By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In this city of contrasts, among the most remarkable is the one between Eighth Avenue from 42nd to 57th streets and the six blocks of Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem. Eighth Avenue is lined with glass-and-steel towers and jammed with stores, restaurants, and traffic. Pleasant Avenue, which runs between 114th and 120th streets east of First Avenue, is a swath of old tenements and bodegas surrounded by quiet dead-end side streets (some are cobblestone), and is home to federal-style houses and community gardens.
But for a moment late last month, the two avenues seemed intertwined. On July 21, City Planning Commissioner Joe Rose stunned a developer, an audience, and even some fellow commissioners when he abruptly closed a public hearing on a plan for East River Plaza, a proposed 508,000-plus-square-foot, $150 million megadevelopment to be anchored by a massive 24-hour Home Depot and a Costco store at the site of an abandoned wire factory along FDR Drive. Just as the developer's architect offered to take questions at the end of a lengthy presentation, Rose stopped him in his tracks.
"We've got scale, traffic interaction, and aesthetic issues here that are significant enough to warrant some considerable discussion and reworking," said the commissioner. "Each of these issues has not been addressed acceptably . . . and it's not possible . . . to have a high degree of comfort that this is a project that . . . can work." Rose held a second public hearing last week where developer Tiago Holdings LLC offered some design changes. At press time, the planning commission was holding a special session to continue the review; it must vote on the project by September 8.
Rose's July move was a surprise coming from the prodevelopment chair, who, like Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is a proponent of big-box stores. Rose's reservations about East River Plaza may have been underscored by state supreme court judge William McCooe's stinging June 29 ruling that Rose and Giuliani had failed to do necessary environmental reviews last year when they and the City Council revised the zoning rules governing Eighth Avenue. That revision, intended to accommodate Times Square theater owners and midtown developers, came after a bruising battle with West Side residents. The city is expected to appeal McCooe's decision.
Rose's remarks were especially surprising given the political momentum behind the development: It is one of the few ventures backed by both the mayor and Governor George Pataki and, in fact, is being sponsored and partly funded by Pataki's powerful Empire State Development corporation (ESD). Rose joined the pols at the hulking Washburn Wire plant (along the west side of the FDR between 116th and 119th streets) to announce the East River plan in March 1998; the factory has been idle since 1982. At the second public hearing, Rose continued to caution that while "there is a great amount of political enthusiasm for this project, it also needs careful scrutiny." If Rose's commission approves East River Plaza, it will be sent on to the City Council for a vote.
With plans for more than 3300 cars, buses, and taxis (and a cabstand that can handle 100 vehicles an hour) each weekday, and more than 1000 additional vehicles on the weekend, East River Plaza would require altering the FDR. That would not address the increase in commercial trucks and trailers, which are banned from the FDR and would be forced onto local streets. Overall, the plan would virtually rebuild a six-acre site. Home Depot officials expect the store to be among the nation's top grossers.
The project's promise of up to 2000 jobs has apparently made the megamall irresistible to every East Harlem pol and many members of this relatively impoverished community, including those who were bused to last week's public hearing and given free lunch during the five-hour session. As local chamber of commerce president James Sanchez put it, "For too long, Washburn has been a sign of contempt for the people of East Harlem."
But not everyone is biting. "The fact is, there might be jobs, but jobs will also be lost," says William Minic, who has run his custom cabinetmaking shop on East 117th Street for 22 years. His owns one of at least 12 properties that would be condemned by ESD to make way for the mall. "There's 144 skilled jobs among the businesses that will be condemned, and we figure 812 from peripheral businesses" that would dwindle in the shadow of Home Depot and Costco. Minic himself employs up to 20 people, including local residents he has trained as master cabinetmakers and who sign each piece they make.
Minic is especially steamed that his own property could be condemned on behalf of giant corporations. "Eminent domain is supposed to be used for the greater public good, not shopping malls and parking lots," says Minic, whose father founded the shop in 1927.
Minic makes high-end custom furniture often used in movie sets and fabricated furniture for Frank Lloyd Wright, some of which is on display at the Museum of Modern Art. Ironically, his father once worked out of a building on First Avenue at 48th Street; that property was condemned in 1953 to make way for the United Nations. And Minic's current shop is in an old parking garage he renovated. Under the East River Plaza plan, it would be demolished to accommodate a 1248-car parking structure.