Building Out the City

“I think people tend to have a misconception of the film,” said Fiore DeRosa, co-creator (with Jen Senko) of “The Vanishing City“. “We’re not some NIMBY, anti-development crowd. We’re not against safe, clean neighborhoods.”

DeRosa was commenting on the possible irony that we had gathered to watch his film in a so-called “luxury condo” development. Eighty Metropolitan was built on the site of an old mustard factory in Williamsburg, and DeRosa said that he actually thought it was pretty tastefully done. Sure, it has a lap pool, but the building is only six stories, and it kind of resembles a factory in this old industrial neighborhood. Perhaps he was being diplomatic, but I found him sincere. His thoughts also closely resemble my own feelings about the building.

What he and Senko do have a problem with is “the city funding these changes”, and favoring the rich at the expense of the poor and middle-class. They set out to make the film because they noticed their own neighborhood changing, with locally-owned shops going out of business. “It was originally supposed to be a nostalgia piece,” DeRosa said. “But as we got deeper into it, we started learning things that really pissed us off.”

A common refrain from developers is that they are catering to the free market, and supplying a demand. “Well, if that’s true, then what’s city planning for?” asked DeRosa. “Our tax dollars are subsidizing these efforts which may eventually push us all out of our own city.” He was referring to the $500 million in annual tax abatements now granted to certain developers of high-priced residential and commercial property, a result of the shift in the 1970s toward accommodating businesses in the FIRE industries (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate). Although the film criticizes Bloomberg, his PlaNYC, and his conception of New York itself as a “luxury product,” it says he is only the latest NYC mayor to embrace this development philosophy, which unfairly targets working-class and lower-class neighborhoods for re-zoning.

Cities never stand still, nor should zoning.
NYC Dept of City Planning

The Equitable Building, Manhattan's first skyscraper, 1915

The Equitable Building sparked the first zoning law in NYC

The key to everything is zoning, a concept first introduced to New York City with the rise of the Equitable Building, at 120 Broadway. Built in 1915, the Equitable replaced a 7-story building that burned down in 1912, and the new construction dwarfed the old; at 40 stories, it rose over 500 feet in the air and each floor was built out to the full extent of the foundation, i.e., it had no “setbacks”, and cast a 7-acre shadow across the city.

Much like today, the city fathers viewed such development as progress. John Purroy Mitchel, the “Boy Mayor of New York”, personally laid the cornerstone of the Equitable’s foundation, the first time a mayor had done so for a building erected solely with private financing. In a short speech, he compared the building to the city itself, its owners to public servants. However, he seemed to already anticipate the public reaction to come. He congratulated the builders for “having, what I feel may possible be, the last of these cities within a city – but that is a problem for tomorrow.”

The Equitable set off a public outrage. People worried that such enormous towers would deprive the streets of light and air, making the city a dark and gloomy place. This led to the city’s first zoning ordinance, the Zoning Resolution of 1916, which limited not the height of buildings, but the amount of mass at certain heights – builders had to include setbacks which slimmed the buildings as they rose. These regulations spurred the design of Art Deco buildings like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.

The zoning resolution was updated again in 1961, with provisions mandating parking lots and encouraging open spaces. This is the period when the modernist Robert Moses was advocating the leveling of neighborhoods and the construction of highways like the Cross Bronx Expressway. Jane Jacobs famously opposed the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have connected the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges via an 8-lane elevated highway, displacing in the process some 2,000 families and 8,000 businesses.

Today the organization of the city depends on the involvement of its residents more than ever. As someone states in the film, the traditional process has been that “the board creates a plan, and then the community has to fight the plan.” It’s important to remember that the city will change no matter what. We can do nothing, and allow other forces to shape our city in their own image, or we can speak up and demand that the character of our neighborhoods be preserved in city planning.

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