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Too Big Not to Fail

Will someone tell the mayor it’s not 1966? The West Side doesn’t need a colossal stadium. Just look a bit downtown to see how urban development really works.

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You would think that a city as sharp and self-aware as ours, led by a mayor as devoted to empirical rigor as ours—a no-bullshit engineer and Harvard M.B.A. who created a cutting-edge company from scratch—would have no trouble learning the staggeringly obvious lessons of the past four decades of urban redevelopment. You would think that given the opportunity to turn thirteen Hudson riverfront acres into a complicated, stirring, living, breathing new piece of Manhattan, this city and mayor would see the plain wrongheadedness of filling that precious space with a gawky, meretricious, $2 billion monolith whose raison d’être is 40 hours a year of football. You would think.

But we’re all products of the eras in which we came of age. When Michael Bloomberg arrived in New York as a 24-year-old Salomon Brothers trainee in 1966, Joe Namath was making the Jets the sexiest team in America (and no less so for playing in Queens). In 1966, too, “urban renewal” was the prevailing city-making doctrine. It was the upbeat synonym for “slum clearance,” and meant demolishing whole blocks, because their buildings were old and weird and scruffy, in order to build pristine modern complexes. All the wise men agreed. And so, in 1966, Lincoln Center, having replaced a real neighborhood torn down by Robert Moses, was new and glamorous in its corporate-Utopian fashion. Our present (charmless) Madison Square Garden was under construction, replacing the beloved 1910 Penn Station. Downtown on Vesey and Liberty streets, the demolition of several lively old blocks had just gotten under way, so that a sterile plaza and the tallest buildings on earth could take their place.

But even as urban renewal of this heedless, grandiose, ultimately unloved and failed kind was reaching its apotheoses in Lincoln Center and the World Trade Center, a smarter countertrend was emerging. Perhaps Bloomberg, as he commuted from the East Side to Wall Street, didn’t notice what was happening in between. In 1961, Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities and spent the decade leading the fight to stop the demolition of her neighborhood, the far West Village. A crosstown superhighway that would have aborted the embryonic Soho was defeated as well in the early seventies, just as that neighborhood was ratified by the city as an official artists’ quarter and cognoscenti had begun to call Tribeca Tribeca.

Over time, New Yorkers, and then the rest of America, came to see tatty buildings and blocks with new eyes. Shabby was (potentially) chic. It became clear that desolate districts could be revivified gradually, old building by old building, by many hands, and that the outcome was far more successful—more interesting, more attractive, more urban—than any arrogant macher-master-builder could achieve. It was a great and enduring and truly conservative achievement of the countercultural sixties.

Ever since, we have watched the fairly miraculous rebirth of a dozen neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn, without any huge new buildings implanted as anchors. Consider how in a decade the far West Side of Manhattan, from the meat market north, has changed: One smallish development has led to another, more or less organically, in an accelerating virtuous cycle—Chelsea Piers, the riverfront bike path and parks, Pastis, the galleries in the Twenties, the clothing stores on 14th, the hotels and clubs, the High Line, before long the Frank Gehry–designed headquarters for InterActive Corp. between 18th and 19th streets . . . and on it goes, real urban synergy, with the light hand of planning bureaucrats only nudging it along. Or take the current transformation of the financial district. Last week, the Times reported that the residential population south of Chambers Street has doubled to more than 30,000 just since 9/11—thus starting to revert to its character before misbegotten “urban renewal” pushed out housing and 24-hour life.

During the past 40 years, we have seen pretty clearly what works and what doesn’t, what is most apt to generate new New York–worthy development and what isn’t. Convention centers are necessary evils, and the Javits Center is not awful as they go, but after nineteen years, it has failed to ignite life in the West Thirties. Yet Bloomberg is now doubling down, wishfully, by insisting we build a heavily subsidized 75,000-seat football stadium—by far the most expensive anywhere, ever—adjacent to the Javits. It’s 1966 all over again.

Even many who back the stadium do so as a kind of resigned political pose. One developer told me that while he “publicly support[s] the stadium for the same reason half the people in town do”—that is, to stay on Bloomberg’s good side—he believes that if it gets built, it will be a “white elephant” and urbanistically “inert.” When I asked the Planning Department’s spokesperson why the city needs a stadium for the Jets on that spot, she said it was “essential to jump-start development” in the neighborhood. Really? Essential? Right on the Hudson, immediately north of the successfully renovated Starrett-Lehigh office building and a thriving art neighborhood and Chelsea Piers? “There’s a hole there,” she said, referring to the MTA yards over which the stadium would be built. Holes can be filled in lots of other ways when they’re adjacent to living urban tissue, albeit not as quickly. Well, she said, the stadium—that is, the New York Sports and Convention Center—is the best option on the table.


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