|The Manhattan Institute’s|
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city’s planning, housing, and development
|A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow|
New York City has been a transportation colossus for most of its history, and tends to retain a romantic but resolute attachment to the real estate associated with its glorious past. Thus the most savage development wars of the last few decades have centered on the waterfront and its lost heritage of shipping and railroads. And none was more brutal than the 40-year war fought over the 75-acre Penn Yards site, stretching from 59th Street to 72nd Street on Manhattan’s West Side. Amazingly enough, the Penn Yards war is coming to a productive, fairly peaceful end with the construction of Riverside South, a development of 16 residential buildings holding 5,700 apartments, 1.8 million square feet of commercial space, and a 21.5-acre waterfront public park.
Financed by investors from Hong Kong, built by the Trump Organization, owned by the Hudson Waterfront Company, and overseen by a coalition of civic groups called the Riverside South Planning Corporation (RSPC), Riverside South is a triumph of harmony out of acrimony. Not all issues are settled--transportation problems in particular remain--but basically the development is rapidly becoming a part of the West Side neighborhood that had once fought it to a draw.
The Riverside South saga of travail and triumph is worth pondering. After all, the huge, derelict site was long top-grade, prime waterfront real estate that had the most prized trait of all in New York: it was vacant. No residents had to be moved, no businesses displaced. So why did development prove to be so difficult, and what can be learned from the struggle?
SEVEN FAILED PROPOSALS
Then in 1980, the Macri Group, who came to be known locally as the Argentines, optioned the site, and quickly proposed Lincoln West--a 7.3-million-square-foot project with 4,300 residential units. They were serious. They got the necessary rezoning in 1982 from the Koch administration. But they then failed to get financing, and lost the site.
In January 1985, Donald Trump bought the site for $100 million in partnership with Al Hirschfield--who had also been a partner with the Argentines--and proposed a 16.5-million-square-foot project, Television City, designed by architect Helmut Jahn. It included the world’s tallest building at 152 stories. Trump hoped to entice NBC to move in as prime tenant. Outraged West Siders and civic groups, which had been active but relatively polite regarding Lincoln West, organized immediately in opposition.
In late 1986 Trump proposed a new 14.5-million-square-foot project, with 7,600 apartments in 60- and 70-story towers, and a regional shopping mall. This time his architect was Alex Cooper, who had been the lead architect for Battery Park City’s master plan and who was well-regarded by nearly everybody, including the good government groups. But Cooper’s reputation didn’t diminish West Side outrage, and opposition to the project’s size swelled.
Mayor Koch aligned himself with the community opposition, and said he would oppose any project larger than 7.4 million square feet, the old Lincoln West size. He also rejected out of hand Trump’s request for zoning waivers and a $1 billion tax abatement to attract NBC. An uneasy NBC announced in 1987 that it would not be moving to Television City.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s finances worsened into near bankruptcy. In 1990 the banks restructured his $2 billion in loans, and deferred payments on his $200-million loan for the Penn Yards project, which he began calling Trump City. But the banks urged him to produce a workable, buildable plan.
Everybody knew that wasn’t going to happen without community cooperation.
CUTTING THROUGH DEVELOPMENT GRIDLOCK
In March 1991 Trump and the coalition of civics, which also included the Parks Council, Regional Plan Association, Riverside Park Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Westpride, agreed to reduce the project’s size by 40% to 8.3 million square feet. The buildings would range from 30 to 40 stories, and the waterfront park would cover 23 acres. Design standards would impose variations among the towers, and the street plan would respect the existing West Side grid. In exchange, the civic groups promised to usher the Trump proposal through the land use review process.
And indeed they did. Despite the disapproval of Community Board 7, the project was almost immediately approved by the City Planning Commission and by Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger. The project passed the City Council in December 1992. Still, construction didn’t begin until the spring of 1997. The first building was finished in 1998, and six buildings are completed today.
LESSON 1: DON’T FOMENT YOUR OWN OPPOSITION
Without talking about the Trump project, Moerdler commented recently that there’s a lot to be said for the scenario in which a developer comes to the community and says “I have no intention of arousing community opposition. Let’s meet and cooperate. But give me what I have a right to, which is a fair return.” The problem comes from the “many different, contending community groups, organizations, and viewpoints that even if you get A to agree, B will not, even if or maybe because A has agreed.”
Perhaps Trump figured the community was going to force a huge cut in the size of the project whatever he proposed, and perhaps he didn’t actually want to build for 20 years, but his outsized project coalesced the West Side--normally a maverick, divided group--against him. Plus he seldom had mayoral support on his side. No developer can build with both the community and the mayor opposed.
LESSON 2: MAKE SURE GOVERNMENT LIVES UP TO ITS COMMITMENTS
Many elected officials, most notoriously Congressman Jerrold Nadler who has held up federal funding for the relocation, seem to believe that moving the highway was a Trump initiative, meant primarily to enhance his property values. But it was always a civic initiative, part of the civic agenda long before they coalesced with Trump. The highway blights the park and the waterfront.
As for Trump, he laughs and says the highway allows all those potential buyers and renters to drive by his buildings and see how great they are.
LESSON 3: LEARN TO MOVE ON
YES! ON PREPARING TO MOVE THE MILLER HIGHWAY
Benepe also notes that Riverside Park was itself built on top of covered-over railroad tracks in the 1930s. For many years several trains a day passed beneath the magnificent promenade above. Surely if New York could do it in the 1930s we can do it today?