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Tall Order

The Municipal Art Society declares a public-relations war on outsize apartment towers. But is anyone listening?

EDITED BY CHRISTOPHER BONANOS

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You know the scene: an otherwise quiet block of brownstones unbalanced by a looming, out-of-scale apartment tower. Those hated buildings have been a standard among developers for 40 years, since the city's zoning was revised in 1961 to favor what's called the tower-in-the-park form. It was state-of-the-art back then, foreseen as a way to encourage little green public areas all over the city. It didn't work, and most of us are sick of the resulting blocky buildings. But can they be stopped?

To hear Frank Sanchis, executive director of the Municipal Art Society, tell it, maybe. The society's do-good patricians are trying to take this fight to the people. "Zoning is hard to understand, but most people realize that it affects your light and air," says Sanchis. "Most of our residential neighborhoods are low-rise, and that is a positive quality. Our current zoning laws do not adequately protect that."

The City Planning Commission began holding hearings about changing the rules last year, coming up with an anti-monolith idea called the Unified Bulk Program. But developers and an indifferent mayor kept Unified Bulk from going anywhere. Now that the market's a little cooler and the mayor's headed out, the M.A.S. is making another play.

This time, the group is spending major money on ads and trying to force the mayoral candidates to take a stand. But it's tough going. Developers have a lot of political clout -- a group of Real Estate Board of New York members actually voted to support and raise money for all four Democratic candidates last month. The M.A.S.'s Website also lets visitors send the candidates form-letter faxes. So far, more than 800 have gone out, prompting two campaigns to tell the society to "call off the dogs," says Sanchis.

Can it work? The Municipal Art Society does know its way around P.R. To dramatize a 1984 plan that would have filled Times Square with staid gray high-rises, the group arranged to have the gaudy signage turned off for half an hour. And whether the M.A.S. was responsible or not, those towers never got built.

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