Black-Car Blight


Every community activist feels that his neighborhood has too much of something. Too many strip clubs. Too many curb cuts. Too many liquor stores. Too many warehouses. In Battery Park City, circa 2006, the problem just happens to be a little more upscale—too many Lincoln Town Cars.

Call it black-car blight.

To wit: Paul Goldstein, the district manager of the local community board, says that he regularly fields phone calls from Battery Park residents who are fed up with the unseemly sight of so many seemly vehicles.

“In the evening hours, we end up with loads of these vehicles staging all over the district,” says Goldstein. “We get complaints about them. Now that we have more and more residents in the neighborhood, they are not thrilled with these vehicles popping up everywhere.”

Linda Belfer, the chair of the community board’s Battery Park City committee, can readily tick off a list of the black-car transgressions. They double park. Triple park. Congest the streets. Run their engines. Pollute the sky. Park illegally. Block emergency vehicle routes.

The problem, she believes, stems in part from lackluster enforcement. “Periodically the police come down and try and rectify the problem,” says Belfer. “Since 9-11 there has been a lot of police presence down here. Unfortunately, those police who were dispatched down here are here for security reasons and not for black-car problems.”

Every work night, the clusters of black cars congregate at certain predictable spots, including Vesey Street (outside Merrill Lynch and American Express), Wall Street (outside Deutsche Bank), and Liberty Plaza (outside of Scotia Bank, the bank of Nova Scotia). In short, anywhere there are bankers.

Over the years, residents in and around the financial district have become well versed in the symbiotic nature of bankers and black cars. Recently, they have even started playing a kind of black-car defense against the neighboring financial institutions. This past January, for instance, the residents of Battery Park City scored a preemptive strike against black cars at the site of the future Goldman Sachs headquarters.

At the moment, that particular parcel of land on West Street about a block north of the World Financial Center remains little more than a torn-up patch of rubble. But by 2009 or 2010, Goldman Sachs executives hope to have completed construction of a sleek, 43-story tower.

While the brass at Goldman Sachs see their plans as a commitment to the future of a neighborhood recently scarred by terrorism, some Battery Park City residents see in the building’s footprint something else—2,100,000 square feet of black-car customers. As a result, this past January members of Community Board 1 passed a resolution, 36-1, demanding that the developers “put into place a black-car management plan that seeks to minimize the impact of black cars in the residential neighborhood to the north.” Goldman Sachs agreed to the deal.

The architect for the planned building is Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, a New York–based firm that is currently designing the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. So how will the designers responsible for canonizing the most beloved automobiles of the American South minimize the impact of the least beloved auto
mobiles of Lower Manhattan? Representatives of the firm referred questions to Goldman Sachs.

Peter Rose, Goldman Sachs spokesperson, says the plan to reduce black-car stagnation outside the new headquarters will be based on the model already in place at their current headquarters, down island.

Rose recalls that when Goldman Sachs’ current building first opened its doors at 85 Broad Street in the early ’80s, there were few residents in the surrounding neighborhood. Ditto for black cars.

That began to change in the mid ’80s, when the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission began removing the radio systems from yellow cabs, instead putting them in a new class of non-medallion sedans. Subsequently, yellow cabs would only pick up street passengers. Black cars would pick up customers by appointment only. From the get-go, Wall Street loved the black cars. By 1987 more than 6,000 were reportedly roaming around town.

At the same time, more and more residential buildings were popping up in the financial district. By the late 1990s both residents and black cars had swelled in number. Thanks to the boom on Wall Street, black cars were in much demand. So too, downtown lofts. In 1998, residents began complaining about an armada of black cars stacking up every night outside of Goldman Sachs. Recalls district manager Goldstein: “They had black cars backing up all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge.”

After some back-and-forth, Goldman Sachs and its neighbors worked out an agreement, one that is still in place today. According to Rose, any Goldman Sachs employee who works after 9 p.m. is still entitled to a free ride home. But these days, rather than lingering outside, the black cars wait nearby in a parking garage until summoned by a team of dispatchers. As a result, according to Rose, there are seldom more than a handful of black cars out front at any one time. “We’ll do the same thing at the new building,” says Rose. “It’s not very difficult.”

At least in theory. In practice, negotiating garage space in Lower Manhattan can be tricky. And the effectiveness of the plan seems to depend on the hour. For instance, at around 9:15 on a recent evening, there were only three or four black cars in line outside of Goldman Sachs, as promised. But a few hours earlier, around 7:30, when downtown garages tend to be more crowded, there were roughly 20 black cars idling in the vicinity.

In general, a lack of vigilance on the part of financial institutions, which are ostensibly committed to reducing black-car blight, is a common quandary, says Battery Park City resident Belfer. “Sometimes there is a lull in the problem,” says Belfer. “Then it starts up again.”

On a recent Tuesday night, local resident Jim Vail is out walking his dogs alongside the esplanade in Battery Park City. As he strolls along the empty sidewalks, he passes a black Lincoln Town Car, idling at the curb. A few steps later, he passes another. Then another, and another.

At roughly the same time, a few hundred feet away, a Town Car pulls up in front of the Merrill Lynch headquarters on the north side of the World Financial Center. From there, the caravan of black cars stretches back down the block, past a movie theater, around a corner, past a hotel, around another corner, past the Irish Hunger Memorial, around one final corner, and past the tree where Vail’s dog has just taken a whiz.

Vail hardly seems to notice the 50 or so Town Cars, the smattering of well-tinted SUVs, and two stretch limousines. Just part of the backdrop of Battery Park City. “They could be more observant of stop signs,” says Vail. “Otherwise I don’t think they’re doing much harm.”

Ultimately, the invisible hand of the marketplace may have a greater impact on the fate of man and black car in and around the financial district than the outcry of neighbors less sanguine than Vail. In the aftermath of the ’87 stock market crash, for instance, many black- car companies simply went belly-up.

But for the time being, the market is riding high, and so are the black cars. “No question about it, it’s been a good year,” says Neil Weiss, the editor and publisher of Black Car News. “Business is thriving. They’ve got more work than they have drivers.”

Weiss, for one, believes that the people who are bothered by black cars could use a little perspective. After all, it wasn’t long ago in the history of Lower Manhattan that residents were grappling with how to get rid of dead horses rather than lively Lincolns.

“They’re seeing too many black Lincoln Town Cars riding around,” says Weiss. “That bothers them? I don’t understand that. Maybe they’re riding around in $70,000 cars rather than $40,000 cars. Maybe Town Cars are low-grade for them?”