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The Strength of This City is its Neighborhoods

by Fernando Ferrer, Aug 01, 2005

The four Democratic candidates for mayor discussed issues of historic preservation at a series of forums hosted by coalition of groups, including Landmark West, the Historic Districts Council, the Municipal Art Society, and the New York Landmarks Conservancy. The following is an edited transcript of the candidate’s opening remarks from June 8,2005, and a sample of some of the questions from the audience.

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Other Candidates Speeches
• C. Virginia Fields:Looking Beyond the Big Ticket Items
• Gifford Miller: Updating the Landmarks Law
• Anthony Weiner: Old New York as a Gateway to the new New York

Over the course of public life, I have been engaged, certainly in the Bronx, in saving and preserving a lot the things that are completely irreplaceable. I could list a record of them, but I don’t view them as a record. I view them as my opportunity to demonstrate some responsible custodianship of the irreplaceable treasures that I was trusted with as borough president for nearly 15 years.

For example, I don’t know how many of you have been to the Stanford White Hall of Fame complex at the old New York University campus at University Heights, now Bronx Community College. That complex has been restored and one of the joys I had as borough president was allocating the funds to restore the auditorium firebombed during the Vietnam War protest below the library. That auditorium was priceless. A real gem. And after the firebombing and the fire damage in the 1970s it was – NYU had done some really horrible fix up on it that lasted until the 90’s – well, it was restored not to its original appearance, because I really wanted it restored to the way it was when I was a freshman going in for orientation, but they did even better. This is a real living part of Bronx legacy.

What’s even more amazing is the report on the Daniel Moynihan train station, if it gets built in our lifetimes. The old post office – they are reserving a back portion of it for high-rise residential development. They are looking to take a piece of that, to cut into the soaring public space inside a newly redesigned station to accommodate this building. Now that’s the thing the landmarks commission was created for and that’s the thing that landmarks preservation movements were created for. To have that restored to a Penn Station, the kind of Penn Station that this city and region deserve, and then have that basically chopped into, just to make someone a few million dollars on the west side of Manhattan is absolutely horrible and must be stopped.

We share a mutual belief about preserving the physical heritage of this city. I believe in those things deeply. I’ve acted them out in my time in public office. And the evidence of that is not a press release, or a ribbon cutting, or a photo opportunity. It is the buildings that we have saved, and the fights that we have won, and some of the fights that we were not completely successful in. I consider it unfinished business to fix PS 31; to get the old Bronx borough courthouse out of private hands and put it back in public hands; to restore that extraordinarily beautiful beaux-arts courthouse structure and return it to community and civic use. Those are the things that governments do with that kind of heritage and that kind of opportunity.

In 2001, Mike Bloomberg spent $74 million of his own personal fortune to get elected. And he rationalized that by saying, I need this to let people know who I am. Well fair enough. I would like to think that the public record I have put together as a public servant over the course of 20 years is worth $74 million, but if he wants to put that kind of price tag on it, God bless.

In 2005, he says, I want to spend $100 million or more. Now I believe that’s to try to make you all forget who he has been in the last three and a half years. I think just that statement, that sentiment under-rates New Yorkers. I think you have seen that the mayor has turned his back nearly completely on the promises he has made about preserving historic New York and doing the things he needs to do as a custodian of this city. For example, convening a hearing. What is so difficult about this? It’s moving the machinery of government to protect something.

Let me talk for a second about 2 Columbus Circle. That’s a controversial building, a controversial design. Some people like it some people don’t. After more than 40 years, some people still like it, some people don’t. And then you are reminded on the streetscape of Fifth Avenue – what would our collective judgment have been, not seeing the building but just the design of the Guggenheim? Some people would have hollered, that just doesn’t fit on Fifth Avenue! And this is somebody’s egocentric expression of art deco fringe stuff? Others would have seen the building and said, how could this iconic example of someone’s creativity, a statement about that moment in our design history, not be on Fifth Avenue? I’m glad the latter attitude won out, because that’s what makes this city so very special. 2 Columbus Circle might not be everybody’s cup-of-tea, but that building is one of the things that makes this city special, and it should be preserved.

GOVERNORS ISLAND

Q: What would you do about Governors Island?

Ferrer: As mayor, I’d want to see what the restrictions for use are for it. If they restrict opportunities, we need to really develop that, and use it, for example, for residential and institutional use – by institutional, I mean higher education, if that is possible, but certainly residential. That would be a lovely place. There’s housing there already. It’s an extraordinary opportunity. When the governor and the mayor announced that they were moving forward on some planning for Governors Island, I was talking with some friends of mine and said, “Well, not unless they can plan an Olympic venue there.” And it turned out to be more true than not. If it didn’t have any interest for the Olympics, it fell to the back burner. By the way, if you look at every development decision in this city, if it had nothing to do with the Olympics, it didn’t get planned. The decision didn’t get made. It’s extraordinary what the threshold for making choices is in this city. In any case, I’d look at it for residential use. People don’t have enough places to live in this city already.

HISTORIC SCHOOLS

Q: The city has never done a survey of schools to find out which ones are historic, which ones are eligible for the national register. Will you press for that survey, order the survey, maintain our schools – the historic schools that we do have – and would you welcome a landmarks commissioner that presses the city to care for its own landmark property?

Ferrer: Well, as mayor, I’d just allocate the money and get the school rebuilt. Now, by the way, I’m astounded that the landmarks community has not beat this mayor up about this issue. He complains – he speaks sometimes movingly – about school overcrowding. PS 31 and PS 109 lay empty. How does he rationalize not fixing those two schools up, especially PS 31? It’s of extraordinary landmark importance. It is a designated landmark. You can ask anybody about that and they’ll say, “You know I’ll do it,” but this is a challenge, also, for the landmarks community, too – for the preservation community. It’s a challenge for the preservation community to hold this mayor’s feet to the fire. I mean, that the building has been empty for five or more years on Grand Concourse is a disgrace. An absolute disgrace.

THE NEXT LANDMARKS PRESERVATION COMMISSION

Q: Will you promise to guarantee us a commission that will work in a partnership with the preservation community, here and everywhere?

Ferrer: That’s the way I’ve conducted my public life and my public service. I think you need to understand that this is part of a larger issue that I have with this mayor. We’re all employees of the wholly owned subsidiary of Bloomberg Inc. Decisions will be made top-down. It is amazing. You want to get things done, and I want to get things done, too. And I believe things aren’t necessarily top-down. Sometimes they bubble up from communities. That’s the way it ought to be working. He’s changed that way of looking at life in this city in the most subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Here we’re talking about a prime example of it, but we’re hitting the wrong target: the commission members and who he appoints. But it’s the mayor, it’s his attitude. How many of you, by the way, believe that’s a problem, that the landmarks commission will not hear these things because it’s all top-down? And how many of you are prepared to run this mayor back to his private business at the end of this year? If I don’t see the exact same set of hands here, there’s a problem here. There’s a disconnect.

Q: The chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission has said that, if you look at Manhattan, it has more protected landmarks than the Bronx, Staten Island, and Queens combined. Do you believe that this unequal protection under the law is a crime? And what would you do to change and address the fact that some people who live in some neighborhoods get landmarking and other people don’t?

Ferrer: People who’ve worked with me to try to designate the Grand Concourse as a historic district, to protect the nature and quality of those art deco buildings – in fact, the largest collection of art deco facades anywhere, right there on the Grand Concourse – they’ll remember our efforts to try to do it and Rudy Giuliani’s successful efforts to prevent that. And there were others as well. Yankee Stadium would be a great place, well, for obvious reasons – although I’m angry at them for the last nine or ten games – to landmark. I’ve never believed they should leave that stadium. It’s a perfectly fine place to watch a baseball game. That should be part of our outlook on landmarking as well.

That Manhattan has many more designated landmarks than all the other boroughs is troubling, because – I presume you know – I know that communities outside of Manhattan have some extraordinary historic buildings that need to be preserved, that require the protection of our Landmarks Preservation Commission. The landmarks commission has done studies of all the boroughs. These studies are quite old. When I was borough president, I appointed a landmarks task force to review that study and begin to advance to the designation process. A lot of those structures required our help and it seemed that the landmarks commission was absolutely uninterested in doing that. I believe that’s got to change. The job of the landmarks commission is to designate and protect.

PRESERVING CHURCHES

Q: Over the coming years, the Catholic Church, obviously, is going to be closing many parishes and Protestant congregations are dwindling, but the historic church buildings are significant features of many of these neighborhoods. There is reluctance on the part of the commission to get involved in this. It is a very touchy issue. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Ferrer: Well, it’s a touchy issue. I understand it, because with designation and protection never came any grant money. That’s not right. You have not-for-profit institutions that have a building that has to be protected. They’d agree that it would, but they’d also agree that they haven’t got the ability to pay for it. Well, it is in the public interest to designate. It is in the public interest to protect. It is in the public interest to preserve – especially those beautiful buildings that cannot support their own preservation. I think what the preservation community did with St. Thomas Church in Harlem, for example, was extraordinary. And that church was going to be flattened.

FUNDING FOR LANDMARKS

Q: How can the Landmarks Preservation Commission that only has a $3 million budget really be potent in the face of these $100 million plans that developers are coming forward with?

Ferrer: There are two parts to this answer. The answer is they can’t. Not at that level of resources, certainly not at that level of commitment. I want to re-resource that agency and re-empower that agency, and I’m going to give you a challenge right now. Anybody who comes to this microphone in the future and anyone who has had anything to do with this city, ask them why they didn’t.

THE ROLE OF THE COMMUNITY

Q: What would you do as mayor to strengthen community-based planning and the ability of community boards to fulfill their planning capacity?

Ferrer: I’d start abiding by the city charter. Section 197A of the city charter is pretty clear to me. And my philosophy of governing is really very simple. I don’t think that things get done at their best top-down. I think the strength of this city is neighborhoods – and they’ve been doing this for quite some time – being active and equal participants in planning for their own destiny. That’s the way I approach planning in my own borough. When we developed the Melrose Commons plan collaboratively with the community, they made tough decisions with us around the same table – and it worked. It got national awards, and it was the right thing to do. Similarly it’s the right thing to do to abide by 197A plans. They are, and they represent, probably the best example of communities getting involved and planning for their own future.

REZONING NEIGHBORHOODS

Q: What would you do, if elected, that would create something of a comprehensive plan for the city so that there aren’t these spot zonings, major neighborhood-wide rezonings that are surprises to communities that they have to respond to in the form of protest.

Ferrer: It’s happening all over the city, obviously. First of all, let’s take the Olympics as a case. I think it’s been pretty clear that it was right – the observation that any development decision that has nothing to do with the Olympics is not going to get made.

For example, the extension of the number seven subway line. Now, I think extending subway service to the far west side is a fabulous thing to do. It’s a great investment in the economic future of the city. And you intentionally bypass Penn Station? Even a novice transportation planner will laugh you out of their office. It makes no sense. One of the most important transportation hubs in this or any other region, and you bypass it? You bypass New Jersey transit, Amtrak, and Long Island Rail Road? It makes absolutely no sense. But when you look at it in terms of what they’re trying to plan for the Olympics – it will create the Olympic express.

And, of course, this is the mother of all real estate deals. Ah, then it makes perfect sense. It has nothing to do with transportation. It has nothing to do with the efficient, effective, and affordable moving of people around this city and around this region to enhance our economy. Now that’s a shame.

We should have some standards for planning. One of them: does it have a use for this city? I’m sure most of you would agree with me that, well, what city would not be proud to host the Olympics? It would be great. Can we manage to plan for facilities that have some opportunity for re-use after the two weeks of the Olympics are over? That won’t be costing us money simply to maintain and never use?

Can we use this as an opportunity to build great halls, great schools, and great recreation centers, rebuild our aging and falling apart armories that are historic buildings all over this city? I just think there’s a different and better way to approach this. Were I putting forward an Olympic plan for, well, maybe not 2012, but 2016, I’d want communities and public officials to be collaborating in this.

The worst thing that you could do is put forward a plan in secret. The mayor says, over a year ago, it’s a completely private deal, we have nothing to do with this. He said that. It’s a matter of the public record. Anybody remember that?

There’s something else that’s part of it that didn’t quite make the cut of letting the public know. They put the Bronx house of detention, a public building, in that development package. Wait a minute, this isn’t a completely private deal anymore. This is a public deal. Do you remember a council hearing on this issue? Any land use hearings? Any borough president hearings? Any community board hearings? Zero. This isn’t Dan Doctoroff’s personal real estate. It belongs to the city of New York.

People of this city have at least a right to participate in the planning of their own destiny, in being involved in public processes, in putting forward their own ideas for the future of their neighborhoods, and boroughs, and their city. I just see it coming from a different direction. And I think, from my direction these are sustainable plans. These are sustainable because people own them.

It isn’t owned by an unseen, unelected committee of high rollers. It’s owned by people right in the neighborhood. It’s owned by people who you trust, who you’ve elected to represent you in your own neighborhood. There’s accountability. There’s open process. There’s an opportunity to react to these plans. There’s an opportunity to change them, an opportunity to discuss and debate them. That’s as it should be. When we talk about this or any other problem of this city today, you’ve really got to ask yourself, who are these people?

THE REBUILDING OF LOWER MANHATTAN

Q: Could you say something about your strategy and your reflections on the future of lower Manhattan given the impasse over the last three and a half years? How would you envision moving ahead constructively in the best interest of the city in the redevelopment of lower Manhattan?

Ferrer: I remember vividly, after 9/11, everybody was rushing forward with their own plan, their own vision for the old World Trade Center site. I’d come from a planning background, so I’d come up with a different sort of planning framework which was, we’ve got to build there, we’ve got to restore this, and that’s a lot of office space, a lot of commercial space, and the centerpiece of a marketplace down there in lower Manhattan that is still yet to recover.

At the very same time, the people, the private businesses, the employees who occupied those 11 million feet of office space were about ready to walk out the door. We didn’t have enough swing space to accommodate them. I wanted to try to accommodate them in places like the far west side of Manhattan. I’d build class-A office space, keep them there while we proceeded rebuilding lower Manhattan, because we would require people not to make just a momentary commitment, but a generational commitment to lower Manhattan.

Places like Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, we needed to get them around the table to stay for not five years or ten years, but for a generation and more to make this work. I think there was certainly the willingness to make that happen. Well, that’s what I purposed, and I got barbequed for it. I got barbequed for it, because I acknowledged that most financial services companies will not put every employee they have in one location. They’ve been dispersing for very interesting sets of reasons. Well, we’ve got to accommodate that as well. We want buildings that will make an important architectural statement, and a statement about us as people on that site, and we want to do that as promptly as we can, and as effectively and efficiently as we can. But we also want to create a healthy and realistic marketplace for everybody in which to survive and thrive. That’s the over-arching idea.

That not one brick has been laid on another in three and a half years has to amount to the worst failure of leadership I have ever seen. The worst. Everybody roles out a new plan, has a new press conference. God almighty. How many news articles have we read about trips to visit other Olympic venues? Come to Athens. The international Olympic committee is coming here. And we haven’t laid one brick on another at the old World Trade Center site? You talk about priorities. This is one of the most glaring examples I’ve seen as a citizen of this city of the kind of inertia on a public work so important, where there was such unanimity about what we needed to do. Extraordinary. Nobody agrees on anything in this city, and yet we agreed on that. We agreed on that, and nothing has been done. It’s extraordinary. We wasted three and a half years on a football stadium on the west side of Manhattan and on the rest of this stuff, and we ended up wasting everybody else’s time. Extraordinary.

Q: What are your plans for lower Manhattan?

Ferrer: I think we should rebuild the 11 million feet of office space. I think that’s important. The developers need to get very busy about pricing. Given that they are getting incentives that are extraordinary, they need to get busy about pricing and tenant it up. That 7 World Trade Center has no anchored tenants is bewildering to me. I think we’ve got to replace that office space.

Having agreed on the master plan developed by Libeskind, we should proceed. We really should. New Yorkers need to make that statement, at that place. And we need to do it promptly. If you are troubled by my not being more specific with you, let me tell you, it’s not my job to be more specific with you – whether it’s 11 million or 12 million feet of office space, who I want to tenant those buildings. Not our job. We’ve got to work very closely with the development community and with the Port Authority and with our state partners on that.

But that we haven’t even paid attention to it as a government in this city, that we haven’t been rolling it along, that everything seems to be an obsessive quest for a stadium and for where we’re going to host the Olympic javelin throw – that’s a monumental waste of our time and this city’s emotional commitment to rebuilding lower Manhattan.

I think what the mayor should do there is work with governors to make sure it gets done, to make sure everyday we’re doing the things that need to be done. Let me give you one other example, because it is a complex matter. When the Goldman Sachs project – now in a little bit of jeopardy – was first reported, it was reported that they objected to the tunnel that was placed under their building.

They’re going to pull out a $2 billion development for 6,000 to 8,000 employees; that was their generational commitment to lower Manhattan. Was no one paying attention to the issues that had developed with respect to the underpass under them? Well, let’s talk about the Freedom Tower for a second. It was reported again, that Police Commissioner Kelly had interposed these security concerns nearly 18 months ago.

WEST SIDE

Q: What would you do as mayor to change the plan for the West Side of Manhattan?

Ferrer: First of all, I wouldn’t waste my time on a West Side stadium, building a publicly funded private stadium that absolutely nobody will be able to get into. I would use those governmental and personal resources to get the World Trade Center rebuilt, and to do development on the west side as it should be done. There are some really strong opportunities there. The first few days of February, I called for all the evangelists of free and open market – I figured all the editorial boards on the right would love this one. Those thirteen or sixteen acres above the Hudson Yards? Have an open, competitive, national and international bid for them. Get everybody in here. Give the MTA maximum value for the last valuable publicly owned asset on this island: the yards. That helps our transit system so that we can fix tracks and switches, relays and stations. But also, it gives us the opportunity to create another city on the far west side of Manhattan, and to do it right. To build a community with housing, and people, and schools, and healthcare. And to do it with people, not in secret. You can’t build in secret. This isn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of Bloomberg, Incorporated. You can’t just swoop down with plans and say this is going to happen because I said it’s going to happen. This is a city where people have something to say about their neighborhoods and the contours of their lives.

CIVIC EDUCATION

Q: Preservation is not just a landmark commission issue, but an issue of the people that use the landmarks. Will you focus on some kind of educational program for the people, perhaps with some kind of agreement with the schools?

Ferrer: I’m not sure that I can get my arms around your entire question, but if you are talking about an aspect of our education in this city that should to relate to what is loosely called “civics” and that being part of it, yes.

But I’ve believed that for a long time. There was, some of you might recall, a sample curriculum developed some years ago for use in our public schools about landmarks in this city, about the city’s cultural heritage. I think that’s an important thing. Kids should grow up in our public school system knowing about this extraordinary city in which we live.

Just a quick story. As an undergraduate, I went to NYU at University Heights, when NYU used to be in a good neighborhood, in the Bronx. The reason I became fascinated with that school was – and it’s a very odd reason. Anybody remember at around 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock in the morning – this was a long time ago – on PBS they had something called sunrise semester? You’re now telling me how old you are, cause they don’t show that anymore. And do you remember the graphic that they had? It was the hall of fame. I was always fascinated by that place. I never knew where it was. When I found out it was in the Bronx, I made it my business to go.

2 COLUMBUS CIRCLE

Q: To turn the subject back to 2 Columbus Circle, I’m wondering – after you’ve saved the building from being renovated – what you plan on doing with it then.

Ferrer: I wouldn’t move the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau back in. There is opportunity to do some important things there. We’d take a look at it. The impulse is to give you an instant, off-the-cuff idea. I just don’t think that works. And I think we’ve got to do that in consultation with an awful lot of people, but it’s an extraordinary landmark. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for use of a building in that strategic part of Manhattan.

BALANCING COMPETING IDEAS

Q: Major institutions with important boards can get any special permits, variances, and certificate of appropriateness they want from the various agencies because of their power. I’d like your suggestions on balancing that.

Ferrer: Let me give you an example in the Bronx again. Anybody remember the Fordham radio tower that was right across the street from the Botanical Gardens? If you were standing behind the conservatory, you could see the thing stick right out of the dome.

The respected boards of Fordham and the garden were fighting, and that’s too bad, because there are good people on both boards. I think this was a bad decision, but they were good people – people who had an interest in not only staying in the Bronx, but making the Bronx better. I understood that.

The radio tower was bad. We had to take a stand on it, and I didn’t concern myself with people given contributions to me when I was borough president on one board or another.

You try to do what’s right. The essence of your question seems to assume that anybody will do anything for a campaign contribution. I want to help you with that. Hold your public officials accountable and tell them to take a stand. Nobody had to tell me to take a stand on that radio tower. I tried to do what was right, and, eventually – after a long, protracted, and expensive battle – they finally did what was right.

Other Candidates Speeches

• C. Virginia Fields:Looking Beyond the Big Ticket Items
• Gifford Miller: Updating the Landmarks Law
• Anthony Weiner: Old New York as a Gateway to the new New York

Last Updated (Apr 12, 2013)