It’s not an insult to describe Upper West Siders as “difficult to please.” It would, in fact, be more insulting — and inaccurate — to do anything but. This obviously won’t do anything to change the minds of the plu-terrified loathing-based life forms that comprise Fox News’ Zombie Squadders, who will almost certainly remain convinced that the Upper West Side is full of louche, libertine limousine liberals, but a visit to any retail establishment on the UWS — or even a short walk down Broadway in the 70s — is enough to explode the idea of the Upper West Side as some sort of free-living liberal commune. Sure, Upper West Siders tend to vote Democratic, but these people are intense and competitive, and the sharpness of the elbows getting thrown at the Fairway olive bar are nothing compared to what Extell Development Company has faced during its attempt to sell Upper West Siders on Riverside Center, an ambitious 3 million-square-foot mega-development slated to stretch between 59th and 61st Streets and between West End Avenue and the West Side Highway.
To be fair to Upper West Siders (perhaps for the first time in this post), Riverside Center is exactly the sort of sprawling, ostentatiously mediocre mega-development that we at gbNYC disdain the most. While it’s hardly in the Giant Parking Lot With Glassy Luxury Condos Attached nightmare neighborhood of the floundering Domino Sugar project, Riverside Center’s sheer scope — 2,500 new apartments, 210,000 square feet of retail, a new school, a three-story subterranean car service center and (thank goodness!) a 250-room hotel — is not really balanced out by any of the development’s nods towards things not having to do with revenue. It’s not quite this Riverside Center, but it’s not nearly far enough from it. A less-than-impressive 12 percent of the apartments at Riverside Center have been set aside for affordable housing, and while three acres of intriguingly landscaped public space are always welcome, it’s far more indicative that this development was originally going to include a giant Costco than that it now includes a public fountain and shallow reflecting pool type thing. Extell has done its best to pitch Community Board 7 and its prospective neighbors on the benefits of Riverside Center — and does have Pritzker Prize-winning architect Christian de Portzamparc on board to class up the designs — but this sort of ambitious development is increasingly a tough sell even outside of Manhattan’s fussiest neighborhood. Extell’s most recent (and scaled-back) design for Riverside Center doesn’t seem to be getting a much friendlier reception than the old Tampa-style terraforming. What’s unique, and perhaps uniquely UWS about the resistance to the plan, is that groups like Community Board 7 and Coalition for a Livable Upper West Side are asking that Extell make Riverside Center LEED-certified, the Westside Independent’s Avi Salzman reports.
Curbed snarks that “the most damning critiques could be those coming from people who say the whole thing reeks of Battery Park City,” which is certainly a risk when a developer attempts to put a freaking neighborhood where a parking lot used to be. But what’s interesting here is how problematic it has become that Riverside Center isn’t quite Battery Park City enough — mass transit access will be negligible, especially with the news that a planned Metro-North station near the development isn’t happening, and Riverside Center’s buildings themselves are as pallid and un-green as can be. Battery Park City is artificial and spookily un-New York in many ways — it has a freaking Applebee’s in it, people! — but it’s also home to such ultra-green residential developments as The Riverhouse and The Visionaire and even a LEED Gold branch of the New York Public Library. Riverside Center, in place of all that, is offering a couple hundred of units of affordable housing and a Pep Boys. You don’t have to be an Upper West Sider to scoff at that.