By Carter B. Horsley
The Upper West Side is New York City's definitive neighborhood: a polyglot collection of fine architecture, bustling street life, diverse cultures and strong civic activism.
It boasts four major boulevards - Central Park West, Broadway, West End Avenue and Riverside Drive - each with quite distinct character and many of its side-streets are much more attractive than their Upper East Side counterparts.
It was developed considerably later than the Upper East Side but because it witnessed rapid growth in the period between the 1890s and the Depression it has a much greater sense of cohesiveness especially since that was an era rich in architectural expression and historical references.
The Depression and World War II brought a halt to new construction and the post-war period witnessed a large "middle-class" emigration out of this area and a major influx of new, lower-income residents. A rise in crime, much of it drug-related, further intensified the area's problems and in the mid-1960's the city launched a major urban renewal project that would replace many of its worst tenements in the San Juan Hill section, the "site" for Leonard Bernstein's and Stephen Sondheim's 1960 musical "West Side Story," with the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts that would provide new homes for the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet and the New York Philharmonic.
While this quickly became the city's cultural center for the performing arts, its impact on the surrounding neighborhood took quite a while to evolve. After more than a generation, however, the Lincoln Center district is the most vibrant and exciting on the Upper West Side even though the center's and the district's architecture is generally less than distinguished.
The 1950s, 1960s and the 1970s were cruel times architecturally in New York City not only because many developers of major projects were uninspired architecturally but also because many owners of older properties were insensitive to historic preservation and found that the proper maintenance and repair of cornices and balconies as well as control of retail signage was not as economical for them as they desired. As a result, many unattractive buildings were erected and many fine older buildings were brutalized, resulting in a significant demeaning of the district.
While Lincoln Center quickly became a major showcase for the city, it also came at a time of rising civic activism. Jane Jacobs was rallying opposition to Robert Moses's plans for West Village and elsewhere with her influential city planning books and the demolition of the former Penn Station led belatedly to the creation of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965. Residents in many communities throughout the city began to clamor for designation of landmarks and historic districts, the environmental movement took hold and the city created community planning boards to advise the city on the impact of planned developments in their bailiwicks. While there was no denying the beneficial importance of landmarks, protecting the environment and community input in the development process, these planning factors often led to major controversies that did not always result in benefiting the city at large. No community was more "active" than the Upper West Side, in part because of its large and diverse residential population and political leadership. The West Side Urban Renewal Project demolished scores of tenements in the high 80s and low 90s along Columbus Avenue and community groups began to express concerns about gentrification and relocation problems. Activists proclaimed "Not in My Back Yard" which became known as the NIMBY Syndrome. A grandiose plan, known as Westway, to extend Riverside Park to Lower Manhattan was ultimately defeated through the determined efforts of one environmentalist, Marcy Benstock, concerned about the impact of the riverfront project on striped bass. Even as Post-Modernism reared its derivative heads marking a renewed interest in decoration after a few decades of stripped-down Modernism, major new projects encountered considerable opposition, most notably the redevelopment of the New York Coliseum site on the west side of Columbus Circle. The Coliseum had served as the city's convention center until the building of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center designed by I. M. Pei along the Hudson River between 35th and 40th Streets in the 1980s. Mortimer Zuckerman paid a few hundred million dollars for the site and first commissioned Moshe Safdie and then Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design a major mixed-use project for the site that was sharply criticized by Bill Moyers and Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, among others, for shadows that it would cast on Central Park, even though the protesters stopped short of demanding that all the buildings on Central Park South and Central Park West be demolished so they could better bask in the sun in Central Park, presumably not under the shade of any trees.
Mr. Zuckerman eventually got some of his money back but his plan was abandoned and the city held another competition for the site and finally settled on a scheme by The Related Companies similar to one that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had completed for Mr. Zuckerman. The new project consisted of two 750-foot-high towers with apartments, offices for AOL-Time Warner, stores and a jazz facility for the nearby Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
The controversy over this important site was comparable to the long delayed redevelopment of Times Square and the battle over the unused air rights over Grand Central Terminal. In the meantime, Donald Trump rebuilt the former Gulf & Western Building on the north side of Columbus Circle to glitzy but good designs by Philip Johnson and made a significant start of his mammoth Riverside South development for which he abandoned, after considerable criticism from some civic groups, a plan for the world's tallest building. Helmut Jahn, the flamboyant architect from Chicago, was Trump's first choice as architect but after he withdrew his plans Trump actually met with community representatives and came up with a new master plan that would have created a sinuous park that called for the demolition of an elevated portion of the West Side Highway, but funds for its demolition and replacement failed to materialize, through no fault of Mr. Trump who proceeded with his many tall apartment towers facing the river in the mid-60's and low 70's.
While most of the public's attention focused on the controversies at Columbus Circle and the rail yards that Donald Trump was redeveloping along the river, an improved city economy in the 1990s led to the development of many new buildings on Broadway in the 80s and 90s and three of the city's major developers, Millennium Partners, the Brodsky Organization and the Zeckendorfs undertook significant projects that greatly solidified and upgraded important Upper West Side locations.
The Milsteins erected two huge apartment buildings of unusual forms along the east of Broadway between 62nd and 64th Streets very close to Lincoln Center. While the towers themselves lacked charm, they offered wonderful views to the residents and, more importantly, they made good urbanistic gestures at street level with arcades and plazas to say nothing about the fact that they significantly increased the immediate area's high-income population and were the first major new private residential construction in the area in the wake of the completion of Lincoln Center. When the residential market improved a few years later, the Brodsky Organization erected several tall, upscale apartment towers south of Lincoln Center and not long afterwards Millennium Partners erected three major towers at the north end of the intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenue just to the north of the Juilliard School, the best of the major buildings at Lincoln Center. The projects of the Millennium Partners did not raise the architectural ante of the area except for the fact that they all had very major retail spaces that were quickly filled by destination "places" such as Tower Records, Barnes & Noble and a large Sony cineplex. Since its completion, numerous restaurants had opened in the vicinity of Lincoln Center to service the several thousand attendees nightly at performances there, but the new retail enterprises greatly improved the area's overall attractiveness.
Donald Trump's Riverside South project and the Coliseum development would only further "crowd" the area and while many community activists wrung their collective hands, with good reason, at the potential environmental and traffic problems they might generate, it was clear that the midtown "gateway" to the Upper West Side was no longer a rather bland blight but a pretty glamorous, albeit uninspired, setting. Not surprisingly, the one real grace note at this "gateway," the former Huntington Hartford Museum designed by Edward Durell Stone and clad in white marble, was the subject of yet another controversy. The city had been using the small Venetian-style building for several years for its Department of Cultural Affairs but it had let the building fall into disrepair and neglect, very shamefully, and was considering selling the site for redevelopment over the protests of a few preservationists who recognized it as a fine, eclectic building by Stone whose gentle curves were the only ones left on the "circle."
The future of the Upper West Side would appear to be very positive given the quite miraculous transformation of Times Square from a tawdry tourist trap into a bedazzling and much safer destination for not only tourists but also theater-goers and office workers. Its long delayed and very controversial redevelopment led to the abandonment of its original plan for a group of related towers at its south end by one major development team and the eventual development of many different sites with different designs by different developers. The "new" Times Square is not as good architecturally as the second design submitted by the former designated developers, Prudential and Park Tower Realty, but nonetheless the mandated glitter of the many new towers, which are above average by New York City standards, was dramatic enough to dramatically make Times Square a major urban magnet and to a great extent begin to shift the commercial real estate dynamics of midtown.
While the Times Square project was floundering, another project advanced independently that significantly altered perceptions of west midtown, World Wide Plaza on the full-block site between Eighth and Ninth Avenues between 49th and 50th Streets that was formerly occupied by Madison Square Garden. World Wide Plaza was a project of a development team led by William Zeckendorf Jr. and the major office on Eighth Avenue was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in a Post-Modern interpretation of the great New York Life Insurance Company building on Madison Square Park and its residential component at the other end of the block was designed by Frank Williams. Zeckendorf landed Ogilvy & Mather as a lead tenant and its prestige and the high quality of the architectural designs was crucial in giving confidence to developers of other sides around the northern end of Times Square as well as to the redevelopment schemes at the south end.
Zeckendorf had previously pioneered the renaissance of Union Square with the four-towered project on the former site of S. Klein's, the discount department store on 14th Street and Zeckendorf would subsequently develop two other major projects on the west side, Central Park Place, a very modern and tall residential tower on the northwest corner of Eighth Avenue and 57th Street and the Parc Belvedere on the northwest corner of Columbus Avenue and 79th Street, shown above, overlooking the American Museum of Natural History and Central Park. Both towers were distinctive and instant landmarks and very important. A shorter but no less important Zeckendorf project on the Upper West Side was the Alexandria, a very handsome Egyptian-motif apartment building on the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Broadway and a few years after its completion the Zeckendorf organization took over the management of the fabled, but frail Ansonia apartment building one block to the north and one of the most important landmarks on the Upper West Side.
The Zeckendorf organization also built the Columbia on the northwest corner of 96th Street and Broadway, another important pioneering project that helped to revitalize that section. Clearly, the Zeckendorf organization deserves credit as the city's, and the Upper West Side's, most important developer in the last quarter of the 20th Century.
Given the vituperative and volatile community activism of the area, it is remarkable that any major new projects were completed in the last couple of decades on the Upper West Side as certainly nothing in the development process was inevitable. The community, for example, blocked handsome plans for a major new tower behind and over the New York Historical Society building, shown above, on Central Park West at 77th Street that would have been a very fine addition to that boulevard's fabled skyline. (See a reproduction of the proposed tower in The City Review article on a fine book by Paul Byard.) At the same time, however, the community did welcome numerous new buildings along Broadway under new special contextual zoning provisions that maintained building line and cornice line integrity and resulted in many attractive new buildings, such as the Boulevard on Broadway between 86th and 87th Streets, shown below, with many amenities that were several cuts above the average new residential buildings of the past couple of decades.
While none of the newer buildings were architectural masterpieces, most were substantially better than most other post-war construction in the area. These generally were "luxury" projects with health clubs, garages, impressive lobbies and the like and attracted many new upper-income residents to the area. Perhaps more importantly they filled in a lot of "gaps" in their neighborhoods and the new residents were able to support higher-end retail uses in the area, which became increasingly gentrified. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Columbus Avenue in the 70's underwent an impressively upscale retail gentrification and in the late 90's many restaurants with sidewalk cafés sprouted along the avenue in the mid 80's. By the late 90's, the Upper West Side was no longer a distant second fiddle from a residential real estate perspective to the Upper East Side and large apartments on Central Park West were reaching parity with comparables on Park Avenue and even Fifth Avenue on the Upper West Side. This shift was due in part to the fact that many "important" buildings were less intimidated by celebrities than their East Side counterparts, a general increased appreciation of fine architecture, a general increased appreciation for multiculturalism, and the simple fact that it was more lively than the generally staid Upper East Side, which suffered serious nightlife competition from the immense popularity of the Flatiron District's many restaurants in the late 1980s and the 1990s.
Although Fifth Avenue's traffic is only one-way, southbound, Central Park West retains two-way traffic and Central Park's border with it is considerably more rustic. With its great older apartment buildings such as the Dakota, the San Remo, the Beresford, the Majestic, the Eldorado, shown above, the Century, the Langham and the Kenilworth and the Prasada, Central Park West easily outclasses Fifth Avenue architecturally. Why then did its property values lag so far behind Fifth Avenue's for so long? The answer is that Madison Avenue and its handsome boutiques were only one medium-length block away from Fifth Avenue whereas the Upper East Side cross-town blocks are very long and for many years Columbus and Amsterdam were tenement backwaters and that crime was a much bigger factor on the West Side in the several decades after World War II and that many handsome buildings were not well maintained and that the area had a high number of welfare hotels.
The good economic times of the mid and late 90's, however, coupled with the new construction and new residents, fueled a major upgrading of the Upper West Side with new boutiques, cineplexes and restaurants. At the same time, its inventory of handsome apartment buildings with large apartments attracted many people desirous of such accommodations.
While it has no center islands of landscaping like Broadway and Park Avenue, West End Avenue does have two-way traffic like Central Park West. The traffic there, however, is much less than on those other streets and the architectural ambience of West End Avenue is comparable to Park Avenue's, and actually a bit more interesting because of some very fine buildings that predate those on Park Avenue. From some perspectives, West End Avenue has a better location as one block to the west is Riverside Park and spectacular views of the Hudson River and one block to the east is Broadway with its good shopping and good buildings.
Many of the buildings on Riverside Drive have entrances on the sidestreets perhaps because its exposure to the wind is large. Like Fifth Avenue, Riverside Drive initially had many mansions, only a few of which remain, but its sinuous nature gives it a special character unlike virtually all other major New York boulevards. Unlike Fifth Avenue, its main residential section extends much further north and indeed many of its best buildings are up near Columbia University. As great as views of Central Park are from Fifth Avenue, Central Park South and Central Park West buildings, the views of Riverside Park, the Hudson River and New Jersey from Riverside Drive are superlative.
In their excellent book, "The A. I. A. Guide to New York City, Fourth Edition," published by Three Rivers Press, 2000, Elliot Willensky and Norval White provide the following commentary on the history of the Upper West Side:
"After the English 'conquest' of New Amsterdam in 1664, Richard Nicolls was appointed governor by the Duke of York to oversee his new proprietary colony. Nicolls not only honored Dutch property owners and landlords already in place but also granted vast tracts to new patentees. The Thousand Acre Tract, bounded by the Hudson and (roughly) modern 50th Street, 89th Street, and Sixth Avenue, now the heart of the Upper West Side, was divided into ten lots and granted to four Dutchmen and one Englishman. In its original verdant state the area was known as Bloomingdale, honored by its nominal association with a flower-growing region near Haarlem named Bloomendael. The Bloomingdale Road followed a serpentine Indian trial that also produced the meandering alignment of much of Broadway. As a northern extension of Lower Manhattan's principal street, it was the road to Albany, a commercial route whose scale after widening (1868-1871) allowed its ultimate potential to be planned. And so, it was briefly renamed The Boulevard until 1899, when buildings such as the Ansonia, The Belnord, The Apthorp, and The Bellecaire would begin to fulfill those plans. It was not until public transportation had penetrated these precincts that serious development occurred. Although horse-cars had reached West 84th Street by 1864, the Ninth Avenue elevated did not arrive until 1879, with stations at 72nd Street, 81st, 93rd and 104th Streets (others were added later). New buildings centered on these nodes at first, with developers uncertain about the City's intentions to level and grade the streets and to evict squatters and shanty owners. But by 1886, a boom had occurred."
While various guides give different northern boundaries to the Upper West Side to give separate attention to Manhattan Valley or Columbia University/Riverside Church, this book defines the northernmost boundary Cathedral Parkway to Morningside Drive to 125th Street to Riverside Drive since Broadway, West End Avenue and Riverside Drive continue well north of 96th Street and the entire area is well served by the subway and buses.
The major chapters of this book describe the major structures along Central Park West, Columbus Avenue, Amsterdam Avenue, Broadway, West End Avenue, Riverside Drive, 72nd Street, 79th Street, 86th Street, 96th Street, Lincoln Center, Columbia University/St. John The Divine Cathedral/Riverside Church. A five-alarm blaze in December, 2001, damaged the cathedral's bookstore but fortunately was brought under control before it spread.