Friday, October 14, 2011

A Funny Thing Happned on the Way to the L.P.C.

Most of the quotes in the story below are real but the conflict is imaginary and written just for fun. Hope you’ll enjoy and will consider adding your own voice to the continuing debate over development in our city.

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!”
“It’s progress!”
 “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.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Grandeur and Giggles: An OHNY Volunteer Story

Autumn in New York is a cool cocktail, equal parts social and cultural, then garnished with the liveliest events of the season. For architecture fans, the key event each autumn is Open House New York, that weekend of tours and lectures when built New York – in its innovative, historic, quirky and even off-limit forms - becomes accessible to all.

With only days to go, thousands of New Yorkers have already been engaged in pre-OHNY weekend strategy. Reservations for favorite tours have been made. Must-see locations have been highlighted in the weekend guide then matched with friend’s schedules, coordinated against transportation and planned with room for lunch. It’s a quintessential New York event therefore strategy is part of the experience - and much of the fun. Imagine what it must be like behind-the-scenes at OHNY just before the event. As a volunteer for the Eighth Annual Open House Weekend I enjoyed a peek into the dedicated effort that goes into making each weekend so memorable.

Hundreds of volunteers gathered at Eldridge Synagogue one evening last fall. In that awe-inspiring setting we compared our location assignments, shared notes on what we knew about each location and learned what to expect during our four-hour shifts. The veterans stressed the importance of wearing comfortable shoes and being informed. The newbies, like me, worried about what to wear and how to manage overwhelming crowds. Tasked with turning random New Yorkers into skillful weekend hosts was a team of about 40 year-round volunteers. In less than two hours they managed to communicate the mission of OHNY and inspire all present to draw on their personal best to make the event a success.

I left that meeting with an OHNY button that would serve as my wearable passport to events all weekend and with a sheet of paper that listed my assigned location as The Centurion, a modern condominium building in Mid-town Manhattan. I have to admit that I had hoped to serve my volunteer hours at one of New York’s quirky, historic locations but I decided to approach the assignment with gusto. Over the next several weeks I memorized countless details about the 19-story building, it’s “façade of fine chamesson limestone quarried from the Burgundy region of France,” about Pei Partnership Architects, and designer Li Chung Pei, son of I.M. Pei. Over prepared and overdressed, I arrived at The Centurion at the assigned hour.

I hurried into the building breathless and rushed then instantly settled. The natural light filtering indoors from a minimalist water garden; the hush of trickling water upon limestone and the soft-cream surroundings of the lobby inspired me to be quiet and somewhat reverent. I stood taller, whispered questions and became hyper-aware of my echoing footsteps. As I welcomed each guest I noticed they reacted to the space in the same way. Surrounded by sleek furnishings, glass and stone, their movements became hesitant, they smoothed creases, real or imagined, from their clothes. The perfection of The Centurion seemed to make each of us regret anything flawed in our surroundings. The sight of an abandoned newspaper or coffee cup in that setting seemed unbearable. I just had to tidy up!

But then the fun began in earnest.

Each tour consisted of twenty guests following members of the building management team through 5 luxury apartments. In the first apartment, visitors observed and murmured quietly as they absorbed the details of each room, discovering teak floors, 17-foot ceilings, 8-foot doors and enormous tinted, sound-insulated windows at every turn. By the time we moved to the second and third apartments, visitors were beginning to comment on the impracticality of having glass as a kitchen counter surface and veering off to linger and coo over Bosch washer and dryers. But by the fourth apartment, any hint of formality dropped.

It was the sight of a commode sitting woefully in the corner of a multi-million dollar penthouse that did it. Why? Because it was flanked by two, 17-foot windows that placed it in full view of everyone working in the towering office buildings nearby. That one stop changed the mood on each tour from subdued to truly Open House, with New Yorkers telling it “like it is” and asking tour guides to photograph them in groups in the strange little bathroom.

But the last stop was always the best.

The by-now-relaxed visitors chatted with guides, volunteers and The Centurion's interior designer, daydreamed aloud about one day living clutter-free and laughed when at some point someone invariably shouted, “$5 million? No problem, I’ll take it!”

From a first meeting set in a grand, historic location to lively conversations with fellow architecture fans to giggles in unexpected places, volunteering for Open House Weekend was full of surprises. It’s an experience this volunteer would highly recommend.

Visit for details about the Ninth Annual Open House New York Weekend, October 15th – 16th, 2012