Urban Change to Believe In

Every city is a web, a complex ecology in which all parts are interdependent. The old change tears holes in that web. Positive urban change keeps it all in balance. It's continued vibrancy depends on that balance.
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It is time to celebrate urban change, not the old kind of change that Ken Jackson and Ed Glaeser celebrate with new skyscrapers continuously replacing old buildings. That view of change reflects an antiquated notion of what growth is all about. No, it is time to celebrate the new kind of change that manages growth by balancing old and new and recognizes that the new derives its value from existing in the midst of the old.

The change in New York City worth celebrating jettisons the old think that equates growth with skyscrapers and equates density with skyscrapers. Brooklyn has grown so hot it is overheating and it is not because of skyscrapers.

But first let's celebrate what makes New York City great, what distinguishes it from spread out low density Detroit or high-rise insufferably congested Singapore, Hong Kong or Bangkok. New York defines diversity, density, vibrant street life, varied and plentiful public spaces, efficient and large-scale mass transit. What also distinguishes it is the stunning assortment of business districts and residential neighborhoods, each with its own character and appeal because they blend and balance the old and the new, because they epitomize the layers of city history instead of the excessive replacement of the old. Change worth celebrating values the distinguished and ever functional old and shuns the new for the sake of what's new, too often banal and surely big.

This city has never stopped changing. Anyone can recognize the proliferation of new skyscrapers rising rapidly all over town in the past two decades. But change to be positive must be contained, measured, thoughtful, the kind of change that does not gratuitously lose its useful anchors to the past, anchors that suit the purpose of occupants who would never find a home in a new 90 story behemoth, whether due to price or preference.

The change we can all celebrate recognizes the difference between density and congestion. When the sidewalks are so crowded people walk in the street, when the evening piles of garbage are so high one can hardly pass by, when the traffic is so heavy it takes at least five traffic lights to pass reach the end of the block, then anyone who celebrates positive urban change recognizes that change there has gone too far.

The change we can all celebrate recognizes that New York is a city of five boroughs and that Manhattan south of 59th street is not the only section that counts. The best change in New York in recent decades, even with its negative aspects, is the rebirth that spread from SoHo, NoHo, TriBecca and Lower Manhattan out to Brooklyn, from Park Slope to Bushwick, and to Queens, from Astoria to Jamaica. The rebirth of the Upper West Side spread as well to Harlem, Morningside Heights, Washington Heights and now into the Bronx, the Grand Concourse and beyond. All this has been gradual, primarily incremental and, except for some grievous exceptions, respectful of the character and scale of the existing community.

The change we can all celebrate recognizes that Rockefeller Center replaced a thinly developed urban neighborhood and it was historic preservationists who prevented the planned demolition of Radio City Music Hall in the 1970s. No one listened to preservationists when Penn Station was lost and it was preservationists who took the lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court to save Grand Central. Preservationists stopped Robert Moses from obliterating Brooklyn Heights with a highway and got the Esplanade instead. The list of near losses goes on.

The change we can all celebrate recognizes that SoHo and Tribecca have become world models of positive urban change, not because of new towers but because of historic district designation that allowed for sensitive additions to old buildings and some of the best new architecture in new buildings to evolve without overwhelming the irreplaceable surrounding loft structures. They are now the wealthiest zip codes in the nation. Thank you preservationists.

The change we can all celebrate does not consider it a positive move that 90-story towers rise inappropriately looking like misfits misplaced from Singapore with embarrassing tax credits that represent unconscionable loopholes. Positive change recognizes the hypocrisy of advocating new construction to build our tax base only to give it away to the highest bidder.

Yes, those pesky preservationists have stood in the way of New York becoming Singapore and have led the rescue of the most desirable neighborhoods all over the city, the ones so hot now that residents and businesses are being priced out. The irony is a bitter one: real estate property owners are now making a fortune on the very buildings preservationists wouldn't let them tear down. Only a mere three percent of the WHOLE city is landmarked, leaving plenty of opportunity for the new, the bold and, hopefully, the landmarks of the future. Similarly, many of the developers who opposed saving the High Line now reap the benefits building along its artful path.

The change we can all celebrate views the proliferation of bike lanes as a major step in giving this city the world's most balanced mobility system. The change to celebrate honors the farsighted property owners upgrading their architecturally appealing older buildings with the newest energy-saving systems and artful adjustments that achieve modernity without destroying existing value. The Empire State Building is the star here.

Every city is a web, a complex ecology in which all parts are interdependent. The old change tears holes in that web. Positive urban change keeps it all in balance. It's continued vibrancy depends on that balance.

Roberta Brandes Gratz is a former member of the New York City Landmarks Commission and author of The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (2010: Nation Books), among other books about urban redevelopment.


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