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Advocacy
Regarding the Proposal of Congregation Shearith Israel,
8 West 70th Street
Statement of Eliott D. Sclar
Professor of Urban Planning
Director of Graduate Programs in Urban Planning
Columbia University
January 10, 2003

This statement addresses a proposal that has been submitted to the City for special permission to construct a 14-story building in the midblock of West 70 th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. This building would sit in an R8B zoning district. R8B zoning on the Upper West Side is intended to encourage low-rise construction compatible with the traditional rowhouses that define the core characteristics of this fine neighborhood's side streets. I write to express my serious concern about this proposal in part for the damage it will do to one of the finest neighborhoods in the city and in part because it will irreparably harm the balanced land use regulatory policy that has helped to make this area one of America's leading urban neighborhoods.

The very fact that this project will require that various city agencies grant it a series of "waivers," "variances," "special permits" and a Certificate of Appropriateness to demolish a landmarked structure should set off alarm bells everywhere in the planning and preservation community. The precedent that the granting of these waivers, variances and special permits will create may effectively render the carefully crafted land use development plan for the Upper West Side moot. The contextual zoning and landmark designations that guide this neighborhood's growth and change (and the neighborhood has grown and changed) were thoughtfully designed and democratically adopted policies intended to fairly balance the maintenance of this neighborhood's charms with the real needs for added development. This project will destroy this careful balance.

As a general matter, it is inherently improper for any developer, even a nonprofit institution, to seek special exemption from a zoning policy that was crafted with the meticulous care and community wide support that this one received. I am fully familiar with the background of this zoning. In the Spring of 1982 I directed a graduate studio at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation that was the starting point for this zoning change. The "client" for that studio was the Department of City Planning. The student produced work helped to launch the process that led to the adoption of the City's first "contextual zone" on the Upper West Side. The preliminary studio findings were support work for the 1982 West Side Zoning Study, which was in turn central to the 1984 creation of a "contextual zoning district" on the Upper West Side. In total, eight new districts were created that essentially downzoned the midblocks and upzoned the avenues, in keeping with the existing context of that neighborhood. The new zoning identified the midblocks, in which R8B zones were mapped to replace R7-2, as having a strong and identifiable low-rise scale and coherence. The residential avenues, including Central Park West, are defined by their high 130- to 150-foot streetwalls and were accordingly changed from R10 to R10A zones to promote tall construction with a consistent cornice line.

These building types create distinctive "environments," as stated in the City Planning Commission's report (April 9, 1984), and the boundaries between these environments are critical to maintain. The R10A district covering Central Park West gives way to the midblock R8B district at a point 125 feet in from the avenue. A 14-story building that is more than 125 feet into the midblock would destroy this crucial boundary. Indeed, it should be noted that the line between the old R10 avenue zoning and R7-2 midblock zoning used to be drawn at 150 feet. The City Planning Commission called this line "abnormally deep" and reduced it to 125 feet in order to contain tall construction closer to Central Park West. This was not an arbitrary change in policy but a careful and measured response to the Upper West Side's built environment.

The Upper West Side today is a delicate balance of intense and highly congested urban living, that is granted the necessary respite to remain vital by its lower scaled mid blocks. Once the scale of these mid blocks is breached in one place, the case for preservation in all these others will be severely compromised.

I do not believe that any neighborhood (outside of perhaps Williamsburg Virginia) should be preserved as a museum piece. On the other hand, unless there is a broader set of findings that would suggest that the balance between development and preservation that the Upper West Side enjoys is no longer functional, there is no basis in land use policy for granting the type of ad hoc waivers, variances, special permits that will begin the process of undermining it. To date no such case has been made.

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