Frozen in time

Envisioning the future of New York is “more of the same”

Jul.July 01, 2012 07:00 AM

There is a certain building on East 79th Street — I will not single it out by name, but it’s closer to the East River than to Central Park — that is so ugly as to fill all decent and sensitive souls with a feeling of reflexive loathing. Doubtless it is pleasant enough to inhabit, largely because, as long as you are inside it, you cannot see the unlovely exterior of the building. It is also in a good and desirable location.

The problem is that it will stand there, a hulking high-rise, more or less forever.

Perhaps in a billion years or so, the great world will split asunder, and the primeval ooze will reassert its dominion over the Eastern seaboard, taking all of Manhattan with it, including that high-rise. Beyond that eventuality, however, it is hard to see how any force of God or man — or any urbanistic development or legal or financial instrument — will bring down that appalling late Modernist slab.

The reason for this is obvious. The building is a condo with hundreds of units. In order for it to be replaced with something bigger or better, you would have to secure the compliance of every last one of those hundreds of owners, and that unanimity, surely, is never going to happen. For this reason, that tasteless structure, which was so thoughtlessly raised as a rental back in the 1970s — when co-op conversion was really only getting started — will remain there as long as its material condition allows.

Such inflexible longevity was not always a given.

It used to be that (notwithstanding the permanence of structures in Europe or the Middle East, by which I mean the Colosseum or the Great Pyramids) in North America, and especially in Manhattan, each building came with an implicit, albeit invisible, expiration date.

Many a new building rose over the vanquished ghosts of one, two or even three earlier structures. The architect and the developer of any new building, therefore, could expect that even their latest development would be coming down in the fullness of time. And given the eagerness of New York developers to build ever higher, especially during the middle years of the last century, this expectation seemed to be a very plausible prospect.

Indeed, as columnist Christopher Gray recently wrote in the New York Times, there was even talk, in the early 1960s, of tearing down the Dakota — which was a rental at the time — in order to build something as big and awful as the Mayfair Towers, that ugly building that arose just west of it at 15 West 72nd Street.

Today, of course, that could never happen — and not only because of the existence of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. There are too many stakeholders in any sizable condo or co-op building in Manhattan for it ever again to be likely that such a structure, once up, will be taken down. (Even if all the residents are renters, the prospects of change to a large existing tower — especially one subject to rent stabilization — would be very slight.)

In addition, thanks to present zoning laws and to the nature of the real estate market — both of which, in theory, could change — most buildings have reached their maximum allowable height, which means that even if they could be torn down, there would be limited incentive to do so. That is the case with many buildings along Manhattan’s major avenues, while the row houses and brownstones on side streets are increasingly being landmarked. For such reasons, among others, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that a large building, whether residential or commercial, will be coming down soon or that, hereafter, any such building that does arise will ever be replaced.

All of this brings us to several rather dismal conclusions.

First, while urban planners and sci-fi novelists have conjured up phantasmagoric visions of how the cityscape will look, the future of New York is not, or should not be, a mystery to anyone. It will look a lot like what it is today. Between the landmarking of smaller residential buildings, and the collective ownership of the larger ones, most of what you see now will still be standing a century on.

It may be that because of the inevitable repairs that will be required, buildings will be reclad to reflect a more updated style. We have seen this already with the laborious conversion across the Upper East Side of white-brick buildings of the postwar period to somewhat more contextual and historicist buildings clad in red brick. It is also possible that owners will be allowed to add a few penthouse stories to existing buildings. And it does, indeed, occur on occasion that existing structures are torn down.

But these types of changes are incremental and bear little resemblance to the wholesale architectural transformation that seemed to wash over Manhattan at generational intervals up until perhaps the 1990s. From now on, Manhattan’s building stock is more apt to recall that of Paris and Venice, where — notwithstanding a few well-placed and incremental changes that are ongoing — the overall cast of the city has been immobilized in the style of an earlier era and will not change.

The unique challenge that New York faces is that its buildings are, for the most part, very different from those of Paris or Venice. The charm that attaches to the older buildings of those two cities will never apply to ours, first because our buildings are mostly drabber than theirs, and then because the great majority of our buildings — at least south of 86th Street — are Modernist and Modernist-inspired. And buildings in that style — I believe uniquely in the history of architecture — are vitiated rather than improved by the passage of years.

If there is any good news in all of this, it is that Manhattan is nowhere near the saturation point in regards to new developments. There are many spaces throughout the city (especially in places like the Far West Side, Inwood and the Lower East Side, not to mention the outer boroughs) that are comparatively underdeveloped. Even in midtown, there are parking lots that are being transformed or will be soon.

The problem is not finding lots for new development: The problem is the increasing difficulty of pulling down anything that has ever gone up.

James Gardner is The Real Deal’s architecture critic.

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