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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

New York magazine is carrying an item this week that describes recent automobile chaos at the southern end of Lexington Avenue, where Gramercy Park terminates the avenue at East 21st Street. Here is the gist of it:
Cars keep crashing through the wrought-iron fence surrounding Gramercy Park — three in one week earlier this month. . . . On March 12, a tow-truck operator was hooking up a car that had crashed around 4 A.M. when a second driver ran into the disabled vehicle (which rolled over the operator's hand and knee). Block association president Arlene Harrison discovered the third automotive intrusion on March 19, when she noticed a license plate embedded in a planter. To slow down drivers on Lexington, the park's trustees are seeking to desynchronize the light at 22nd Street and install a giant lighted arrow in front of the fence. Trustees will have to fork over up to $10,000 to fix the hole in the fence, now covered by thin wire mesh and orange tape, before the weather improves and trespassers invade the park.
Nobody is going to shed a tear over the wealthy trustees of Gramercy Park having to pay for repairs of the fence that keeps their private park off limits. But why should they have to pay for damage caused by some reckless driver? Shouldn't the motorist pay for the damage he or she caused? Moreover, why should the public realm have to be sullied by "a giant lighted arrow"? This isn't Las Vegas. It's a stately, 19th century neighborhood that is pleasant to walk through. Here is a snapshot taken today of the intersection in question (the bashed-out section of fence is just to the left of this spot):

Isn't it enough to have two traffic lights, six planters, four large yellow arrows, a sign that reads "One Way," two more signs that read "All Traffic -->," two reflective yellow diamonds and an eight-foot-high red bollard? What more do motorists need?

The sturdy wrought iron gate and the elegant lights atop it represent the genteel and quiet city that was built before the automobile. The garish yellow signs in front of the gate show how the need to cater to the worst of drivers degrates the city's public space, assaulting pedestrians with bright, IN-YOUR-FACE colors amid what would otherwise be a more tranquil setting. Just like the horn is designed to be heard by people inside a car but appears too loud to people walking down the street, signs designed to be seen by a person speeding past at 40 miles per hour appear out of place to the pedestrian. There is an enormous literature about how dependence on the car as the only method of transportation has created a miserable built environment of endless drive-thrus and strip malls. Here is an example of how the automobile demands changes in even those places built before it came into mass use. The chirping of the starlings in Gramercy Park and the laughter of voices is now drowned out by horns, car alarms and amplified music or talk radio.

It's always amazing to see how careless drivers can be, or how unconcerned they are about other people. Every day, sober drivers fail to use turn signals, absent-mindedly creep into crosswalks, park in bus stops, forget to dim their high beam headlights, forget to turn on their headlights, ignore red lights, nonchalantly throw garbage out of windows (orange peels, cigarette butts, fast food paper soft drink cups, etc.), fail to notice that red lighst have turned green, honk at the slightest provocation, knock down street signs, and crash into buildings, other cars and people causing deaths, injuries and property damage. The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles' most recent statistics indicate that there were 112,637 accidents in New York City in 2001 alone. 352 of these accidents resulted in 381 deaths — more than one car-caused death per day. 79,166 of the accidents led to 124,170 people being in jured. There were 33,119 accidents that caused property damage. Let me leave aside the air pollution, noise pollution and ever-increasing costs of road maintenance for future entries. For now, I wonder: What is the monetary cost associated with the property damage that drivers cause? How much of this cost do they pay for?
- Posted at 10:09 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

A Housing Blog That's Really About G.M.
Startsandfits.com would like to draw your attention to a blog called The Housing Bubble. More interesting that the site's speculation on the housing bubble is its frequent coverage of the slow implosion of General Motors, which includes this zinger of a line: "Strangely, much of the discussion regarding GMs' future focuses on the auto business, with little reporting on the firm's core operations: finance and mortgages." Here is its recent coverage.

- March 29: Low Lending Standards Now Haunt GM
- March 28: General Motors Downgraded
- March 24: GM: Dead Man Walking?
- March 23: Fire Sale at General Motors
- Posted at 5:01 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Sunday, March 27, 2005
Building Up a Neighborhood

Ever since it started publishing, startsandfits.com has held a special place in its heart for developers or landlords who add stories to their buildings. This happens all the time in New York City, as seen above at 1705 First Avenue, a mixed-use building between 88th and 89th Streets that had 24 apartments before the addition and three stores. Two stories were added to this building. These new floors probably contain one to four new apartments. The added density on the block leads to more patronage of local shops. This ever so slightly encourages more shops, who by their presence would make the area more attractive as a place to live, which would bring more incentive for other landlords to add more stories. It's a virtuous circle for those of us who value the convenience and liveliness of urban life. The other way to add density is to tear down a building and build a bigger one in its place. But adding stories averts that trauma and has the added benefit of preserving the wonderful old architecture that people love so much. In this case, the architects who designed the rooftop addition were thankfully careful to match the new many-paned windows with those below. And the color of the addition, if not matching the shade of red brick below, still blends in well.
- Posted at 10:02 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Friday, March 25, 2005
A $15,000 Tent
Rising rents are forcing New Yorkers to devise all sorts of ingenious coping adaptations. As seen at right, a man has been camped out in a Harlem park for many days in a poorly hidden tent. He has had to endure sub-freezing temperatures and at least one late winter snowstorm, but on the other hand, he hasn't had to pay a cent for what would be costly Manhattan real estate. Prices for townhouses in Harlem have reached $501 per square foot. If that tent occupies, say, 30 square feet, the New York City Parks Department could sell the tent's owner the land underneath it for $15,030. I wonder what Henry J. Stern, the former parks commissioner, would say about that idea. Mr. Stern has founded a civic group, New York Civic, that addresses issues of city planning.
- Posted at 5:23 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

Monday, March 21, 2005
First Wave of a Railroad Resurgence
As oil prices continue to climb with no relief in sight for at least the next two years, people will be turning more to railroads for transportation needs. Today, I learned that rail freight cars are filling up across the nation and their shares of railroads are starting a significant uptick. Rail freight has been a profitable private enterprise even during the cheap oil trucking and suburban expansion bonanza in postwar America, and it is becoming more profitable now. Here is a key point raised in an article on the subject:
Since fuel accounts for a relatively small portion of operating costs, railroads haven't been hit as hard by higher oil prices as the trucking companies.
The article suggests that investors consider buying stock in Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Norfolk Southern and CSX.

A renaissance in rail travel is likely to affect passenger service next. But already, Amtrak ridership has had two record-breaking years in 2003 and 2004. The trend would likely continue were it not for President Bush and Congressional Republicans trying to dismantle the railroad. People are voting for Amtrak with their wallets, but Washington is oblivious. In a time of rising costs of driving and airlines going broke, how much sense does it make to decrease availability of an alternative?

- Railroad stocks chug ahead [MoneyCentral @ MSN]
- IMF Chief: Oil Prices High for 2 Years [Yahoo! News]
- Amtrak Sets Ridership Record for Second Straight Year [U.S. Conference of Mayors]
- Posted at 12:57 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Seeing the Value of the City

Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg, the 79-year-old multibillionaire who stepped down yesterday after 38 years as chief executive of the American International Group, is departing under a cloud of ethics questions and has reportedly hired a criminal defense lawyer. In the midst of the swirl of allegations that led to his departure, it is important to remember that at a key point in the history of New York City, Mr. Greenberg stepped forward and expressed confidence in the city at a time when it was very unfashionable to do so. And he backed that confidence with money. He made a move that was great for the city, and it proved to be great for his firm and himself as well.
Photo from Wall Street Models
In part because of a decision to be described below, he and his firm were rewarded with enormous wealth in the decades that followed. Mr. Greenberg was ranked as the 59th richest person in the United States by Forbes magazine last year, which estimated his net worth at $3.1 billion, all of it self-made by a farm boy from upstate.

In 1976, New York City was on the brink of fiscal insolvency. Fortune 500 firms were leaving in droves. IBM had fled to Armonk. PepsiCo to Purchase. General Foods to White Plains. Graffiti covered the subways and the headlines and talk show hosts continuously described increasing violent crime. It would be a decade and a half before Joel Garreau would coin the term "Edge City," but the future seemed to be in Stamford, new home to Olin, Continental Can and General Host, Fortune 500 companies all. As William H. Whyte put it in a prescient 1976 article in New York magazine entitled "End of the Exodus":
By mid-1975 over 30 major corporations had left New York. The belief was growing that New York's trouble was terminal and that the migrations were a forerunner of inevitable decline for all aging cities.
In March 1976, Ken Auletta pleaded in an article in New York magazine that listed 25 things the city government could do to improve the city's dire situation:
13. Keep Union Carbide From Moving. Union Carbide Corporation, employing 3,600 and headquartered at 270 Park Avenue, has announced that it is thinking of leaving town. The eyes of many other corporate heads, says EDA official Jack Bush, are fixed on Union Carbide. So are the eyes of city and state officials who have urged Carbide to stay. If the company decides to leave — as one government executive who has talked with Carbide fears — the move would contribute to the pervasive sense of doom which must first be lifted if the city's climate is to change.
But it was not to be. Later that year, Union Carbide announced it was moving to Danbury, Conn. More from Whyte:
In 1976 things seemed to get worse yet. Amax moved out. Pittston and Texasgulf started moving. Union Carbide announced it would move. Continental Can and General Host did the same. Eager for their share of the wave to come, New Jersey builders pressed construction of speculative office buidlings; at interchanges all over New Jersey towers are going up — at Woodbridge, Paramus, Secaucus.
In the midst of this atmosphere of gloom and dispair, another Fortune 500 company had left town, too. Or rather, it had fled to Tulsa, Okla., so quickly that it abandoned its Financial District headquarters before so much as finding someone to buy it. Left behind were real estate people charged with offloading the depression-era relic to whatever poor bastards would buy a place in such a crime-ridden, financially insolvent, God forsaken hell hole. That company was the Cities Service Corporation, which in 1930-1932 had built a slender and elegant Art Deco tower at Pine and Pearl. Like so many others built or conceived in the 1920s, the building symbolized an optimism in urban America that is beginning to return only now. The building's graceful spire illuminates the night sky and provides a majestic focal point to counterbalance the Woolworth Building's pinnacle a few blocks away. The building has windows that open.

Designed by the firm of Clinton & Russel, Holton & George, the Cities Service Building at 70 Pine was really created by Henry L. Doherty, a grade school dropout who built the Cities Service Corp. up from $50 million in 1910 into a $1.3 billion powerhouse by 1930. Mr. Doherty had wanted a signature skyscraper that would put his company on the map. He felt that a towering icon in what was then the heart of New York was a fitting symbol of the company, which prospered by providing petroleum, electricity and natural gas to cities in the booming 1910s and 1920s. He conceived of the building and of his bachelor's apartment on the top floor, but had to take a six year sick leave during construction that ended on May 13, 1932, when he returned to dedicate this tower. Sadly, he died a short time later, but his company continued to prosper, renamed itself Citgo, and carried on in the building until 1974. But by then, corporate values had changed completely from the heady 1920s, and the absolute last place an oil company wanted to be was New York City.

Two years after it fled the city, Citgo sold its building to a small but growing insurance company, the American International Group, for an undisclosed amount of money that must have been a pittance given the prevaling attitudes at the time. On May 6, 1976, Mayor Abe Beame and A.I.G.'s relatively new chief held a press conference at City Hall, where the mayor said he was "grateful" for A.I.G.'s decision to remain in the city and said the move was an "antidote" to the exodus unfolding in the newspapers every day. That new chief, Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg, spoke out in rare praise of the city. "We as an organization," he said, "are confident the necessary changes will be made to permit the city to become the dynamic metropolis it once was."

At about the time that A.I.G. was buying 70 Pine Street, Whyte was conducting a pioneering study of the locational choices of Fortune 500 companies. He discovered that, shocking to say it, most companies that left the city moved to within a few miles of the home of their chief executive officer. Of course, this may be good for the chief, but, on balance, it is bad for most of the workers. A firm in Long Island is convenient for Long Islanders, but it is hard to reach for people from Westchester or Jersey. But by staying in the city center, A.I.G. could attract the best and brightest insurance underwriters, marketing people, finance experts, deal makers, tech people and support staff, whether they preferred to live on Long Island, in New Jersey, Brooklyn, or, like Mr. Greenberg, on the Upper East Side. In Whyte's words:
One of the claims made for the decentralization of work is that it brings jobs closer to where people live. It does not. It brings jobs closer to a few executives, but not for the work force of the metropolitan area. The farther you poke out into suburbia, the farther you are from the greatest numer of people.
Not only could A.I.G. hire people from all over the entire metropolitan area, but it put them in an exciting milieu with a myriad of lunch options and where the chance sidewalk encounter was a daily occurrence. It smartly avoided the stultifying suburban office parks, where for all their gleaming newness, lunch came only from the office cafeteria and the static surroundings make the work on the computer screen seem that much more boring. And the workforce that A.I.G. was centering itself in was not just larger, but on average more creative and dynamic than that found elsewhere, the image of the city as a cesspool notwithstanding. Again, to quote Whyte:
The move-outs speak of Middle Americans who don't like the city; the stayers speak of the creative, competitive people who do. At Avon, the personnel experts said leave; the tax people said leave. The company stayed. Main reason: 600 of its 1,600 people wre writers, artists, and marketing people. "It is not possible to find that kind of vital person in an outlying area or attract them to it," says president David Mithcell. McGraw-Hill chairman Shelton Fisher: "We are rubbing elbows with some of the best talent in the world. If we had moved away, our human resources loss would have been crippling."
That was in 1976. Twelve years later, Whyte published the results of a study that found that the stock prices of firms that stayed in the city appreciated more than twice as much as those of two dozen companies that had left, leading him to conclude: "When a company is tired of New York, it is tired." Hmmm, kind of reminds me of how the housing values in New Urbanist communities rise more quickly than those in suburban sprawl.

That's a dose of the general theory. What about the firms that bought and sold 70 Pine Street? Their fates could hardly be more different. By 1986, Citgo had ceased to be an independent company. That year, its parent, the Southland Corporation, sold half of its stake in the firm to Petroleos de Venezuela for $300 million. Southland sold the other half in 1989 for $661.5 million. Put in terms of the billions of dollars, that of course is a combined price of $0.962 billion for what had been an emblem of the Roaring Twenties. Meanwhile, A.I.G. grew, and grew, and grew, expanding into a galaxy of office buildings all around the headquarters and elsewhere further afield. With $677 billion in assets, it has grown to No. 10 on the Fortune 500, the largest insurer in the world. Throughout decades where it seemed like the future was in the endless pavement and sparkling new office parks in the suburbs and exurbs, all that success accrued to a company in a Jazz Age skyscraper on narrow Pine Street. Did that building have something to do with it? Yes, it did.

Startsandfits.com salutes Maurice R. Greenberg for his ability to ignore the fashionable consensus and understand the true value of locating a firm in the city. One hopes that he will be remembered in the twilight of his career not just for the scandal of the day, but for having optimism where others saw only darkness.
- Posted at 9:30 AM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

Sunday, March 13, 2005
Elegance vs. a UFO From Planet Sprawl

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.

- Posted at 10:00 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

Thursday, March 10, 2005
Congratulations to Park Slope Neighbors
Startsandfits.com congratulates Park Slope Neighbors for waging a successful battle against a proposed drive-thru bank branch in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Concerned local residents were able to persuade Commerce Bank to redesign the proposed branch into a pedestrian-friendly corner building that will maintain the street wall. A good urban building that will improve the city in a small but real way. The neighbors successfully blocked an encroachment of autotopia into the urban fabric of Brooklyn. They also proved that by acting on a small scale, they can have a lasting impact on the shape of the city. The bank proved to a potentially skeptical public that it listens to the concerns of the communities it intends to serve, and is flexible enough to build different types of branches that are appropriate in different places. It was a major victory for the neighborhood group, but the bank didn't do everything that they had recommended. The neighbors had proposed putting housing on the upper floors of the branch, but the bank didn't go for that great idea. I'm somewhat surprised because housing in New York City, and particularly in Brooklyn, must be one of the most sure-fire money makers anywhere. Build housing, and it's filled right away.

For the full story on the bank, and graphics, see Aaron Naparstek's blog entry.

- Posted at 11:26 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Sunday, March 06, 2005
A Farewell to the Dwyer Warehouse

Many if not most New Yorkers state that their favorite building in the city is the Chrysler Building. This view is not without merit, but since about 2000, Startsandfits.com's favorite building in the city was a modest nine-story warehouse standing derelict at the northeast corner of St. Nicholas Avenue and 123rd Street. The building was absolutely beautiful. The faded but brilliant red brick, the complimentary deeper red used as a trim, the ornate roof line, the sparing placement of rough-hewn stone, the angular corner turret, even the phone number, MO2-6700, carefully painted on the side in yellow and black all evoked a New York long since passed.

The richness and expense of all these details were all the more poignant when one stopped to think that this attention was paid to the design of a warehouse. It reminded a passer by that there was a time, before the automobile made buildings things to be whizzed passed at 40 miles per hour, that people cared enough about the places where they lived to decorate them so lovingly.

I say that the building "was" my favorite because it is partially demolished now, after a tragic accident that happened just as the building was being restored. In 2001 and 2002 it underwent renovations that were to provide 41 apartments, a 7,000-square foot cultural facility, and 6,100 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. The project was to cost $14.4 million, and was overseen by the Harlem Community Development Corporation, a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation. But decades of neglect had taken their toll. On April 2, 2002, the creaky wooden seventh floor collapsed as a construction worker, Modesto Olivo, Sr., 53, a Dominican immigrant who lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was repairing it. He fell through seven stories to the basement, and was pronounced dead shortly afterward at St. Luke's Hospital. After the collapse, 24 apartments in the building next door were evacuated and service on the adjacent A, B, C and D lines was suspended for four hours. Rather than continue restoration after the accident, people with a say in such things decided to demolish the building entirely. Demolition has been slow, and is continuing, though, sadly, it appears that preparations are being made to finish soon.

Interestingly enough, this was apparently a building that did not want to come back to life. In April 1985, 90 people received medical treatment after being exposed to hazardious material fumes after a fire broke during renovations of the building, apparently halting the renovation work. The Dwyer Warehouse's shell stands as a reminder that the decades of urban disinvestment that left the building vacant for so long may yet have more casualties to come.
I had to take a few more photographs of the shell before this treasure is completely gone. Here is an image of the building before the south facade was torn down. Does anybody have any images of the building when it was intact?

- Posted at 11:05 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |  

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