The Endangered Ordinary

Illustration by Peter Oumanski

The Broadway skyline on the Upper West Side is jagged, an animal parade of elephantine apartment palaces and tiny, humble stores. That profile is the record of the avenue’s piecemeal evolution, as a farm here and a shed there gradually gave way to a tenement, a tower, a supermarket. For more than a decade, though, a slow leak of shuttered little stores, street-swallowing banks, and twenty-story buildings has been leaching the personality from one of the world’s great urban stretches. Lately, a new wound has opened on the east side of Broadway, between 77th and 78th Streets. One of the last full hodgepodge blocks of low-rise buildings and small shops has that familiar ghost-town look that precedes obliteration. Once, the restaurant Ruby Foo’s, the Manhattan Diner, a Così sandwich bar, a Tae Kwon Do school, the Curl Up & Dye hair salon, a watch-repair service, a travel agency, a jewelry­making school, a pizza joint, a Subway, the World of Nuts & Ice Cream, and a jewelry shop were all crammed into 200 feet of frontage. A dozen businesses, catering to vanity, hunger, creativity, and the pursuit of health, have vanished. It’s a common tale, and the ending is almost always the same: a teeming commercial ecosystem gives way to a pair of vast establishments, stretching from corner to mid-block.

The new building is planned “as of right,” meaning that it requires no special permission, and will almost certainly be approved. If the developer, Friedland Properties, had to apply for a variance, a tax break, a change in zoning, or approval to build in a historic district, it would have to negotiate and compromise, but there’s no need for that here. Friedland hasn’t released plans and doesn’t return calls, and the Department of Buildings application is sketchy, so preparations for dismemberment will likely be under the radar, at least until the jackhammers start.

There are two compelling reasons to mourn this block’s destruction. The first is that Broadway’s small businesses are being choked out not by inexorable Darwinism but because landlords and developers almost always prefer to sign a long-term lease with a clean, quiet, stable, and heavily capitalized corporation rather than risk renting to an amateurishly run boutique or a potentially odoriferous diner. It’s the by-product of basically sound policy: the Bloomberg administration’s strategy of channeling development toward dense transit corridors. At a ­community-board meeting last month, the Department of City Planning proposed new rules that would limit the size of new stores on the Upper West Side—but only on Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. Broadway, already home to Staples, P. C. Richard, and other frontage-hogging brands, has been deemed a big-store preserve. (The new regulations would force new banks up to the second floor, with small street-level vestibules, but given their existing overpopulation it’s hard to see such a rule having much effect.)

Cleansing the sidewalks of small establishments changes the rhythms that give Broadway its character. Businesses and residents pay fortunes to be immersed in the irregular, contrapuntal flow of foot traffic: people striding to work, pausing to scrutinize a restaurant menu, slowing down to covet a pair of earrings, or herding kids in little white suits and color-coded belts toward a session of martial arts. All this human activity so easily drains away. Who wants to promenade where the shop windows offer nothing more than mouthwash and free checking?

The second reason that the demolition of the 77th Street block should cause much gnashing of teeth is that the low Broadway building is an endangered species. Every sighting feels provisional, and coming across a full block of them is like glimpsing a whole pride of pumas. I believe in height and density—they are the sources of New York’s strength—but not if they are evenly slathered across areas that were once more varied. Conventional planning wisdom holds that tall buildings should line the avenues to leave the side streets low at mid-block, which is fine, except that not every boulevard is created equal. Park and West End Avenues were shaped by fell swoops of development that gave them their distinctively gracious uniformity; Broadway was not.

It’s hard to detect so much as a wisp of urgency about protecting the remaining low-rise patches. Activists do not rush to defend such stumpy, unassuming blocks as this. Aside from one blond brick façade with nice Italianate details and another elegantly glazed in black ceramic tiles, these little buildings are not contenders for architectural immortality. No founding father or literary legend slept here. A proposed historic district would protect segments on the west side of Broadway, but not the more plebeian east side.

In Manhattan, where the value of land is multiplied by the value of the air above, developers look at a short building on a site where a tall one is permitted and see $100 bills flipping away in the breeze. Still, those are the spots where the street lightens, the horizon opens, and the pace slows. Suddenly, the city seems a little more manageable and humane. It’s the fitfulness of these blocks on Broadway that makes them restorative and delightful, each a respite from New York’s relentless skyward reach.

Outrage over new development often coalesces around extra-tall skyscrapers, but the ordinary is far more corrosive. The pair of 30-story-plus towers facing each other across Broadway at 99th Street galvanized the neighborhood into demanding new regulations limiting the height of future buildings. The result is a pleasing lone spike in the skyline—and rules that ensure it will remain thus. But below 96th Street, Broadway’s serrated profile is being evened out. What will replace the low, old blocks is not a glittering chain of architectural marvels, but a series of blocky buildings that rise 150 feet and then set back at the top. They can be lavished with nostalgic detail, as at the new Laureate, at 76th Street, or they can be perfunctorily designed. Either way, zoning dictates their bulk and form, turning the avenue into a corridor of near-total uniformity.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Planners could develop more sophisticated zoning tools to foment commercial diversity and architectural variety: They might, for instance, require new stores with more than 50 feet of frontage to be spaced two or three blocks apart. That will happen only if neighbors demand it. The only people who can curb the blight of sameness are the ones who suffer the consequences.

The architect and provocateur Rem Koolhaas recently suggested, in a polemical exhibit called “Cronocaos,” that the world should routinely clear out the underbrush of obsolete junk architecture. Preservationism, he argued, is keeping cities sluggish and out of date. Koolhaas was once a connoisseur of New York’s contradictory quirks; these days, he has only to stroll up Broadway on the Upper West Side to observe the baleful outcome of the progressive erasure he advocates. Here, the preservationist impulse is needed not in order to cherish the past, but to safeguard the vibrant present.

The Endangered Ordinary