Monday, February 27, 2012

Rook Takes Pawn

I had never intended for the New York Guide posts to take over the blog quite as much as they have. Since most of them are made up of things I've said to people in my mind a hundred times, they've been surprisingly fast and easy to write. Regardless, I'd like to take a detour and discuss what may be the most enormous, Godzilla-sized chess game to be played on New York probably since the 1960s, if it comes to pass. Some of these things are already in the works, others are being officially discussed now. Some are just ideas on paper, others have only been proposed as possible solutions.

First, here are the moves:
1. Build the country's largest convention center and a casino in Willets Point, Queens.
2. Move all convention business from the Jacob Javits Center to Willets Point.
3. Tear down the Javits Center.
4. Use part of the now empty Javits site for a new Madison Square Garden that will connect to the waterfront.
5. Extend the tracks of the 7 train all the way west to serve the new MSG and potentially across the Hudson River into New Jersey.
6. Connect the James A. Farley Post Office to the new MSG with a park and mixed-use development over the Hudson Yards, connected to the High Line Park.
7. Move Amtrak services from Pennsylvania Station into the Farley Post Office, now to be known as Moynihan Station.
8. Tear down MSG.
9. Rebuild the rest of Penn Station,
connected to the adjacent post office building, on the now empty MSG site (above ground?) with a new tower exploiting the air rights above it.

Google Maps View.
Certainly the Javits is not nearly as fresh as it must have been when it was first finished in 1986. It has held up remarkably well, though. Its bones are still stunning and, seeing as how many conventions held there are not able to fill up its entire space, it's easily adequate in size for most of them. Do we really need another convention center? As inconvenient as the Javits Center is, it's still a hell of a lot better than traipsing all the way out to Willets Point. The extension of the 7 train and the park over Hudson Yards promised to solve the problem of the Javits' isolation, anyway.

One of the arguments for convention facilities in Queens is "neighborhood revitalization!" This is absolutely ridiculous. These people talk about revitalizing Willets Point in the same exact breath as they mention the Javits Center, and just look at that neighborhood. The convention center has been there for twenty-six years, and what else is there as a result? I couldn't even tell you, because as soon as I'm done at the Javits, I hightail it out of there. It's miserable. Aside from car dealership after car dealership, I think there's a gas station and a strip club. And isn't there some kind of weird little tiki hut restaurant where no one ever eats? If that's "vital," then I'll take suburban sprawl, please.

Photo courtesy Mets Talk.
As much respect as I have for HOK Sport (who are now known as Populous), a convention center is similar to a sports stadium: a gargantuan building, out of all conceivable human scale for the pedestrian, standing alone in the middle of a parking lot a mile in diameter. In fact, the exact same thing could be said about a casino hotel. HOK's beautiful Camden Yards in Baltimore notwithstanding, if I had to choose building types that would be least likely to mesh well into the fabric of a small-scale neighborhood and "revitalize" it, these three would be on the top of the list. Willets Point's direct proximity to the demolished Shea Stadium did nothing to prevent it from filling in with auto body shops and Radiator Royalty over the past fifty years. I'd be willing to bet that's the very reason it did.

And what of the Willets Point business owners? Will they be fairly compensated for their property? And what if it's a disastrous failure? An active permanent residential community arguably would be a crucial ingredient for its success. But who on earth would ever want to live there? There are numerous fundamental flaws with the site, many of them insurmountable, others built right into the redevelopment plans.

One of the selling points of the location is how close it is to LaGuardia Airport. While this is great for those who work the conventions and depart immediately afterward, it's useless information for New Yorkers and everyone else. Around 225 airplanes a day land on LaGuardia's southeast runway one mile away. That means that on average, once every 6.4 minutes, the thunderous roar of a jet plane on a typical three-degree descent will pass less than 265 feet (80m) overhead. [Amusingly, there's actually a plane found flying overhead in the Google Maps satellite image.] To me, that sounds like quite enough to make you go deaf, if not insane. It will also likely mean that any fancy penthouse apartments will attract only buyers who are interested in the convenience of its location to the sporting events and conventions compared to Manhattan or a suburb, but few of them would stay there many nights out of the year.

Photo courtesy Cook & Son Bats.
The accessibility of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, one of the best things about this site, is blocked from Willets Point by the elevated 7 train to the south, and by Citi Field and the wide, sprawling vista of its parking lots to the southwest. The waterfront, the other thing one might consider a real selling point to living on Willets, is blocked by the Van Wyck Expressway to the east. The waterfront to the northwest is blocked by both the Whitestone Expressway and Northern Boulevard, amounting along with their access roads to twenty-two lanes of vehicular traffic in some places. The peninsula that is the "point" named for its former owner, Charles Willets, is commanded by an oppressive spiderweb of elevated roadways linking the expressways and boulevard. It could only be tunneled underground if it also tunneled under the adjacent water bodies, presumably, and at enormous expense.

You might find a few interested people who are involved with the Mets or Citi Field, officials from the US Open, a couple from Queens Theater in the Park, Queens Museum of Art, the Hall of Science, or the park itself. A few of the Mets players might grab up apartments just to use when they're in season. You might get out-of-town baseball teams or tennis players reserving a couple apartments for intermittent dwelling. You might get a good number of people of lower incomes who work at any of these places, or the hotel, casino, convention center, and surrounding stores and restaurants. I suspect the vast majority of these people, regardless of their economic status, are not going to want to live and work in exactly the same place. Mostly you're looking at a community of transients.

As far as quality of life is concerned, this could very easily be a bizarre flow of nothing but tourists for the majority of the year, none of them staying for more than a couple of days at a time. Many people working conventions will just want to play a few slots at the casino and go to sleep at the end of the day. If they're going to go out at night, they'll go to Manhattan. The US Open lasts only thirteen days and comes once a year. Eighty-one times a year for several hours at a time, the entire area will be completely overrun by a thousand or two loud, drunken Mets fans hooting and hollering up and down the streets before and after home games. The whole idea of living in a place like this sounds perfectly awful.

I actually live in Queens. If even I think the Javits Center is more convenient than Willets Point, that must be saying something. What will this do to convention business? As it is, I've seen the trade shows shrink year after year in recent memory. Less exhibitors can afford to do them, less exhibitors think they're worth the time, effort, and expense. I strongly suspect moving them out to a little peninsula next to Citi Field is not going to help matters.

New York's water quality is possibly the one thing that could benefit most from this transformative project. Flushing Bay, which is sort of tucked into an inlet between the East River and the Long Island Sound, is both geologically ripe for stagnation and fed by run-off from a particularly industrial area and all the pollutants it generates. Something very similar to this is currently being discussed concerning the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, which I'd like to explore in more depth in a later post. For sure measures could be taken to improve the water quality around Willets Point without new development going up in the middle of it. But without that development, on the one hand one might ask, "why bother?" On the other hand, without the development, how would you ever generate the interest, and more importantly the funding, to undertake such a thing?

Photo courtesy Metropolis.
I'm a bit torn about the demolition of Javits, to be honest. On the one hand, it's a wonderful building architecturally. Like a Crystal Palace for the 1980s, it commands its site on Eleventh Avenue with power and grace. It also happens to be another work from the offices of I. M. Pei. Now that the razing of JFK's Terminal 6 is a done deal, I'm forced to ask yet again, "how many more of these do we need to lose?" I could see little justification for the loss of T6. To be fair, the Javits building is not without its problems. But in my opinion those problems are not architectural. Since its structure is essentially a number of enormous, column-free glass boxes, I fail to see how it couldn't find innumerable reuses. Instead of simply attacking it with a wrecking ball, it would be fantastic to think that at least some sections of it could be dismantled and rebuilt for some other purpose elsewhere. I fear I may be wasting paragraph space even suggesting that, unfortunately.

The major problem with the Javits is its location. The appearance of a new subway station for the 7 train could potentially enliven that neighborhood, but any substantial change as a result of that alone would surely take at least a generation to manifest. There is no question in my mind that the park proposed over Hudson Yards and the northern connection to the High Line will significantly improve this area, if the results of the High Line in the Meat Packing District are any indication.

The Hudson Yards project creates a whole different problem for the Javits Center, unfortunately. As some journalists have noted, the Javits building does nothing if not completely block midtown from the Hudson River. Anyone who has attempted to walk around it from the back to its front doors will know exactly what I mean. It's huge, and every side of it is a towering, inaccessible warehouse and huge, impervious metal garage doors except for the front entrance. With a park to its east, it becomes even more obvious that it should not be there. The visceral response, standing in the park looking west, would automatically have to be "remove that."

Photo courtesy Trip Holiday.
As much as the Javits building blocks that entire strip of waterfront property, so would the construction of a new Madison Square Garden over there have to be handled extremely sensitively to not make the same mistake all over again. While I may be very in favor of getting that bland, oversized drum out of where it is now, I can't possibly endorse rebuilding it on the bank of the Hudson. If the waterfront is to be used for any large-scale construction other than parkland conducive to strolling, bike riding, sunning, boating, etc., no way should it be a building type (for concerts and indoor sports) that is necessarily and completely closed off to the outside, not even to mention the river views. It's the worst waste of a natural resource I can imagine.

When I first heard about moving Penn Station into the post office, I was mostly for it. The old Penn Station was breathtaking, but it's just gone. Nothing is going to bring it back. Converting the post office, by McKim, Mead, & White (1910) as was the old station, seemed like a nice compromise to me. Certainly the redesign will have to be sensitively handled so that it doesn't destroy the building. The respect I have for Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill is well documented. I think I can trust them to do a fine job.

Photo courtesy Empire State Development Corp.
It did seem to me a little bittersweet that it would no longer be a post office. It has to be one of the most magnificent post office buildings in the country. I also love the fact that its zip code is 10001. In other words, this is the very first zip code--Zip Code #1. Someone might argue for Pleasantville, NY 00401, which is the smallest numerical zip code, but obviously that was assigned later. I'd also hate to think that the Herodotus (mis)quote in the frieze, "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night...," would be chiseled out and replaced by some advertising slogan for Amtrak.

The good news is that the building will still be used as a post office. But the irony here is that, since it will still be a post office (if perhaps with its facilities reduced in size), the new Amtrak facilities won't actually be taking advantage of the grand staircase in front. The stairs will still lead to the post office. Passengers instead will enter from small portals on either side of the stairs and descend to a newly glass-enclosed space in the center of the building. One might be tempted to wonder how much this will truly solve the dire circulatory problems of the present station.

New York by Gehry, ©2012 Ryan Witte
Again, the loss of the big, mostly ugly cylinder that is Madison Square Garden is unlikely to bring tears to anyone's eyes. Even less anyone who has seen images of what the Stamford-White-designed MSG looked like when it was actually in Madison Square. There isn't much in terms of a big office or hotel tower that could look worse, even if city bureaucracy thwarts every attempt to enlist a world-famous architect and to allow him or her to design something worthy of so central and vital a location in Manhattan. On the other hand, seeing as how Mayor Bloomberg is determined to get ten more Frank Gehry buildings built here, this might be the perfect opportunity for a truly remarkable piece of architecture.

This enormous shifting of some of New York City's biggest and most important facilities presents an almost infinite number of possibilities for greatness, beauty, and improved infrastructure and amenities. It also threatens the city with an equal number of pitfalls, quicksand, and potential for economic, aesthetic, or pragmatic debacles. As I mentioned in regard to JFK Airport, it's when faced with something like this that one might actually pine for someone as visionary and ruthless as Robert Moses (before the megalomania and insanity) who would swoop down with a single-minded, comprehensive strategy. We see it all over the World Trade Center site; endless committees and mismanaged appeals to popular consensus (as necessary as they should be in principle) could prove fatal to a reworking of the urban environment at this scale. One can only hope as deeply as possible that all the greatest minds will be brought on board. In the end, if we're lucky, we may get something the world has never seen before.

©2012, Ryan Witte


Tadao Kamei said...

What a pity that I.M. Pei's Convention Center will be torn down!

(Please also see my comments on the article of American Can Company)

Ryan Witte said...

Tadao, I don't think the destruction of Javits is a done deal, but rather one of the possibilities people have been discussing. In fact, I suspect that part of the game will be the most difficult to push through, even given the enormous scale of the interventions at Willets Point. In other words, aside from the business owners themselves, I doubt anyone else will really mourn the loss of those auto body shops. Javits is a whole other ball of wax.