New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

New York Times Towers Crowd Yorkville by Joseph Burger

Towers Crowd Yorkville

Almost every week, Jeremy Schaller gets a call from a developer who wants to buy the two unremarkable four-story buildings that house Schaller and Weber, a German sausage and sauerkraut landmark on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

One developer even offered him $24 million, almost quadruple the market value of both buildings.

The developers, Mr. Schaller and preservationists believe, want to demolish the buildings and add another soaring tower to the Yorkville neighborhood landscape that historically was composed of working-class walk-ups and mom-and-pop shops, though dappled with expensive terraced high-rises of more modest scale.

But Mr. Schaller has turned every offer down, even those that promised he could reopen the store in the proposed tower.

“This store is iconic and its aesthetic would be compromised if we knocked down the buildings,” said Mr. Schaller, 40, the third generation of Schallers to run the shop.

Other building owners, however, have been unable to resist such offers, and so the neighborhood where Mr. Schaller’s store has long sat is rapidly disappearing.

The relentless march of tall buildings that has spread across New York has overtaken Yorkville, as the Second Avenue subway, the city’s newest transit line, attracts new settlers and makes the neighborhood particularly enticing to developers.

A dozen glass towers with prices or rents as lavish as their amenities have opened in the past five years or are nearing completion in a neighborhood once celebrated for its homespun immigrant Middle and Eastern European character. Some of the buildings soar to 50 and 60 floors, far higher than the 20- or 30-story high-rises that residents are accustomed to.

Another dozen building projects have started construction or are on the drawing boards.

As a result, longtime residents see a neighborhood that took shape in the last decades of the 19th century receding and shrinking.

Most of the descendants of the German, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak immigrants who found work in the breweries and cigar plants are long gone. So are all but a handful of the restaurants and shops that served those families — places like Paprikas Weiss, once the Hungarian Zabar’s, and Glaser’s Bake Shop, celebrated for its black-and-white cookies. 

The neighborhood’s boundaries are sometimes debated, but Yorkville is generally thought to stretch from 72nd or 79th Streets to 96th Street between Lexington or Third Avenues and the East River. But it still retained a distinctive small-scale charm, and neighborliness that urban thinkers like Jane Jacobs prized.

In recent decades, the walk-ups and other low-rise buildings have provided homes for newly minted college graduates, young families, older pensioners and strivers from the country’s heartland. They were willing to wash their clothes in a coin laundromat. They appreciated shoe-repair shops, fishmongers and diners whose workers they got to know.

Now the neighborhood is losing what Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the Municipal Art Society, a preservation group, calls its “sense of place.”

Margaret Price, who has lived in the neighborhood since the early 1980s, said the new towers erased Yorkville’s singular character.

“We could be living anywhere now,’’ she said, “and you can’t distinguish it from any other place.”

The administration of Mayor Bill DeBlasio, however, believes it must put a priority on maximizing housing as the city’s population mushrooms toward an anticipated 9 million and the homeless population swells. Several towers, officials said, have 20 percent or more of their apartments set aside for low- and modest-income families.

“In the face of a widespread housing shortage, we must not impose restrictions preventing high-opportunity, transit- and service-rich neighborhoods like this one, adjacent to the nation’s largest jobs center, from doing their fair share to address the housing needs of New Yorkers,” Melissa Grace, a spokeswoman for the Department of City Planning, said in a statement.

One of the city’s leading developers, Gary Barnett, who completed a nearly 400-foot building on Third Avenue in Yorkville and is planning three more tall towers in the neighborhood, said new buildings must be high because land is Manhattan is finite and expensive.

“Would you have a New York City that doesn’t build anymore?” he said. “People move in and say no more development, but is this what you want? We’re a city of eight million people. We’re not a little village.”

Much of the grumbling, Mr. Barnett added, is driven by “wealthy Upper East Siders who want to keep everybody else out.”

Still, preservationists and other critics say that what is happening in Yorkville is also happening in Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, Crown Heights and the Lower East Side, gradually erasing features that make each neighborhood distinct. 

“Everyone in the city who cares about the cultural identity of their neighborhood should be watching Yorkville as a warning sign,” said City Councilman Ben Kallos, a grandson of Jewish Hungarian immigrants whose district includes Yorkville. “The last thing a residential neighborhood needs is more glass towers for billionaires.”

The new buildings are replacing apartments in walk-ups and townhouses that were affordable because they were rent regulated, said Mr. Kallos who is working on legislation to require buildings over 210 feet to include affordable apartments with preferences given to current neighborhood residents.

Mr. Barnett, however, contended that most of the walk-ups on the avenues had been emptied by small landlords seeking to sell to developers and that many buildings, including his, contain apartments that sell below market rate to make them more affordable.

The debate in Yorkville is also playing out in many American cities that are grappling with a housing shortage as neighborhoods fight new housing plans by complaining of increased traffic, blocked views and overburdened services. To accelerate development, Minneapolis, for example, recently eliminated zoning that restricted land to single-family homes.

In Yorkville, Alida Camp, the chairwoman of the local community board, says that the neighborhood’s “shared sense of community” is fast disappearing, and that the area is becoming a “more anonymous neighborhood.” 

“For me personally, it’s like watching New York melt,” she said.

The ever-taller architecture is certainly transforming the neighborhood’s look. “The sky is disappearing,” said Irene Merbo, a retired nursing administrator who was born in the neighborhood in 1933.

But some urban experts say new glass towers reinvigorate neighborhoods.

“Yorkville had to change as Manhattan is becoming even more of a magnet for people to live and work here,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban planning at New York University. “What makes New York different from other cities is that we’re constantly replenishing our population and reinventing ourselves. Cities that stand still are dying.”

Most of the new development is being spurred by the 2017 opening of the Second Avenue subway, whose three new stations and one renovated junction shortened walks to and from Yorkville’s eastern stretches and eased crowding on the nearby Lexington Avenue lines, among the nation’s most congested.

Most of the mid-blocks are protected by zoning limits of six and seven stories, so almost all the new construction is taking place along the avenues — First, Second, Third and York.

Those avenues are chock a block with five- and six-story buildings whose railroad apartments and one-bedrooms have provided housing for generations of modest-income workers like David Rosenstein, who works in public relations and lives in a Second Avenue railroad apartment.

“For me the only question is what do we do with the people who are displaced,” he said.

One building in the neighborhood that has generated controversy stretches over 520 feet, a height the developer achieved by inserting a 15-story mechanical void — space for systems like air conditioning and water pumps that builders have taken advantage of to build higher. An even taller 68-story building is planned along Yorkville’s northern border.

A stroll through the neighborhood reveals several rows of long-vacant stores, a telltale sign not only of fading retail in the age of Amazon, but — as has proved the case in many parts of the city — of a developer closing down businesses to assemble a footprint for another tower.

Curiously, Mr. Schaller, 40, has found that business actually picked up more than 20 percent after the Second Avenue subway spurred new construction, with more deep-pocketed residents spending more on his selection of 100 German beers, cured hams and European cheeses.

“It’s good for business,” he said, “but the neighborhood has lost a lot of its community feel.


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