Stand Up for the Chalmers Building

After I attended Uri Kaufman’s presentation at the Common Council on redeveloping the Chalmers building, I talked to a friend who had also seen the presentation and who also took a walk through the Chalmers site.

He was wildly enthused at the prospect of redeveloping Chalmers into high end apartments. But I had my doubts although I kept alive a small spark of hope that this would engage and mobilize some support. After reading today’s editorial titled “Knock Chalmers down” and finding another article by Michael Lazarou called “Beware of Men in Space Suits” which also appeared in the Recorder, I see my cynicism and pessimism paid off . I think it’s a matter of physics that any issue that I would support and embrace, the Recorder editorializes against it. So here we go again.

What struck me in the editorial is the dismissal of Uri Kaufman’s project as complete speculation while at the same time embracing Via Ponte as a “sure thing”. Yes, Kaufamn’s project is speculative and risky. But Via Ponte is not? According to this, Via Ponte is meant to be:

Via Ponte Project will provide the Southside of Amsterdam with a shops and stores that are not currently accessible via foot in this part of the City. Via Ponte will be connected to the north side of the City via a pedestrian bridge scheduled for construction in 2009.

So the “sure thing” about Via Ponte will be more shops and stores. And this is a sure thing?

Step back and consider how very different the proposals are in terms of vision and economics. Via Ponte relies upon creating a set of shops and stores that will interconnect to the Amsterdam Mall via a pedestrian bridge. Please read the prior sentence again and see how ironic it is. A failed “sure thing” of the past — the Amsterdam Mall– will be the end point of the next sure thing, the shops and stores at Via Ponte. Why must every sure thing in Amsterdam be retail related?

On the other hand, Kaufman’s proposal relies upon building attractive housing for home buyers coming from out-of-the-area.

If you compare the proposals, they present vastly different outcomes if implemented. The Recorder editors fail to consider the outcomes other than hoping to fast track Chalmers demolition. The building has sat vacant for decades so another year hardly matters especially as the totality of eyesores in the city will remain unaffected with Chalmers gone.

The outcome of Via Ponte would bring shops, taxable properties and by extension sales tax revenue and job creation. On the other hand, Kaufman’s proposal would bring taxable properties and likely draw new buyers into the Amsterdam market. The key difference is what is the chicken and what is the egg under each scenario. In the Via Ponte scenario, building the shops first, will bring people here while Kaufman argues bring people first and then the shops will follow.

I support Kaufman’s proposal and the reconsideration of Via Ponte as it is a new play on increasing the quality and quantity of housing stock in the city. I also think it provides for a private party versus a smorgasbord of agencies to drive the project. If you look at broader trends in housing, livability and sustainability, the reuse of the Chalmers building seems much more attractive and viable than creating shops.

Let’s now turn to the Michael Lazarou piece for a different but still flawed set of arguments. Here’s my favorite paragraph:

It was also interesting to hear Mr. Kaufman describing areas like the Chalmers site as “the Sohos and Tribecas of tomorrow.” Can you envision it? How about adding a little flavor to the area with some street vendors shuffling up and down Bridge Street selling fake Rollex watches? Or are they real? Maybe we can throw in a couple of squeegee washers to get the full effect. Last but not least we must not forget our food vendors serving up a good Italian sausage and pepper sandwich. Now I’m getting hungry. Come to think of it not a bad idea but I’m not sure that’s the plan.
Comparing a district in Manhattan to a neighborhood in Amsterdam may sound enlightening but affordability comes to mind. Lifestyle and money are on opposite ends of the spectrum when comparing the two. I’m not privy to the plan but maybe its intentions are to cater to a specific group. Of course that would leave most Amsterdam residents living on the outside looking in. One specific group that makes up a large portion of our population is our seniors. Many continue to struggle in trying to maintain their home but with limited affordable housing choice is not an option. In the initial discussions of the Chalmers building the idea of a senior housing complex was mentioned. I hope it remains in some way part of the plan.

I hate to bring a sense of reality to the above but Manhattan is not overrun with squeegee washers. It might help if the author had visited the city since the 1970s. What’s most troubling is the notion of catering to seniors. At the risk of offending a good portion of the local demographics, senior citizens are not and should not be the demographic for this project. Instead, we should hope to attract buyers who will foster and create businesses. This was the main point in Kaufamn’s presentation in talking about Soho and Tribeca. Kaufman was not saying that Amsterdam would become Manhattan; instead he was saying that some of the lessons in Manhattan could be applied to redevelopment. Namely that instead of trying to attract businesses first and residents later, you should attract residents first and businesses later as business owners tend to work and to create businesses near where they live. So if you live in Amsterdam chances are you’ll create businesses in Amsterdam.

What’s most offensive is the characterization of this project as a gated community as Lazarou writes here:

In the meantime the Chalmers building stands with shattered glass and a wired fence waiting for its verdict. Is the wired fence a sign of it becoming a gated community?

Just because the project appeals to a certain economic demographic does not mean it’s a gated community to keep people out. Why on earth would the city not benefit from an influx of home buyers and business owners?

I’m curious what will happen tonight at the Common Council meeting. I hope my pessimism will be proven wrong and my friend will be proven right.

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