View Full Version : Contextualists

September 18th, 2003, 08:43 AM
September 18, 2003


Neighbors Think Outside the Block


DOWNSIZERS Protesting a new high rise in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, one of several neighborhoods where rezoning could be used as a preservation tool.

FOR A SMOOTHER PROFILE "Contextual" zoning promoted by civic groups to keep a neighborhood's skyline and the character of its buildings relatively consistent took effect this year in Park Slope, Brooklyn, above.

ON a sunny morning last week, Judith Stonehill stood along the Hudson River, gazing ruefully across West Street at two glass towers designed by Richard Meier. "They are striking. They are even elegant," she said of the condominium towers, which stand one block outside the Greenwich Village Historic District. Ms. Stonehill let out a heavy sigh. "They look as if they are from another planet."

And now they are about to be joined by a third building, also designed by Mr. Meier right next door. At 16 stories, it will tower over the mishmash of town houses and warehouses that line the cobblestone street east of the site. The developers have already started demolishing a 100-year-old building there.

The endless subversion of the old to make way for the new: that's what makes New York New York. And while residents may fight individual buildings, many who will live in the shadows of new skyscrapers believe they can't do anythingto stop them.

But maybe they can. Community groups in places like Harlem, South Street Seaport and Park Slope, Brooklyn, have lobbied the city successfully this year to change the rules governing what gets built in their neighborhoods. Their tool is so-called contextual zoning, which controls the size and form of buildings in neighborhoods whose character the city believes is worth keeping.

The dry, legal province of zoning has become increasingly important to preservationists because it offers protections that even historic designation does not. While the Landmarks Preservation Commission, a politically appointed body, regulates alterations and development within New York's 81 historic districts, only zoning can dictate the heights of new buildings nearby.

So now, unlike traditional preservationists, who focus on drawing lines around discrete pieces of the past, neighborhood advocates are looking at the larger context. Progress is fine, they say, but does it make sense to plop a 50-story high-rise next to a three-story brownstone?

"The beauty of New York is that it is a city of mountains and valleys," said Florent Morellet, owner of the restaurant Florent in the meatpacking district, who helped organize a neighborhood group in support of historic designation for the Gansevoort Market. "We need to keep some valleys because otherwise it becomes a plateau, and that is kind of boring."

Last week, the City Planning Commission announced zoning rules that will restrict new buildings in a 44-square-block area of central Harlem to heights compatible with surrounding buildings. The commission has approved similar rules for East Harlem and Park Slope, among others. Now the trend is rippling across New York, as other neighborhood groups bid for more compatible development.

Residents typically don't pay attention to zoning until someone tries to build something next door. That was the case in Fort Greene, a rapidly gentrifying community of 19th-century brick town houses in Brooklyn. Developers are erecting an 11-story luxury condominium, clad in prefabricated panels of aluminum, stone and brick, just outside the historic district.

On Monday, 15 residents picketed the construction site, chanting, "Too tall! Too ugly!" as commuters honked their horns in support.

Under current zoning, the protesters can only hope for the architect's change of heart. But Howard Pitsch, chairman of the Fort Greene Association, a civic group, hopes this clash will provoke his neighbors to campaign for compatible zoning in the community. "That would be a movement which has regrettably lagged behind," he said.

The rapid pace of development along West Street in Manhattan is likely to spur similar efforts.

The new Meier building, a project of the developer Izak Senbahar, will join a steady march of new sky-kissing towers in the area. Developers "took a situation that was of concern and worrisome, and escalated it to a crisis," said Christine C. Quinn, a City Council member who has taken up the cause of compatible zoning.

Mr. Meier responded that existing zoning rules allow new layers of history to enliven older buildings. "I think they complement one another," he said. "They are fine examples of a building of a certain period, and this is an outstanding example of a building of our time."

Some neighbors believe that development represents progress. "I am not a fan of Richard Meier's architecture, but I am a pragmatist," said Kenny Schachter, whose town house and art gallery sit steps from the base of the southern Meier tower. "We live in a capitalist society, and nothing is going to get in the way of business enterprise."

But others argue that preserving neighborhood character is a goal that should supersede, or at least run parallel with, economics. They say that soaring contemporary buildings can overpower historic structures. "The problem is that these designs are great on the drawing board but don't necessarily take a look at what is surrounding them," said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

His group recently worked to secure historic designation for the Gansevoort Market neighborhood, where meatpacking warehouses intermingle with bars and chic boutiques. While historic designation will give the neighborhood some protection, only zoning can guarantee height restrictions for buildings outside the historic district.

Standing one day this week on the border of the district, where a 34-story hotel is planned, Mr. Berman raised his voice above the din of idling meat trucks. "To say that it would stick out like a sore thumb would be a vast understatement," he said.

Without zoning controls, developers and architects "just insert buildings as sculpture," said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a nonprofit group that helps neighborhoods secure historic designation. Contextual zoning does not mean stopping development, he said, but "looking at the place as a whole, as an ecosystem."

Striking a balance within an ecosystem is not easy, all sides concede. "If every place had contextual zoning, we would never have the Empire State Building or the Guggenheim, which are two of the most uncontextual buildings that there could possibly be," said Andrew Dolkart, an associate professor of historic preservation at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. "Neighborhoods change, and somehow there has to be a balance between these things."

Pressure to generate new housing is also felt by the planning department, which is "focused on balancing growth with neighborhood preservation," said Rachaele Raynoff, a spokeswoman.

The scales tipped in favor of preservation recently when the city rezoned part of the South Street Seaport Historic District, making it impossible for developers of a proposed 400-apartment complex to proceed with their project. The City Planning Commission originally proposed lowering the height limit of new buildings in the area to 170 feet from 210 feet. Then, in April, the City Council voted to cut it down even more, to 120 feet. Last month a partnership controlled by the developer, Milstein Properties, sued the city.

James M. Yasser, the senior vice president of Milstein Properties, said the neighborhood would suffer. "I'm not saying we were the panacea for the lack of economic activity over there, but building after building along those blocks has collapsed over the years," Mr. Yasser said. "That's what happens when there is no economic stimulus in an older neighborhood."

Proponents of the rezoning said Milstein had alternatives. "You could have very nice and lucrative town houses," said Alan Gerson, a council member who lobbied for the council's zoning revision.

Of course, it is often the historic character of an up-and-coming neighborhood that attracts developers in the first place. One of the developers of the Fort Greene condominium, David Weiss, said he and his partners were drawn to "the beauty and preservation and attention that the neighbors have given to their own community."

That's precisely what angers residents on the streets that will abut the new building. "This is our hard work that created this neighborhood," said Paul Palazzo, a lighting designer who has lived there since 1984.

It's not just the building itself that worries residents, but the kind of people the new condos are pitched to. "The thing we love about Fort Greene is that it is mixed income," said Renee Turman, a 34-year-old renter who attended a meeting of residents in Mr. Palazzo's living room last week. The building, she said, "is going to destroy that community because only one kind of person will be able to afford that kind of building."

She and other neighbors are pressing the developer to change the building's facade to look more like other buildings on the street. "We are asking for a sympathetic melding with that streetscape of 1850's town houses," Mr. Palazzo said. He and his neighbors would also like the building to be lower.

But that is unlikely, given the current rules, which would allow the building to rise even five stories higher than the developers plan. Under strict height restrictions, buying the land, which cost $3 million, "would not have been worth it," Jonathan Jacobs, one of Mr. Weiss's partners, said.

Standing a block from the site of the protests on Monday, Mr. Jacobs said, "We can't be living in the past here." Pointing at a seven-story home for the elderly built in 1929, he added, "When this building was built, I am sure the people in all the brownstones said, `Wow, look at this modern building.' "

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

September 18th, 2003, 09:40 AM
"And now they are about to be joined by a third building, also designed by Mr. Meier right next door. At 16 stories, it will tower over the mishmash of town houses and warehouses that line the cobblestone street east of the site. The developers have already started demolishing a 100-year-old building there."

Any renderings for this "sky kissing" building? Kinda looking forward to seeing if he can top the twins.

September 18th, 2003, 10:41 AM
I hate contextualism, not because of height limitations, but it generally produces uninspired buildings that are poor imitations of their neighbors.

"The problem is that these designs are great on the drawing board but don't necessarily take a look at what is surrounding them," said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

If you walked along Washington St (the historic district boundary), you would not notice the Meier project one block away. Both buildings are set back maybe 15 feet from the property lines so they don't interfere with the view corridor along narrow Perry St. Once you reach the buildings, West St has already destroyed the historic character.