Of Preservation and Parking Lots


By Susan Kathryn Hefti
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report
[email protected]

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Had Ralph Nader been born in ancient Greece, the first car to be deemed unsafe at any speed would probably have been the chariot. While specifically designed to go as fast as possible, even at a slow trot, these antiquarian carriages, as light as modern tunafish cans and having the structural integrity of backyard go-carts held together with rubber bands and bobby pins, were confirmed death-traps. But it was precisely the possibility of a fatal crash that helped draw overflow crowds to cheer on the chariot races at the Hippodrome, the open air arena in ancient Olympia, where these daredevil competitions were staged.

And it was just that sort of spectacle that Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy had in mind when they built the Hippodrome, a 5,200-seat theater on the east side of Sixth Avenue at 44th Street in New York City. But the crowds didn’t remain as steady in Gotham as they did in ancient Greece. And so, betting on an uptick in local land values in 1939, the Hippodrome was forever reduced to rubble. Real estate developers had speculated that the land upon which the theater stood would prove to be worth more than the ornate edifice itself. And so the Hippodrome, like countless other structures throughout New York City’s history, was summarily demolished in the hopes of cashing in on a real estate bonanza.

But in the build-up to World War II, the economy quickly contracted in fear, and the hopeful wager that had been placed on the Hippodrome property failed to yield the anticipated winnings. Gambling on a dazzling short-term payoff quickly gave way to the humble reality that razing a theater once described by Streetscapes author Christopher Gray as “one of the most unusual theatrical venues ever built,” produced nothing more than a tedious parade of blueprints, drawings, plans and ideas about what to do with the idle property.

Like a nagging reminder of the mercurial nature of real estate development and the economy to which it is lashed, the site that had boasted a most spectacular structure, featuring an enormous sculptural relief of an elephant’s head along with a pair of turret-like temples on either end of its roof, was reduced to the quotidian chore of serving as a parking lot.

Fourteen years crept by — a veritable eternity in Gotham — before the crushing blow that had taken down the Hippodrome in 1939 resulted in anything being built in its place: a rather nondescript combination office complex and parking garage finally opened on the site in 1953.

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On Christmas Eve last December, I was reminded of the pitfalls of this casino-style approach to urban planning when I found myself suddenly navigating a patchwork of snow-covered sidewalks. As I trekked across the uneven moguls of hard-packed snow and ice in my red rubber wellies, I searched for the culprits in whose eyes I could register my discontent at his or her failure to perform one of the most appreciated of all civic duties: to keep clear the public walkway. But I might as well have been shadow-boxing. For each time I looked up from the snow-encrusted pavement, what stood before me was nothing but a void: These unkempt swaths of sidewalk adjoined either empty storefronts or stalled, even abandoned, construction sites.

Daunting mounds of snow dotted the city like arctic vacancy signs taunting the city’s already tortured economy with the chilling number of construction sites that had gone quiet. In fact, stalled sites surged so dramatically over the last year in New York City that the Department of Buildings (DOB) began keeping a record of just how many fallow properties were spread throughout all five boroughs.

And when the number of stalled sites started flirting with 500 (a number it continues to exceed each month), the City Council decided it was time to do something about these dormant properties. Faced with public concern about the dangers posed by abandoned or stalled sites, but not wanting to impede developers from continuing on with construction once the financing they need begins to flow again, the Council reasoned that the best thing to do would be to create a Stalled Sites Program. Administered by the DOB, this program encourages developers to submit to the city a detailed safety plan for their site while the property remains idle.

In exchange for developers stepping up to the plate on safety issues, the Council voted unanimously to allow these developers’ permits to be extended for up to four years, essentially freezing their permits in time so real estate development, and the jobs it spawns, can take off again without delay once financing thaws. Ordinarily, construction permits expire after only one year if a site remains idle or if the permitted work had not begun within that 12-month timeframe. But the city’s Stalled Sites Program provides a cushion to soften the blow of the current economic downturn and its impact on the construction industry.

Since the city didn’t start keeping records on stalled sites until July 2009, we really don’t know how the numbers compare to those during other economic downturns, DOB spokesperson Carly Sullivan told me. But the fact that the Council felt there was an urgent need to launch a government program specifically designed to contend with the issue of stalled sites certainly suggests the ever-expanding tally of fallow properties had reached problematic proportions.

Now, everybody wants to see the economy turn around. And, according to my world view, Gotham should always be the shining jewel in our nation’s crown. But like entrails left behind after the inevitable bursting of the housing bubble, these stalled sites signal a unique opportunity to reflect upon development practices in a city that usually doesn’t have the time to catch its own breath. So against this bleak backdrop, evoking the sudden reversal of so many fortunes and plans along with the uncertainty of what sort of housing demands might emerge from the wreckage, the time is suddenly ripe for a full-blown discussion about sustainable planning and development practices in New York City.

While lending practices may be the immediate nexus that drove so many construction sites into neutral, these urban wastelands are like economic craters echoing back to remind us that, from the very start, the housing bubble’s eyes were always bigger than its stomach. From that perspective, the juggernaut that came to define New York City real estate development no longer seems sustainable.

Of course, not all stalled sites represent a property where a structure like the Hippodrome once stood. But, given the fact that the city green-lighted 24,282 complete tear-downs between 2005 and 2009, according to the DOB, there can be little doubt that some of the buildings demolished might have been successfully adapted for reuse, rather than leaving behind empty lots for an indefinite period of time. (As noted in my previous column, the number of demolition permits issued by DOB through December 9, 2009 does not include partial demolitions, only complete tear downs).

That’s just one of the many reasons Lisa Kersavage, who is senior director for preservation and sustainability at the Municipal Arts Society (MAS), advocates for public policies that encourage the reuse of extant buildings. Adding yet another dimension to the argument, Kersavage said that what’s good for sustainable development and preservation is also good for the environment.

Rapacious demolition along the Brooklyn waterfront prompted the MAS to redouble its efforts to encourage adaptive reuse of existing structures. In addition to wanting to preserve the city’s historic stock, Kersavage is concerned that current development practices promote unnecessary demolition that pumps an untold amount of construction debris into the waste stream.

In a phone interview, Kersavage disclosed that the MAS has launched a comprehensive campaign designed to promote the general concept that preserving and improving historic buildings is actually the best way to green New York City. Supported by funding from the New York Community Trust, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the MAS plans to present its recommendations at an October conference hosted at Columbia University.

Like its namesake in Olympia, Greece, where fast and furious chariot races drew huge and hungry crowds, the houselights at the Hippodrome faded to black long ago. But in a town that loves nothing better than a comeback, adaptive reuse of existing structures, granting buildings a second or even a third act, seems right up Gotham’s alley.

Please send preservation news tips and info to: [email protected].

Susan Kathryn Hefti is a playwright and active member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Her history play, A Defiant Soul, has been performed throughout the New York City school system as a teaching workshop in early American history. Hefti is also the author and curator of the New York City history exhibit “The Flushing Remonstrance: Who Shall Plead For Us?” Shortly after its 2009 opening, this celebrated exhibit was quickly booked at venues nationwide through the summer of 2010. Her new play, American Dames (or…Waiting for Dolley), introduces us to a group of Upper East Side women confronting their relevance in the ever-changing cultural landscape known as 21st century America. Hefti has been active in historic preservation pretty much her whole life.

The Preservation Diaries does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.

But in the build-up to World War II, the economy quickly contracted in fear, and the hopeful wager that had been placed on the Hippodrome property failed to yield the anticipated winnings. Gambling on a dazzling short-term payoff quickly gave way to the humble reality that razing a theater once described by Streetscapes author Christopher Gray as “one of the most unusual theatrical venues ever built,” produced nothing more than a tedious parade of blueprints, drawings, plans and ideas about what to do with the idle property.

  • Tabetha Garman

    The story of a hippodrome illustrates one of the unexplored problems of historic preservation. At the time it was demolished no doubt the majority of residence saw it as a sagging relic of the “old world,” an eye sore in the shiny futuristic world of the 1930s and 40s. Investors and politicians were eager to leave their modernistic mark on New York and in their haste to move forward, they forgot to look back.
    One would think that there would be an argument for some sort of building moratorium– and investor could buy a historic property, even update it internally, but could not demolish it for a span of time, say ten years. This would allow time to pass, and minds to change, before the structure is lost forever. I don’t know if such an idea has ever been floated, or indeed if it is even legally possible; but it seems to me it would prevent the senseless, hasty destruction of history.

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  • meg cullen

    Ms. Hefti’s article brings a real sense of urgency to our current economic climate–full-blown talks for sustainable planning and development practices by developers and demands from the public for the “greening” of New York City by adaptive reuse of existing historic treasures.

  • Colette

    On re-cycling, or, as Susan Hefti writes, “re-using.”
    Tired of urban living in poor quarters, communities of young people in the South of France and Italy, reclaim abandoned, derelict villages. With the permission of the local authorities or the forestry department, they work, painstakingly and slowly, at rebuilding house after house. They value time-tested designs and have adopted the old lime and mortar building techniques. For missing windows, tiles, or beams, they go to abandoned demolition sites or trade with friends in similar communities. Still fresh in my memory is the announcement, at MIT, after the earthquake in Turkey, that a group of students were heading to that country to help re-build — with a commitment to using local techniques and re-cycling local materials, while advising the villagers on better earth-quake proof design. In Istanbul, the old Roman hippodrome has become a park, but the stones, and it seemed, even some remaining arches, are embedded in the foundations of the local high school. But turning my mind to New York, and thinking of the dizzying speed at which skyscrapers go for the sky, shimmering in all that glass, I realize that what is done in the Old World may turn out to be unmanageable in the New. Surely, re-using requires slowing down, as well as re-conceiving construction in terms of durable materials and an interest in the craft of building rather than in immediate economic outcomes. But is there hope, perhaps, in an upcoming generation of architects: with a steady eye for environmental issues and a keen sensitivity to the needs of communities, they could help us re-imagine New York. But will there be capital for projects that, on the face of it, cannot be sold for their glamour and luxury feel?

  • deborah renee kaplan

    kudos for informing the public and stirring the pot.

  • Kelly Ann

    Hip, hip, hooray for The Preservation Diaries! Another rockin’ column!

    All I could think of while reading this latest installment, was the Counting Crows song (originally Joni Mitchell’s song, of course) about tearing down beauty to put up a parking lot: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvtJPs8IDgU.

    NYC has already let so many treasures slip through it fingers. The Mayor really needs to start thinking outside the box. Knocking down buildings to build new buildings in their place is neither the only way to create jobs, nor the best way to create jobs. At least, not if you give a whit about the city’s architectural and cultural heritage – not to mention the titanic burden demolition places on the natural environment.

    And, as illustrated in this column, on the city’s Stalled Sites Program: many of these demolition sites have amounted to nothing more than neighborhood burdens. NYC needs to stop wasting the historic structures resources it has. And developers need to start thinking seriously about alternative uses before swinging the wrecking ball, willy-nilly.

  • Amy Wittorff

    Lending institutions would be bending over backwards to loan money to these stalled projects if they thought the demand for the finished product was there. The fact that banks are not loaning money to these stalled sites only underscores the point of this column which is that it’s time for NYC to get real: Neither blowing hot air into another fake housing bubble, nor manufacturing a construction boom out of thin air is sustainable.

    There are a ton of highly skilled construction jobs just waiting for a developer with foresight: older commercial and residential buildings can be restored and reused all over NYC, creating jobs that can’t be exported. Not every building is worth saving. But considering the number of demolition permits cited in this column and the more than 500 stalled sites around the city, the time has clearly come to take stock of these wasteful development practices. Good management requires that you look before you leap. With the number of historic buildings on the line and the amount of investment on the line, the Stalled Sites Program is a sad metaphor for the irresponsibility that drove the illusion of a construction boom for years. The demand hadn’t been real for quite some time. Had the city leaders any guts at all, they would have put the brakes on the whole mess years before it came to this dreary end.

    If he truly cares about NYC’s economy, its heritage and its future, Mayor Bloomberg shouldn’t waste another minute. He should hoist himself up to the closest abandoned scaffold, grab a megaphone and start hollering at the top of his lungs for a law that would require more thought be given to alternatives before demolishing these great old buildings and leaving more parking lots in their place.

  • Jim Gerson

    Kudos to Kathryn! Adaptive reuse should become an ongoing consideration among developers and planners – before it is too late. Hopefully the stalled economy will provide an opportunity to review our policies.

  • Tom Giza

    Thank you Ms Hefti, you have put in words what I have thought for years. As a scenic designer & theatre historian I have always been interested in “one of the most unusual theatrical venues ever built”. For years I have been collecting items and articles on the Hippodrome. It is one of the few buildings I which I could have seen in person. I have always wondered about the truth of why such an edifice was razed in 1939 and not saved for reuse. Considering it was the biggest theatres in the world when it opened in 1905 to 1932. It had stage mechanics, a crane system for shifting scenery, stage elevators, an apron pool (covered up in the 1923 renovation) and even the construction of the steal beams used in spanning the wide auditorium were all of historic size. It was one of four large theatres in this Manhattan area ; Hippodrome, Center Theatre, Radio City Music Hall, and the Roxy Theatre, of which only the Music Hall has been preserved. To think of todays entertainments and exhibitions, many shows could have easily used the performance space. A Cirque Du Soleil show could have fitted the space well.