Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Battle for Astor Place

Now that 51 Astor is getting prepped for demolition, with its tall trees chopped down, so a new glass tower can rise on its site, let's take a look at its role in the battle for Astor Place--and Cooper Union's role in it all.

The City's Department of Transportation and Cooper Union are unfolding their plan to turn Astor Place into what they call a public park, but what is clearly an amenity for more condo and office towers, setting the stage for further upscaling of the East Village and Bowery. In the plan, there will no more street called Astor Place.

Preservationists, like GVSHP, oppose the plan because Astor Place, the street, is very old, dating back to a Native American trail from the 1600s. That's a good reason. Another good reason is that the city should not be taking away our streets to give green plazas to private developments and calling them public parks.

This isn't the first time powerful forces have tried to erase Astor Place as it stands. Cooper Union pushed the effort back in 2001, and early reports connected the restructuring of Astor with the development of what became Gwathmey's undulating condo tower there. Somehow, in more recent reports of the grand plan, what began as a private interest has been repositioned as a purely public work.

Let's go back a decade ago. The New York Times reported on the neighborhood response when Cooper Union "put forth an ambitious and controversial plan...that would radically alter a main gateway to the neighborhood. The plan includes eliminating some streets, enlarging a public park and rezoning the area to permit two new structures." Said a neighborhood activist at the time, "Cooper Union is engaging in a real estate shell game in which the East Village will be the loser.''

J.A. Lobbia at The Village Voice wrote in 2001, "What Cooper Union wants is a major redevelopment that will replace low buildings with taller ones, expand a park, encroach on two city streets, alter traffic, and, along the way, disturb a literal rat's nest."

A major piece of Cooper Union's upscaling plan included leasing their Astor Place parking lot to hotelier Ian Schrager. Wrote Lobbia in that 2001 Voice article: "the city is considering revamping Astor Place, possibly removing traffic lanes to form a plaza joining the hotel to the Cube sculpture."

Jim Knipfel reported in the NY Press in 2001, "Some reports also claim that the hotel will simply envelop and 'de-map' Astor Place itself, though Cooper Union officials deny this." The opposition, he wrote, worried that "it’s one more step toward strangling the very nature of the East Village."

In 2002, the city approved Cooper Union's new building plans, including the hotel. At the time, the school's president promised "a set of design constraints to fit the neighborhood."

The hotel eventually evolved into the Gwathmey condo tower. In 2005 Paul Goldberger in The New Yorker called it the "Green Monster," saying, "it doesn’t belong in the neighborhood." It was the first of the big shiny beasts to take the East Village, arguably paving the way for more out-of-scale buildings like the Cooper Square Hotel.

From Cooper Union, we not only got the Green Monster, but also the outsized hive building, and soon Astor Place will have that new office tower--several stories of gleaming glass box made to house "high-tech companies, investment banks, insurance and advertising firms."

Cooper Union is no stranger to de-mapping, either. In the set of plans to build up Astor Place, the school asked the city to de-map Taras Shevchenko Place, which now runs behind their silver hive building. Local Ukrainians fought back against that plan, but what do we make of the second-naming of Shevchenko Place with Hall Place? Known as Hall since the early 1800s, it was renamed Shevchenko in 1978, but the Hall sign suddenly appeared in the fall of 2010. Is Shevchenko on the way out?

As for all that innocent, unassailable greenery, earlier this year, the City released a handbook for "High-Performance" landscaping of the city. Katharine Jose at Capital NY called it "a window into the brain-center of Bloomberg's New York." She wonders if Bloomberg is "running the city, or using the law to influence the private decisions of New Yorkers, especially its wealthiest class, to execute the Bloomberg program?"

The redesign of Astor Place looks a lot like part of the Bloomberg program to remake the East Village into a haven for the upper classes and safety-seeking suburbanites. When considering what's about to happen to Astor Place, we must look beyond the pretty green trees to the motivations behind the plan. Why is it really being done and for whom? Who will benefit the most from it? What will the East Village lose in the long run?

East Villagers fought the plan in 2001, saying they "might as well live in Midtown if Cooper Union has its way." They fought it in 2002, worried that "the large-scale development would turn their eclectic, artistic neighborhood into a sterile business campus."

In the bike lane-loving, eco-friendly, ultra-green New York of 2011, where has that fighting spirit gone? It's as if the sight of lush greenery has wiped out our ability to think critically about this. As in the architect's renderings, we will be nothing but ghosts, haunting the granite slabs of a suburban-style office park.

I'll end with some words by William H. Whyte, Jr., from his 1958 book The Exploding Metropolis:

"Everybody, it would seem, is for the rebuilding of our cities... But this is not the same as liking cities...most of the rebuilding under way and in prospect is being designed by people who don’t like cities."

"what is the image of the city of the future? In the plans for the huge redevelopment projects to come, we are being shown a new image of the city—and it is sterile and lifeless. Gone are the dirt and the noise—and the variety and the excitement and the spirit. That it is an ideal makes it all the worse; these bleak new utopias are not bleak because they have to be; they are the concrete manifestation—and how literally—of a deep, and at times arrogant, misunderstanding of the function of the city."


JM said...

Just another inevitability that will make it easier to leave here one day. A day that's coming closer and closer.

My New York is dead and buried. Over. Done. An economic depression is the only thing that will stop the current beast from continuing to move ahead, and that isn't something to wish for, all in all. Even though it is on the way, as much as the central banks and national governments of the world try to slow its arrival.

But it will be too late to stop the shiny, glass and chrome transformation before its fairly complete. Too bad. Used to be a great city. Knowing that the same thing is happening in other places across the country--even around the world--isn't much consolation.

Anonymous said...

I'm stunned. All this shininess is happening on Astor Place?! A block or two from St Mark's & the Ukrainian Church & 2nd Avenue & B&H & ...?! Oy. I gotta get downtown soon & see what old haunts remain.

Anonymous said...

And RIP J.A. Lobbia...

EV Grieve said...

And the future of Astor Place certainly won't include the Mosaics created by Jim Power. Look for CU officials to order workers to rip those off the light poles soon enough.

randall said...

Unfortunately what is happening in NY seems to be pretty much par for the Country. Doesn't seem like there is anywhere else to go.

As one of the denizens of the Chelsea Hotel wrote, you can't go home again.

Anonymous said...

As a long time resident of over 30 years in the East Village I am surprised that residents prefer to keep intact an area that has, over the years, been rife with street peddlers, drug traffickers, homeless and loiterers. It would be nice if the architects would consider maintaining a more historical look, but time marches on. Neighborhoods change. 30 years ago you couldn't walk down the Bowery without being accosted by homeless, prostitutes and other assorted menacing loiterers. Today the Bowery is a place for people to meet, eat and enjoy the Bowery. The proposed changes to the street and to Cooper Square Park which will favor pedestrians (in a dangerous street crossing) and residents is a good thing.

rovingstorm said...

Thank you for the thorough explanation. Can you please clarify how much of a done deal this is? Wouldn't something this complicated have to be approved by the CB and City Council- or has that already happened? Maybe this is a project that can be stopped or altered.

Jeremiah Moss said...

GVSHP opposes it and has a letter you can use.

but basically, this looks like a done deal. it happened gradually, in stages. that's the best way to cook a frog alive, right? slow boiling over time.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

And it's happening everywhere. Our man in Brooklyn, Marty Markowitz, wants to make workaday Fourth Avenue a "signature street" & "co-name" it Brooklyn Boulevard, with more office space & enhanced retail for residents of the vile new condo buildings. The first floor of the grand old Municipal Building in downtown Brooklyn has been pimped out by Bloomberg & co to developers, for "cool, hip" eating & retail.
I think people do get docile, through sheer demoralization. It never ends.

Villager said...

When this came to Community Board #2, its Traffic Committee,instead of listening to the residents or the preservationists, did what that committee of ideologues always does on traffic and transportation issues: ignored community input, pushed their own suburban/Amsterdamer agenda, and approved the plans that DOT gave them.

The CB2 Transportation Committee has never turned down, criticized or substantially altered a proposal sent to them from their masters at DOT.

That is why it has become known as the Transportation Alternatives Committee, and is considered a joke.

Unfortunately, the joke is always on the community.

Anonymous said...

It breaks my heart that all those healthy trees were cut down to make room for this monstrosity. They couldn't have accommodated the trees? It is kind of ironic that they would cut them down given that Bloomberg is greening the city with all those bike paths.

ShatteredMonocle said...

That Katharine Jose piece makes me not want to go to a park.

Lisa said...

To John M and others: I encourage you to come to Philly and take a look around. But come to Fishtown or Kensington or West Philly. It has a spirit NY lost a while ago.

I get so sad when I go to the East Village these days.

Anonymous said...

@John M,
You sound like my upstairs neighbor. She's lived in the same apartment for 20 years and CONSTANTLY bitches about injustice, Bloomberg, yuppies like me, and leaving the city... yet three fucking YEARS after I first met her, she's still here. Come on, my neighbor, and come on John, just leave already.

Lux Living said...

Isn't Gwathmey's "Sculpture for living" building a knockoff of a French architect's work from the '20s?

I swear I read something about it on one of the blogs during the summer of 2009.

Anonymous said...

The new buildings are violently ugly, including the one to appear on the site of the old Academy Cafe (although that old Cooper building there is no beauty).

However, I am for the new public spaces, plaza, green. Also, I applaud the reduction of automobile traffic by narrowing or eliminating 4th avenue. Make this area more pedestrian friendly More parks, benches, walking areas.

"Gone are the dirt and the noise—and the variety and the excitement and the spirit. " Sorry, that's a non-sequitur. We can have variety and excitement without so much dirt and noise.

I am a long-time East Villager, but never equated "dirt and noise" with some false value of authenticity.

Choose your battles carefully. If you want creative people to stay in the city, the main issues are about affordable rents!

- Versus

Ken from Ken's Kitchen said...

I'm having a problem imagineering what the big plans are, but then I don't really fully understand the real estate biz.

I wonder what ad agencies, investment banks, and high tech companies are gonna bite? So far none of the commercial space in 51 Astor Pl has been pre-leased, and no wonder. Cooper Union is trying to compete with Soho and Tribeca and how does turning Astor Place into 6th Avenue help it compete for THAT market?

Astor Place may be the western beachhead, but what about the EV itself? As gentrification continues, at what point does the EV cease being the EV/cool? It's iconic, but not beautiful like the West Village. In the EV developers tend come in and tear down, not preserve, so at what's the tipping point, if there even is one? -- when does the EV become something else as more and more of these leaky, Amsterdamm-y looking condos get built and take over the landscape? Do the imagineers have plans for Con Ed and the projects too?

Thank God Bloomberg's outta here in two, but who knows when, or if, what's been planned can be undone. IMO, a lot will have to do with the fight over redistricting in NY state. Independent (or even court-ordered) redistricting would absolutely result in Democrats taking charge of both houses. With Cuomo in the governorship, I'd like to hear them then explain to NYC why we can't get back the home rule Nelson Rockefeller and Charles Urstadt took away some 40 years ago. Why our city gov't (directly responsible to NYC voters) shouldn't get back the right to have final say over rent regulation in the 5 boroughs instead of Albany/the real estate lobby, which has figured so greatly in the un-making of the middle class in this neighborhood and this town.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Versus, this restructuring of Astor Place is absolutely related to affordable rents--by turning the EV into Midtown, the rents will go up, creative people will go, etc.

and the developers are smart enough to use "green" and "automobile reduction" to influence the feelings and thoughts of the eco-concerned lefty folks of the EV--those who developments like this will help price out, as the neighborhood keeps shifting.

it's a game. those lovely trees are pawns in that game. and so are we.

Anonymous said...

I say restore the Native North American trail. There is too much asphalt and not enough room for all the people walking around. This is not Suburbanization; that would be a bunch of parking lots. The architecture of the buildings is another matter however.

Anonymous said...

Jeremiah, you said it. Bottom line, we're screwed. Bloomberg will leave office eventually, but the damage he has inflicted on NYC will linger on long after he is gone. He deserves to be remembered as the mayor who systematically and cold-bloodedly wrecked what made NYC unique. Am convinced Bloomberg has no feelings except for the bottom line, and no friends except for the super-rich. That's all he knows/cares about. Anyone who voted for his 3rd term: you got what you voted for.

Ken from Ken's Kitchen said...


The EV won't turn into midtown, new zoning regulations would absolutely prevent that. Only residential and community facilities are allowed in the EV with maximum heights of 60-75 feet north of E Houston and a couple of buildings can hit 80' in the area south of E Houston. As Versus said, the problem in the EV is, and will continue to be, affordable housing...until Albany gives NYC back the home rule it took away under Nelson Rockefeller.

The problem with too-high buildings around Cooper Square is that the stretch of land along/around Cooper Square has no zoning regs.

Anonymous said...

We shouldn't forget the corruption of educational institutions in all this, since Cooper is just adding to what NYU and Columbia have done in their greedy expansionist drives to overtake and architecturally redraw entire neighborhoods, and then to clothe it all in a dissimulating language that they are "vitally" contributing to the city's "life of the mind."

To me, Washington Square Park has been remade as another kind of industrial park, or maybe just "NYU Park,"with the sound of a (city-approved) street band giving it the illusion of spontaneity; but it's become a lifeless place, like campuses--including "corporate campuses"--everywhere.

Anyway, it's a different educational world today, when college are "brands" with "misison statements," students are "consumers" paying inflationary revenue for luxury living, and professors are "educational facilitators" (or grossly underpaid and exploited adjuncts), and administrators pursue real estate expansion and clink glasses with billionaire mayors to boost their profit margins and endowments...

What's coming to Astor Place, in other words, is just the true face of what higher education has become in its headlong embrace of corporate culture. It's the interlocking institutions of this city--political, economic, educational--that has me so dispirited by it all. But--in answer to some of the posts welcoming the change-- I'm sure we'll all be much the safer for it.

Anonymous said...

This site used to be known as Bible House. Anyone have a picture/drawing of what is used to look like?

Nothing could be possibly worse than current 60's hideous structure.

Anonymous said...

For anon@9:23 and all others interested in neighborhood history - follow this link for photographs and info about Bible House:

Also McSorely's Ale House has a remnant of Bible House in its back room - a lintel with the name carved into it.

Anonymous said...

All we can hope for is a massive spike in the murder rate, homelessness, public drug use and drunkenness, rats (dead, alive, live ones eating the dead ones), incidences of assault, theft, prostitution, vandalism, a collapse in the local (or perhaps world) economy, maybe some sort of localized pestilence, a lot more filth and pollution, hordes dispossessed mentally ill... That's what you want, right? To redo the '70s and '80s? I don't disagree with all the points made in this article, but it's hard not to overreact when I read that your ideal vision of New York looks something like a night street scene out of Taxi Driver.

Anonymous said...

For "Anonymous" who says his neighbor complains about "yuppies like him"...your neighbor is right! Yuppies and people who are ready & willing to pay the huge rents for the fancy condos and generic crap that's sprouting up everywhere are THE PROBLEM! Your sort thinks it's "cool" to move into a creative, lively neighborhood but without a creative bone in your gym-toned & spray-tanned body, you patronize the bland and expensive; what you thought was "cool" gets priced out for the mundane. Whatever. I would much rather see the East Village as a scene from "Taxi Driver", if it was still dangerous YOU would run back to the 'burbs.

JM said...

God, people are such morons. It's gotta be black or white, they don't remotely realize that grays exist. This isn't a choice between the 70s and today. This is a choice being made every day over whether or not to maintain the character and feel of a neighborhood while it moves on from being a pit of violence and filth. It's like some of the commenters have never been to Europe and seen how many cities there have prospered while keeping their architecture and personality and history and 'old timers' intact. It can be done, but we don't do it here. And saying all of what is happening is better than the worst possible alternative is not an argument, it's what logicians call a fallacy.

To the equally clueless Anonymous who waits for us whiners to go ahead and move out, you have a while to wait. Meanwhile, you will have to suffer the unbearable burden of hearing from people no doubt older and infinitely more experienced than you that things you don't understand are being lost--things that you yourself may, if you're lucky, realize the value of. I'm not holding my breath on that any more than you're holding yours waiting for us to go.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Amen to John M.

Anonymous said...

John M. - I didn't consider the neighborhood I moved into in the late 70's "a pit of violence and filth", it was and is simply home to me. It's insulting to be told repeatedly that I lived in a dangerous, dirty, drug infested area as if anyone who lived here was tainted.

The overheated rhetoric about the planned changes at Astor are a little ridiculous. To arms! The park land is coming, the park land is coming! First of all Astor Place is not being demapped. The short leg between Lafayette and 4th Avenue is. The flow of the original Native American footpath will still be there but for walking, not cars. Where 4th Avenue breaks off of the Bowery it's a dangerous asphalt wasteland that should have been returned to pedestrian and park use years ago. Finally, why the sudden call to arms? This has been working it's way through CB's 2 & 3 for years. No secret. It's very late in the process to apply the breaks.

Arthur said...

Seems like a good plan to me. More green, less traffic, more open spaces.

& yes, The Sculpture for Living is a boring, ugly building, but the newest Cooper Union is the boldest building built in the city in years and looks amazing as you walk down 3rd Ave passing St. Mark's.

The new one, we'll see. I'm not convinced by the renderings, but they did a great job previously, so they get the benefit of the doubt until then.

E said...

Building looks horrible with that black glass and pointed facade. The architect could have absolutely made the building fit in better with the neighborhood. Not too mention Sciame could've built around the trees (maybe just trim them somewhat).

Bloomberg's green plan allows for the removal of existing trees as long as you plant new ones (I believe slightly more) in its place, but of course it will be short, new trees and will never grow up into something as large as the renderings for another 40-50 years...

Anonymous said...

I have lived all my fifty-three years in the EV. I would rather have the NYU dorm than the crack head hookers who used to work in the parking lot on third avenue.

Anonymous said...

Hello E,

You say:
"but of course it will be short, new trees and will never grow up into something as large as the renderings for another 40-50 years..."

Live beyond today. The trees the city planted as 6' saplings in front of my building 25 years ago are now 50' tall. It's likely the trees to be installed at the CU site will be much larger, mature transplants instead of saplings.
Meanwhile it appears that the majority of existing trees on the perimeter will be preserved.

Randall said...

This is really lousy what NYU has been doing, whats amazing is how the dept of buildings and Landmarks Preservation even approves 1/4 of the garbage they propose. NYU has totally ruined Wash sq park- it started with that red Bobst library monstrosity and has only gotten worse.
I used to rescue ornaments off buildings being demolished on the L.E.S. back in the 70s, back when Ave C and D was a drug infested slum and there were 500 abandoned buildings.

I recently wrote a book about that all , with over 200 photos titled "The Gargoyler of Greenwich Village"
The L.E.S. has done a 180 change since then! but I'm glad I left the city so I dont have to walk by the disgusting destruction I painfully see in photos and blogs.