A Good Idea at the Time
A plan to make nine mostly vacant city-owned parcels available for commercial and residential development on Manhattan’s Lower East Side won City Council approval last week, the next-to-last step in New York City’s tortuous—and sometimes torturous—land-use review process. The final step—the mayor’s signature on the bill—is pretty much a fait accompli in this case. Getting to this point only took about half a century.
When the scenario then known as the Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal Area was first proposed, Robert F. Wagner Jr. was mayor, the Beatles were riding high on the Top 40 charts thanks to sales of seven-inch circular slabs of vinyl, 200 Park Ave. bore the logo of Pan American World Airways and your humble scribe had yet to enter kindergarten. Seven mayoralties and 47 years later, the city and the world have evolved to the point that relatively little is as it was in 1965.
Yet the goal of redeveloping the Seward Park area, which seemed like a good idea at the time, is still valid many years later. That isn’t always the case with reimaginings of neighborhoods. Robert Moses’ proposal to run an expressway through Greenwich Village isn’t likely to be revived anytime soon. Other redevelopment scenarios lose their luster even without widespread community opposition.
That doesn’t mean the world surrounding a proposed large-scale redevelopment remains unchanged, or that the reasons for the redevelopment don’t evolve over time. When the Seward Park project was first proposed, it must have seemed like an opportunity to renew a neighborhood that had long been associated with tenements and nothing but. Today, those particular parcels may be ripe for reinvention—but the Lower East Side on the whole has been gentrified, the reinvention of the neighboring East Village having carried over.
Yet the city’s history also offers examples of redevelopments that traveled a decades-long road from proposal to fruition. In 1946, the year that GlobeSt.com’s sister publication Real Estate Forum began publishing, Nelson Rockefeller broached the idea of a World Trade Center to be built in Lower Manhattan. The plan didn’t gain traction until the early 1960s, and the complex was not completed until the early 1970s, more than a quarter-century after the future governor of New York State proposed it.
The calamitous events of 9/11 meant that the WTC complex would have to be rebuilt, of course. But the fact that the new complex is rising on the site of the old is testimony to Rockefeller’s vision: that a WTC would help anchor Downtown. When Rockefeller first proposed it, the neighborhood was home mainly to financial services firms and tended to roll up the sidewalks after the New York Stock Exchange ceased trading for the day. Today, it’s well on the way to becoming a 24/7 live-work area with a diversified office tenancy, demonstrating that something that was a good at the time—in this case, 1946—can remain one decades later.
What long-time-coming projects can you recall that transformed the city, or at least a piece of it? Take a moment and let us know.