The Real Deal New York

With new subway, massive eyesores

As long-awaited Second Avenue subway becomes a reality, Upper East Siders cringe at giant utility structures also planned

November 30, 2009 09:38AM
By Sarah Ryley

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Renderings of the utility structure planned for outside the 96th Street station of the under-construction Second Avenue subway

From the December issue: Those sticky summers languishing on the platform will be obsolete for future riders of the Second Avenue subway. Unlike most city subway stations, where air is sucked through sidewalk grates by passing trains, the new stations will be chilled by a modern ventilation system.

But much to the dismay of some Upper East Siders, that ventilation system will be housed in permanent aboveground utility structures situated at each end of the stations, many as large as midsize apartment buildings, rising up to nine stories tall.

As part of its first phase of Second Avenue subway construction, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is planning eight of these structures along a 34-block stretch of the Upper East Side.

Elected officials, apartment owners and architects who have seen renderings of these hulking mechanical cabinets argue that they will blight the residential avenue, depressing property values in their immediate vicinity.

The real estate implications of erecting these structures, which will also sink seven stories belowground, are already proving to be enormous.

Thirteen properties have been seized via eminent domain to make way for them, while 75 residents and business owners face eviction at an estimated cost of $10 million.

In addition, dozens of co-op owners could forever be left with bricked-up windows or blocked sunlight.

What’s more, their utilitarian facades resemble “an improved parking garage,” said Stanford Eckstut, founder of the Manhattan-based architecture firm EE & K, which co-designed ventilation towers for the PATH train in Greenwich Village in the 1990s.

“These are buildings that are going to last forever; they should be contributing to the street scene,” he said. “They should not just be a wrapping to hide mechanical things.”

Thomas Noble, who owns a co-op at 233 East 69th Street next to the largest of these proposed structures (it would fill two lots and rise nine stories), said that based on renderings the MTA has shared, “it’s going to be a real detriment to the neighborhood.”

Soft-footed negotiations

Some Upper East Side residents are wary of locking horns with the MTA, fearing that a protracted legal battle would delay or kill the subway project.

Instead — through elected officials, civic groups and the law firm Herrick Feinstein — they have attempted, with some success, to negotiate behind the scenes.

“People in the Upper East Side want this subway. When it’s finished, all in all, it’s going to be a great boon to the neighborhood,” said Noble, who is also an architect. “I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to have the process grind to a halt yet again.”

The fact that the structures need to be built is nonnegotiable — they are needed to house utilities, smoke evacuation systems and emergency exits, said MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz, noting that sidewalk grates now violate the city’s building code.

The architecture firms DMJM+Harris and Arup were chosen in 2001 through a competitive bidding process to design the entire subway, including the utility structures. Neither firm responded to requests for comment.

The first phase of the Second Avenue subway, expected to be finished around 2017, will extend the Q Train from 57th to 96th Street and create four new entrances with these utility structures at each end.

Since ultimately the subway is planned to stretch from 125th Street to Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan, the structures erected on the Upper East Side could set a precedent for what is built in other neighborhoods.

Noble, Eckstut and several others said the MTA should hold a design competition to improve their bland facades, which they argue will create “dead corners.”

“I think aesthetics have to be part of the discussion here. These facilities serve a critical purpose for the subway, but there’s no reason for them to be ugly,” said City Councilman Dan Garodnick.

Already, the MTA has made a few concessions, including incorporating small-footprint retail, such as newsstands, in six of the eight planned structures.

Morphing larger

Originally, planners said these utility structures would replicate row houses.

The Final Environment Impact Statement (FEIS) for the project stated that the new ventilation structures “would typically be approximately the same size as a typical row house — 25 feet wide, 75 feet deep, and four to five stories high, although some may be wider.”

“They could be designed to appear like a neighborhood row house in height, scale, materials and colors,” said the document, referring to a rendering of a four-story brick building with faux windows.

Somewhere along the line, however, the structures grew from five to, in one instance, 15 stories tall (although the height was later reduced). Their facades changed from chameleons with faux brownstone windows to tricolored behemoths. And the ventilation shafts were shifted from just the roofs and rear yards to entire street-facing walls.

Ortiz said the brick rendering was just an example, noting, “at that point we didn’t even have a conceptual design.”

He added that the size of the current design is consistent with what a private developer could build under zoning laws.

Richard Bass, a senior real estate analyst with Herrick Feinstein, has been working with property owners in 14 buildings along the first-phase stretch. He successfully negotiated on behalf of a co-op at 245 East 72nd Street to have the neighboring utility structure’s height reduced to 75 feet from 150 feet.

Fortunately, Bass said the MTA has been generally open to negotiation. “I’ve found them reasonable, easy to work with. Sometimes we disagree, but for the most part we’re both trying to facilitate a win-win scenario.”

Noble’s co-op board, which Herrick Feinstein also represents, is asking the MTA to push the planned neighboring ventilation structure back 10 feet to prevent 16 apartments from losing either their lot-line windows or sunlight.

While the MTA has a right to build up to the lot line, the 69th Street co-op’s recourse could be that the planned structure is larger than what was approved in the FEIS.

Appraiser Jonathan Miller, president of the firm Miller Samuel, said the co-ops could stand to lose between 5 and 20 percent of their value — the lower amount for apartments with already obstructed views that would lose even more sunlight, and the higher for those with clear views that would have their lot line windows bricked up.

“If you have compressors, buzzing … that to me would have a bigger impact than loss of light,” said Miller.

Conversely, he said properties further east and away from the current subway could see their property values increase up to 15 percent because of better access to mass transportation.

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