Monday, March 19, 2018

Breen vs. The Glassing of New York

From her downtown office, Peg Breen, President of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, looks out over historic buildings that the Conservancy had a hand in preserving--Ellis Island, the 1886 fireboat station at Pier A, the U.S. Customs House/National Museum of the American Indian.

They remind her of what can be accomplished--and what is at stake in this age of rampant over-development.

A proposal is right now sitting on the desk of the New York State Assembly. If it passes, the city will become a radically different place. Breen wants to stop it.

The Conservancy is celebrating its 45th year of advocating for and funding the preservation and restoration of what Breen calls "the best of New York," from the Olmsted House and the Picasso Curtain, to neighborhood brownstones and houses of worship.

"Buildings tell stories," says Breen. "And all the different layers in New York tell our history. They tell migration patterns. They give you a sense of continuity of place. Here is a solid place, they say. People have lived here before and people will continue. It's home."

New York has always been in flux, yet it has maintained its character and cultural originality, its openness to new people and ideas. "But change has picked up more rapidly in recent years," says Breen, and that change is turning the city into something that looks more like Shanghai or Dubai.

It's about to get worse--and most of us don't even know it.

2016 protest againt MIH and ZQA, Getty

Breen is most concerned about the de Blasio administration zoning changes that are lifting restrictions on how high and wide developers can build.

First came ZQA. Packaged with the controversial MIH (Mandatory Inclusionary Housing), ZQA (Zoning for Quality and Affordability) was approved by the City Council in 2016, a move met with fierce protest from neighborhood activists and many other advocates for a human-scale city. Simply put, ZQA was a citywide upzoning to increase the sizes of new buildings in the name of affordable housing.

In their statement to the City Council, the Historic Districts Council called it "a concession to developers to sweeten Mandatory Inclusionary Housing." Furthermore, "ZQA loosens the entire city’s existing zoning to allow greater density for market-rate development, under the guise of creating affordable units, which, as we all know, is optional. The provisions for seniors have an expire after thirty years, after which will be converted to more market rate housing."

But the looming towers loosened by ZQA hit a ceiling--the FAR Cap.

The citywide residential FAR (floor area ratio) was capped at 12 back in 1961. FAR limits the size and density of buildings, and 12 is not the biggest--for comparison, the Empire State Building has a FAR of 25. Lower FAR can discourage new construction, and higher FAR often increases land values. For obvious reasons, the real estate industry wants higher FAR.

In New York, the FAR Cap is about to be removed.

"Once this cap is gone," says Breen, "it allows the city to come in and upzone. Communities will have very little impact. And nobody knows this is happening," because there has been no public hearing. 

"This is the opposite of democracy."

from HDC

The Regional Plan Association (RPA) supports the repeal of the FAR Cap. In a recent report (PDF), they claim it will increase racial diversity and fight inequality. Council Member Rory Lancman agreed in a Daily News op-ed. In the age of neoliberalism, where the so-called free market rules all, people have a hard time even imagining affordable housing not tied to big, luxury development. And the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is a big supporter of the repeal.

"They call it an answer to affordable housing," Breen says, but she is skeptical. Without the residential FAR Cap, she explains, the upzoning "will allow developers to go into neighborhoods they can't go into now," like low-rise areas of Brooklyn and Queens. "This is a radical change," pushed through without public input.

If it is approved, says Breen, "A lot of residential neighborhoods will change drastically. A lot of places that are already liveable, dense, and affordable will change--and not for the good. And we'll still have to solve affordable housing." Real-estate speculation will be a problem, she says, just like it is today with the rezonings in East New York and Inwood. "Once you get a couple of super-luxury buildings, with not really affordable apartments in them, it sets off a chain reaction that forces people out." Lifting the FAR Cap, she believes, will lead to mass displacement of the current population.

Breen is not against change and new growth, as she often has to attest. "We don't have a brick fetish," she says. But density for the sake of density is "not an unalloyed good." For too long, City Hall's approach has been to zone, not plan--and what do you get with zoning and no planning? "You get Long Island City," says Breen. Density and tall buildings, but "Where's the grocery store? Where's the park? You're just stacking people up."

LIC, photo: Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao/New York Magazine

The State Senate just passed the bill (S.7506A) eliminating the FAR Cap. In two weeks, the Assembly will consider similar bills (A.9500B, A.9509B) to put it through. "Every assembly person from New York," says Breen, "needs a barrage of emails and calls to say stop this and let's have a public hearing."

If you think New Yorkers should have a say in their communities, take action to demand a public hearing on this decision:
1. Find your Assembly Member's phone number and email -- click here.

2. Call and/or email them. You can cut and paste this message from the Conservancy, or one you write yourself:
"Don’t Lift the Cap! Eliminating the current 12 FAR cap in residential neighborhoods must not be included in the final budget resolution. It won’t solve the problem of affordable housing and will damage livable, diverse, and already dense neighborhoods.”

OR: The Municipal Art Society (MAS) has a ready-made email you can just fill out with your info and send -- click here.

For more information:
Landmarks Conservancy Alert on Lifting the FAR Cap
MAS: Testimony Against Lifting the FAR Cap
MAS: Accidental Skyline Report
HDC: On ZQA and MIH 
Norman Oder on Lifting the FAR Cap 

Friday, March 16, 2018

El Quijote


After nearly 90 years in the Chelsea Hotel, the great and wonderful and gorgeous El Quijote is closing on March 30.

Eater reports: "Staffers at the historic restaurant, located at 226 West 23rd St. between Seventh and Eighth avenues, were given two weeks notice. Ownership allegedly told employees that the restaurant is being renovated and will re-open eventually. Eater NY has reached out to the restaurant for comment."

Back in 2014, I reported on this coming closure. At the time, I was told that El Quijote would be upscaled and sanitized in a fashion similar to what happened to Minetta Tavern.

The plan was denied -- and then confirmed. A rep for Ed Scheetz, the man who took over the hotel, said at the time that they would "retain the signature look and feel of El Quijote" while "maintaining its authenticity."

But then life went on. El Q remained untouched. We held our breath.

When -- and if -- the place reopens, it won't be the old El Quijote anymore.

Banksy's Back

Banksy is back in town. He unveiled a mural on the Houston Street wall today, urging the liberation of Turkish artist Zehra Dogan.

A Banksy rat appeared on a clock at 14th and 6th Avenue, atop the old Greenwich Savings Bank that will soon be torn down for luxury condos.

photo via Banksy

Now Instagrammers are finding more possible Banksy easter eggs around town, including one somewhere in East Harlem:

And another at Avenue I and Coney Island Ave -- both with a similar message for the capitalist class:

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Silver Spurs


The Silver Spurs coffee shop has been around since 1979. After this month, it will be no more.

The original on Broadway and 9th Street shuttered in 2013, thanks to an expired lease that was not renewed. The landlord hiked the rent, breaking hearts, and the space went to Starbucks. That left one other Silver Spurs, at Houston and Laguardia.

A reader in the Village sent in the news and spent some time talking with Kiki Bourekas, the manager of the restaurant, who said the place is closing because business is down. As we know, coffee shops are closing all over the city.

Kiki says, “It was like Cheers in here. It was family. Customers became friends. You came here and made friends in the neighborhood. I’ve been here since it opened 22 years ago. People in the neighborhood call it ‘Kiki’s.' 'Let’s go get some of Kiki’s coffee,' they say. I stayed on all that time because I liked it so much."

The place is family owned and got its western theme in 1979 "Because of the uncle. He liked western."

They used to be open 24 hours a day on the weekend, Kiki recalled, and the place was always full, often with college and graduate students. "But two years ago, we stopped being able to make it. Not enough customers, especially at night. It’s very sad. Me and all the guys are out of a job.”

The last day will be March 29 and Kiki says, “Be sure to come in and get your last hamburger!” She gets off work at 3:30 if you want to say goodbye.

As for what's coming to take the place of Silver Spurs, Kiki hears it'll be an ice-cream place. “Expensive," she says.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Shakespeare & Co.


It's rare when bookstores open. It's rare to get any good news in this town about local businesses. And yet. Yesterday we heard that Shakespeare & Co. is opening two new stores in the city.

There will be one in Greenwich Village, in the spot long occupied by Jefferson Market (closed in 2008, turned into a Gristede's, and then a luxury condo showroom). Another will come to the Upper West Side at 2020 Broadway, between 69th and 70th Streets. (None for the book-starved East Village?)

They are slated to open in the fall/winter of 2018.


I asked CEO Dane Neller a few quick questions.

Q: Downtown, we still miss the Broadway location near NYU (closed in 2014 and turned into a Foot Locker). Will the new shop on 6th and 11th Street have a similarly curated selection?

A: Yes, with more selection since it’s a larger store.

Q: With so many bookstores closing across the city, what's the secret to surviving -- and growing -- in the current market?

A: Being community based; offering an intimate setting and literary cafe for customers to convene, socialize, and browse; providing a forum for self-expressions and creation with the Espresso Book Machine technology; and having a thoughtfully curated selection of books geared to the neighborhood patrons, with knowledgeable and friendly booksellers.

Q: So is it a myth that people are reading (and buying) fewer print books?

A: Absolutely. Printed books still represent over 75% of total industry sales.

At the Shakespeare & Co. uptown

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Wong Kee


Reader Ted Rao writes in:

"The amazing Wong Kee, located on Mott Street between Canal and Grand, succumbed to a new landlord and rising rents. Its last day was 1/21/18."

photo via Yelp

According to this video from SinoVision, Wong Kee was in Chinatown for nearly 30 years.

The lease ended and apparently was not renewed by the landlord. According to SinoVision, "The landlord plans to take the property back and construct a pharmacy in its place." There are already several pharmacies nearby.

Monday, March 12, 2018

'99 Snapshots

The following is from photographer Michael Berman:

’99 Snapshots is a documentary project about people I met and photographed in 1999. I met them on sidewalks and in places of business in each of Manhattan’s many neighborhoods. I am now re-photographing and interviewing as many of the 300+ original people as I can find, seeking details about who they were in ’99, who they are now, and their thoughts on multiple topics including New York but also big ones like life and the passage of time. Because I encountered the people in 1999 randomly, the group as a whole reflects demographic diversity. I aim to turn this into a book and a documentary film.

Marian and Lindsay, Harlem

I’m able to find many people on my own, using social media and the phone book (I have their 1999 names). But some people I can’t find, so I post “ISOs” to the project’s Instagram feed, with hopes that people might help out.

Sometimes I find out that a person has died. If possible, I want to include them anyway. So I try to find out about them by speaking with people who knew them. I feel it's important to pay homage to who they were.

Here are a few examples from the project of people who I have found. There are more on the Instagram feed.

Nina, real estate broker. That might be the biz she’s in, but she has real problems with how much real estate costs have skyrocketed. She’s read “Vanishing New York." She acknowledges that the cost of an apartment in New York has increased too much for many people. When asked what could be done about this, she said: “Oh, god. I wish I knew. I don’t know if there’s an answer really. It used to be that city planning was a big thing. But now it’s all being done behind closed doors. The profit motive is just too strong, and it seems to outweigh everything.”

Abdul, food cart operator on lower Broadway. When I photographed him in ’99 he was one of only 2 small carts on the northern edge of what is now Zuccotti Park (then it was called Liberty Plaza Park). Now he’s across Broadway and he’s one of about 7 carts there. I asked him when it expanded to more food carts at that location and he said soon after 9/11, because tourists started coming and the area got a lot busier. He told me that several years ago he fell and injured his foot. Now he has a muscle that doesn’t work properly. He has health insurance but cannot take time off for surgery because recovery would be six months, and that would be time without income. He is married with 4 children.

Here's Jon, an advertising exec on the creative side, waiting to catch his train from Grand Central in 1999. Jon now works from home in Connecticut and has his own small agency.

James, in 1999, worked at the Empire Diner. In 2018, he’s living in Park Slope, making paintings and working as a personal assistant.

Below is a photo of someone who passed away several years ago. When I photographed him in ’99, he said his name was Michael Peterson, but I believe he later went as Michelle Rostelli. Michelle was a regular fixture on the Lower East Side, and lived on Rivington Street. She loved making the rounds of the local businesses there. She helped herself to coffee and cookies at Sugar Sweet Sunshine, and they never let her pay. They have a memorial sign in her honor on the wall when you walk in.

If anyone who reads this knew Michelle/Michael well enough to talk about the person she was, please contact me to do an interview at (Note: I prefer on-camera, and will ask you to sign a release.) I’m also told that there may have been a film about her. If anyone knows who the filmmaker is, or how to locate the film, I’d love to find out.

See more on Vimeo