Riverside Center Brings Out Upper West Side’s Deepest Anxieties

by - June 15, 2010 at 11:46 pm -

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Community Board 7 held its first public hearing on Riverside Center on Tuesday and presented a counter-proposal to Extell Development Company’s plans to build five towers along the Hudson River between 59th and 61st Streets.

Extell President Gary Barnett listens to comments.

Extell President Gary Barnett listens to comments.

Extell’s project, the largest being considered in the neighborhood by far, would bring more than 2,500 apartments, 210,000 square feet of retail, a hotel, a movie theater, an underground automobile service center, a new K-8 school, and 3 acres of open space to the neighborhood. The community board’s counter-proposal (pdf) cuts one of the towers out, removes some of the open space in favor of continuing 60th Street through the development, and tries to make the project more cohesive with the surrounding neighborhood. We’ll get to that a little later, and show a side-by-side image of the proposals. But first we want to talk about the public’s response.

During the public comment period at PS 191 on 61st Street, it became clear that a lot of the biggest issues that trouble Upper West Siders are coming to the fore in response to this proposal. Here are those anxieties:

That we’ve ceded the area between 59th and 72nd Streets to rich people living in private enclaves.

Obviously, the area between 59th and 72nd Streets is a diverse neighborhood that has housing projects as well as expensive new condos, but the biggest developments built in recent decades have made it glassier, ritzier and more exclusive. For God’s sake, the residents of 15 Central Park West were essentially able to block a public street last Thanksgiving with the help of the police. That sentiment registered at Tuesday’s meeting. “The newer people in the neighborhood would like to lock out the older people in the neighborhood,” one woman said.

Riverside Center, as the southernmost project in Trump-tastic Riverside South, threatens to reinforce that sense of exclusivity. That’s why the community board wants to make sure 60th Street goes right through the project and that the buildings aren’t elevated above the street. The board has also asked Extell to increase the number of affordable units to at least 20% from 12%. Extell says the community is already getting tons of amenities, and that the project is completely open.

That the Westside Highway should never have been built.

The community board has a dream, and that dream is that the Westside Highway can be submerged beneath the earth (our very own Big Dig!). Chair Mel Wymore acknowledged it’s a long shot, but said the community board would like to submerge the highway, and get Extell to help. One of the people at the hearing who spoke insisted that Extell pay for the job: “They can afford to relocate the highway.”

That my child can’t get into one of the neighborhood’s good schools.

All of the new development on the Upper West Side in the past decade has led to an untenable situation in local public schools. In short, people who live a block away from their neighborhood school are being told their kids can’t go there because there isn’t enough space. Kids go to class in trailers, after their parents decided to pay egregious rent to get them into a good school district. It’s a public policy nightmare, and one the city should have seen coming years ago. The already-built Riverside South developments have sent 163 students to PS 199, which is bursting at the seams. The city had an option to build a new school to accommodate them, but passed.

That’s why the community board wants Extell to build a new school on the site immediately, essentially asking a developer to fill in where the Department of Education has failed abysmally. The city planning commission said that Extell was only obligated to build a large enough school to handle children from Riverside Center, but lots of people in the community want the developer to solve the bigger problem. “Let’s make the developer fund and build 100% of a large new school,” said Mary Hughes, a PS 199 parent who spoke at the meeting. But is it fair to make a developer step in for the city?

That the Upper West Side wasn’t developed like the West Village.

The West Village represents a kind of urban planning utopia for many Jane-Jacobs loving New Yorkers. Active street life, manageable density, and vibrant public spaces combine to make it, well, livable (aside from the rents!).  Upper West Siders literally dream about “shopping at small stores where you know the owner”. Extell wants to bring an auto showroom, a big hotel and other retailers (presumably on the larger side) to the space. Their plans for a Costco-type big box store didn’t make it into the new design, though.

Okay, enough philosophizing.

Here is an image of the board’s proposal next to Extell’s proposal, with the community board’s commentary:

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Extell says that the project is not on a podium — at least 70% of it is “at grade.” And let’s just say they take umbrage at the term “undistinguished public space.” The “water scrim” in the center of the project, for instance, would be a place where children could run around with their shoes off. Extell has also touted the project’s economic benefits. Some people at the meeting spoke out in favor of the proposal, including members of unions who would get work through the project, and a few neighbors who liked the amenities.

To read more about the plan, check out Extell’s proposal and site overview, the Community Board’s extensive information on the proposal, the Coalition for a Livable West Side’s page, Riversidecentric (a site set up by an opponent), and our previous stories. It’s clear that this proposal could continue to change, and everything from parking to affordable housing is likely on the table for negotiations. If you care about it one way or the other, now is the time to get involved. In the next six months, this project is going to be signed, sealed and delivered.

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  1. Maria Gorshin says...

    When the Trump organization revealed plans for Riverside development in the 1990s, the idea of glass towers and massive buildings along the Hudson, sealing off residents from Hudson River views and more, seemed unthinkable. The original plans were revised but in the end the devolopment process was set in motion and the structures went up. Now developers are angling for a 35% increase in what they can build above what was originally approved. When does it end? When the West Side looks like Mid-Town and NY feels like Hong Kong? The anxieties described in the article are well-founded. Quality of life is drastically impacted by the kind of construction Extell has proposed. I wonder where their key planners live? My guess? They live in large, airy apartments in elegant pre-war buildings (not in unlivable glass towers) or on suburban estates with uninterrupted water views.

  2. Daniel Kassell says...

    Mr. Barnett has an ego large enough to ignoe any change in his plan to reap enormous profit from the last view of the Hudson River from West End Avenue.