Has Manhattan Become Too 'Manhattanized'?

Midtown is a hive of construction, with one luxury tower after another replacing older buildings. What's being lost?

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There's a word to describe the worrying phenomenon of cities getting too dense and tall: Manhattanization. But what happens when Manhattan itself becomes too ... Manhattanized?

In a city where real estate values are as dizzying as the skyscrapers, the angst over Manhattan’s changing profile and streetscape is becoming louder. The most recent outcry came over the demolition of a five-story building on West 57th Street, former home of Rizzoli Bookstore.

The 2000 edition of the AIA Guide to New York City describes Rizzoli as "a bookshop that feels like a library in a baronial mansion," and praised its 1985 interior renovation, which preserved many details from its original incarnation as a high-end piano showroom. But after a last-minute review that critics said was cursory and opaque, the Landmarks and Preservation Commission denied protection to its interior or its exterior, and the beloved art and antiquarian book emporium closed its doors on April 11.

Courtesy of Rizzoli.

Developers haven't disclosed their plans for the site, but this stretch in the core of Midtown Manhattan is already a hive of construction, with one luxury tower after another replacing older buildings, many of which have their own fans.

Some of the skyscrapers under construction soar as high as 75 stories. Apartments with stellar views of Central Park, many selling to foreign investors, can go for as much as $90 million. It's a transformation that has been hailed by those who want to see the entire neighborhood reinvented, like Nikolai Fedak, who blogs at New York YIMBY (as in, "Yes in my backyard").

The change dismays many who believe that a core neighborhood of New York is being gutted of its character (there are also concerns about the shadows some of these mega highrises will cast on Central Park). "There won't be anything left to love if we don't stop this kind of development," State Senator Liz Krueger said during a rally protesting the Rizzoli building's pending demolition. "It's a sad day because we've already lost this one."

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is one of the New York politicians leading the call for preservation of New York’s historic architecture. Brewer is working on legislation that would make the landmarks review process more consistent, requiring a pre-demolition 30-day review of any building more than 50 years old, with provision for public comment.

"The processes need to be much clearer," says Brewer. "We shouldn’t just lose these buildings without a discussion."

Brewer is a longtime preservationist who has worked to hang onto the infrastructure of a less homogenized New York. As a member of the City Council representing the Upper West Side, she was instrumental in crafting a 2012 zoning change that limited the width of storefronts on the popular neighborhood's commercial streets, which helped protect the mom-and-pop retailers rapidly being priced out by deep-pocketed banks and chain outlets that wanted to rent the spacious ground floors of the new breed of condo building.

"We cannot be successful as a neighborhood if it’s all banks, and that's what it's becoming," Brewer told the New York Times then. "We have to put a halt to it." Regular storefronts in much of the Upper West Side are now capped at 40 feet in width, while bank branches – which are legion in that upscale part of town – can be no wider than 25 feet.

Brewer acknowledges that her preservationist tendencies have garnered plenty of criticism from those who see her as anti-growth. But she rejects that characterization. A longtime booster of the city's tech community, Brewer gives the example of East Midtown, where, she acknowledges, "those buildings need an upgrade" to accommodate the workplaces of the present-day – and the future.

Brewer says she knows that change, and destruction of the old, are part of the New York ecosystem. She also acknowledges that Manhattan has its own particular challenges, because of intense development pressure, that are not always shared by other places. But she believes the process of evaluating which buildings are worth preserving needs to be more consistent and more open if the city is going to hold onto the very things that make it such a desirable place to live and work – a lively pedestrian environment, idiosyncratic retail outlets, and small neighborhood businesses.

"There are no easy answers," Brewer says. "But we need a sense of place, a sense of history. I speak for Manhattanites. We don’t want to lose everything."

Top image: dibrova/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.