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The Olmstead

Park West Village

382 Central Park West

Southwest corner at 98th Street

Olmstead

Olmstead

By Carter B. Horsley

Despite early notoriety, this large complex has survived as one of the more attractive of its kind in the city and its location adjacent to Central Park and the renaissance of the Upper West Side above 86th Street have made it quite desirable.

This 20-story, 414-unit building is one of seven red-brick slab towers that comprise the Park West Village complex that was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the famous architects of Manhattan House on the Upper East Side and Lever House on Park Avenue, among many other prominent buildings in the city. Park West Village was built by Webb & Knapp, the development company of William Zeckendorf, the legendary builder, and the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa).

One of the city's largest and most controversial "urban renewal" projects, Park West Village was initially known as Manhattantown and then West Park Apartments.

The multi-block development, which included tennis courts located at the northeast corner of Amsterdam Avenue and Ninety-Seventh Street that were managed as a private club, took more than a decade to come to fruition in 1960 and scandals relating to it ultimately led to a rethinking of the "slum clearance" programs of the era.

Webb & Knapp and S.O.M., however, were not involved in the original controversies over the development and had been brought in to rescue it in 1957.

In his book, "Public Works: A Dangerous Trade," (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970), the imperious master builder Robert Moses, who had been the City Construction Coordinator and the chairman of the city's Committee on Slum Clearance when the project was initiated, recalled that:

"The project was conceived in the spring of 1949 when seven local civic organizations joined to form the West Side Housing Committee. Later that year, the committee reported on their findings and requested action on a slum clearance and public housing project for the Bloomingdale section west of Central Park. In June of 1950, Congressman Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., whose 20th Congressional District embraced this area, started to translate the report into concrete action. Because of the high assessed valuation of the land, an initial request to the New York City Housing Authority was not granted, but a subsequent request prepared in accordance with Title I and directed to the Slum Clearance Committee was viewed favorably."

In 1951, Moses sent to the Board of Estimate a plan to clear a large Upper West Side site bounded by Central Park West, Amsterdam Avenue and 97th and 100th Streets. Part of the plan called for eliminating 98th and 99th Streets within the site and widening the north and south perimeter streets. The site had been occupied by tenements, garages and apartment buildings, many of which had become single-room-occupancy (S.R.O.) operations.

Moses eventually had 4,212 "slum" apartments on the site cleared and they were replaced by 2,662 apartments.

"When the sponsor [Caspert and Company] took possession of the area, the regulations issued by the State Rent Administrator pursuant to the Emergency Rent Laws did not authorize evictions in such situations unless the new buildings contained a greater number of housing units than presently existed. This was not the case in Manhattantown. The regulations had to be amended. But in the meantime, the sponsor was unable to proceed with its relocation and demolition activities because many tenants, knowing that Manhattantown could not remove them, refused reasonable relocation offers....Although it had been understood that it would be necessary for the FHA to insure the mortgage loans for the construction of the new buildings, the initial reaction of the FHA in May, 1953, was that it would not approve slum sites in New York City for FHA loans. The local FHA office later agreed to process an application but insisted on considering the area a slum area. This would have the effect of decreasing the amortization period, which would increase the yearly carrying charges and make the apartments more difficult to rent...," Moses wrote.

Building is part of a large complex

Building is part of a large complex

 

Some progress was made in clearing the site, but the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency hearings in 1954 revealed "that the sponsors had been indulging in questionable and petty management practices," Moses wrote, quoting one of his letters of the time that although "the petty chiseling which is going on has little relation to City and Federal write-down and the ultimate economics of projects, a very bad public impression has been created." "I don't know," he continued, "whether some of our builders can be cured of established chiseling practices, but certainly some effort should be made along this line."

The erudite Moses was never cavalier nor off-hand, but dogged, bulldozzerly and determined, an arrogant and remarkable man both in his great achievements and his major mistakes.

Manhattantown, it turned out, was plagued with corruption and despite superb investigative reporting by Gene Gleason and Fred J. Cook of the World Telegram & Sun Moses, then at the height of his incredible planning and development powers unrivaled in the city's history, was not held responsible.

The city had taken over the site in 1952 under Title 1 of the Housing Act of 1949, and before long the plan was criticized by several civic groups, including the Women's City Club, for its handling of the relocation of residents on the site.

"Manhattantown was the first massive renewal project to be scrutinized on a cost-benefit basis that took into serious consideration the plight of those living on the site," noted Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman in their book, "New York 1960," (The Monacelli Press, 1995).

"Opponents of the project," they continued, "argued that the city's current residents would not benefit from the renewal process because the...new dwelling units proposed for the seventeen twenty-story buildings [in the original plan] would not only be too expensive but would also represent a significant reduction in the amount of housing presently available on the site. It was not statistical analysis, however, but charges of rampant corruption running throughout the entire Title 1 slum clearance program in New York that compromised Manhattantown. After charges of corruption led to an investigation in the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency in the fall of 1954, Mayor Wagner banned future work for five years on Title 1 projects of all initial private participants in Manhattantown, including the architect Melvin E. Kessler of S. J. Kessler & Sons, who had taken an equity position in the development and whose fees had been misrepresented in the sponsors' public filings. Moses's deals with developers had come to reek of cronyism, and he had let Manhattantown drag on for years as the first developers milked the project by collecting rents from on-site tenants living in condemned housing, which the temporary landlords were not obliged to maintain to any decent standard. As a result of the Title 1 scandals, and those surrounding the Manhattantown project in particular, Moses and his high-handed approach began to be carefully examined in the press..."

In his exhaustive, fascinating and vitriolic book, "The Power Broker, Robert Moses And The Fall Of New York, (Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), author Robert Caro documents in great detail the history of this project:

"The Manhattantown area was a slum area. Its people were poor; the average weekly income was sixty dollars per family. Its buildings were old; there hadn't been a new building constructed in it in twenty-five years. Most of them were overcrowded with families of five or six members jammed into apartments that should have held no more than three or four, and many were dilapidated. But the area also was stable, settled, friendly....The Mayor's Slum Clearance Committee had handed over to Caspert and Company six square blocks of Manhattan real estate, worth $15,000,000, for $1,000,000....[in 1956,] Manhattantown, Inc., whose tax arrears had now topped $600,000 and were rising every day, had, because its officers had been siphoning out the money as fast as it came in, none available to pay the taxes any time in the foreseeable future,...there was also no money in sight to pay the interest on the $2,000,000 mortgage Moses had persuaded the city to give them, let alone the amortization,...that there was no money in sight to build any of the buildings the corporation had, more than five years before, contracted to build....Moses had no choice. On June 11, the Slum Clearance Committee asked the Board of Estimate to institute foreclosure proceedings and take back the property in the name of the city so that it could be turned over to a new sponsor....Under the arrangement, Webb & Knapp would not merely insure Manhattantown's principals against any liability to the city. It would buy out the two principal stockholders - Seymour Milstein and Jack Ferman (Caspert having prudently sold out before the company's collapse) - for $533,250, and put them on Webb & Knapp's payroll as `consultants' for five years at a fee of $30,000 a year, a total of $150,000 more. These two men, key figures in Manhattantown since its inception, were not merely being allowed, after five years of delay - five years during which they had made fortunes - to slip quietly into the night without punishment. They were also being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to do so. And this money was not for all their stock. Under the Moses-approved arrangements, Ferman and Milstein would be given sizable stockholdings - between them a total of 32 percent - in Webb & Knapp's Manhattantown subsidiary....Outcry in the press - the afternoon press, primarily - apparently panicked the administration" and portions of the arrangement were subsequently revised. (Seymour Milstein would go on eventually with his brother, Paul, to become one of the city's major developers and landlords.)

The Manhattantown "revelations," Caro continued, "hardly touched Robert Moses at all. The fear and awe in which he was held by reporters, rewritemen, copy editors and city editors was never more evident than on the day following the Senate hearing on Manhattantown and in the days that followed. Robert Moses had conceived the Manhattan project. He had directed its planning. He had selected the cast of characters who ran it. He had shifted the cast around when the political winds in the city shifted. It was a Robert Moses project from beginning to end. The [New York] Times story on Manhattantown did not mention Robert Moses once...."

By 1957, no construction had taken place and that July the name of the project was changed to West Park Apartments, and shortly thereafter Park West Village.

Meanwhile, the Citizens Housing and Planning Council had proposed, in 1954, a new "neighborhood conservation" approach to urban renewal and in 1955 Mayor Wagner came forward with a "vest pocket" redevelopment that emphasized small rather than huge redevelopment schemes. Slum clearance and urban renewal plans were no longer to be considered easy panaceas.

This building was completed in 1961 and converted to a condominium in 1985. It is named after Frederick Law Olmstead, one of the designers of Central Park.

Moses would go on for many years and soon coordinated the Lincoln Center redevelopment as part of what he described as his "vision of a reborn West Side, marching north from Columbus Circle, and eventually spreading over the entire dismal and decayed West Side," Caro wrote.

The West Side is no longer dismal and decayed and despite a controversial birth, Park West Village emerged as one of the city's finest examples of Le Corbusier's dream of "towers-in-a-park" urban planning.

While there was no need for a "plaza" along Central Park West, the extension of landscaped open space to Amsterdam Avenue is not without merit and while there was no excuse for relocation abuses and corrupt practices the experience of this project did led to some reforms.

The building is one block from a subway station and has on-site parking, many balconies, landscaped grounds, a doorman, but no health club.


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