Limited Equity: Stable Communities, Affordable Housing

The Amalgamated Dwellings in New York City. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

I have a new article published at TAC’s New Urbs blog, about the history and legal structure of New York City’s limited-equity housing cooperatives, which continue to provide surprisingly affordable, high-quality housing units in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the United States. The piece tells the story about how limited-equity co-ops got started; their philosophical roots; their early successes; why the model declined in popularity; and how an approach that recovers its best qualities might be be compatible with various subsets of the polarized political landscape of contemporary America.

I think there’s little question that the shortage of affordable housing in the regions with the best economies is a major driving force in the structural inequality that characterizes our current moment; and that the biggest beneficiaries of this status quo are rent seekers, rather than actors who contribute anything dynamic or innovative to the economy. Taking the role of speculation out of the equation can do a lot to keep prices in line with what residents can actually afford. For the reasons described in my article, I think this is an important idea that deserves to be recovered and applied in today’s metropolitan real estate economies.

Spotlight: Cities Service Building Update

Cities Service Building
Click on the above photo to see my full album.

My favorite of the city’s Art Deco skyscrapers, this soaring Pine Street tower was built as the headquarters of the Cities Service Company, predecessor of Citgo. The Cities Service logo — a pyramid within a cloverleaf, usually black or green in trade dress — can be found pervasively worked into the concrete and metal exterior details, and the interior details, as well. Designed by architects at Clinton & Russell and Holton & George, the 952-foot tower opened in 1932.

Last year, I posted a batch of pictures that I had taken of the exterior details at ground level; and of the tower within the skyline of Wall Street. It is a striking tower, sleek and tapered at the top. But given the dense cluster of tall buildings that now characterize the neighborhood, it is a challenge to find a clear shot of more than its very top. Fortunately, an outside detail (above) provides a scale model of the complete tower in clean, white concrete — like the building itself.

A residential conversion was recently completed, which includes a beautiful top-to-bottom restoration of the landmark skyscraper. I doubt the building could have looked much sharper in 1932, when it opened amid the Great Depression, having been on the drawing board before the fortunes of Wall Street turned dark. The redeveloper, Rose Associates, has really done an incredible job.

Here, I include a number of new pictures of the grand lobby, the basement, and various stairwells and corridors.

Hope you enjoy. I love this building, and think you will, too.

September 11th

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Hard to believe that it has been 16 years since that morning. I was in my second year of college at The New School. A few lines from a piece that I wrote shortly afterwards (mostly for myself, so that I would be able to remember exactly what I’d experienced):

I went upstairs to class and took a seat. My advisor, Henry, was already there, getting organized. A minute later the second professor showed up. A small argument ensued between the two.

“Do you know what’s going on out there?” said Stuart.

“Yes, but I think we need to go on with class,” said Henry.

“A lot of people are out there watching…. We may not have everyone.”

“Well, I’m not much for that. We should go on with who we have.”

“Well, it’s pretty hard not to watch … the fucking World Trade Center is on fire. Another plane just crashed into the South Tower.” Everyone in the room was jarred.

“Oh my God. Some kind of … attack?”

“Oh yeah, it’s definitely an attack.”

“Well, what do you think? I mean, it’s important … but I think what we are doing here is important, too.”

“That’s true.”

“I mean poetry isn’t the least important thing.”

“No, definitely not. I guess we should go on.”

“Yes, I think that would be the right thing to do.”

Later, after the class had finally been dismissed:

I turned left and walked on through the grid of streets, up through the warehouses and housing projects beyond Ninth Avenue. I wasn’t sure where I was going; I just gravitated in what seemed to be the right direction. I lived in Brooklyn Heights that semester, but I was walking the opposite way. Getting back to my room would have involved either a long detour through Williamsburg, or a trip straight through the scene. Instead, I thought I might have to walk all the way to my uncle’s apartment on 207th Street — and I didn’t know if anyone would be home, if I did.

I managed to stay cool-headed, but I was really unsure of what I should do. I kept going north and west. Getting out of the heart of the city seemed like the main idea. At some point, it occurred to me that a ferry might be crossing to New Jersey, so I made my way west to the Hudson River. If I went back to the town where I had gone to high school, I would find someone to put me up overnight. It wasn’t far away; just across the river from the city. But it was a different world. By that point, I was sure that I didn’t want to go back to Brooklyn….

There were thousands of people walking up Twelfth Avenue. Most of them had walked all the way up from the site. People were sort of talking to each other briefly and moving on. It was strange. You don’t usually talk to strangers in a moving crowd, but everything was different then. Normal street smarts seemed useless. The ethos of minding your own business and ignoring anything out of the ordinary? I knew that would not work anymore. But how could you replace it with something else?

There was a middle-aged man in a suit who told me he worked at the World Financial Center. His hair and jacket were covered with gray ash. When the first plane smashed into the North Tower, he began to leave, but his boss said, in all seriousness: “That’s a World Trade Center problem. This is the World Financial Center. Get back to work.” I laughed, and he moved on.

There’s more, but it’s not really in any shape to be posted. Maybe one day I’ll clean it up and share it here as a single piece of writing.

Spotlight: The 1913 Woolworth Building

Woolworth Building
Click on the above photo to see my full album!

My office is just across Park Place from the landmark Woolworth Building. Once the world’s tallest skyscraper, the whimsically Gothic tower still dominates the western edge of New York’s town green. Back in the fall, I took a guided tour of the lobby — which is otherwise off limits — which turned out to be a pretty incredible experience. Here are some pictures.

Would definitely recommend to anyone with an interest in the building itself, early skyscrapers, tesellation and mosaics, the transition from classical to modern architecture, or just the history of American business. The colors are incredible. Likewise, the masonry and marble. Photos in my album begin in the main lobby, then move to the back of the main floor, down into the basement (where a lost entrance to the subway can be found, sealed off), and finally up to the balconies, where you can almost touch the tiled ceilings.

Spotlight: The Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Federal Reserve Bank of New York
Click on the above photo to see my full album!

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is a truly incredible landmark. Completed in 1922 in the style of a Florentine palazzo, this stone fortress was built to house the most important regional branch of the Fed. Its design served the secondary purpose of communicating the solidity of American banking under the Federal Reserve System. The smooth-faced, rusticated masonry alternates between blocks of gray and tan, conveying something that cannot be moved, while hinting at the silver and gold that still backed up American currency at the time.

Tours of the interior are available, but tickets can be hard to come by. Once there, the Fed requires that you take part in a guided tour, which runs about an hour. Honey and I went one day last summer. Although such tours are not my favorite approach to exploration, I found this one incredibly interesting. The guide provided a short history of the Federal Reserve System; the construction and architecture of the building, itself; and a tour of the active gold vault, deep below Liberty Street. Unfortunately, the Fed has a very strict prohibition on photography within the building (under penalty of camera confiscation).

Spotlight: The Surrogate’s Courthouse of New York County

Surrogates Court
One the most striking buildings in the New York Commons area, the Surrogate’s Courthouse was begun in 1899. In addition to housing the Manhattan probate court it is home to the municipal archives and is therefore sometimes called the Hall of Records.

The Surrogate’s Courthouse has some of the city’s most ornately detailed interior masonry, including heavy columns that support a mezzanine that encircles a soaring atrium. Building materials include variegated colored marble, like something out of classical antiquity. Natural lighting is sparse, and late-Victorian lamp fixtures do not fully compensate. It is enough to create a pervasive gloominess throughout the building. Together, these elements set the tone of its echoing corridors, which comprise a labyrinth of beautiful but eerie spaces — so fitting for a courthouse of this jurisdiction. This building is about death and dusty records, and its architecture reflects those cold facts through darkness and weight, but it also captures the somber and transcendent role of the law in making permanent the legacies of those who are gone. To be anodyne was not a priority in 1899.

Click on the above photo to see my full album.

New York City: A Century of Zoning

The Equitable Building from Nassau Street. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

The last straw. The 1913 Equitable Building led to passage of the 1916 law.

Today is the 100th anniversary of New York City’s original zoning ordinance. In commemoration of a century of land use regulation (it was also America’s first zoning law), the local chapter of the AIA has published Zoning at 100, which includes a number of essays by top architects, planning officials, and scholars, looking back, and looking forward. (Thanks to H. for the link!) Authors include Robert A.M. Stern, Bill Rudin, Carl Weisbrod, and Gina Pollara. Looking forward to finding some time to read these.

Here are a few more pictures I’ve taken of the massive 1913 Equitable Building, located at 120 Broadway, which put the issue of development massing at the forefront of city politics, and led to the law.

Spotlight: Castle Clinton & Hudson River Twilight

Battery Park & Castle Clinton
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Out for a walk one evening in June, while Honey was attending a class, I wound up at Castle Clinton, near the tip of Manhattan. It is a national landmark that I had heard of, but whose claim to fame I did not know, so I read one of the NPS guides that was posted on site. Apparently, Castle Clinton was an unused military facility after the War of Independence; then a public amphitheater in the mid-19th century; an intake center for European immigrants, before Ellis Island was established; and, finally, the original NYC Aquarium. Today, it’s back to being a presentation space. That night in June, I walked into an incredibly well acted performance of Romeo and Juliet, just in time to catch the last few dramatic scenes. Afterwards, I walked back along the Hudson River.

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Spotlight: Pierpont Morgan

Pierpont Morgan
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The main building on this campus was J. Pierpont Morgan’s private house, and included an incredible private library, complete with mezzanines and bookshelves that turn to reveal hidden, spiral staircases. The architectural detail of this property, alone, makes it worth a visit. The displayed collection currently includes a Gutenberg Bible, an original manuscript by Mozart, and a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci’s teacher. J.P. Morgan was also an avid collector of cylinder seals from the ancient world (little spools of lapis lazuli, obsidian, or other hard materials, that were carved with a unique image and pressed into hot wax in order to verify the authenticity of a document or packaged good). Morgan became something of an expert on these, and many items from his collection are displayed. Fascinating stuff.

Spotlight: New York’s City Hall

I took these pictures in October 2015, during a visit that I made to City Hall (1802-12), with Honey, as part of Open House New York. City Hall is located in New York’s historic town green — the topic of a previous LT post. My current office is at 250 Broadway, which is the glass building located just to the right of the Woolworth Building in a couple of the outdoor photos. More about the history and architecture of City Hall can be found here. Images of the Council Chamber, including its incredible ceiling, are at the end of the series.

Spotlight: New York’s Town Green

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Today’s City Hall Park sits on the oldest part of the New Amsterdam and New York Commons — a public site in the planning tradition of the northern European town green. The Commons dates from the 1600s, and its checkered past has included workhouses for the poor, a burial ground for the colonial town’s African slaves, and many public executions — as well as the civic and religious buildings and military parade grounds that have historically been located at town centers.

Here are some photos I recently took in City Hall Park:

I think it’s interesting that, after almost four centuries, this park continues to function as a living gathering place in the city’s center. I recently ate lunch in the park. I listened to a man play the saxophone, beside the fountain; I noticed others spending their lunch hours there, reading the paper, tapping at a cell phone, or having a smoke. Tourists passed through and took pictures; poor people asked strangers for money; a man napped on the grass in the shade.

What draws everyone in, day after day? Is it the patch of nature? Views of the surrounding architecture? The buzz of human activity? The respite from car exhaust and street noise? How many of them realize that they’re not just passing through one of the city’s hundreds of small parks, but taking part in a 400-year-old tradition? That they are standing in what was once the only town green of a strange and distant colonial outpost of Western Europe?

Meanwhile, the city’s largest cluster of courthouses and public office buildings sits around Foley Square, a few blocks north along Centre Street. (Note that the English spelling is still used.) This is roughly where the northern end of the Commons once was, and its intensity of public uses represents the centuries-long persistence of the tradition of siting your community’s civic buildings near the town green:

Here’s a map of the Commons from about 1754:

NY Commons

And an overlay with today’s landmarks:

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And some thoughts: