Elevators at 1 Centre Street were running slow again so the crowd waiting in the lobby hurried into the first one that opened. A few elevator passengers nodded recognition toward each other but most didn’t bother. After all, they might be confined together for the next few moments but they couldn’t be further apart in the way they envisioned the future of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Sighs, foot taps and electronic beeps were the only sounds audible as the elevator progressed slowly toward the 9th floor but the cramped space occupied by moguls, preservationists, real estate developers and community activists was heavy with the clash of opinions held mute. Soon they would press into the Landmarks Preservation Commission ready to dispute or defend a proposed historic district. Until then, there would be silence.
Suddenly, there was a jolt then an extended pause, the kind that New Yorkers on a tight schedule dread.
“You’re kidding, right?” asked a woman as lean as a sliver building.
“Don’t tell me we’re stuck,” said a man as sturdy as a row house.
A crackling voice from a loudspeaker offered an explanation.
“We can’t understand what you’re saying.” The man who spoke defined the word skyscraper with his stature and air of command. He was unmistakably “a shaper of cities and fortunes.”
Complaints in the elevator rose. For an instant, the defenders and stand-ins for all the structures of the Upper West Side - the stout, the soaring, the elegant, the stately and the recently-renovated - stood on common ground. Tensions demolished, opinions burst forth!
“Less is more!”
“Less is a bore!”
“Preservation is hope in a concrete landscape!”
“It’s an over- reaction to development!”
“A dollars and cents boost for business and property owners!”
“An unfair burden!”
“Our civic duty!”
A plaintiff voice cut through all the shouting.
“Look, uncontrolled development is a real threat to our city.” Leaning against the elevator with the demeanor of a neglected brownstone, the woman continued. “Artists, writers, musicians…we all moved here for the culture, the vibrancy. Now it’s all being erased. Towers line Broadway…and giant banks.”
Unwavering as a West End Avenue street wall, an elderly man spoke up. “I say designate the whole neighborhood. Designate the whole island of Manhattan for all I care…but NOT MY BUILDING.”
A beauty with the elegance and prestige of a Riverside townhouse reasoned with the crowd. “I think we can all agree on the importance of preserving not just individual buildings or streets but an entire neighborhood context,” she said. “It’s about a sense of place.”
A man’s voice boomed above the fray. “Sense of place is not a law as far as I can tell.” Towering and triumphant, he stood like the Manhattan skyline, “every inch a proud and soaring thing.”
“If we preserve areas of historic value in this city, generations of future New Yorkers will be incredibly proud.” The woman spoke persuasively from beneath an arresting hat, reminiscent of a classically-styled cornice.
“These people are unrealistic,” muttered a woman known best as High-Rise. She usually preferred to make bland statements or none at all.
“They want Venice on the Hudson,” agreed Towering.
“And gondolas along Riverside,” said Skyscraper.
The shouting started again in earnest.
“Can’t you see we’re being smothered by overdevelopment?”
“Yes, but I’m already in debt. I can’t afford the costs, the regulation!”
“Property values increase in designated areas!”
“That’s fiction! It’s all market driven!”
“We’re protecting New York’s architectural heritage!”
“You’re freezing the city in time!”
“It’s an indignity!”
“You’re taking away economic opportunity from owners.”
“You’re robbing citizens of light, space and fresh air!”
A metallic screech of feedback brought their shouting to a halt.
“It sounds rough in there.”
The words came from the elevator speaker, clearly this time.
“Who is this?” asked a man with an unassuming façade but steel in his voice. “I demand you get us out of here!”
“This is the head of security. It’s been fun for all of us out here listening but you need to calm down before I let you off that elevator and into the LPC meeting room. Can’t you all find anything to agree on?”
“I think our discussion is finished, young man.” said a woman with the dignity of a Beaux-Arts mansion. All present marveled at her restrained exuberance.
“No can do, miss. Let me know when you’re ready.”
Sturdy row house was the first to reach for consensus.
“We can all agree we love this city, correct?” Nods all around encouraged him to reach further. Okay then…what else?”
Skyscraper, exasperated, conceded a point. “Obviously, there are districts across New York City that merit designation – if what is being designated is truly historic architecture.”
The mood in the elevator lifted. Brownstone looked restored to hope as she moved in to add, “I think it’s reasonable to make room for change even in historic districts…but very carefully, thoughtfully.”
With a lurch, the elevator started moving and there was silence again. In moments, the elevator doors slid open on the 9th floor and a group of New Yorkers rushed out. The only sound in the hallway was the echoes of their determined steps.