Of Preservation and Parking Lots

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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.

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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.

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.