The Saga of a Ventilation Shaft: An Allegory for New Construction

A small, diagonal pocket park lies at the intersection of Seventh and Greenwich Avenues in the West Village. Its name: Mulry Square. Not many people know of it apart from the locals who walk their dogs, run, or pass by it on their way to work every day. Yet this small triangle of green is now a lighting rod of controversy thanks to New York City’s beloved Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Underneath this stretch runs one of the city’s busiest subway lines, carrying the 1, 2, and 3 between 14th Street and Christopher Street stations. For safety reasons, the MTA needs to build a ventilation shaft and emergency exit, and Mulry Square is the only empty lot where this is possible. Unfortunately, the park sits at the dead center of Manhattan’s largest historic district.

While the MTA actually owns the parcel of land, its status as a historic property means that anything built on it will require the authorization of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Committee. Add that to the continuing negative response from citizens and agencies across the city and the MTA has itself a fiasco on its hands.

That’s all great, but what does it have to do with real estate in Manhattan? The simple answer is that this is the same fight that has discouraged new residential construction from taking place in historic districts, perhaps the most desirable areas in New York City in which to live. Because so many neighborhoods in Manhattan are now protected through landmark and historic ordinances, developers must travel elsewhere if they are to avoid the long and complex process of approval through a number of agencies as well as dealing with city residents. In some ways, this is the intent of the preservationist movement: by deterring new development, the existing character of a neighborhood remains, in essence freezing the area in time.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this thought process, and it has saved some of the city’s most treasured neighborhoods from what could be irreversable destruction. But as development creeps outwards to places such as Clinton, Yorkville, or the far reaches of Upper Manhattan -- all of which are great and up-and-coming neighborhoods and none of which have particularly great subway connections to the city's scenter -- it seems increasingly difficult not to ask whether the system the problem. While lamenting the city's painfully sluggish, sclerotic bureacracy is hardly a new tack, successful re-zoning efforts in Chelsea (and another promising re-zoning gambit in Tribeca) are proof that it's possible to build in, or at least near, historic districts while maintaining the integrity of these areas.

And while more Manhattan condo listings are obviously a good thing for those of us here at New Construction Manhattan, making it easier to develop in Manhattan's historic neighborhoods makes a bigger, broader and deeper sort of sense. After all, increasing housing and reducing prices helps all New Yorkers and boosts the city’s real estate, construction, and development industries. That we could use that at economic times such as these is undeniable, but given the demand for Manhattan apartments -- and the limited amount of physical real estate on this little island of ours -- it would make sense if the city saw it fit to increase the supply of Manhattan apartments. You'd think New York's mogul/CEO in chief would agree.