Monday, June 09, 2008

The Case for Marx Brothers Place -- Through Zoning

Just received a copy of a letter Susan Hefti of the 93rd Street Beautification Association has sent out to Council Member Melinda Katz and Mark Silberman, counsel for the NYC Landmarks Preservation Association. This is smart, powerful stuff. Hopefully they're reading, absorbing and listening. Here's the letter:

To: NYC Council Member Melinda Katz, Chair, Land Use Committee, NYC Council and Mark Silberman, esq., Counsel, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, et al

From: 93rd Street Beautification Association
Re: Proposed Amendment to NYC Zoning Code - Submitted June 9, 2008

Dear Council Member Katz and Mr. Silberman,

It is without question that the process and culture of construction and development in New York City has ballooned out of control, casting a fatal shadow over our community, far too grave for its citizens to abide.

While most New Yorkers are not averse to the general concept of development, residents quite rightly expect such development to be planned, managed, monitored and cohesively integrated into a process informed by the imperatives to protect public safety, the fragile urban ecosystem and the city's historic neighborhoods.

As recent tragedies have brought to light, the development juggernaut that has defined the last few years in our city's development history has sadly resulted in the loss of innocent lives, the demolition of irreplaceable historic structures and the eradication of green spaces particularly vital to the health and future of our city and its residents.

While everyone knows the benefits of development, we can no longer ignore its limitations. And as one devastating story after another makes the news, New Yorkers grow more and more leery of the process by which development decisions are being made in our city.

Before zoning and environmental laws were enacted, development occurred throughout the nation in fits and starts, with little thought to a comprehensive plan best suited to any particular community and, for the most part, unbridled by land use controls.

As you are both well aware, much of our own city's development history evolved through happenstance. What was once one of the largest sources of drinking water in NYC is now buried under a neighborhood we call Chinatown. Many of the hills and slopes that originally led Native Americans to name the island of Manhattan for its steep topography were shaved into flat surfaces, now sporting behemoth skyscrapers.

The development history of our great city is actually something that in many ways just sprawled as more and more people flocked to this remarkable mecca that has offered so much hope for generations of Americans determined to actualize the promise that is our city.

But, like most communities, NYC has evolved and does now regulate the use of private land with an eye to zoning, the impact of a project on the environment and the preservation of historic structures and neighborhoods. At least, that's the way it's supposed to work.

But the issuance of more than 6,000 Building Permits in 2007 alone, with just over 400 Inspectors to monitor the vast sea of construction projects was a foregone tragedy waiting to happen. Clearly, to allow development to continue barreling along on the same old fast-track would be most imprudent, sorely unwise and terribly irresponsible. Yet the 93rd Street Beautification Association knows that the City Council means business when it says that changes will be made.

Of course, some of these changes are systemic, while it appears others may turn out to be issues of personnel. But, whatever the specifics, the underlying opportunity lies in the fact that there is an urgent need for the City Council (together with all the related agencies and Commissions) to help foster a new perspective on development in our great city.

Whether tightening safety standards for crane inspections, requiring a more careful review of historic structures before issuing a demolition permit or simply reintroducing the city to its own (and the state's) environmental regulations, all the necessary changes that must be made have at least two things in common; 1). a comprehensive integrated vision of development is needed which best suits our city and the needs of its residents now and in the future, and 2.) the level of scrutiny afforded to all construction and development projects must be carefully reviewed and sanctioned only accordingly.

Before the city greenlights development projects and issues demolition and building permits, a host of considerations must be thoughtfully weighed, and no longer given mere lip service.

Development decisions in NYC must take into account 1.) the unique physicality of our urban environment and the acute safety issues raised thereby; 2.) the historic character and sustainability of New York's ancient neighborhoods and 3.) the long term environmental effects of demolition and construction projects on the immediate neighborhoods, the city's infrastructure, the health of our residents and the future of New York City as a global leader and a magnet for international tourism.

The most creative and vibrant city in the world, New York City should be out in front on all of these important issues. Here at home, our city should have the most progressive and comprehensive development process in the nation. It is no longer sufficient to look back in regret. We must come together and make the hard decisions now.

Personal injuries and loss of life; the decimation of irreplaceable historic homes and the continued browning of our city's ecosystem can neither be justified, nor sustained.

And while many changes are needed in order to achieve an acceptable development process in NYC, the 93rd Street Beautification Association has focused its efforts on just one aspect of what will hopefully be a much broader overhaul of the way development occurs as we move forward in the 21st century.

After watching three beautiful side-by-side 19th century houses with their original victorian details, as designed by architect E.D. Gornsey, needlessly razed to rubble (the last one - demolished just months ago - had been owned by the New Yorker William Orth who bought it in 1882), when they should have been recycled and restored to their original magnificent glory for new residents to raise their families on this quiet little block, and then witnessing the shocking demolition of the adjoining historic contiguous gardens and species habitats, which for more than a century stretched back 55 feet of each 100 foot lot evidencing the historic difference in the 19th century sensibility which opted for a more substantial green space rather than a bloated interior floor space (which stretched only 45 feet back by comparison), and then filing countless complaints with 311 regarding shoddy construction practices at the site (180 East 93rd Street) which finally resulted in a STOP WORK ORDER (now lifted by the City), the 93rd Street Beautification Association realized that something had to be done.

Our experience in Carnegie Hill has dramatically exposed one of the many cracks in the administrative framework of NYC's extant development process. Currently, unless a structure is within a designated historic district, a demolition permit can be issued without a public hearing and without a thorough review of the historic significance of the subject structure or alternatives to its demise.

This obvious gap between the community's integrity and the city's readiness to hand over the wrecking ball must be rectified posthaste. For, once an historic structure is felled, all the kings horses and all the kings men can't put it back together again.

The maturity of any great society is measured by its willingness to recognize the mistakes of its past, and to muster the strength to change course as it moves into the future. The time has come for the City of New York to move into the 21st century by finally respecting its architectural and cultural past. There can be no doubt that our collective history unequivocally merits the opportunity for reflection before it is forever destroyed.

So as not to repeat the demolition mistakes of the past, and in order to protect NYC's historic neighborhoods for the good of the city's future, the City of New York must immediately initiate a process by which due reflection occurs before irreparable harm ensues.

To that end, and in the best interests of our city's safety, health and future, the 93rd Street Beautification Association strongly urges the Members of the NY City Council to unanimously embrace the attached Proposed Amendment to the NYC Zoning Code (also known as "Demolition Application" or "Demolition Review") and adopt this amendment into law without further delay.

Respectfully submitted,

Susan Kathryn Hefti
Co-Chair, 93rd Street Beautification Association

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