New York’s transit agency blows opportunity to build housing above its new subway line

Philip Langdon, New Urban Network

On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, home to some of the world’s most expensive real estate, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is letting building sites go to waste.

The MTA is currently constructing the $4.45 billion first phase of the long-awaited Second Avenue subway — a section that’s scheduled to open in 2018, running from 96th Street to 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue.

Unlike mass transit lines in some parts of the country, the Second Avenue subway will be in an area that’s been densely populated for decades. Hordes of riders will come and go from its stations. Consequently, there’s consternation in New York over the MTA’s failure to plan for urbanistically appropriate buildings at three corner sites along the route — on 97th Street, 72nd Street, and 69th Street.

The New York Times reported Sept. 1 that at those three sites, the MTA expects to put up “ancillary buildings” just five to eight stories high, containing little more than ventilation equipment for the subway. Real estate specialists say the MTA’s proposed structures “represent a missed opportunity or an unwelcome industrial intrusion into a residential neighborhood, or both,” The Times reported in an article available here.

On each of the three corners, Richard Bass, a planning specialist, says the MTA should have worked with developers to erect taller buildings containing apartments. Bass said taller apartment buildings “would have been more in character” with the area, would have helped meet a need for moderately priced housing, and could have garnered money from developers to help pay for the cost of the subway structures.

The agency argues that the sites are too cramped. The land at 72nd Street measures only 75 by 75 feet, so “additional property would have had to be acquired, which we couldn’t justify as a transportation use,” said Ken Ortiz, an MTA representative. The agency claims it did make an effort — which failed — to get residential development on the 97th Street site, which measures 100 by 125 feet.

Developers are disappointed. “It does sound like a missed opportunity,” said developer Douglas Durst. On a small site, the MTA could have worked with developers who could have sought development rights (known as “air rights”) from smaller adjacent residential buildings, Bass told The Times. The ventilation equipment could have been fitted into the structures.

“The MTA does not think of its real estate as either an investment opportunity or a development opportunity,” said Julia Vitullo-Martin, director of the Center for Urban Innovation at the Region Plan Association.

As designed by DMJM + Harris and Arup, the MTA’s proposed buildings will be aesthetically lackluster. The six-story structure proposed for 72nd Street and Second Avenue is basically a box — shorter than neighboring buildings and horizontally proportioned, in contrast to the neighbors’ verticality. Ortiz said the MTA chose the style so that the public would recognize the buildings as industrial — bizarre reasoning unless you subscribe to the hoary modernist doctrine about the necessity of “truth” in building. That reasoning overlooks all that’s been learned about the importance of reinforcing the character of places and about helping urban settings fulfill their potential.

Even a justice in Federal District Court couldn’t restrain himself from scoffing at the MTA’s argument that the proposed structure at 69th Street — object of a lawsuit by a neighboring co-op — would blend in with its surroundings. “You’re asking me to suspend my common sense,” Justice William H. Pauley said when that argument was made.

After all the progress that’s been made on transit-oriented development in the past several years, it’s mind-boggling that the transit agency in America’s largest city would behave in such an anti-urban manner.