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Op-ed: New York City developments that impinge on important institutions or iconic views should be rejected

Garden variety

Op-ed: New York City developments that impinge on important institutions or iconic views should be rejected

Borough President Eric Adams recently voted down the two 39-story towers planned at 960 Franklin Avenue, which could shroud the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in shadow. (Hill West Architects)

One Manhattan Square is among New York City’s most disappointing buildings. An 80-story box completed in 2018, its cheap-looking glass skin is detailed with protrusions that resemble pockmarks. Much more significantly, it stands just 50 feet from the Manhattan Bridge, where Chinatown meets the East River. From that location, towering over everything around it, the building spoils views both to and from Lower Manhattan. From some angles it blocks the bridge; from others, it’s a dystopian backdrop.

I could forgive the architect and the developer if the building served a vital function. But it doesn’t. Even before the pandemic, its 815 condo units, starting at more than $1 million, didn’t attract many buyers. By September 2019, a year after they hit the market, only a small fraction had been sold. Last year, the developer, Extell, slashed prices by 20 percent. But with the pandemic affecting both where people want to live and how they want to live, the building may never sell out. The city has been irreparably damaged by a banal behemoth that wasn’t needed in the first place.

What if a similar disaster, brewing a few miles to the east, could be averted? Two developers, Continuum Company and Lincoln Equities, hope to build a pair of 39-story towers at 960 Franklin Avenue, in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. The problem is that the site is just 200 feet east of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The towers, dramatically taller than anything else in the area, will leave parts of the Botanic Garden in shadow nearly every morning of the year. That will make the 52-acre oasis, which opened in 1910, less attractive to visitors during all but the hottest months. Worse, many of its plants will suffer. The desert species in the garden’s Steinhardt Conservatory, for example, need full days of sunlight; for those plants, according to the garden’s president, Adrian Benepe, a former city parks commissioner, the buildings pose an “existential threat. (Despite Mayor De Blasio’s apparent opposition to the development—just last month he called it “grossly out of scale”—it continues to make its way through the approval process.)

As with One Manhattan Square, I would be more forgiving if the Crown Heights project was essential. It’s true that of the 1,600 units in the proposed complex, nearly half are expected to be “affordable” (although not affordable enough for most area residents). In 2019, Times columnist Ginia Bellafante suggested that to complain about the buildings was to ignore the needs of New York’s homeless.

I didn’t agree then—there are plenty of other places to build. (Ironically, this particular site is attractive to developers specifically because it’s so close to the garden and to Prospect Park.)

And I certainly don’t agree now. As a result of the ongoing pandemic, the demand for housing in the city is way down. (Some signs: Between the end of 2019 and the end of 2020, rents dropped more than 12 percent, according to StreetEasy, and the number of available rental units rose by 37,000.) Where demand will be in a year or two is anybody’s guess. But approving the buildings now risks doing permanent damage to the Botanic Garden.

At a review session scheduled for Monday, February 1, the Department of City Planning may certify the building’s application as complete, meaning it can go on to the final stages of the approval process. But that shouldn’t happen before the COVID-19 crisis has subsided, when it will be possible to get a better sense of the demand for housing in the area.

That’s not to say that all new construction in the city has to wait until the pandemic is over. Far from it. Construction creates jobs. And there are plenty of places to build towers that don’t cast shadows on gardens or parks. Or spoil views.

In fact, in the case of projects that don’t impinge on crucial institutions or iconic views, this is a terrific time to build. The Great Depression brought us the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, and Riverside Park (a WPA project). These developments not only didn’t hurt the city, they helped prepare it for a brighter day ahead.

So I am a cheerleader for projects like the Perelman Performing Arts Center, which is now rising at the World Trade Center, and which has the potential to be a remarkable building, both functionally and aesthetically.

architectural rendering of a housing development in New York City
Designed by Alexander Gorlin Architects, the Third Avenue Supportive Housing in the South Bronx is an example of a development that adds to, rather than detracts from, New York’s cityscape. (Courtesy Alexander Gorlin Architects)

Then there’s my own proposal for a Brooklyn Bridge Museum and Visitor Center. It would be built near the narrow stairway that currently directs tourists who walk over the bridge from Manhattan into a dank underpass. There they are greeted by broken signage, pigeon droppings, and a hotdog cart. They look disoriented and dismayed; many turn around and walk right back to Manhattan without experiencing anything that Brooklyn has to offer (including, of course, the Botanic Garden). It’s a great loss for the city’s most populous borough. A museum and visitor center would give people a reason to stick around, and maybe even something to write home about.

There’s also plenty of new housing that doesn’t hurt existing institutions. Comunilife is building 150 units of supportive housing at Third Avenue and 166 Street in the South Bronx. The building, by Alexander Gorlin Architects, is programmatically inventive—with culturally sensitive social services on the ground floor (including “Life is Precious,” an anti-suicide program for young Latinas). It is also visually rich, with colored metal panels enlivening its concrete facade and a sidewalk that quotes the joyful patterns of the pavement of Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach. Meanwhile, in Lower Manhattan, construction is continuing at Essex Crossing, the project that is turning what had been a series of unsightly parking lots on the south side of Delancey Street into a vital new neighborhood, with the spaces between the buildings as carefully considered as the buildings themselves.

Construction is New York City’s lifeblood. The right projects—not just buildings but also parks and public spaces—inspire us and help us imagine a better future. But for projects that throw shade on the city (literally or not), this isn’t the right time to build. Because if the demand doesn’t materialize, we’ll still be living with the damage.

Fred Bernstein studied architecture at Princeton and law at NYU and writes about both subjects.

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