Michael Kimmelman on the Challenges – and Opportunities – Facing New York

Sep 11, 2016 by

When Michael Kimmelman was named architecture critic of the New York Times, he was based in Berlin. He returned to his hometown in 2011 at a particularly auspicious time, as the rate of development (and gentrification) was continuing apace. The critic took on a number of local issues, a la Ada Louise Huxtable, advocating for a new Penn Station, as well as revisions to NYU’s overly ambitious expansion plans. In 2014 he was awarded the Brendan Gill Prize for his efforts. Last week I talked to Kimmelman about regulating tall buildings; the lost soul of the neighborhood he grew up in, Greenwich Village; and his continuing crusade for a 21st century transportation hub.



MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
MK: Michael Kimmelman

MCP: You once wrote, “Exceptional height should be earned, not just bought.” Talk about that quote in the context of New York’s building boom.

MK: The heart of the issue, in New York, is that public improvements, such as more affordable housing, depend largely on private investment. We rely heavily on the “goodwill”—and financial incentives—of developers. As a result, many things that we might consider the public realm are not in the hands of the public. Height is an interesting case, because one could argue that the skyline is a shared public commodity. Shared not just by the people on the tall building’s site, but by everybody who sees it. So the changes to the skyline, theoretically, should be something that the public would have a say in. But that’s not the way it works.

MCP: And it’s never been the way it worked.

MK: Not in New York. There are cities, obviously, where questions like that are answered differently. There are viewsheds in London to protect buildings like St. Paul’s.

MPC: Washington, D.C., has height restrictions in certain areas as well.

MK: Exactly. New York does too, in some areas, but that’s not the same as protecting viewsheds in a city that’s so vertical. The complications come when you try to legislate the quality of what goes up into the sky, which raises the inevitable question: who makes this decision? Let’s say we’ve enacted some new regulations that said: buildings over a certain height would have to pass muster with city planning on aesthetic grounds. Whose aesthetics determine whether that building is a good idea? It’s a complicated question. I’m not against height. Far from it. But there is a strong reaction many New Yorkers have to too much height, even though we’re a city of tall buildings, because there’s so much change and a widening income gap, both of which promote a feeling that the city is getting away from us. These tall luxury apartment buildings symbolize inequality. But much of what’s wrong with them has to do with the fact that, when they’re built, we don’t pay enough attention to how they meet the streets.

MCP: I agree. But tall buildings inherently hit the ground in ways that make good urbanism difficult to achieve.

MK: They do. But there are tall buildings that hit the ground in better ways. The Empire State Building hits the ground a lot better than, say, One World Trade Center.

MCP: You’d be hard pressed to come up with five other good examples, though. In these tall buildings, there will be one retail tenant, inevitably a national chain, so what people experience is a less engaging street. I’m not sure they’re objecting to the height as much as to the diminished experience on the street.

MK: There are certainly objections to big buildings, period, in some neighborhoods. And fair enough. Context is critical. The mayor’s planned rezoning, in neighborhoods like Gowanus and East Harlem, is inextricably tied up with fears about losing the physical fabric and scale of those neighborhoods along with displacement and inequity.

But, you’re right, it’s hard to find many examples of exceptionally tall buildings that hit the ground well. We’ll see how many of the luxury towers now planned along 57th Street actually get built, since the market for them seems to have dried up, for the moment, but a couple are promising to do better at street level. The issue isn’t just retail, of course. It has to do with shadows, sidewalks, plazas and whether the city should think generally of some quid pro quo when it comes to luxury development on the skyline, in terms of more affordable housing or enhanced public space in the neighborhood—a trade off that might be triggered at a certain height. It’s a tricky issue but I think it’s at least worth some discussion.

The questions with density are always: in what form, and at what cost? It’s interesting that neighborhoods like Gowanus and East Harlem have taken the initiative and come up with redevelopment plans themselves, in anticipation of De Blasio’s rezoning. Too often the city announces a rezoning, the community feels assaulted and tries to eke out some benefit, and the thing is pushed forward despite community resistance. These communities were trying to get ahead of the process, saying, “These are the things that we want in our neighborhood, so if you’re going to come here and rezone, increasing density to get more housing, here are our priorities, and we will only go along if you promise to give us enough of what we want.” Whether this is going to work, or how much the city is willing to bargain, that’s the question. But it’s a fundamentally healthier process. It’s bottom-up, pro-active and accepts the idea that development can be good, and moreover, that some of it is going to happen whether we like it or not, so what form should it take?

MCP: You’re a native New Yorker, who grew up in the Greenwich Village and experienced the bad old days of the 60s and 70s, and now you’ve witnessed almost twenty years of unimpeded growth, gentrification, and development. What do you make of it?

MK: Whenever I talk about the Village, I have to remind myself, and remind other people, that it’s been a trope of Villagers for more than a hundred years to say, “The Village has gone to hell and it used to be good!” It’s in that context that I’m not saying that the Village has gone to hell. There are things about it now, at a glance, that are nicer than when I was growing up. It’s cleaner, the parks are in better shape. It looks shiny and rich, which is what it is. But the Village is a good example, not the most extreme example—except of extreme wealth—of the ways in which a creeping, nefarious homogeneity has taken over neighborhoods.


MCP: This is especially true in Manhattan.

MK: Although I have to say, lately, I think vast swathes of Brooklyn has been just as much affected. There are now areas of Manhattan that are more diverse, less gentrified and homogeneous than parts of Brooklyn. The Village is not one of them. For decades, the Village was a middle- and even working-class neighborhood, with a significant Italian population, a pioneering gay community and a diversity that you just can’t find there now. I find this profoundly sad, not just for the neighborhood. What made Greenwich Village the Village was not the low rise architecture. It’s a pretty neighborhood, but many European cities are at least as pretty. It was that it was a haven and magnet for people of different persuasions. It was an open place in every sense. I don’t think people regard the Village that way at all now. They regard it as an island of wealth increasingly colonized by New York University, which has a legacy of disastrous expansion. It didn’t take long to eradicate what was the fundamental identity of the Village.

MCP: So much of that was in the last 10 years.

MK: Over the last twenty. The process accelerated, as luxury housing prices did, generally. I could see it happening a decade ago. And it’s just been building on itself. I saw the old apartment that I grew up in the other day—it’s beyond unaffordable, for me, anyway. It’s a standard, vanilla New York City apartment, loud and mostly dark, and now it rents per month for, basically, what it costs Alejandro Aravena to build one of his incremental houses in Chile.

MCP: I hate to ask the typical out-of-towner question, but who’s renting these modest but insanely expensive apartments?

MK: That’s the question all long time New Yorkers ask: who are all these rich people? The city has one big advantage. Real estate, in so called desirable neighborhoods, is circumscribed. And this is a global city, and financial capital, which means rich people from around the world have wanted to own a piece of it. Either as an investment, or they work here, or they want to live here some of the time. As with London, pre-Brexit, we’re talking about a limited number of insanely rich people tussling over a limited number of the kinds of houses and apartments that these sort of people want to live in. That said, it remains inexplicable to me why anybody would pay $10,000 a month for a ratty apartment, even in the Village.

But, look, we have to stay focussed on the key issue, and that is: nearly half of New Yorkers don’t even earn what the de Blasio administration has defined as a cutoff to qualify for certain affordable housing, namely less than $34,400 for a family of four—meaning millions of New Yorkers can’t even afford affordable housing. Homelessness is at record levels. More and more people here choose between food and rent. The problem isn’t that some people are rich. Good for them. The problem is the widening discrepancy between rich and poor, which ultimately makes the city unlivable for lower and middle income residents and means New York can’t function. Diversity isn’t just a social good. It’s a practical necessity.



A rendering of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s latest proposal to transform the Farley Post Office Building into a train station. The critic characterizes this proposal as a “half measure,” advocating instead for a complete rethinking of the area.

MCP: Last subject. I am sixty one year old. Will I ever see a new Penn Station in my lifetime?

MK: I hope so! I believe we will. But the bigger question is, what form will it take? It’s possible that we can end up with window dressing, which would be useful to politicians, who could claim that they did something, when they actually did very little. Or it’s possible, I think, that we can have substantial, meaningful improvements that would benefit millions of people and turn an unsafe and miserable place into a civic asset. New York is a classic case of a city that too often gets the former, because doing something difficult is painful and time consuming, and the payoffs don’t conform to election cycles.

I don’t see, at the moment, political leadership squarely behind meaningful change. The current station is not just a hub for millions of people, but also a place where public safety is at issue. The economy of the Eastern seaboard is at issue. This goes beyond an aesthetic question of building some glassy, glossy new building and calling it a day. It’s a question of economic development, access to jobs  and serving the public good, in the deepest sense. My hope is that if we keep bringing the issue up, talking about the vast potential, and doing the hard thing, that maybe we can move from what’s expedient to what’s possible.

We’ve made progress. It was significant that the city council put a deadline on moving Madison Square Garden. If the Garden doesn’t move that creates enormous problems. And I believe there’s good reason why the Garden should move, why it would benefit the Garden to get a spanking new arena, say, across the street, but one way or another we should not be satisfied with half-measures. That’s just not good enough for a great city.


MPC: So it has to be Moynihan Station and a new station across the street for it to work?

MK: Above all, we need new tunnels under the Hudson River, and that will almost certainly require an expansion to the south of the station. The governor has revived the old idea of moving Amtrak into the McKim, Mead, White post office building across the street, to the west, which was to be renamed Moynihan Station. Whatever the limited benefits of that move, these things can go together with moving the Garden. All of this is possible. It just takes leadership. And money.

MCP: There was chatter on the internet recently, saying we should replicate the old station. What do you make of that?

MK: Not a fan. The original Penn Station, truth be told, wasn’t integrated with the surrounding streets. It was a glorious building, but if you recall the plans for it, you will note it did little or nothing compared with Grand Central Station to knit itself into the neighborhood around it. We should aspire to its grandeur. But the city has changed a lot since the early 1960s and it deserves a station for the 21st century. If we can keep our eye on that goal, we have the extraordinary example of Grand Central to aspire to. I know that seems impossible, but look what happened in London with Kings Cross and St. Pancras, which seemed equally hopeless, and how their reinvention completely changed that neighborhood and the economy of that city. Is something possible in our lifetime? I don’t know. How long are you planning on sticking around?


Featured image via Wikipedia.

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