Field of ‘Hey, get your hands off my wallet!’

So Randy Levine wanted a better television, and you (and I) ponied up another $370 million. I’ve heard of overcompensation, but even for an outfit that spends $240 million on new payroll in a week, this is still an impressive bit of mid-life crisis outlay. I want to meet the 20 year-old he’s trying to impress, because s/he must be fine.

If would be unfair to use the ‘hat in hand’ analogy to describe how the Yankees get money from anyone. Turning us upside down and shaking the every last bit of change is more accurate, provided they make pants that can hold a billion quarters.

The ‘value’ of sports stadia is no longer an open question. In the past ten years of data collection and number crunching, no one has provided any solid argument that the investment is a net gain for the region that funds a project. For the Yankees one component of this ‘privately’ funded sinkhole is a city-built parking garage, now estimated to cost $170 million (the city will lease it to an operator, so hard revenue from this investment is unclear — the new garages will create more parking inventory, but no one knows if more people will drive to the games, and it is unlikely any operator will opt for a fixed amount, since the garage will produce very little non-game day revenue), so the net cost is still murky. Beyond that, the city is touting that it will create 20 permanent jobs. That’s right: 20. The city is spending $425,000 a year (over 20 years) to create each position.

The failings of this sordid tale are well documented. Here are some of the highlights: Giuliani signed off on a rent credit of $5 million a year for each year the new stadium was under construction for ‘development costs’. Those monies paid for the lobbyists and lawyers required to structure this deal, which required a ruling by the one-time IRS (that was questioned by Congress), the patching together of a Bronx-specific special-entity ‘community benefit’ non-profit to qualify for the bonds (the sole member of which is a non-profit located outside the city that has done no business other than generate bonds for similar projects outside the state). The other direct investment elements (including a promise to replace parkland that has been unavailable to the community that was seized to start construction) are behind schedule, and over budget — one drastically so, since the initial estimate did not include costs for the interior.

Aside from the initial handout from Rudy, which the team did not utilize to their full extent, the Bloomberg administration (with lots of help from the Bronx machine and the state) has overseen all the successive backtracks and overruns. The incrementalism at play is depressingly familiar: push the available financing as far as you can and then backload the budget. Once the money runs out, blame everyone but yourself and plead ‘out of scope’. Some of the ‘revisions’ are upgrades to seating and enclosing the press box. This coming at a facility that already planned to include a Hard Rock Cafe and steakhouse.

What is important to note here is that the stadium is free to the Yankees, no matter what. The MLB has a revenue sharing agreement (that sounds like it would run afoul of anti-trust regulations, doesn’t it? Oh, right). The Yankees are the highest revenue team in the country, and their out-sized payroll also mandates a “luxury tax” be assessed, which also feeds into the sharing pool and all but insures they will always be on the contributing end of the spectrum. But capital expenses (such as a new stadium) are deducted from the revenue sharing contribution. As we sit and marvel at contracts such as were provided to C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira maybe we shouldn’t be impressed with the front office gumption, but the back room deals, which get us coming — the best estimate at direct public investment is nearing half a billion dollars — and going: the Yankees will get to increase ticket prices, reduce eliminate rent payments and deduct any pesky bond payments from a revenue sharing number that would be fixed no matter who paid for the new jernt).

Or, put another way: the Yankees are using public money (see Page 38 of the PDF) — obtained via bond programs structured to increase public benefit — to artificially reduce its revenue sharing contribution and increase profitability. They literally can’t lose. Maybe Randy Levine should be coaching. Lord knows writing $200 million checks on the field hasn’t had any perceptible benefit.

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It’s going to take a lot more than a pair of ruby slippers.

Remember last year? When saying there was a fast approaching conflagration in housing and the financial markets drunk with the foolish optimism (or craven short-sightedness) that those same markets were a foolproof way to mint profits would get you mauled by brokers and their lapdogs like fresh venison covered in honey in a bear den? Housing goes up just like rocks fall down: always and anon. Never mind places like Amsterdam (where prices returned to their previous high — in 1736 — just last year; I bet they didn’t stay there long either). Everyone seemed to have forgot that any time someone tells you a financial instrument is a sure thing that your immediate reaction should be to reach for your wallet — to make sure it hasn’t been lifted.

The song and dance from the broker and broken community over the past year is that Europe — no Russia! — no, the super-rich who are insulated from day to day vagaries are going to save the Manhattan real estate market from the absolute implosion experienced everywhere else in the known universe. It recalls the scene at the end of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, where the Dorothy Provine character realizes the location of the treasure before everyone else, indulging in a short fantasy of wealth before concluding wistfully, “Well, it was a nice dream, while it lasted.”

Though the particulars are hard to parse, the sharp drops in the outer boroughs is telling, and anecdotes such as apartments being ‘flipped’ for a loss at the Plaza, the contraction in value of Stuy Town of 10% since Tishman bet $5 billion of your money (via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) they could evict rent stabilized tenants with more alacrity than the sorts of people who would invite crackheads into building lobbies (leading to such drastic measures such as charging tenants for their utilities) and what some would call anemic sales at trophy properties in TriBeCa point to a winds of change. Though it may be that sharply contracting values might not lead to foreclosures at 740 Park, it also means that the smart money will sit considerably tighter. After all, why race to drop $60 million on an apartment you don’t need if you are reasonably confident it can be had for $50 million in six months (expecting that you would lose less in real estate than in equities at this point)?

Historically, contractions hammer studio and one-bedroom owners. Even with the crazed pace of ultra-luxury housing developed that scoffs at the quaint notion of a one-bedroom, froth at the bottom end will have the same causal effect that credit squeezes and capital support requirements for CDOs have had on financial markets. Ripples will become tidal waves in no time.

So now that we have crowned our Mayor for Life (and, look, I’m voting for him again — in two years he will probably own the only going private concern in the city and manage all the public sector jobs to boot), it’s time to take a page from Nouriel Roubini’s book and declare the city is in an outright housing panic. Better still, that we have a real estate crisis across the board.

The reason we are in crisis that the many of the deals that enabled the buying and building frenzy are unwinding, meaning we may see more Macklowe-like fire sales of commercial properties, just as major building initiatives are pressing forward (WTC, anyone?) and the financial services titans that could normally be counted on to swallow up huge swaths of floor space are imploding into each other daily.

Thousands of condos are slated to come to market in the next year or two, all predicated on numbers that are looking more unsustainable each day. Tricks like rent-to-own, or straight rentals will work at the middle range of the market for a few more months, but even though it’s likely New York’s historically tight rental market will persist, those buildings will go wanting for tenants as people scramble to ratchet down their housing costs.

And this is where the Bloomberg promise of 160,000 units of affordable housing (the accounting for which was always dodgy) looks pathetic, and recent milestones — the rezoning of the Willamsburg waterfront, and the shunting of the 11,000 units of Stuy Town from Mitchell Lama to the aggressive attempt at ‘market rate’ pricing come immediately to mind — look terribly shortsighted. ‘Middle-income’ housing (to say nothing of stabilized rental units or creative programs to make ownership anything besides a vague dream for median income earners) was sorely needed before this crash, from a cultural or humanist perspective. Now we need it for purely economic reasons, since the people who will forestall savings or other types of economic advancement in pursuit of lives heavy on service and cultural spending, and will accept below median wages to live that dream were being priced into the Bronx and beyond for the past two decades with the glib argument that financial service lunkheads who supplanted them might not be the best substitute in the broadest sense, but their excess of dollars would, um, trickle-down, or prop up the shining Sodom on the Hill that is Manhattan. Those days have come to a grinding, nasty halt.

So the first step is admitting you have a problem, and it’s not clear that we’ve actually done that. Well some people have, they just aren’t people spending all their time getting reelected. When the manic expansion of real estate values, and the concomitant growth it brought (construction jobs, tax receipts, absurd growth in personal income at the upper echelons and the ridiculous luxury services sector that raced after the proceeds) was seemingly endless, the only evidence of a housing policy was restricted to softening the already spongy edges of regulation: the 421(a) mapping fiasco, the increasing allowance of developers to shift moderate and low income units off-site when applying for mortgage tax breaks, and tepid attempts to find ways to extend Mitchell Lama.

So the city lacks any tools to deal with the impending issue of systemic failure in the condo market, while the feds and state retreated from the business of social housing around the time people thought the Laffer Curve would make us all rich, in a trickly sort of way. The time it will take to kick start programs, shove through the necessary legislation and then actually start, you know, building things — provided there’s any money left in the coffers — it may well be too late to have any immediate benefit. Increasing affordable housing stock in always a good long term strategy. But since the government just poured $90BN in to a local company (and that might just be the beginning) to prop up the remnants of an easily identified real estate bubble, maybe we can argue for peeling off a couple billion for some local investment that can have a more tangible social benefit and operate within a reasonable expectation of return.

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Everyone say the serenity prayer with me.

I briefly considered writing an entire post about the SLA (State Liquor Authority) as if I had it confused with the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army). But that would prove technically complex, and likely not worth the payoff. Plus, the only thing I know about the SLA (the latter) is what I gleaned from Doonesbury collections about the Patty Hearst trial (in point of fact, only one panel that I recall, which was a joke that the defense attorney made the entire jury get in a closet so they could empathize with Hearst’s brainwashing, a joke that wouldn’t play as well since the SLA [the former] is only three members, who might actually fit comfortably in a closet, even if that visual accurately reflects what most bar owners would like to do them). So I’m using the ‘this is the joke I would have made’ gambit instead.

Whew, that was exciting. Maybe a little more than an actual SLA meeting (or reading a recap thereof), but not much. Since you aren’t obliged to read community newspapers or food blogs, what then is the big deal about the SLA? Well, they are currently in the hot seat of a strange nexus of competing interests that comprise the nebulous boundaries of ‘community’ in Manhattan neighborhoods.
Simply put, the SLA is the make or break hurdle for anyone who wants to sell alcohol. There are over a hundred types of licenses (covering retailers and wholesalers as well), but the general breakdown is for bars and restaurants, and full liquor (spirits) and beer/wine. I won’t claim to be an expert, so I can’t say for certain how restrictions apply (operating times, etc.) — either though rules or on a case-by-case basis, though it seems to be the latter.

Buying established properties is the safest bet for business owners. Leases aren’t granted conditionally, so signing a ten year lease and then spending three years (Boxcar on Avenue B) getting a full license can be a scary business proposition. And finding out the space downstairs that was supposed to be a restaurant but ends up morphing into Le Souk makes for anxious tenants and apartment owners.

Because suspension of a license or refusal to grant can drastically change the character of a place, the SLA has an outsized footprint in a process that also includes Community Board review as well as some city licensing, namely cabaret and sidewalk dining, all of it compounded by the imposition of the smoking ban. Zum Schneider, on Avenue C was embroiled in a particularly bruising court case (and the owner proved himself to be quite the modest victor), much of which stemmed from noise and congestion due to sidewalk seating.

In effect, the argument is about licensing taste. No one wants to be the cranky neighbor yelling at kids, but it’s also not unreasonable to make it through a weekend without someone puking on your stoop. The competing interests implicitly argue over whom gets to define the culture of a place. And like all New York turf arguments, people inflate the significance of precedent and persistence, not to mention the inevitable superiority of their own opinion.

The tropes are pretty tired: stroller-constrained aging hipsters who forget how to they used to party, tasteless interlopers who don’t respect community standards, indifferent policing, mercurial community boards and malicious bar owners trying to siphon the last dollar from that drunk braying loudly at harried cab drivers. Everyone accusing everyone else of not knowing how to have fun. Given the tenor of all these conversations, that may very well be true.

Pretty broad generalizations carry some legitimate weight. Problem locations tend to draw disproportionate numbers of non-local patrons, and owners with sketchy reputations oversee venues with sketchy manners. It would be hard to strictly define causation, but put a rope outside your door and trouble starts. There are plenty of examples proprietors who manage the most refined exclusivity through entirely different means (and still manage to have a hard time navigating the shoals of the SLA), and others who deal with large sidewalk crowds without the concomitant mayhem some residents would have you believe is inevitable. And simply telling everyone to not be an asshole pretty much counters every extant notion of New York culture.

The chicken-egg aspect of individual cases make it hard to argue for substantial overhaul. Death & Co. has proved to be an exceptional neighbor, and EU has even gotten approval for sidewalk seating. In both cases, you could argue they got the screws applied because Le Souk continues to be a zoo. That might be true, but you could also argue that effective regulation produced its intended result. The continuing troubles of Death & Co with licensing seem to stem from a disregard for, or misunderstanding, of the rules. EU suffered plenty of kitchen turnover, which took the wind out of the sails more than a little (though that turnover may have been directly the result of fears of financial viability). The latest effort from the AvroKO team (which designed EU), Double Crown, certainly skirted on the edge of officious neighbor the night I was there, so the fears of the residents on Fourth Street may be vindicated on that point.

Aside from Le Souk, which, until it closes, will be everything that is wrong with New York nightlife, the latest scourge is The Box, located on Chrystie Street, and is beset by everything from angry neighbors, a obstinate SLA and rather dramatic charges from former employees. The politics here are a little trickier, since by any measure, everything The Box is known for is exactly what it wants to be known for, alluding to various golden eras of New York, from vaudeville to Studio 54. Catering to a celebrity crowd underwritten by suckers ($1,000 plus two bottles for a six-top reservation on a Saturday), you can’t really blame the business model, only lament when someone suggests going there under such terms. The neighbors who are raising a fuss have their own cred: pioneers dating back into the early nineties on a stretch of street that still isn’t that apartment-friendly.

You could ask for a little more discretion on the part of the bouncers and managers, but keeping a lid on things via obscurity is no longer an option in the Internet (and Dodgeball) era. People went to Save the Robots if they knew where it was and if they were willing to brave the trip. Now, people will pile into a car service (themselves becoming bad neighbors) to the most remote parts of Ridgewood and Bushwick on a tip from a blog.

What’s tiresome is the repetition of the lobbying: nightlife is dead or living in the city is untenable, even though statistics on both fronts fail (more parents are staying put, and bars grow like mushrooms). Zoning as it pertains to dancing and the cabaret laws need to be reformed. The interconnection between the Community Boards and the SLA doesn’t seem as dysfunctional. The city finally has a local board member on the SLA, but if one constituency benefits disproportionately remains to be seen. We need drinking to be able to talk to strangers and we need to have something to talk about when we are drinking, so maybe it’s just the cycle of (night) life repeating itself.

These are not minor concerns. Given that drinking appears to be the go to refuge in times both good and bad with the economy (thankfully the swings are so dramatic we can justify nightly binges), we don’t want to imperil what will be the last viable sector of our local economy. And now, it’s time for a drink.

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Masters of None.

That old canard about being money not being worth the paper its printed on? Well, if three is a trend story, but your sample set maxes out at five, arguing that investment banks turned out to not be worth the buildings they are housed seems like a viable argument, even if that only turns out to be true of two of them.

Remember investment banks? Batting about the acronym IB to malign any boorish nonintellectual who was destroying wide swaths of Manhattan culture, with his evening at Scores followed by bottle service at Lotus and the unthinking embrace of ostensibly marquee quality architecture at positively obscene rates? That was so last week.

Really, let that sink in. FIRE, the term that has haunted New York and any other ‘intellectual capital’ center that has watched the traditional mix of light manufacturing, civil service and the arts get squeezed by an untenable (I think I get to use that term unreservedly now; if not, let me introduce you to a $700 billion bailout — which would pay for a shitload of theater companies and have a higher ROI on a job created/retained basis) market model, just lost one of its legs. Granted, the catch all ‘Finance’ embodied for better and worse by Jamie Dimon, who will cast a longer shadow over the next ten years of Manhattan more than any financier since his progenitor, Morgan, is still a heavy footprint, but rest easy, no one will ever tell you with a straight face that they are an ‘Investment Banker’ ever again. But if they do, be sure to have a good laugh.

In six months, a century of high finance, the center of a charlatan driven-engine of ‘compound interest’ spun out from 1929 to now as the absolute unstoppable force of western civilization, vanished. Really, allowing that Jimmy Cayne’s dope & bridge habit caused Bear Stearns to implode early, saying that investment banking died in seven days is a scenario the most exercised undergraduate Marxist sociology fantasy couldn’t have dreamed up, no matter how many Clash albums you own.

But this is an architecture blog, you say? Well, you say. I try to write about the culture of the city, and since the days of Milken, it’s hard to argue that any other culture mattered. Sure, those idiots who went to the kickball prom think they are the zeitgeist, but that is just part of a rapidly unwinding real estate scam, the rickety basis of which they are about to learn most painfully.

How will this abrupt change refashion the culture of the city? Well, aside from the glib, but still hoped for elimination of the term ‘bottle service’, the nasty effects will of course be felt some rungs further down.

Early signs are not good. Today it was reported that Starrett City bids will take a massive haircut. Not a bad thing in and of itself, but it will likely erode the almost infinitesimal gains in affordable housing, since little headway was made on 421 revisions and the Bloomberg administration has mostly paid lip service to developing new mechanisms to mandate affordability, we will see over-leveraged efforts on the part of organizations like the Toll Brothers simply whither. And once the likes of those people skip, there will be no modern day Sam LeFrak to take up the mantle.

The contagion may well move up and down the ladder. Debt servicing on Stuy Town blows up in about two years. Lacking a pliant Fannie Mae to bail out Tishman, who can say what happens when the largest rental complex in Manhattan becomes insolvent? In both cases, regulated tenants will have a modicum of protection, and are used to living under the tutelage of maliciously benign landlords, but what of the growing ranks of market-rate tenants who think that, you know, garbage should be picked up? Our knight in Shining Silver take another inch or two about the knees he already cut them off at, smiling and telling you he is all about constituent services, too late for you to realize his notion of constituency ends at about where his shoes go. And that is important information when the likes of Tishman start showing up in Albany hat in hand, demanding additional ‘reforms’ to rent stabilization.

Signature buildings only now just sprouting downtown, looking to remake the skyline of New York as more residential than commercial, will likely proceed apace. Sales may make completion a bit tricky. The Euro is losing ground — provided condos are willing to embrace all manner of sketchy Russians, it may be the hordes of ostensible discount shoppers from Europe drying up might not adversely effect things too much.

This is all just dithering about real estate. The vibrancy of this town should not depend on eyeing one’s burgeoning property investments, if only because this has proved to be futile just about everywhere else on earth at this point (though one should not discount the boundless egocentric focus of a New Yorker). What the past ten years have stripped is a thorough-going discussion of what it means to have land management. Now that value are plummeting to earth and far removed suburbs are reproducing the worst vestiges of urban decay (without the density that city services provide to offset the challenges), these questions are being tentatively raised. Here, the forever spiral upward squeezed out rational conversation about mixed use, about historical pricing patterns, about just about anything except the worst pimping of a Curbed comment thread.

So here we are, gazing at the interesting but intellectually bankrupt offerings of Herzog & de Meuron and Koolhaas, edifices that may prove compelling over time, but being touted on the verge of the nationalization of everything that made them possible, ring more than a little hollow.

On the commercial side, the outlook isn’t directly fatal, but leaking into territory where the conventional numbers don’t apply, since we are drowning in highly-leveraged debt. Lehmans’s commercial portfolio is positively absurd, as are some of the notable apartment complex deals in the Barron’s article (linked above), eye popping numbers such as writing $350 million in debt on a complex with $17 million in revenue (almost all rent-regulated) — this after the purchasers refinanced, cashing out almost the entirety of the purchase price.

As the Treasury gears up its printing press, driving our already absurd daily cost of living expenses higher, expect little relief in any way you can measure. The effects should start to become evident in a couple months. Charitable giving, already on the decline, will eviscerate arts organizations (how much was that new New Museum building next door?). Projects underway will slow and construction costs will abate. This will help in areas, such as the WTC, but the concomitant job loss (going all the way up the ladder) and shrinking tax base will offset any benefit. Though in place financing means many of the projects going up will finish, as things start to go sideways here and there, ripples such as construction firms going under and banks that finally start looking at their balance sheet mean the prospect of unfinished hulks in Williamsburg isn’t beyond the pale.

Sure doesn’t look any different outside. Yet. Nameplates haven’t been pulled down, and everyone is warily eyeing the market. The last days of the emperor are writ perfect. Denying the foolhardy greedy and myopic decision making of the last eight years means that doubling, trebling and more down is the only solution they can imagine. Stare at those numbers really hard and pretend. Change? We have no choice; no one has realized it yet.

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One would hope this would be the last of ‘these’; one would be a fool.

Writing a post about the World Trade Center is appallingly easy, a gross natural resource of failure, seemingly malicious incompetence, an almost perverse effort by all those involved to identify perhaps the best — should we even admit just qualifiers — possible path, so that when they upend it and crawl inexorably down its inverse, we can be certain they are doing the worst possible job.

As a writer, it’s handy. It even provides an uncomfortably glee, the opportunity to conjure your most withering ire — the bon mot realized too late at a cocktail party, that particularly egregious episode of getting dumped, the quarter-long festering of hatred for a thesis advisor who had you by the short hairs and was making you write them a tenure recommendation — gather all that anger up and just start slapping one of any number of public figure names to whatever comes to mind:

Want remind everyone that Pataki was at best only a coat carrier? People applaud! Silverstein a heartless sot who wants to clamber over the graves of 2,000 people to prop up a futile edifice of immortality? Spot on, friend. Kevin Rampe a duplicitous macher concerned most with his next paycheck? Fine! Any one of them bordering on criminal? Likely true! I can’t even imagine what we would call that guy who actually designed the memorial. What was his name again?

So, yeah, there’s a regressive level of poisonous irony in the fact that writing angry screed about the abysmal pace of progress at the WTC site is in an of itself an act that wallows in the same filthy pile of almost unwatchable failings of humanism. Perhaps Dr. Phil could have a big Pop Psychology-In and figure out just when everyone involved has hit rock bottom (given the state of construction, it looks like we are a ways off). The sage advice would be to know leave your wallet unattended while they are around, but it’s too late for that: they don’t need your permission to take a dip now and again. And again, and again.

Marching right along with this bounty of ineptitude and wellspring of deadlines hastily assembled and just as quickly dismantled is an impressive body of treacly recollection. Maybe there is a fear that once the last bolt has been screwed into place such writing will be looked on as unseemly, and in a town where no one’s suffering is as acute or important as that split all over the back pages of the Sunday Times Magazine that would be viewed as a tragedy to which everyone could truly relate. After all, think of all those poor Dalton students just itching to put their 9/11 experience into a college application essay. Who will think of those children?

As I write this, the Tribute in Light is still aglow. The only response that evinced the least bit of elegance, now they stand like uncomfortable guests. What they say is still simple and direct, and their specificity to place admits any range of emotion. The worst is being reminded that from where they spring is a hollow that seems to regress in painful small steps. This is perhaps the finest example of what a memorial does, reminding that tragedy is not a neatly comestible nugget, and our continued complicity in belaboring the failure of imagination and wherewithal that marks every project there also besmirches even the most strident critique. Silence is the terminus, and still deafeningly inadequate.

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VOTE: Primary Day, Tuesday, September 9

“Without general elections, without unrestrained freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution… in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.” — Rosa Luxemborg

We’re all friends here, right? And by friends, I mean Democrats. Okay, I know there’s some outliers. Someone has to shop at Pink. In fact, I wish y’all (and by y’all, I mean Republicans of any stripe) had your act together a little better, so someone could could provide a spirited challenge to the twisted, self-serving and incompetent beast that is the entirely of the New York State Democratic machine: hacks, politicians activists; loud-mouths and back room operatives.

Then I wouldn’t have feel that the most appropriate quote for this coming election (TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 9) speaks directly to the perverse condition that most of us, and by us, I mean Democrats, take for granted, often shockingly with pride: the majority of our local contests are only that at the primary level. I know this is true in regions and states that have sharply polarized electorates, but if every other state jumped of a bridge…

We like to be preening, over-weening elitists who tell everyone else what is good for them. We stand apart from the rest of the country on significant issues such as gun control, taxation, arts funding and housing support (though this is hard to tell, even up close), so why we should gleefully accept the turd-like central committee angling that is primary election season is beyond me.

This is a long-winded (is there any other kind around here?) endorsement for PAUL NEWELL (D-64) and DANIEL SQUADRON (D-25). And it must be shrill and antagonistic, because if 7,000 people in lower Manhattan can’t be roused enough to show Sheldon Silver the curb, we will suffer at least another two years of back room dealings and obscene gestures of an aristocratic bureaucracy. And that number is a pretty high bar, as primaries go. 4,000 votes can get you the nod as a Democrat.

I’m not going to catalog all the reasons why supporting Newell (and Squadron) makes sense as a matter of policies evinced. Aside from the fact that any interested observer should have plenty of evidenced pro or con, it’s also a little late to be debating on merits. If you go to Silver’s page, or read the interviews, or consume the selective histories presented by his supporters, he will come off as a more than decent Dem. Too much nuance is required to refute this in a couple hundred words. But trust me, the differences are real, and worth passing over Silver.

There are two good, simple reasons to think about voting, if you haven’t, and to rethink your support of Silver and Connor (Squadron’s opponent in NY-25) if you have:

ONE: “He’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole” is a non-starter. This is the sort of argument you hear for any incumbent, or a representative who is nominally aligned with ‘outsider’ status as pertains to an institution. When you trace the family tree of, say, George Bush, you will come to see a scrappy Jew from the Lower East Side as a perennial David to the white shoe Goliaths of New Haven and beyond. But this is New York, we have plenty of Jews (evidenced by, you know, his opponent), and Silver is the establishment, in the worst possible way. This is the sort of Stockholm Syndrome thinking that pervades unions and other assorted liberal collectives. The point being, it isn’t the cult of the personality that makes them strong, it isn’t our asshole. It is the collective, and this sort of defeatist ‘if not him, then who?’ thinking that corrodes oppositional political organizing.

Digging down into his record proves this out. Sure, he stopped the West Side stadium, but you know, that’s not his district. What he did least for his district is allow the ongoing evisceration of the Rent Stabilization Guidelines as a sap to Uncle Joe Bruno, as part of their two headed hydra control of the statehouse for the past fifteen years. The preeminent issue in his district and he’s been nowhere since the word go, proving again and again that protection of his position comes at the expense of his constituents. Now that Bruno looks like he may finally take that well deserved perp walk, it brings us to reason number two.

TWO: Throw the bums out. A couple years back the Times (both Newell and Squadron have received Times endorsements) took the extraordinary step of endorsing every non-incumbent in the Senate and Assembly elections. So sad is the state of challenges, this means many seats went without one, since the incumbent lock is so strong that many seats run uncontested. Regardless of where you land on the political spectrum, not seeing the value of of a challenge means you can’t see the essence of a robust, sharp-elbows democracy. If you can’t defeat a fool, then perhaps you shouldn’t be given a free pass, as most of our assembly members get every two years.

The rhetoric of campaigning has never been a grand as the Athenian model we think of when venerating days of yore. And it never was that fair. So it makes sense that Bruno, Silver and whomever was pandering to them in the Governor’s mansion never worked so hard as when they did to prevent change and reform. Thinking that control of the Senate will improve thinks for residents, particularly those of the 64th District is absurd. We will see an even more opaque version of stasis to which we are subjected yearly. There is no confidence that control will bring reform. The best way to do that is to turn the cookie jar upside down.

There are roughly 127,000 residents in NY-64. About 60,000 are registered. 20% of that number are likely to vote this Tuesday. People like to grouse their votes mean little, particularly when they are Democrats in the safest Dem state in history. So here is your chance: this is likely the most powerful, and valuable, contribution you can make to public service. Need your polling location? Find it here.

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Please stick to the rivers and lakes you’re used to.

So I’ve seen all four of Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls via automobile, at a leisurely jogging pace, and from a couple of vistas while cycling. I haven’t walked down there yet. Honestly, I don’t know I have the interest in making a specific journey, having seen them more than once now via the means listed.

There’s an inherent difficulty in trying to create monumental art in New York. This is a town that grinds down every attempt at out-sized presentation: of people, or art, of place. Larger than life here at times requires cosmic performance. To get it ‘right’ is not necessarily success anyone should venerate. You could argue our best known citizens of the past three decades, a short fingered vulgarian and a thrice married proponent of “traditional values” are the sort we would prefer dissipate into the either.

The at times breathless run up to this latest, self-conscious effort at grandeur is as much an indication of the move or die shark-like mentality of the blog news cycle, and perhaps maybe a little Gilded Age navel-gazing (apartment sales still up in Manhattan! — even though they are down by an unsustainable level in Brooklyn and the backer of half the outstanding mortgages nationwide is about to enter receivership).

Just three years ago, art tussled with this very issue in a very determined way in the form of The Gates project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Central Park. And like Eliasson’s project, it came off a bit thin. The promotion was certainly gargantuan, at time seemingly like a struggling second city claiming a bit of cultural relevance — as if Portland tried to open a ‘world-class’ contemporary art museum (or, hell, I’ll say it: SFMOMA). But you don’t take on Central Park unless you think you can win. Granted, there were more than a few obstacles working on behalf of the park, but I remember thinking one thing a good artist did was to know when an idea would fail.

I worked on The Gates — and one reason was that I knew that if I didn’t make that kind of commitment, the likelihood of getting uptown in February was small (a failing that starts way back in 1995, when I couldn’t find the time to see a Richter exhibit that was up for what seemed like years), and my fears proved to be true. Aside from an abbreviated circuit in the hours following the unfurling and an abortive visit to Tavern on the Green (my only), I never went back to see the exhibit. Likewise, the times I’ve seen the waterfalls have been incidental — which is nice and in large part how public art should be seen, but I have little desire to make a specific pilgrimage

Honestly, I was disappointed (though I was more sanguine at the time). Particularly in the southern reaches it seemed like we are a couple thousand gates short. Seeing the materials in the warehouse in Queens, or lining the park roads, that was some impressive hardware. And I was lucky to be working the northern end, where some vistas were compelling. When I walked south for the first time on opening day, I was stuck at how sparse it seemed. If you want to make art based on repetition in New York, you need to go balls to the wall. And we were balls to half court if lucky in most spots.

Eliasson doesn’t even seem to get that close, even though his four spindly towers cost almost two-thirds the total cost of The Gates project. I’ve assumed since the first time I heard that number that most of it went for the lawyers. Surely there is some fancy engineering going on in the fountain part — and let’s not kid ourselves, they are fountains — but beyond that, it’s four mid-sized scaffolds that need to weather six months of salt water. It can’t be that much.

The brochure says the use of stock materials recalls the pervasive element that brings us joy everywhere, the interminable scaffolding surrounding so many buildings, and (though less clear) perhaps to make the towers as ‘dumb’ as possible, so that they wouldn’t overwhelm or detract from the ‘work’ — presumably the cascading water. But the water barely cascades. It responds too quickly to wind, and never seems to reach a critical mass that imposes they way you expect a ‘waterfall’ to. Like The Gates, it just leaves you wishing it commanded more.

At more acute angles, this both less and more successful. Without the latticework back to provide immediate ground, the spout of water can be more impressive, but it is also foreshortened and can look like no more than a particularly strong fire hose. Seen dead on, which seems to be the preferred vantage, in some light the water is barely visible, unless it is being pushed off center by the wind.

Given the loaded terminology of the name, competing with something like this, regardless of locating it in the East River, far from any impressive natural occurrence still means you have a tall order (pun intended). If they were only called ‘Fountains’ they might not leave one with a sense of lacking, but the branding would be weak.

Not knowing, and not trying to know (some art is worth reading the placard to, but this is the sort of thing that should work on its face[s]) what is trying to be achieved, I look on to them as discrete objects — only a view points really present them as a set piece. Each time, I mostly see the flat grey, squat towers. Their actual size can be promoted (90 feet! More!), but we live in the town that invented tall. They are squat, either pointing up rather timidly against some really uninspired backdrops, or hunkered down in the shadow of one of our most impressive landmarks. And even that one is not so grand, unless viewed though a high pass filter, ultra long exposure photo.

Look, you could put a pile of hot dog vendor carts under the Brooklyn Bridge and they would look impressive. Everything looks good in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Surely there is a modicum of admiration of what it takes the city of New York to approve even the temporary defacement of one of the most storied images in the history of organized civilization, but if the gesture is as much the writing a $15 million check as it is the result, then hell, we should have held out for an even more substantial sum and concomitantly gratuitous splurge. Why shouldn’t it have cost at least what a ‘good’ penthouse goes for these days?

This is not Eliasson’s first large scale ‘environmental’ intervention. His most popular work is likely The Weather Project, in which he constructed a simulacrum of the sun in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. By most accounts, it was an impressive gesture. Others don’t strike me as powerful, particularly Green River, since I used to live in Savannah, where the river was dyed green every St. Patrick’s Day (a practice that was finally halted, ironically, out of environmental concerns, though by then every one noted cynically that the presence of multiple riverside factories made the additional color superfluous).

I’m not going to use the failure of this as a cudgel against large public installations, The Public Art Fund has in its portfolio some fascinating projects. I won’t say the money was wasted (it was mostly private), but the opportunity? Well, maybe a littl
e. You could try to embrace it as grand futility, but it just looks like a testing station for perhaps a more impressive work to come, be it art or utilitarian. But, alas, this is all we are going to get. Unlike The Gates (or Chris Burden’s installation at Rockefeller Center, which comes down this week), it’s with us for a while — October — so don’t feel compelled to rush downtown. Perhaps they will work better at night and as the days grow shorter, I’ll prove to be less critical.

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Nowhere is my home.

The three plus year battle of the Economakis family (or parasitic, exploitative real estate clan, depending on where you side in the battle) to convert 47 E. Third Street, an unremarkable tenement, into a ‘single’ family unit (single in quotes because they have indicated it will also serve to provide guest space for their extended family) has reached the stage of real estate battle where stasis becomes the story itself (akin to the Windermere on 57th).

I’m not going to detail the various claims and counter-claims; conveniently, everyone involved has a website. And this isn’t a post about rent control, though that is germane to the continuance of the dispute.

What struck me most about the story was how starkly it underscores one of the more pernicious effects of the real estate boom in Manhattan. Even though on a per square foot basis real estate grows more dear every day, and people seem to have no limit for irrational mismatches between absolute dollars and relative scale (million-dollar studios et al), there is still a noticeable creep upward in the size of premium property, and certainly in trophy properties.

There have been a few notable conversions of this nature recently, including one only a few blocks away, in which the Bouwerie Lane Theater was basically erased to make way for a mansion and ‘respectable’ retail. And the contingents that find fault with the Gilded Age aura that encompasses these stories seem less troubled by similarly outsized footprints under the control of artists — even though that hasn’t proved to make them any less susceptible to market development.

There isn’t an immediate corollary to real estate prices beyond Manhattan, since the wealth driving this is detached from any rational or practical notion of economy, like other compressed, hyper-inflated districts (Ile Saint-Louis, et al). There is an ancillary effect, but only some of it is a permanent shift, slightly upwards, of baseline prices in some areas, likely already established (the near neighborhoods of Brooklyn), and a retreat is as likely as not for everywhere else, since the most egregious overbuilding is in areas that don’t attract the strata of untouchable wealth that Manhattan does. What is more acute, across the board, is what cultural effects that may result from a loss of density.

Density is the lifeblood of most of the elements of New York that stand out as unique: class and ethic mixing, artistic foment, intellectual and economic innovation. From the salons of Greenwich Village to the light industrial inventors in Brooklyn (it seems like everything from Barbicide to Steinway Pianos were invented in a bathtub there), to say nothing of massive cultural and intellectual edifices ranging from Abstract Expressionism to Broadway and the New School started because like minded people could find each other and still commingle with a panoply of others.

The Economakis’ are removing from housing stock inventory which could easily house up up to 30 distinct lives, based on habitation patterns of just the past two decades (go back four or six, and it would easily be double), housing the city has no good plan for replacing. The Bloomberg administration was reelected with a plan for new housing that did not better those of his opponents, and is likely falling well short of his goals.

The calculus that drew a large percentage of people who don’t prioritize financial gain as the end all of human endeavor is that the trade off of lower standards of living and less certainty in the traditional trappings of security (health care, retirement, affordable housing — affordable anything) was worth the struggle in hopes of having accomplishment within fields where laurels were not accompanied by sums that could even place you in the most modest of market rate apartments. Barring that, simply rubbing elbows and trying might be its own reward, and the city always needs good waiters and dog walkers.

But the math is breaking down. People at the absolute lowest rungs are not living a bohemian dream; rather, they are saddled with economic requirements that force long commutes and extended works schedules that chip away in quite literal terms from the time required in the struggle to create cultural works, gradually diluting the pool of the willing.

As someone who loves a good class war, let’s also look outside the glory of art, where the idea that hard work and a willingness to forgo extravagance in return for a solid, if unspectacular existence is dashed as well. Teachers, nurses, cab drivers, civil service, no one living here a generation ago would encourage a child to take this path with the same confidence. Think about every time you’ve had an interaction with someone, a mundane transaction that all of a suddenly shifts when you understand everyone here is a crank and a know-it-all, or a preening self important fool willing to share an opinion at the drop of a hat; afterward you walk away, perversely proud of your town, because a cab driver would never lecture you on cheese in Topeka.

The argument that the hordes of American tourists and locals that invade the East and West Villages are here to see the latest show at the New Museum doesn’t hold. Those people aren’t understanding of or pursuing cultural consumption past finding where Magnolia Bakery is. But the cheap, sanitized version of New York that results in glossy expensive lounges and restaurants that can barely be filled now is a reasonably new phenomena (at least at its current scale) and I doubt it has any longevity. The winding path of downtown culture over the past century that set that stage for it is in hasty retreat. Or, at least, it grows more diffuse, and the difference between those two eventualities may not make a difference in twenty years.

No doubt that some of the people the Economakis’ want to displace haven’t done much of anything with their good fortune. In the end, most of us won’t. Because it’s a numbers game, when you reduce the numbers, you are slimming the odds. And in this case the house is as bland, corporate and unyielding its best known shill.

*As a matter of perverse disclosure, I just found out I may have been a tenant of Granite (the management company the Economakis family controls). One of the properties listed in Manhattan was a former apartment. But my checks always went to an individual. And he was a shitty landlord. Over the course of three years he refused to give us information on where or when we should dispose of our trash (among other failures).

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A very simple message: support Paul Newell.

I’m going to try and make this short. I hear blog readers want bullet lists and such, so let me hit the high points quickly, and then the three of you that read for, you know, style, can continue south. One: Vote for Paul Newell, who is the first person to challenge Sheldon Silver for the 64th Assembly District of New York State since 1985, this September 9, in the Democratic Primary. Two: if you are inclined to do more, come to M1-5 (52 Walker Street, between Church & Broadway) next Tuesday, June 24, and toss some dollars in the pot. I’ll be there, if that’s any appeal.

I’ve been a constituent of Sheldon Silver for most of my time in New York. What Sheldon Silver has actually done, for me, as a constituent, I’d have a hard time enumerating. As much as I admired his (nonetheless) dirt dealing quashing of the Jets Stadium (a project I showered less than no love for), it affected mostly my abstract principles about urban development. On the ground, things like congestion pricing, rent stabilization, and the commuter tax, he’s been an absent landlord at best, offering obfuscation about his reasoning that at best sounds like ‘we know what’s better for you’. And I gotta tell you Shelly, paying well over two grand for a tenement pad feels great. Thank you.

When you live in New York, you can be forgiven for not seeing the gradated differences in what we loosely call progressive politics. Give the Speaker some face time with just about any national politician, and he will play the way we expect: somewhere left of Emma Goldman, and we can all pat ourselves on the back for the symbolism of unrepentant liberal idealism.

But, you know, when the proverbial rubber hits the road, Silver comes up more than a little short. The oft used excuse for his lack of constituent service is the larger problem of holding down the fort against Joe Bruno. But you know, the Democratic majority in the Assembly is overwhelming, and we are creeping up on the Senate. So every craven accommodation and compromise, is suspect. Considering how drastic the impact of some of those issues has been (the commuter tax and luxury decontrol, to name two), trading that to protect upstate assemblymen who sell us down the river for a stoplight, even when our tax dollars subsidize the entire state, is a bit rich.

Paul Newell has a very simple point. For everything else Silver is, he still represents a discrete district. He has an obligation to those people, to act in their interests, with transparency and honestly, two qualities that he is distinctly lacking around the largest issues. Smaller issues, like funding security in public housing, developing the few remaining viable lots in lower Manhattan for affordable housing, things that can directly effect the people he ostensibly serves, get caught up in these supposed larger battles. But those battles often look like they all center on one struggle: sustaining Silver as one of the “three men in a room.”

The Democrats are poised to retake the Senate. Their control of the Assembly is seemingly unyeilding. We have a Democratic governor. That we have to go hat in hand to try and get Silver off the dime of business as usual is an insult to the progressive ideals that people often point to as a defining feature of this city. And it is particularly galling to those he was elected to serve. People like me. I’m more than ready for Change. We are on the verge of the possibility of an historic change. At all levels.

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Did you miss me? Wait, don’t answer that.

Reading the Robb Report is like subscribing to Playboy. The narrowness of the fetish and the finite boundaries mean that incremental shifts of style get outsized attention as new, or sexier versions of the old. A good Ferrari only comes along once a generation, but that doesn’t stop gallons of ink from being spilled about the latest and greatest. And the airbrushed equipment in Playboy? We would be so lucky for progress even on that timetable.

But that doesn’t stop the mindless repetition, the manic attempt to convince both the arbiters and the suckers that the senseless production has intrinsic value, nor the urgent avocation of the greed necessary to enable the consumption (see Marxist Rant, First Year College Dorm for the remainder of this paragraph).

Any lifestyle section of the Times (Styles, Fashion, Home, et al) pretty much suffers this problem, leavened slightly by the larger cultural purview of the target demo, meaning we have a wider array of objects to valorize, even though they have no more utiility (and much of the time you find yourself wishing it was a simple as fast boats and bountiful décolletage). Pushing out to the boundaries to shelter porn press we encounter the inane embrace of intentional esoterica (tribal art! funny fruit!), delivered via whatever Tyler Brule is pimping at the present moment. At the apex of any particular zeitgeist, you do see a spectacular culture document flame out. Spy in the late eighties, Nest in the late nineties. We’ve only got a couple years left, so I hope someone is planning something interesting and insightful. Sorry, Cabinet, I don’t think you will qualify.

Since when did this become a magazine blog? It hasn’t — but nor has it been much of a blog of any kind for some time. The Napoleon of acerbicity marched on the Moneyed Empire of Manhattan and came back, defeated by the long, cold winter of affluent indifference. I think it was the Muji Store. Or maybe CB2.

Sure, there are glimmers of hope. The respective Yards from Hell projects are fracturing under the ponderous weight of bureaucracy. But even with the implosion of BearStearns and impending doom of Lehman, it’s hardly enough. I’m sure that when Drexel was finally cut down like a financial Charles Whitman, I doubt it gave much solace to the likes of David Wojnarowicz.

The proverbial friend of a friend once told me sagely that living here when the real estate market was in the tank (early nineties edition for for him) really sucked, because there wasn’t money anywhere for anyone or anything. But he was telling me that in a large rent stabilized apartment he found and held though the lean years, and was preaching to me over drinks he bought with AT&T stock that had been showered upon him as a result of a bizarre chain of failed music label to failed Internet music startup. That the path ended with him as failed day trader, and managing a furniture warehouse in Buffalo gives me hope that his argument was wrong and that this town might still expel enough of the mindless FIRE drones like fleas from a dog and Manhattan might be an interesting place to live once again.

I did find myself staring longingly at depressed stock prices and staring with more intent than usual at Curbed’s state of the market reports, hoping for the four horsemen to finally appear. Rather than swallow the middle class aspiration tripe they sell at the Economist, which is just a more articulate version of the ‘old black man walking hand-in-hand with a little white girl down a country road’ motif you will find in just about any financial services commercial — you know, the one where they tell you to prepare carefully for the future while extracting usurious management fees that fund Richard Meier condos — maybe the lapping iceberg waters and peak oil should free us to be more cavalier about our declining years. Just imagine the kind of glory a squat at 40 Bond would entail.

This is not a future found in the McKibbon Street lofts or at the kickball league in McCarren Park. No, those people are the effluvia of the worst of the excesses, believing that they inhabit some brave new world where theremin-based bands, eating clubs, their ‘art’ and a down payment on a Greenpoint condo, courtesy their parents, is somehow the latter day equivalent of the Beats. That’s not to say the city is bereft of cultural exploration and innovation, just a warning that hitching yourself to the wrong wagon can be deleterious. No one should ever mention they are collaborating on a film with “someone from their kickball team.”

Why is this relevant to me? As things have ground down here, it was in no small part a response to the seemingly implacable march of the above. But possible cracks in the unified front of Thrillist party tips, mega scaled MePa loungs and pillow fight enthusiasts make it seem like there is the whiff of incremental change (or I’m just looking harder). I told anyone who would ask (and that wasn’t many) that this was never intended to be an architecture blog. The buildings in this city are too consistently dull or developer-driven to ever sustain a publication that doesn’t simply yell “Sucks! Sucks! Sucks!” over and over (which, admittedly, I do). And befriending the prissy GSD grads that blanket the professional landscape so I could parrot their badly wrought lit-crit justifications of houses they shat out for friends of their parents is even less appealing.

What drew me to the city, and many others I suspect, is that the unique geography, overlaid with an actually vibrant culture based in intellectual and artistic rigor, created fascinating spaces (some of which grew out of intentional effort and design, and others purely coincidental). If all the solipsistic theories drummed into our heads during studio had any use it might be that the building as text could possibly be situated in writing like this, and that might be part of a cycle of sustaining and growing that culture. But it might not always require Roarkian genius for the physical manifestation.

The challenge has always been a notion that reporting would limn this effort with a modicum of legitimacy. Why I felt the need to prove myself to the likes of the Observer Real Estate section was something I never quite got a handle on. I guess my lack of credentials and failure to attend one of the handful of schools whose alumnae dominate large swaths of our society stuck in my crawl and exacerbated my frustration that in the few instances where criticism seemed to be in practice, the exclusion there was a sharp as trying to qualify for a mortgage on Perry St., albeit a result of a different hierarchy.

But doing original reporting while, you know, working, proved to be a tall order — at least on any semblance of a regular schedule. The tools have improved considerably, but in a town with enough advertising dollars to fund more than a couple handfuls of real estate beats, it’s a race I’m unlikely to even see the back of the pack of any time soon.

So I’m using the fast approach of the solstice as a marker to make things a little less dim around here, and to insert the caveat that things will become more — idiosyncratic.
Partly the exigencies of admitting I just can’t find the time to do ‘reporting’ the way I would prefer, and partly because that I didn’t set out for that as an end goal. There’s still a city here somewhere. As a friend observed the other day about a new ‘blogging service’ “is it another one those things where people are typing instead of living?” the only way to collapse that gap is to shift focus. It won’t do much for my profile as an architecture blogger, but perhaps it will for me as a writer. I do hope you will find favor in it. I might be a crank and curmudgeon, but for those of you who have taken the time to share your appreciation of what has been wrought to date, many thanks. I’m hanging out the shingle once again in large part because of that.

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