Yorkville in the snow: A love letter

When I started this blog almost three years ago, the second post I wrote (after the initial one describing my basic writing concept) was about Yorkville. This sub-neighborhood of the Upper East Side (you could describe it as the upper-upper-east-east side) is undervalued, in my opinion, as it is lovely, quiet, and convenient. The biggest complaint about Yorkville has been the long walk to the Lexington Avenue subway, but with the recent opening of the Q (Second Avenue subway, see my blog post about it here) that criticism is diminishing. In fact, between the opening of the Q and all the fantastic new development apartment buildings coming up in the area (Citizen 360 and The Kent, to name just two I have visited in the past month), I believe the days of Yorkville as a value play may be coming to an ending over the next few years.

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Today it snowed. Schools and many business closed, and I went out in the afternoon for a walk around my beloved Yorkville. It has never looked lovelier!

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The street blocks tend toward older tenement buildings, while the avenue blocks hold the larger apartments, particularly in the area between Third and York.

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The absolute crown jewel of the Yorkville neighborhood is Carl Schurz Park, with two dog runs, a large children’s playground, the East River Promenade, and plenty of meandering paths.

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Gracie Mansion, one of the oldest homes in NYC and the official residence of the mayor, is at East End Avenue and 88th Street, within the park.

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I have often thought that the Henderson Houses, a series of landmarked townhomes opposite Carl Schurz Park, create some of the prettiest blocks in the city.

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There’s something about this Gothic row of homes gazing out to the park that makes them seem like they are an illustration from a fairy tale.

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It’s very quiet in the area of Yorkville near the park. The only other part of Manhattan that feels this peaceful and removed to me is the Beekman area, also along the East River, but in the 50’s.

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On this afternoon, the park (like Central Park a few blocks away) was filled with sledders. Yorkville is a neighborhood filled with, and friendly to, children, and dogs, but also with older people and young singles looking for a rental bargain. I suspect that within a few years, Yorkville will be seen not as a place to search simply for value, but a neighborhood sought after and desired for its own unique characteristics.

Some perspective on New York City’s evolving skyline

432 Park

It seemed that 432 Park Avenue would keep going up forever – whenever we would become accustomed to the height of this impossible-to-miss new addition to the New York City skyline, it would add another few floors. However, it has finally topped off; it is the tallest residential building in the Western hemisphere, taller even than the Empire State Building.  432 Park, although officially not as tall as One World Trade because of the height added by its spire, will actually have occupied floors higher than One World Trade. Amazingly it will not hold the title of tallest for long, as even taller buildings are already in the works. All this new development is controversial – as a general rule, change is often difficult, and when the degree of emotional attachment to something is higher, so is the potential reaction.  There is no question that Manhattan’s skyline is being changed. However, it’s important to keep in mind that New York City historically has continued in a state of transition rather than a steady state, and this has contributed significantly to its very nature as a city.

Many gorgeous old buildings were demolished in New York before the passing of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (an early site preserved was that of Carnegie Hall in 1967, thank goodness). For example, the Hippodrome was a theater with a seating capacity of 5200 on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th, its history only marked today by the name of the enormous parking garage on the same site. The original Metropolitan Opera House and the original Madison Square Garden were lovely buildings, long since destroyed. The Vanderbilt Residence at 57th and Fifth, the largest private residence ever built in Manhattan, was once where Bergdorf Goodman now sits. A particularly egregious example is the original Penn station, which was graceful and airy. Outrage over its demolition in 1962 to make room for a larger (completely soulless) station and the current Madison Square Garden led to the founding of the New York Landmark Preservation Commission. The Commission’s first hearing was about the fate of the Astor Library – which was preserved and now beautifully houses the Public Theater. The 11 commission members include at least three architects, one historian, one city planner or landscape architect, one real estate agent and one resident of each of the five boroughs, who discuss possible landmarks brought up by the Commissioner, and hold public hearings on Tuesday mornings. This process is not infallible, of course – owners who learn that their building might be considered for historic preservation sometimes destroy either the building or its significant architectural details. It’s also easy to understand the point of view of the owners who might fear that the future value of their property could be affected.

I had an interesting conversation about this issue recently with a friend who is who is getting his Master’s degree in Historic Preservation at Columbia. In an early class, the students were assigned a building to assess and make a presentation in class regarding whether it should be preserved. He was the only one in class to argue that the building he had been assigned could be demolished, that within the area there were better examples of this style of architecture with stronger esthetic and cultural value. His professor told the entire class that this was the point of the exercise – that the goal of historic preservation is not to save everything, but to balance the need of the city for growth with its desire to preserve the best examples of its past. New York City is and should remain a place where a variety of housing can be found; from old brownstones to postwar white brick buildings, from prewar coops to new developments.

Yes, it can be hard to adapt to a new skyline. The Eiffel Tower in Paris was almost universally hated by the French when first erected. Our own original World Trade Center, which radically changed our skyline in the 1970’s, was initially criticized, then accepted, and finally missed. The first Waldorf Astoria hotel was a spectacular building, the largest hotel of its time, and where the inquiry on the sinking of the Titanic was held. It was demolished in 1929, however, to make way for an icon of the NYC skyline that is universally beloved – the Empire State Building. This city has always changed and must continue to do so to retain its fundamental character, like the English language which in its constant borrowing and creating of new words has led to a strong and evocative language. With proper controls in place to ensure that the best examples of our past architecture remain, New York City can continue to evolve and embrace the future, while respecting its past.

New development at Hudson Yards

8 High Line

Hudson Yards, a real estate term not on anyone’s radar just a short time ago, has been everywhere in the news recently – New York’s first Neiman Marcus store is planned for the area, the third and final section of the High Line Park has opened there, there are even plans for a residential tower higher than the Empire State Building. One of the largest real estate developments in history, and the biggest project in NYC since the Grand Central Terminal, the redevelopment of railyards on the far west side is a collaboration between MTA and NYC Department of City Planning. Technically the area spans 30th to 34th Streets, Tenth Avenue to Hudson River. However, a large area of the far west side was rezoned to allow growth for business, roughly all the way up to 42nd street and west over to Penn station and the new Moynihan station (the old Post Office). Because of the need to build over the rail yards, the entire new development is basically being built as a platform on stilts. There is already ferry service to New Jersey and Yankee Stadium from the area, and a helipad in Hudson River Park, but with the extension of the 7 subway line to 11th Avenue and 34th Street by 2015, the area will soon not seem so isolated from the rest of Manhattan. Eventually, Hudson Yards will encompass 500 residences (the first two towers will be 75 and 90 stories), over 100 shops, 6 acres of open space, 4 office towers, and New York’s highest open air observatory.

With all the recent press, I decided to walk around the neighborhood to get a feel for this rapidly-transforming area. Emerging from the subway at Herald Square, I walked past Macy’s and headed west on 34th Street. As anyone familiar with the area now knows, in its present state there’s not much of a neighborhood vibe. As soon as I walked past Eighth Avenue, however, large-scale construction began to dominate the scene. Walking south on Ninth, while not yet part of the official Hudson Yards site, a large construction project marks the new Manhattan West development, which is being built over a platform constructed over the rail yards. Turning west on 30th Street, it is eventually possible to take the stairs up to the High Line Park, just at the intersection of Phase 2 and the newly opened Phase 3. This final stage allows a person to walk from the Meatpacking District to 34th Street without ever crossing a city street, immersed in the city while simultaneously somehow apart from it – literally “above” it. There is one spur of the final phase that will run through Tenth Avenue and directly through Hudson Yards. The current path now open takes you west to the Hudson River before you disembark at 34th Street.

One of the reasons for walking around a neighborhood rather than simply researching it on paper is that there is an intangible aspect to any area that cannot be experienced unless you are standing there. For the rapidly expanding Hudson Yards region, it’s impossible to convey the extent of the construction or the enormity of this change in this area unless you are surrounded by it. To walk in Hudson Yards is to be present at the birth of a new neighborhood, one that seems limitless in terms of how it will change the landscape of New York City