It is rare that I agree either with Robert A.M. Stern, or with those who argue against the necessity to continually renew and rethink our cities, but I find myself seconding Stern’s editorial in The New York Times questioning the rezoning of midtown Manhattan. What New York—and most cities in the world—need today is not more, newer, and taller buildings, but a thoughtful reuse of our existing building stock, combined with improvements to infrastructure.
Julie Iovine in The Wall Street Journal and others have already called into questioned the strange desire at the New York Department of City Planning to put New York in competition with Shanghai and other Chinese cities by encouraging the construction of towers that could rise well over a thousand feet above Midtown’s already crowded streets. As Stern points out, Shanghai’s own desire to be Manhattan led to “an instant iconic skyline, but with a regrettable, scaleless urban moonscape below.” As he goes on to note, “…we should heed the lesson the Chinese themselves have subsequently learned, that saving old buildings and neighborhoods is essential to the continued vitality of great cities.”
In the case of Midtown, however, that neighborhood is not a charming collection of low-rises and historic buildings. Midtown is a mass of reasonably bland and now rather dated business boxes (though Stern calls out the exceptions, mainly hotels, whose function and design have created more variety) that have come together to create what is a not particularly nice environment—but one that is indeed “iconic.” From the countless shots in movies of people rushing in and out of Grand Central Terminal and to work (think of North by Northwest) to Holly Golightly camping out in front of Tiffany’s, Midtown Manhattan has come, through film and television, to represent a particular kind of urbanity. My first experience of the place as a child, coming up from the subway on 42nd Street, remains my image of what a metropolis should be.
It is one where a grid combines street-level retail with an extrusion of the block into office towers whose pattern has variety, but not that much singularity. It is the bulk and the continuity that reinforces the sense of power and dare-I-even-say democratic possibility (hinting here at Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York) that New York provides. That rhythm’s punctuation by brilliant arias of public space, such as that of Rockefeller Center, makes it all the more exhilarating.
At Midtown’s literal and conceptual core stands Grand Central, a knot of circulation barely contained by a Beaux-Arts cowl. It stands for and is the site of infrastructure that lets all this work. But it is now badly overstretched. Stern complains of crowded conditions, but the lack of reach—from the small level of how you get from the station to your office to the sad and deteriorating state of regional transportation—is a bigger problem.
On a conceptual level, I would go further than to lament the loss of a situation that has grown, largely by chance, to stand for a particular kind of metropolitanism. The last thing I think we need to worry about is how to make downtown cores even denser, despite the prevailing wisdom in urban planning. We need instead to densify and rethink suburban cores, creating focal points and nodes within sprawl that cannot remain forever tethered to a core that is harder and harder to reach. In addition, we cannot justify wasting natural resources on more new buildings. Instead, we should reuse what we have.
Let’s hope that the Department of City Planning will listen to its critics. New York does not need to be taller and shinier. It needs to be better, more intense, and better served, while remaining the New York we still dream about.