The New York Times Real Estate section this morning carried wonderful news about parking lots throughout the city being bought up by real estate developers who are transforming them into residential buildings. In large areas all throughout the city, the most pernicious waste of land use is becoming a thing of the past as more people realize they would prefer to live in the city center than have to drive everywhere. There is hardly a piece of news that could make startsandfits.com happier. However, the city still has plenty of so-called soft sites ripe for developers of housing. These are places that are considered underbuilt within their zoning envelope. In some cases, they are the type of auto-oriented UFOs from Planet Sprawl that have no business existing in the neighborhoods of New York City. Much to the betterment of Park Slope, Brooklyn, and to the credit of Commerce Bank, a proposed UFO was redesigned and will become a modest bank branch that will be oriented to the pedestrian. This happened because the bank was pressured by a concerned group of neighbors who made it realize that the kind of cookie-cutter drive-thru branch that work in its scores of branches in New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester and Connecticut won’t fly in New York City. One hopes that this action has set the paradigm for the future.
While many areas suffered from serious disinvestment in the latter decades of the 20th century — burned out buildings and rubble were common in many places, including stretches of Eighth Avenue/Frederick Douglass Boulevard, one can see that Seventh Avenue/Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, a grand, wide boulevard with an elegant tree-lined median never had the same level of abandonment. As seen above, block after block of stately four- to seven-story apartment buildings line the boulevard from the top of Striver’s Row to Central Park North. Dating from the 1890s to the 1920s, none of these buildings have so much as a parking space among them, and none of them step back from the street. For these reasons, this is an eminently walkable neighborhood. Here is an example of the grace of Seventh Avenue at 139th Street (Striver’s Row).
Across the avenue, there was an opportunity for developers to continue the elegance of the Row. Instead, in 1982, the McDonald’s Corp. plopped down a drive-thru UFO from Planet Sprawl in the midst of these apartment houses.
Like the McBank that the Park Slope Neighbors narrowly averted, this is a building that could be found in any tawdry drive-thru strip across the United States, so of course corporations that do business in these places want to replicate their success as cheaply as possible. So even though the city has plenty of profitable walk-in McDonaldses within larger, pedestrian-oriented buildings, they here reverted to mindless and cheap replication of their suburban fast food outlets because it is easier to copy a cookie-cutter design than take the time to design something that fits in with the community. Unfortunately, it degrades an elegant boulevard, endangers pedestrians on the nearby sidewalks and represents an opportunity for real development lost for the time being.
At the time it was built, officials and residents were probably so thrilled just to have a new building in Harlem that they allowed this thing to be built. In its defense, at least a person can buy a meal here, and a number of people are employed to staff this restaurant. So this building is better than a parking lot or a gas station. Perhaps it is better than a vacant lot, perhaps not. Other than that, nearly anything else would be better here.