Building a new subway line in age with stringent requirements about station and tunnel security and accessibility is a trying affair. No matter how involved the affected community is with the project, someone is bound to find something they don’t like. For the MTA along Second Ave., they’ve faced their fair share of complaints as Upper East Siders have bemoaned entrances at 96th St. and 72nd St. as well as ventilation structures up and down the avenue. Yet again, the auxiliary structures are coming under fire.
While some residents have sued the MTA over updated designs to these structures, others believe the MTA has missed an opportunity to beautify and develop the above-ground area on top of the Second Ave. Subway. Had the Authority better designed the auxiliary structure, the Upper East Side could have seen more affordable housing and nicer buildings, says Richard Bass, a lawyer representing one Second Ave. co-op in discussions with the MTA.
In the Real Estate section in today’s Times, Terry Pristin goes in depth on this issue. Did the MTA, she asks, adequately integrate these buildings into the neighborhood? Few seem to think so, and many, she writes, view these buildings as “a missed opportunity or an unwelcome industrial intrusion into a residential neighborhood, or both.” Bass suggested that the MTA could have taken advantage of New York’s air rights laws to build above their auxiliar structures, but the Authority has instead chosen an austere look.
The agency, reticent to speak because of the pending lawsuits, answered some questions about the above-ground decisions. Pristin reports:
Kevin Ortiz, an M.T.A. spokesman, said by e-mail that the agency had worked with developers on both the 97th Street site, where the Century Lumber Corporation once stood, and on 72nd Street, the longtime home of Falk Drug and Surgical Supplies. Plans for 72nd Street, where the site measures 75 feet by 75 feet, were scuttled because “in order for a development to work, additional property would have had to be acquired, which we couldn’t justify as a transportation use,” he said.
On 97th Street, “M.T.A. Real Estate worked very long and hard to make it work, but in the end the developer lost interest,” he said.
In a subsequent e-mail, Aaron Donovan, another M.T.A. spokesman, said the developers that the agency had consulted owned the sites. Mr. Donovan said the agency had not issued requests for proposals from developers “because we didn’t own the properties,” which were acquired through eminent domain. According to the M.T.A., only the 97th Street site, which measures 100 feet by 125 feet, is large enough to accommodate a residential development. The M.T.A. also would not say why it did not consult a second developer for that site.
In addition to the visual elements and seemingly missed opportunities to allow for residential development, other urban land-use experts have questioned whether the MTA is maximizing its opportunities while minimizing costs. The Authority hasn’t successfully worked with real estate developers on plans that would help defray costs as new subway construction raises land values and rents. The same can be said of the lack of a station stop at 41st St. and 10th Ave. along the 7 extension. “The MTA does not think of its real estate as either an investment opportunity or a development opportunity,” Julia Vitullo-Martin of the RAP said to The Times. While a bit hyperbolic, the MTA’s real estate planning has often worked against and not with the neighborhoods serviced by new subway routes.
Not all is lost however along Second Ave. The auxiliary structures may be monolithic, and they might not appear to fit the character of the neighborhood, as the MTA claimed they would in the SAS Environmental Impact Statements. Civitas, the Upper East Side civic group, has long questioned the aesthetic impact these buildings will have, and the MTA defends that on grounds of lower maintenance costs. But Civitas was succcessful in convincing the MTA to include 360 square feet of real estate at 69th St. and 240 at 72nd St., says Pristin. At least the avenue won’t face too many windowless ventilation walls as some side streets in Midtown do.
It’s no easy task to build subways through neighborhoods that are replete with 80- and 90-year-old buildings, and the MTA seems to be learning this the hard way. One day, in a decade, we’ll view these structures with the same disregard with give every MTA substation, but those who live next to them might see them as lost opportunities to better a neighborhood soon to enjoy the benefits of a subway line running through it.