believe it.

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      • John the First says:

        What malice can invent is not worth a reaction David, but you handle it tactically as usual.
        I’d suggest to distinguish between people you need to look at the approach, your’s is activistic, partly practical and in detail (aside of the articles where you deal with context in the sense of how modernism gained dominance), Lazy Reader’s posts also contains practical and more detailed information. Etc.
        I’d write for instance that New York is a megapolis, in the context of a mass democracy, in the context of overpopulation, which means atomization, identity politics (instead of community) uprooted masses and dehumanization, that the modernist style is characteristic of that, and thus modernist architectural style (also as symbols of power) is the logical choice, and that’s how the money flows. An approach of cultural and political philosophy.

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  6. Catxman says:

    I guess it depends on whether you support change for its own sake, or value continuity with the past. New York, culturally, has always been a city that supports change. Money steamrolls steadily but slowly over NIMBYism in the Great Metropolis, leaving no survivors. Donald Trump is the penultimate example of the New York developer. Scoop up the pretty woman and knock down the tall antiquated building.

    — Catxman

    http://www.catxman.wordpress.com

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    • Manhattan and its sisters in NYC epitomized continuity with the past for centuries. It continues to do so, only now preferring (for several decades) continual ugliness, usually of a similar sort. I obviously prefer continuity over change, but am willing to accept change if it serves as a useful and appealing exclamation point amid continuity, sort of like the Eiffel Tower. Trump may indeed be the penultimate corrupt NYC developer. That may be one reason why he was a very good president, rising above his occasionally ridiculous personality.

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      • John the First says:

        I’d suggest two works of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, The Menace of the Herd, or Procrustes at Large and Liberty or Equality: The Challenge of Our Time and (in that order).
        The US has morphed from a republic into a democracy gradually since the beginning of the nineteenth century, not a humble local peasant democracy, but a mass democracy. In order to control a mass democracy, and to increase control, you need the tactics of constant uprooting, and to keep society mobile. If you keep society mobile, promote constant change (and destruction), you can turn it in the direction you want.
        Nobody supports change for ‘its own sake’, it is about power, and change is the means to take over, to mold society as you wish it to be. The US is by long an ever more centrally governed country with an about predominantly mobile society going in the direction of the modernist change makers (‘modernists’ is not related to just the architectural scene here). Thought it’s roots of the love for community (masses in megapolises like NY are no community, at least there is ever less community) and the drive for freedom are still present in the US (but almost extinct in Europe).

        Trump at least has personality, which cannot be said of the ideological drones Obama and Biden, both product of late modernism.

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  7. John the First says:

    “You’d think that as a woman the new governor would want to flee her predecessor’s priapic project as fast as her legs can carry her.”

    This is like hoping that a free floating identity politics projectile like Hochul will accidentally hit the modernists, while identity politics is per definition modernist. Per definition anti-traditional, characterized by centralized planning and control, characterized by megalopolises with large quantities of uprooted and atomized individuals who as masses are controlled in mass environments. Identity politics flourishes in such environments.

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  8. John the First says:

    “You’d think that as a woman the new governor would want to flee her predecessor’s priapic project as fast as her legs can carry her. ”

    Legs of females carry them only where it is opportune.
    Females are tendentious creatures, and shortsighted like Schopenhauer wrote, they cannot do anything but follow up on the fashionable. You need to have her married to a traditionalist. You need to think in terms of building and maintaining empire, especially for the ambitious females who are out on power and who are in positions that they are likely to get into power.
    You may think that silly and not modern, but that is how modernists build empire.

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  9. LazyReader says:

    The human brain does not really appreciate buildings that even just look like they are liable to fall down — especially post-9/11, when several gigantic buildings actually did fall down. New York does not require any more skyscrapers. That type of building is obsolete and no longer suited to the moguls real estate swindles. There are too many of them now — including scores of office towers that are 30 percent-or-less occupied these days, due to Covid-19 and the new mode of working-from-home, now firmly established as a corporate money-saver. The destiny of these buildings is a humongous problem for the city whom without building rents cannot pay for infrastructure. At those ruinous occupancy rates, the reduced revenue cannot pay for taxes, mortgage-financing, and maintenance. The city has also seen scores of hotels go out of business as tourist industry revenue dropped from $4-billion pre-Covid to $531-million post-Covid. These are now long-term trends. The city will continue to contract. There will be a lot of empty skyscrapers, and many of them will not be cared-for. So what purpose served by 13 new ones?

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    • All excellent points, Lazy. I imagine that the owners of these properties, including Vornado Realty, owner of the proposed new towers, feel, as individuals, insulated personally from whatever real-estate calamity strikes New York City in the future. They should be disabused of their reckoning.

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    • John the First says:

      In despite of the alleged human cause climate change, fossile fuel usage is going up in the Western world, in despite of the alleged rising seawater levels and the alleged danger for islands, they are building hotels and airports on these islands.

      Preaching poverty to the people and accusing them of sinful behaviour (being wasteful is the modern sin, and not wearing the symbolic masks and not being vaccinated is another new sin), while such elites are hoarding riches and extending empire. May sound familiar.

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    • John the First says:

      “The human brain does not really appreciate buildings that even just look like they are liable to fall down — especially post-9/11, when several gigantic buildings actually did fall down.”

      Oh now aesthetic preferences becomes based on national psychological trauma, how tendentious, Salingaros could add this to his scientific theory of aesthetics, modern psychologists could jump into it. Aesthetics follows modern psychology… they would love it, it could lead to a whole new school. Arguments of an ever more bankrupt view on aesthetics? but it sounds fashionable, and so, convincing.

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