Monday, November 29, 2010

Central Park West Skyline: An Uncertain Future

Every time a neighborhood loses one of its favorite landmarks – an old bookstore, theater, bar or old-fashioned corner store – it’s heartbreaking for the immediate community. Now development threatens to ruin one of New York’s most iconic skylines – a view that if destroyed might be doubly heartbreaking if measured by the number of people its loss would impact.

The Central Park West Skyline is recognized by millions of local residents and out-of-town visitors as part of the city’s architectural history and a symbol of Old New York but that hasn’t stopped developers from planning changes to it that could permanently damage its familiar appearance. It’s hard to imagine looking out from the rooftop garden at The Met, from the path that circles the Reservoir or from Belvedere Castle to see that gentle skyline interrupted by glass towers but that is exactly what might occur.

“The threat to the Central Park West Skyline is one that emerges over and over again.” said Kate Wood, Executive Director of Landmark West! the non-profit organization that curates nearly 2,700 cultural and architectural landmarks throughout the Upper West Side. We discussed the issue that may become central to Landmark West’s preservation efforts in 2011.

CGW: How real is the threat of development to the Central Park West Skyline?

KW: The Central Park West Skyline is such an iconic part of New York City that everyone would assume that the skyline is safe. Surely you couldn’t build a monstrosity that could mar that skyline. But what we have seen is a consistent pattern to attempt to use the air space hovering above low-rise sites along and near Central Park West.

CGW: But as part of a Historic District aren’t the buildings that line Central Park West protected?

KW: The Central Park District is preserved but it doesn’t mean it can’t change at all.

CGW: What makes Central Park West architecturally significant?

KW: The area is a careful balance of buildings developed over time in three waves of development from the 1870s to the 1930s, from low-rise to mid-rise to the taller luxury apartment buildings with the twin tower-style design. The result is an up and down skyline where your eye can follow different waves through time. We think there’s a special quality there that if a new development is proposed we need to look at what the impact to the landmarks would be.

CGW: How difficult is it to fight the sort of development that would destroy the integrity of the existing skyline?

KW: What we’ve seen again and again is a pitched battle. Hundreds of people need to turn out just to make the point that this can’t happen.
We just can’t keep battling this way on a case by case basis. Through a study (conducted by architecture and planning firm Weisz+Yoes) we were able to investigate the future of development along Central Park West and its impact on the skyline. What the study identified were ten sites where we can foresee these types of proposals coming forward. This study allows us to be prepared to offer alternatives to development. Keep in mind that Central Park West is only one of four skylines. Any tools we come up with could be useful to other parts of the city.

CGW: What are some of the alternatives to development?

KW: Landmark West! and other non-profits are looking at the model of rural land conservation for solutions - The Trust for Public Land, for example. Ideally we should be working more collaboratively with property owners to help them see that they don’t have to build to their maximum allowance in order to reap benefits. Instead they can exchange those rights for some other valuable incentive, taking alternative value from their sites and building modestly within their zoning. That incentive carrot together with the stick of regulation would make all the difference.

CGW: It’s surprising that an organization like the New York Historical Society, an organization dedicated to the preservation of history, plans to add a 28-story tower to the skyline in a historic district.

KW: They’re looking at the American Museum of Natural History and seeing high attendance. They want to do something flashy and visible to be noticed and it becomes about marketing in a way that can have long-term destructive impact on the building. They have all these unused development rights on their property and they see this as a potential windfall but if they exploit their air rights there’s no guarantee the money would be spent to increase their endowment or services. In the meantime the city would be dealing with a permanent addition to the skyline. That’s just not a fair trade-off.

CGW: In a worst case scenario, the NYHS tower and a proposed condominium building over CSI would go up. What would be the immediate impact to the area?

KW: There would be the environmental impact. But people would suddenly realize what they had lost - one of New York's most beloved skylines.

(Additional notes from Landmark West!: It could also trigger a “domino effect” along Central Park West and throughout the city. Nonprofit and for-profit developers in each of the five boroughs, eager to exploit their own sites, would recognize the approval of these towers as a precedent opening the door for future development.)

CGW: What is the worst aspect of fighting institutions that are your neighbors right here on the Upper West Side?

KW: These battles are polarizing. People support and volunteer at the New York Historical Society, for example, and take their children there to visit and suddenly you feel like you are on the other side of the battlefield from them and that’s not what anyone wants.

CGW: What can New York City residents do to help ensure the skyline remains as it appears today?

KW: Now that public hearings (for CSI and the NYHS) are over these cases have gone into hibernation but with landmarks, even when they’re ‘saved’ they’re never really safe. Protecting these buildings requires our constant attention. They need a human force field around them and that’s why Landmark West is here otherwise there is no one to organize around these efforts. In January, Columbia University Graduate students in Urban Planning will build on the Central Park West Skyline report. Once we have some solid facts to go on it will be a matter of getting the political support from elected officials and talking with City Planning. Ultimately we have to have buy-in from the mayor. In the meantime we need to build grassroots momentum. Once we have a better sense of what sort of legislation needs to be put into place we will build a constituency.