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  • On Block in Harlem, Neighbors’ Push for Restoration Will End in Demolition

    Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times
    Derrick Taitt and his neighbors tried to save the graffiti-covered building at 58 East 126th Street.
    By
    Published: April 15, 2012
    Gentrification, or at the very least prettification, has reshaped block after block in Harlem, but it has not fully arrived at East 126th Street between Madison and Park Avenues.
    There, handsome rows of century-and-a-half-old brownstones line the north and south sides of the street, just as they do one block west, on a pristine tree-lined stretch where homeowners keep polished doorknobs and spotless front stoops. But along East 126th Street, vacant buildings are interspersed among the inhabited ones. Their windows are boarded up or bricked over with cinder blocks. Chicken wire encircles a couple of the front stoops. One brownstone is fronted by ribbons of razor wire, though neighbors said people still lived there legally, they just went in through the back. In the middle of the block, on the south side, sits No. 58, scrawled over with graffiti, stricken with a caving roof and collapsing floors, and deemed structurally unsound. The building is slated for demolition this month by the city, despite a nearby resident’s efforts to buy it and neighbors’ laments that the seamless row of houses will be punched through with a gap-tooth hole. “Historical buildings should be saved,” said Michael Henry Adams, an architectural historian and the author of “Harlem: Lost and Found.” “If a property is more valuable with its historic resources intact,” he said, “why would you let it get to a state where the only recourse is to demolish it?” No. 58 has not been designated a city landmark, but, according to Mr. Adams, it has the potential to be, sitting on a brownstone block comparable to others with historical designations. It is also about a block and half from the former home of the poet Langston Hughes, 20 East 127th Street, which is a city landmark. Despite a strong overall community sentiment that city money should go to restoring such buildings before they degenerate and become structurally dangerous, the city says it is not in the business of rescuing unsound, privately owned buildings. “It’s always the private property owner’s responsibility to maintain the property,” said Eric Bederman, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which is overseeing the demolition. “It is a critical part of what being a responsible owner is about.” Property records show a troubled financial history for No. 58, which, according to Mr. Adams, was most likely built in the late 1860s for upper middle class whites. It was advertised for a sheriff’s sale in 1970, acquired by the city in 1980 through a tax foreclosure, sold at public auction two years later, and in 2006, was bought for $950,000 by a corporation called Parade Place LLC, of Brooklyn. Messages left with Saadia Shapiro, who is listed in public records as the corporation’s managing member, were not returned. One neighbor, Derrick Taitt, who owns a brownstone on the north side of the street, said that No. 58 had sat empty for over two decades. In recent years, neighbors began calling the city’s 311 line as conditions deteriorated. Debris was falling. The roof was collapsing. Squatters were sneaking in and out of a large hole in the street level wall. “It’s gotten worse in the last eight or nine months; street dwellers have been coming in,” said Michael Peterson, 44, who lives with his family in the top floor of No. 56, next door. “All of us collectively have been complaining.” The brownstone on the other side of Mr. Peterson’s building is also vacant, which is troubling to him and his neighbors. No. 52-54, a double-wide, has long been a gathering point for vagrants, drug users and prostitutes, Mr. Peterson said. He and other neighbors recently bought supplies from a hardware shop and hammered together a wooden barrier with nails sticking out of the top to block the basement stairwell. They also lined the front fence with chicken wire. “Prior to the sealing, it was really bad,” he said. “But we shouldn’t have to do that.” (According to property records, the building is owned by the William M. James Housing Development Fund Corp. Reached by phone, Mr. James, who is 96 and a former minister at Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church, across the street, said that there were plans to convert the building into a seniors’ center). But though the buildings on either side have vexed Mr. Peterson, he does not want to see them torn down. “It’s just going to bring in more issues,” he said. Mr. Taitt, who said he was on the board of the Community Association of the East Harlem Triangle, said he had tried repeatedly to contact the owner of No. 58 to make offers on the place, sending certified letters that got no reply. “Another neighbor said, ‘Why don’t we get together and buy it?’ ” Mr. Taitt said. “The owner doesn’t want to talk.” After inspections by the city departments of housing and buildings found further problems at No. 58 — a teetering rear brick wall, more roof cave-ins, a collapsed floor — they issued a declaration to demolish in late March. A spokesman for the housing department said that demolition work would most likely begin in two weeks, and that the property owner would be billed. Neighbors suspect, warily, that after the building is torn down, a bland, boxlike structure will rise in its place: the property owners may build whatever they please, so long as they comply with zoning requirements and the building code. Already, neighbors are girding for the loss. “These buildings have personality,” said E. Wayne Tyree, 70, a poet who lives nearby. “This will change the whole beauty of the thing.”
    Jack Begg contributed reporting.
     
    A version of this article appeared in print on April 16, 2012, on page A17 of the New York edition with the headline: On Block in Harlem, Neighbors’ Push for Restoration Will End in Demolition.

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  • Killing Modernism with Fuzzy Math, Bad Information and False Choices

    Modernism, despite the popularity of Mad Men and shelter magazines like Dwell, is under assault. Iconic works of architecture and landscape architecture from the 1960s and 1970s have a particularly high mortality rate, though because of cultural and other biases, it's usually the endangered buildings we hear about and not the landscapes. Two places, both recognized as Modernist masterworks, are currently facing complete destruction; one received front-page New York Times coverage on April 7, 2012, and the other deserves the same level of national attention.

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    Orange County Government Center designed by Paul Rudolph. Image © Theodore Prudon and reproduced courtesy written permission of Theodore Prudon.
      The Paul Rudolph-designed Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York, writes New York Times reporter Robin Pogrebin, is considered a landmark by some and an eyesore by others. However, the decision on whether to renovate or demolish it apparently hinges not on aesthetics, but on costs. According to Pogrebin: "Each camp has its own estimate for how much it will cost to renovate the center -- the preservation side says about $35 million, the county says $65 million." Obviously, someone needs to check the math -- budget figures, like economics, statistics and opinion polls, can be manipulated to yield a predetermined outcome. I'll leave you to read Pogrebin's piece and turn to the case that deserves national attention.
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    Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN. Image courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
      In Minneapolis, the M. Paul Friedberg-designed Peavey Plaza is also slated for demolition because the city says the site is in poor condition and restoration would cost too much money. For those who don't know about Peavey, it's located downtown adjacent to Orchestra Hall and a block from Target's corporate headquarters. Peavey is a two-acre "park plaza," as Friedberg calls it, "a mixture of the American green space and the European hard space" that was completed in 1973. According to the AIA [American Institute of Architects] Guide to the Twin Cities, "The plaza is considered a highpoint of modern-period landscape architecture in Minneapolis." Even today, nearly 40 years after its completion, the integrity of this Modernist gem is very high and the design largely intact. Nevertheless, officials at Orchestra Hall, which is undergoing a $45 million renovation, have decided Peavey doesn't work for them and should be replaced.
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    Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN. Image courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
      Peavey Plaza does need help. I know because, as I've written before, M. Paul Friedberg and I were on the team led by the Minneapolis-based landscape architecture firm Oslund and Associates the city selected to develop plans for the site. Unfortunately, Paul and I were shut out of the process before we could propose solutions that would maintain the integrity of Peavey's design while meeting contemporary demands and requirements, such as accessibility. The city seems to have skillfully stacked the deck against Peavey by creating a false set of choices; essentially, restore Peavey to its original condition or create something new. Strangely, the only people insisting complete restoration is an option are city officials. Friedberg and I never advocated that, as we explained in an October 27, 2011 Minneapolis Star Tribune commentary, and preservation organizations locally and nationally have all endorsed the idea of adapting Peavey to address accessibility and other issues, while maintaining the integrity of its major design elements. Indeed, Friedberg has offered to share design solutions that address these concerns with Mayor RT Rybak, the City Council and others who have been pushing to demolish Peavey.
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    Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN. Image courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
      Unfortunately, the city seems determined to get its way and has come up with some head-spinning lines of reasoning. For example, the city's Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (DCPED) in a recent report supporting demolition has implied that adding an accessibility ramp to Peavey's existing design is a bad idea. Why? Because DCPED says it "would substantially alter the original design." Their solution? Destroy Peavey altogether. Can someone explain the logic of this argument? That's about as sane as saying the light bulbs in your house aren't energy efficient, so we're tearing down your house to solve the problem. They city has also cited the poor condition of Peavey, yet in their recently filed demolition permitthey admitted their direct role in the problem:
    An intentional effort has been made in recent years to hold the line on maintenance costs, including the decision not to repair some fountains and other infrastructure and to reduce the staff time at the plaza.
      The city also says complete restoration of Peavey Plaza, which they claim is the most expensive option, would cost $8.7 million. However, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, in their editorial endorsing a new park design, estimates the total cost for the new park at $8 to 10 million, which means the complete restoration false choice is comparable or possibly less expensive. Setting aside that complete restoration false choice thing, if the city insists on pushing this argument, someone needs to check the math. How did the city come up with this number? What's it based on? And, more importantly, against what other budget is this being compared? Where's the budget for the new park?
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    Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN. Image courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
      The city has also said: "Any rebuilding/renovation scenario will require millions of dollars in donations/private dollars." Shouldn't we ask those potential donors what they think? Let's go through the likely candidates, starting with those on the Orchestra Hall board: Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp, General Mills, and RBC Wealth Management, or maybe their neighbor Target. OK, but the city has also said, "potential funders will not contribute millions of dollars to restore the plaza to its original design because it cannot address accessibility, safety, and sustainability issues adequately." A couple of problems here: 1. There's the circular logic of that complete restoration false option again (does anyone else feel like they're watching a cat chase its tail?) 2. It's sounds like the city has already poisoned the well for any options other than destruction. Once Rybak gets his big hole in the ground, funders will miraculously come tumbling of the sky like so many putti from the clouds in an Italian Baroque painting to pay for the new park.
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    Peavey Plaza, Minneapolis, MN. Image courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
      The next phase is a hearing before the city's Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), which released the DCPED's demolition recommendation on April 6 (both Passover and Good Friday! Talk about burying a story). They can decide to approve or reject the demolition, or postpone it for 180 days to allow for additional review. One of the commission members is Linda Mack, a former Minneapolis Star Tribune architecture critic who helped select the architect for Orchestra Hall's renovation and was, as the Star Tribune noted, a "communications adviser to Oslund and Associates," who led the Peavey redesign process. I think it's fair to ask if Ms. Mack has had any involvement whatsoever, including any formal or informal discussions with other commission members and staff, about the future of Peavey, and whether she will be voting on the DCPED's demolition recommendation. The city, if it offers any rebuttal, will go through its usual litany of talking points about open and public process, and so on. Sorry, but repeating something often enough doesn't make it true -- remember that whole thing about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Friedberg recently told me that while working on Peavey in the 1970's he, "was so impressed with the integrity that [Minneapolis] had, [it] stood out as a special place, their politics, their civic duty. They made sure everyone had a voice." Not anymore.
     
     
     
    Follow Charles A. Birnbaum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TCLFdotORG

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