The timing is appropriate, what with Tribeca’s tallest building restarting construction as early as next week: A new neighborhood group, Tribeca Trust, aims to “mobilize residents and civic resources so as to preserve our neighborhood’s historic scale and to protect and enhance its architectural character, quality of life, economic vitality, and sense of place.” The mission statement goes on to list these activities:
• Educate the public about Tribeca’s history and architectural heritage;
• Promote good stewardship of Tribeca’s historic districts, the expansion of their boundaries, and the strengthening of rules that protect them;
• Convene meetings to deepen public discussion over the planning, development and restoration of particular lots, buildings, blocks, streets, and storefronts—within and adjacent to Tribeca;
• Collaborate with like-minded organizations and individuals on issues that affect Tribeca and other similar neighborhoods beyond;
• Provide opportunities for residents of all ages to participate in various aspects of the mission;
• Raise funds for these activities as needed;
• Any other activities consistent with the organization’s mission.
Its driving force is Lynn Ellsworth, who founded Friends of Duane Park and ran it for six years. We met a couple of months ago to discuss the organization, and now that it’s going public—with a family walking tour next week (more on that in a minute)—we got together again yesterday at Josephine. “It was the demolishing of the Marine Midland Bank at Chambers and W. Broadway that really woke me up,” she says. “I felt terrible about it. Finally, I said, ‘Enough is enough.’” As an economist who consults for think tanks—before that, she worked in foreign aid—and a mother, she needed some time to get the project off the ground. But now she’s ready to move. “I shouldn’t even mention this, but you know those tiny parking lots on Sixth Avenue?” she said. “They could be a string of parks—or something. Whoever owns them just needs the right tax incentive to sell.” Board members include Hal Bromm, Don Harding, Alison Greenberg, Susan Singh, Alex Neil, Tracy Ransom, Charles Wolf, Jill Cunniffe, and Deborah Allen; Oliver Allen is on the advisory committee.
Her immediate need is people: “You could be a graphic designer or a fundraiser, knowledgeable about zoning or good at Facebook. Or whatever! I may not know what you can do until we talk. We don’t simply need soldiers. We’re a big tent, open to ideas.” You can email Lynn at email@example.com.
The family walking tour is Saturday, Oct. 20, at 2 p.m. From the press release: “Families are invited to join historic preservationist and Tribeca Trust board member, Susan Singh, for a free walking tour highlighting some of Tribeca’s most beautiful architectural gems and interesting historic sites. Take a closer look and explore the neighborhood’s commercial and industrial past and learn about the history and origins of cast iron facades. Tour will [...] last approximately 2 hours. (Raindate Sunday, October 21, at 2 p.m.) Meet at the southeast corner of Chambers and Broadway, wearing comfortable shoes. Family tour is appropriate for ages 10 and up and will be limited to 20 participants. To reserve a spot, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.” (From Singh’s bio: “Susan Singh has practiced structural engineering and historic preservation, primarily investigating and repairing high-rise building facades. [...] Currently she is developing an educational outreach program called Downtown Heritage for elementary school students. Through visual lessons, physical artifacts, walking tours and hands-on projects she aims to develop students’ appreciation of the rich architectural history and unique sense of place in downtown Manhattan.”)
Finally, if you’re wondering why such a group might be necessary, here’s Tribeca Trust’s background statement. (Full disclosure: I was among the people who suggested edits.)
Tribeca is a desirable place to live, work and visit in large part because of the historic character and scale of its architecture. Twenty years ago, Tribeca residents helped preserve that scale and character by pressing the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) to designate Tribeca as a single, large historic district.
LPC instead designated four separate districts. Although this was a victory by any measure, important parts of our neighborhood were left out of these districts. Moreover, zoning rules have allowed new towers to press in on the very borders of our old blocks. Poorly designed infill construction has also insulted many a block’s historic character. Slowly but surely, huge buildings and inappropriate rooftop additions box us in and darken our streets.
Over-scaled development puts intense pressure on Tribeca’s infrastructure: side streets become thoroughfares, traffic clogs, noise from commercial equipment worsens, and the lurid signage of chain stores dominate the streetscape. Inevitably, the area’s inadequate public spaces fray and become overcrowded and Tribeca’s distinctive sense of place suffers steady erosion. The situation raises many questions. When is the tipping point when Tribeca is lost beneath gigantic towers? How can new construction be planned and designed so as to honor instead of bury our history?
If we want Tribeca’s historic character and scale to remain, residents must act. A new organization is one way to do so. It must seek to mobilize residents and civic resources to preserve and enhance the quality of life and historic character of Tribeca. Moreover, it should do so with a forward-looking vision of how development might occur. The opportunities for an agenda with such a vision are many. The historic districts merit expansion. And while infill construction may be inevitable, what exactly gets built matters hugely to our existing scale and character. Many small parking lots and “public plaza amenities” are also ripe for redesign so as to bring them into the streetscape of the historic districts and to create beautiful public spaces. And of course, zoning within and adjacent to the historic districts should be restructured so as to better protect what we have.
Bringing good ideas to the table for these opportunities as well as raising awareness of the value of what is already here requires a new organization that mobilizes our civic resources. It should be one that develops into a credible interlocutor before city agencies, our politicians, and our community board. To succeed in the long run, this new organization must also build a sense of ownership of our own neighborhood, an awareness of what makes it unique, and a sense of stewardship of the historic districts that are its core. It cannot only look to preserve specific buildings or blocks under threat. It also needs a development vision that respects our history while using it as a building block for the future.