By Lynn Ellsworth
New York is at a crossroads. Big Real Estate wants to remake our city in the style of Dubai. Their goal: Drown us under glass towers and replace our historic, low, and mid-rise city with a vision of urbanity straight out of Disney’s “Tomorrow-land.” But we don’t have to go down that road. We propose to keep what is left of our low and mid-rise historic and human-scale neighborhoods. They are examples of great urbanity and one of the reasons to live in New York. Moreover, we can build new neighborhoods that are both human-scale and beautiful. Such ideas are possible: More density does not have to mean high rises. New construction can be compatible with the conservation of our neighborhoods.
Although it’s clear that the obstacles to planning a human-scale future for New York are great, they are not insurmountable. First, we need legislation to regulate out-of-scale tower construction. Such towers shadow our public realm and ruin our skyline at an unprecedented scale. The “super-talls” are a case in point. They first appeared on 57th Street, but are now spreading throughout the city as shown by the Municipal Art Society’s maps. These “super-talls” darken life for those on lower floors and put a stamp of approval on a civic architecture that is purely oligarchic: darkness for the poor and sunlight for the rich. And every neighborhood has its version of “super-talls”: obscenely out-of-scale towers needlessly destroying the human-scale character that was there before. We can change that by embracing a different vision of densification.
The second thing we must set right is the habit city government has of blessing the privatization of public spaces, views, and sunlight and the transfer of those public assets to private hands, all in the name of real estate “growth.” Current examples of this range from the takeover of 110,000 square feet of public space on Water Street to the American Museum of Natural History’s proposed encroachment of the public Theodore Roosevelt Park. These seizures signal to developers that the public assets of the city are theirs, not ours.
Third, we need charter reforms that cure a grim situation: Big Real Estate has, for too long, had “undue influence” on our municipal government. Their favored people keep ending up appointed to our regulatory bodies. Moreover, as the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption showed, the ties between the real estate lobby and our politicians are deep and insufficiently challenged. That must change through public disclosure of those ties and new rules to eliminate them.
Once we reform the regulatory bodies, we can then take on the next project: zoning and planning reform that would create a human-scale city.
If you care about these issues, join us with the new alliance, New Yorkers for a Human-Scale City. We are 88 community and civic groups from all five boroughs. Our unifying petition can be found at www.humanscale.nyc. Sign it and pass it on, and let your community board know, by phone or email, that you support the human-scale petition. We can change the rules of the game. Signing is the first step. Lynn Ellsworth is the co-founder of New Yorkers for a Human-Scale City and founder of the Tribeca Trust.
Lynn Ellsworth is the co-founder of New Yorkers for a Human-Scale City and founder of the Tribeca Trust.