1967: Gimbels plans a department store on East 86th Street
In March 1967 the department store Gimbels was looking to set up shop on East 86th Street, a move that eventually altered the fundamental character of the Upper East Side street. The retailer, which then had nine stores in the New York metropolitan area, applied for a zoning change to a site on the northwest corner of 86th Street and Lexington Avenue. Gimbels wanted to construct its proposed eight-story building with 90 feet more frontage on Lexington than zoning ordinances allowed. The zoning change was granted, and a Gimbels stood at the site until the chain closed down in the late 1980s. Gimbels had risen to prominence in New York as a fierce competitor of Macy’s; its flagship store in Herald Square is now the Manhattan Mall. Cost-cutting competitors eventually drove the chain out of business. Although East 86th Street was already a bustling corridor in 1967, it was known for its mom-and-pop retail, German restaurants and movie theaters. High-rise apartment construction in the area was on the upswing. Gimbels didn’t survive at the location, but it paved the way for the large retailers that now define 86th and Lexington, including Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Staples and Duane Reade.
1947: From X-City to the United Nations
In late March 1947, John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated a six-block tract of land in Turtle Bay to the United Nations for its headquarters. Rockefeller had purchased the 17-acre site from William Zeckendorf for $8.5 million several months earlier. Zeckendorf, who had only controlled the valuable East Side parcel for about a year, had grand visions of constructing a project known as X-City. The gigantic mixed-use development would have mainly been comprised of four high-rise office towers, three 30-story apartment towers and two 57-story skyscrapers, one a hotel and the other offices. Zeckendorf also wanted to place a new venue for the Metropolitan Opera on the site, as well as an airline terminal and a 5,000-car parking garage. Zeckendorf had difficulties securing financing for the project, though, and decided to sell the East Side land to Rockefeller at a bargain-rate price. The sale, which was interpreted by the public as a selfless act, helped make Zeckendorf one of the city’s most prominent and respected real estate investors.
1907: East 57th and East 59th emerge as competing streets
In March 1907, the New York Times documented a battle for bragging rights — and property values — between neighboring crosstown streets. By 1907, East 59th Street was already considered one of Manhattan’s main residential and commercial thoroughfares, and prices on the street were rising considerably as construction on the Queensboro Bridge progressed. All existing buildings on 59th Street east of Third Avenue were being demolished to make way for the Blackwell’s Island Bridge — as the Queensboro was then known — causing an uptick in the street’s already high property values to the west of Third. Some real estate experts at the time believed, however, that 57th Street would become the main thoroughfare in the area, because it was wider and would be better suited to accommodating the new bridge’s traffic flow. More traffic would bring more investment, and it was thought this would eventually make it a higher-priced street than 59th. Boosters for 59th Street were having none of this argument: “With the bridge crossing between Fifty-ninth and Sixtieth Streets, any considerable deflection of either business or traffic to Fifty-seventh Street is all but out of the question.” Today, 57th Street is the wider and more heavily trafficked of the two thoroughfares.