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Down On The Riverside: Scott Stringer Unloads On Extell’s Riverside Center Mega-Development

There are sprawling mega-developments and then there are sprawling mega-developments. And for all the digital ink we’ve spilled on Williamsburg’s New Domino and Flushing’s Flushing Commons, the title of Sprawling-est, Most Megascale Mega-Development in New York City is pretty undoubtedly Extell’s hilariously elephantine 3 million square foot Riverside Center, which will feature 2,500 apartments, a 250,000-square-foot hotel and an additional 208,000 square feet of retail space, for starters. To Extell’s credit, the development is both better presented and less aesthetically offensive than either of the aformentioned mega-developments; credit is due to the estimable architect Christian de Portzamparc for the latter. But it’s hard to give Riverside Center or Extell much credit for anything beyond that — this is as high-handed and ham-fisted a mega-development as is imaginable, and its dull luxury and sheer inert mass make it an easy one to dislike even for those less inclined in that direction than your author. But it’s the way in which the Upper West Side’s Community Board 7 has objected to Riverside Center — not with shrill NIMBY fervor, but with a demand that the development be built to LEED Platinum standards, include a new school and offer more affordable housing — that has made this one of our favorite stories here at gbNYC. It’s one thing to write about ambitious green buildings or urban planning gambits, but it’s something else, and something entirely more inspiring, to see concerned citizens taking it upon themselves to demand a more sustainable built environment. Something that, if we can own our bias for a minute, gbNYC finds pretty freaking awesome.

The resistance to the development from Upper West Siders — a movement which now includes an anti-Riverside Center petition at the website BetterBuildingsNY — is important for (at least) two reasons. First and most obviously, it matters because people will have to know and care about — and then act upon — this sort of thing for green building to catch on the way it should, but also because this sort of community action can, as Jane Jacobs demonstrated, exert a very productive sort of upward pressure on elected officials. And while it’s too early to count Riverside Center out — there is a lot of money behind it, and mega-developers do tend to get their way in the end in NYC (and everywhere else) — the objections of Community Board 7 seem to be having the desired political effect. At least if Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s recent (and unexpectedly tart) denunciation of the project is any indication.

Curbed quotes from and sums up Stringer’s statement. “While development at Riverside Center may be a generally welcomed addition to the community, that development must not overwhelm the surrounding neighborhood,” Stringer’s statement reads in part. “‘The Riverside Center development has the potential to either improve the neighborhood or to recreate the past mistakes of Riverside South,’ said Borough President Stringer. ‘This is not about no development – it’s about appropriate and responsible development.’ … The current proposal lacks good site planning, creates inactive streetscapes, and obscures access to the proposed open space. Additionally, the proposed project has many environmental impacts that require real mitigations.” To put things in context somewhat, for a New York City politician speaking about a real estate development, that’s basically the equivalent of Eddie Murphy’s Raw.

Of course, strictly speaking, Scott Stringer’s opinion doesn’t really matter to Riverside Center’s fate — his role in the city’s ULURP approval process is advisory. But the fact that Stringer felt compelled to issue a strong disapproval of the project — and, as the Architect’s Paper’s Matt Chaban notes, break with his usual stance of “yes, but” on larger Manhattan real estate developments — is another reminder of the power of a motivated citizenry to have a real effect on policy. Community Board 7′s objection already led to Extell adding that K-8 school to the development and to bumping the affordable housing percentage from 12 to 20 percent. The petition, however, calls for a larger school and 30% affordable housing, in addition to the LEED Platinum construction and design. Extell may or may not be able to get its development to that level — the statement from Extell’s spokesman quoted in the West Side Spirit is less than conciliatory (and contains a hilarious/poignant example of the usual job-creation pap served up by developers during situations like this).

But it’s encouraging, both at a neighborhood level and in the context of the broader cause of sustainability in New York City, to see that the Upper West Side community seems intent on making Extell — and their elected representatives — play by their rules. It doesn’t look like much, here on the page — why, it’s reasonable to wonder, would it ever be otherwise? But those of us who care about this sort of thing know that this sort of green-oriented community action is both more rare and more revolutionary — and thus more admirable — than it should be. Which is exactly why we’ll be following this story closely in the weeks to come at gbNYC. We’re even going to put our usual jokes about Upper West Siders bodychecking each other at Fairway to the side for a bit. We’re that psyched.

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