Gotham Gazette

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Why Zoning Reform IS Important

Though not totally dead yet, City Planning Commissioner Joe Rose's attempt to make much-needed reforms to New York City's 1961 Zoning Resolution are likely to fail. Last month, I tried to explain the political reasons why this was so. Now, I would like to explain why this is a shame - why we need these reforms.

The 1961 overhaul was based on misguided principles.
As William J. Stern explains in a recent article in City Journal: "At a time when New York manufacturing employment (much of it low-paying) was already beginning its long decline, [planners] zoned whole sections of the city for manufacturing. Thinking that the city's population was growing too quickly, they forbade residential development in industrial and commercial parts of the city, so that great swathes of the five boroughs, including much of the precious waterfront, is off-limits to would-be builders of apartments or of offices for twenty-first-century businesses."

This is still one of the major reasons waterfront development stagnates. But Stern continues: "And they wanted the city to embody the vision of the then-celebrated Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who favored giant, boxy towers isolated in big, open plazas, so they allowed builders to make their edifices taller, and so boost rental footage, if they set them back from the sidewalk and surrounded them with open space."

Le Corbusier's influence was felt across America in planning in the 1950's and 1960. Most planners decided his "tower in the park" vision was the answer for development, and blindly guided their planning in that direction. It wasn't until most of these buildings were completed that people (starting with Jane Jacobs) realized how awful this type of development was. The buildings were of an inhuman scale, inaccessible in both an aesthetic and an actual physical sense.

The 1961 Overhaul made Zoning too complex.
As Joe Rose said in his speech upon announcing the reforms: "many of the problems we confront in zoning today derive from tentative and haphazard attempts to correct some of the structural mistakes that were made in 1961. Our present regulatory morass is the result of hundreds of amendments that nibble at the flaws of the original document."

Rose is not the only one who feels this way, Norman Marcus has compared the 900-page Resolution to detritus on the bottom of a whale. A cottage industry of New York City zoning lawyer exists with the sole specialty of interpreting the code for developers. That is not, nor was it ever meant to be, the way zoning should function.

Commissioner Rose sums up these two issues: "Our current predicament is that our zoning resolution has a discredited underlying vision, tempered by a series of quick fixes of varying effectiveness, for a city that was mostly built under a completely different set of regulations. No wonder we're confused!"

So, it's pretty much agreed that there's a lot wrong with our current zoning resolution, but pointing to what's wrong is the easy part. The current status of reform shows that it is far from agreed if changes should be made, what those changes should be, and if those changes will ever happen.

By next month we'll know more, if the reforms are dead or alive. If they're dead, the window is closed. If they're alive, then for how much longer?

Joshua S. Trauner, who has a Masters in Urban Planning from NYU's Wagner School, is vice president of Real Capital Analytics, a new company creating a database of real estate transactions.

Darkhorses Win International Competition for TKTS Booth

Two darkhorses from Sidney, Australia won the prize in an international competition to create a new TKTS booth for Times Square. Sidney architects John Choi, 28, and Tai Ropiha, 36, designed a bright red grand staircase which will rise from the base of the statue of Father Duffy, for whom the TKTS traffic island is named, to a height of 16 feet. The TKTS logo will be emblazoned in bold black letters about 5 ft. high on the structure's north and south sides. Sales booths will be tucked in beneath the high end of the stairs, and after buying their tickets theatergoers will be able to sit on the steps looking out at the spectacle which is Times Square.

Choi and Ropiha, who visited NYC only once before returning last month to claim $5,000 in prize money, said they based their impressions of Times Square on films, magazines and television coverage of New Year's Eve celebrations. "We were reacting to the visual buzz," said Mr. Roipha, "and tried to create a strong singular image in contrast."

What was the jury looking for? "Something that had cleverness, visual economy and force," explained Jack Goldstein, executive director of the Theater Development Fund which operates TKTS and sponsored the competition. TDF was also looking for more booths as well as better working conditions for the sales staff within (They're even thinking about adding a public toilet). Construction, to begin later this year, is expected to cost around $2 million all to be raised by the Fund.

The competition, the largest ever in NYC history, drew 683 entries from 31 countries: ranging from a booth conceived as twin green crystals to a 3D rendering of Piet Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie." 40 top designs are currently on exhibition at the Van Alen Institute (30 West 22nd Street) while 200 more can be seen at the Urban Center (457 Madison between 50th and 51st). "There wasn't much room for an entirely radical solution," said Raymond Gastil, executive director of the the Van Alen Institute which organized the competition. "But the entries say a lot about the raw energy and talent that's out there."

Even the Coalition for Father Duffy which inundated the Mayor's office with over 7,000 postcards - "This is Duffy Square, it isn't TKTS Square," said the Coaltion head Maj. Gen. Joseph S. Healey. "You can't dump him from center stage and put him in the cheap balcony seats. It isn't fair." -was mollified by Choi and Ropiha's design.

But what about the existing TKTS booth - that wonderful, ramshackle, pipe-and-canvas construction which has come to represent Broadway theater to an entire generation since its inception 26 years ago? David W. Dunlap wrote in the New York Times (7/8/99): "The competition seems to doom one more facet of Broadway's architectural past, which has been chipped away piece by piece in recent years until very little remains of what was once a splendidly pungent esthetic amalgam, made of dozens of incongrous icons layered one on top of the other."

Dunlap went on to point out that the old TKTS booth was the product of that moment in the early 70's when Broadway was desperate for resuscitation and the city nearly broke. Under Mayor Lindsay, the Office of Midtown Planning and Development lent a city-owned trailer to TDF to be used as a booth for selling half-price tickets on the day of a performance.

Bound to a budget of only $ 5,000, architects John Schiff and Robert Mayers came up with the idea of renting pipes by the month from the R. C. Mugler scaffolding company in the Bronx. With these pipes, they extended the structure outwards - then streched translucent plastic through and around the pipes and painted "TKTS" in large Helvetica letters across. To keep the whole thing from blowing away, they lashed it to four rough concrete anchors at each corner.

The TKTS booth was an overnight and abiding success. More than 36.5 million tickets have been sold there since it went up. It won a design award in 1973 from the New York Society of Architects, a Bard Award in 1975 from the City Club for merit in civic architecture and has been called "a classic of early 70's design" and "the beginning of scaffold-like, high-tech, tensilt structures. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has referred to it as one of the "symbols of the renaissance" of New York City. Ron Silver who chaired the NYC 2000 millenium committee called it "Times Square's centerpiece."

But while preservation advocates believe a case could have been made for granting the booth landmark status, it would not have been eligible till turning 30 in 2003. And it probably would not have stood up that long. Even Mr. Schiff admits the booth was always meant to be temporary.

Kati Sounds Off:

There's a lot of talk in this town about "the community" and the arts are by no means exempt. Take the theater. In a recent issue of American Theater magazine, Ben Cameron, executive director of the Theater Communications Group, sang the praises of "community-specific [eg Latino, Asian-American, gay/lesbian] theatres" which, he claims, "speak to a unique need many have for communal celebration, for empowerment, for safe places to come together in an all-too-often hostile world."

Well, maybe. But it's also true that you gotta have a gimmick to get funded and one of the easiest gimmicks to have is community service/specificity. Meanwhile the proliferation of community-specific companies has led to a balkanization of the larger theater community - at least at its not-for-profit edges - as well as to a sort of unquestioning acceptance of the myth of cultural identity: an acceptance which is ultimately impoverishing both intellectually and imaginatively.

This is not to say there aren't scores of wonderful counter-examples - Pan Asian Rep, the Irish Rep, the Negro Ensemble Theater, the Puerto Rican Travelling Theater Company - to name a few. Nor that at one point the flowering of community-specific theaters did not serve a very necessary, corrective function.But as an overall trend, it's gone too far.

Kati Kormendi is a freelance writer and actress; the former Artistic Director of the Magellan Project, a multiarts theater; and the creator of The Serpent's Eye an online eco-art gallery. She has written for Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan, and Talking Leaves magazine.

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