Will Success Spoil Astor Place?

51 Astor Place
Rob Menzer

Tony Rosenthal's black cube continues to attract stoners and skateboarders to the center of Astor Place. But the sleek new structures surrounding the famed rotating sculpture — The Standard Hotel and the condominium Sculpture for Living, each 21 stories high and sheathed in reflective glass; and the Cooper Union's irregularly shaped, aluminum-and-glass-sheathed academic building — overshadow the longstanding slacker meeting place both literally and symbolically.

Perhaps most divisive of all is starchitect Fumihiko Maki's 51 Astor Place, which in January attracted anchor tenant IBM, seeking a new home for Watson, the artificial-intelligence system that made headlines in 2011 when it defeated all-time Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings. New York architectural critic Justin Davidson calls Maki's glass-clad, 13-story structure "a brooding, elegant, sharply folded office building that would be the pride of midtown and looks utterly foreign to the East Village."

Locals have dubbed it the Death Star.

"We pushed very hard against 51 Astor Place," says Andrew Berman, longtime head of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. "We hope this doesn't become the defining characteristic of the neighborhood's character."

What exactly does define the neighborhood? In a press release, IBM places its new downtown digs "in the heart of New York City's Silicon Alley." It may never overtake Chelsea, which is dominated by Google's 2.9-million-square-foot East Coast headquarters (and Twitter, outbid for 51 Astor Place, around the corner). But with Facebook, AOL, Huffington Post, and a host of smaller startups nearby, Astor Place has become a tech hub.

Like many other companies relocating to city centers, IBM realized that young programmers, marketers, and designers won't come to work at isolated suburban campuses. Ensconcing Watson at 51 Astor Place embodies IBM's ambitious attempt to reinvent itself from the jacket-and-tie conformity of Big Blue, a stodgy, lumbering tech giant, into an innovative workplace that welcomes soul patches and tongue piercings.

"The millennial generation gets this. They understand what this is," Michael Rhodin, the new head of Watson, told the Associated Press. "This is a departure. It's a statement on our part."

That meant breaking out of the cocoon of its Armonk headquarters deep in the heart of Westchester County. "IBM is known as a company that serves big clients," notes Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University. "It's been a sleeping giant. But IBM has not flourished in Armonk. If they stayed, they were afraid they were going to become another Kodak."

Location is everything for high-tech companies, says Jonathan Wasserstrum, CEO of TheSquareFoot, a commercial real estate agency. "They recruit based on a cool location and cool building," Wasserstrum tells the Voice. "It's much easier to recruit young people to work here than in midtown."

Some observers, though, wonder whether a glitzy building whose granite lobby is dominated by a three-ton Jeff Koons sculpture of a red rabbit might have the opposite of its intended effect: Will IBM's presence turn the area into what young techies don't want?

"These companies were attracted for certain characteristics," Berman says. "In doing so, they build things that destroy the very things that they were attracted to. There's a tremendous irony in wanting to partake in the hip nature of a neighborhood and then importing a little bit of midtown."

"The IBM building was marketed as the commercial district coming south," adds Sara Romanoski, head of the East Village Community Coalition. "It clearly stands out. They want to be in this place for a reason. So we hope they respect the qualities that attracted them here."

A short walk down Broadway from Astor Place, 9 Bleecker Street is emblematic of where the neighborhood has been — and where it's headed. Known since 2007 as the Yippie Museum Café, the rundown four-story former Yippie headquarters also hosted meetings of the National AIDS Brigade and Occupy Wall Street and was a major catalyst in the marijuana-legalization movement.

On January 17, after a judge placed the building in foreclosure, volunteers were busy moving underground newspapers, placards, and other memorabilia accumulated over a half-century of countercultural insurgency into a cramped storage unit. Alice Torbush, who was living upstairs, packed up her possessions, as well those belonging to Dana Beal, who was serving time in a Nebraska jail on a marijuana-trafficking charge.

Beal was soon to be paroled, but he harbors no illusions that the world hasn't changed. "Dana was aware of the area's gentrification," Noah Potter, Beal's lawyer contesting the foreclosure, tells the Voice. "It certainly played a part in the pressure on people who were not looking to maximize the space for commercial purposes."

Even as Potter continues to battle on the legal front, the Corcoran Group has already begun marketing 9 Bleecker as "old world charm ready for a new world establishment" — at $25,000 a month.

For Astor Place and its environs, the handwriting has long been on the wall. Unlike San Francisco, where protestors pelted rocks at Google's commuter buses, there have been no demonstrations against the glittering newcomers to Astor Place. Most anti-gentrification protesters have been priced out of the area. In the wake of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot, then-Mayor David Dinkins closed the park and upgraded it. Since then, buildings that once bore "Die yuppie scum" graffiti have been torn down or renovated. Today the starting price for studios in a new condo tower is $850,000 ($2.49 million for a two-bedroom penthouse). For $3,370 a month, you can rent a modest studio in the building where actress Anne Hathaway lived.

In 2010, the Cooper Union hosted a forum featuring punk icon Patti Smith in its Great Hall. In the auditorium where Abraham Lincoln launched himself toward the presidency with an anti-slavery oration, Smith advised young people to "find a new city." New York, she said, "has closed itself off to the young and struggling."

If IBM had hoped its new location would give it the aura of a hip startup, Moss wryly notes, the computer colossus is "already a generation too late." Most of the action has shifted to Brooklyn neighborhoods like DUMBO. "There's a vast young population living off the F and L trains," he tells the Voice. "There's so much talent and activity across the river."

Except that Brooklyn has fallen to the same developmental pressures. As pioneering EDM DJ and musician Moby noted in an op-ed last month in the U.K. Guardian, creative types, having been priced out of Manhattan, have long been "moving farther and farther east, with many parts of Brooklyn even becoming too pricey."

IBM's 2,000 new employees may not notice the profound changes. They may well revel in "being part of the other creative companies in the area and that 24/7 vibe" that Paul Glickman, the leasing agent for 51 Astor Place, recently touted to the New York Observer. What they won't find is the same rundown but welcoming city that could nurture a Patti Smith or Dana Beal.

"It's great that they've discovered Lower Manhattan," Moss says of the new tech arrivals. Unlike Berman and Romanoski, however, he believes Astor Place has passed the tipping point. "My feeling is that that area's housing has already been transformed," he says. "They're not going to change the area, because it's already changed dramatically."

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