New Cities for Old
Although he was born in Paris, Illinois, and his grandparents hailed from Arizona, New York claimed WlLLlAM ZECKEXDORF at the age of two, and in the driving force of his maturity he has had much to contribute to the rejuvenation of that city. Now in his forty-sixth year, he is the President of Webb & Knapp, real-estate developers, who invest and finance for their own account and who have put new life into old property in many metropolitan areas across the country. This article is an enlargement of a talk which Mr. Zeckendorf gave before the Harvard School of Design.
by WILLIAM ZECKENDORF
How can we keep cities that represent the toil and sweat and invested labor and invested capital of generations from becoming ghost towns? It is wonderful to talk about going out into the country — as I see some of you have done here — to build a perfect city on a plateau; I don’t say that that is easy, but I do say that it is much more of a challenge for somebody to tell you, “ Here is a city in which there are five billion dollars or more invested. Try to save it from disintegration and economic blight, which cannot miss if you do not do something about the core which you are permitting to rot; never mind doing something gaily and theoretically about the periphery.”
We are all building these wonderful means of ingress to and egress from the central and urban areas, which simply means that we are developing easier and easier means of escape. They are roads from, not to, because people come to the town for reasons of necessity and leave it as fast as they can. That is the really greatest challenge that we’ve got in this country. People speak of inflation and of the results that will follow inflation, of economic and social waste and the fact that we are going to pass on to generations to come the errors of our ways through high debt, inflated money, dislocated economy. That is nothing compared with what is going on by attrition; attrition in the sense that the cities of the country are being permitted to die on the vine; cities that have been built and paid for, cities against which billions of dollars of municipal bonds have been levied in good faith and bought by citizens who have saved their life’s labors to invest in these municipal securities and mortgage bonds, and indirectly through the life insurance companies which reinvest their savings to make these cities go. If this attrition continues, these savings are going to be wiped out.
Inflation has almost no greater threat than the threat that has taken place in cities like Boston, one of the worst examples I know. Our firm is so concerned about Boston that it would not buy any real estate here. It is no joke. We believe that Boston, with its tax rate what it is and justified because of the expense in comparison with the potential revenue, is going to go broke.
You have already put through a semiconfiscation of private property by your levied tax. Your tax rate is such and your assessment rate is such in the City of Boston that you have practically confiscated the assets already. It is not something that you have to wail around for. And the first depression will find half the city on the town tax roll, because only the high occupancy, the extraordinarily high rents due to a scarcity resulting from an unusual situation, make it possible to run these properties and pay the taxes and operating charges with some modest return on the investment. You have a town here that is completely dislocated, where your people work in one community and spend their money in another community that pays nothing to the town in which their labors are expended. There are other cities in this same dilemma. But Boston is an outstanding example.
I want to talk about the possible cure. That is more important. The cure, in my opinion, is really the greatest challenge to the imagination, much more challenging than going out in a pasture and building a city, and much more satisfying from a constructive and a creative standpoint than abandoning the core to eventual ruin -anybody can do that if given enough boondoggling subsidy. But it takes real thinking, real energy, courage, and imaginat ion to work within the confines of an existing problem. As a matter ol fact, you will find in your experience, as you go into architectural life, that the greatest results you can get in ingenuity are those which are dictated in alterations where the restrictions of existing conditions force you to do things that you would never do if you had a completely free hand. Working within limitations will often produce more striking results, because of the provocative problems that arise, than if you have no limitattions.
LEFT me give you three examples of constructive developments which our firm has put through in the heart of New York City. The first begins on the day a broker called and offered us at a price of $700,000 the old riding academy at 60th Street running through to 67th Street just west of Central Park West, a piece of property consisting of some 40,000 square feet. We turned down the offer with the comment that it was impossible at that price we could not afford to build apartments in that area at that square foot figure—to which the broker responded that the buildings themselves were very valuable. We pointed out that we would pay more for the property demolished than with the buildings on it, as they had outlived their usefulness, and let it go at that.
Some weeks later I happened to be driving through 66th Street, and what follows illustrates the old adage that it is better to be lucky than smart. Because of a traffic jam my car was stalled in front of the academy. I decided that as long as I was there I might as well take a look at the property.
I noted that the main building — the riding arena was 92 x 200 with a great high vaulted ceiling and no interior columns. I said to myself, here is a perfect place for a television studio. Upon my return to the office I called the broker and we bought the property at his price, $700,000 with 20 per cent cash, balance on purchase money mortgage.
We circularized all the radio companies immediately, offering the property for television purposes, and to our dismay received let ters from all declining the proposal. This put us in the horse business. We bought 170 horses and went into the market to bin hay and sell manure, running a regular monthly loss of $6700 to $4700. This went on for almost a year, when one day the phone rang and a rather uncertain voice announced that he was Mr. E. J. Noble. Knowing by reputation that he was the owner of the American Broadcasting Company,
I promptly told him that I had never heard of him. He said, “Some time ago you suggested that we buy your barn for a TV station. Perhaps we’d belter have a look at it.”
To make a long story short, we leased the academy to him and subsequently sold it to him at a profit of $600,000. Me converted it into the most modern TV station in the I nitecl States. Some months later when we were lunching together at “21” he said he was going to invite me to become a director of ABC. He asked me if I knew why, and when I replied that I did not he said, “Because you’re the first man to make money out of TV.”
We had a much longer si ruggle in the transaction which we recently consummated in the 64th Street. midtown shopping center of Manhattan. There we found an unusual situation in that Mary’s, which is the largest department store in the world, doing an annual business of up to $200,000,000, is separated from ils chief competitor, Gimbel Brothers, by a single block running from the south side of 64th Street to the north side of 33rd Street. It seemed to us that if a large assemblage of smaller properties within this block could be engineered we could redevelop the properly in the form of an arcade or through-st reel merchandising so that the customers of both great merchants, as they passed back and forth from 33rd to 34th Street, could do window shopping or comparative shopping on their way.
Such assemblage, however, held many obstacles because of the existing leases. ‘There were a variety of buildings, including a firehouse, a hotel, and a theater, all of which would have to be removed. In order to acquire the firehouse, Webb A Knapp had to persuade the city that it was in the interest of efficiency and that it would case traffic if the patrol at 29th Street was combined with the one at 33rd Street in a new station at 31st Street. We offered to build a new firehouse 73 feet wide in accordance with the specification of the city and exchange it on an even basis for the fifty-year-old, 50-foot firehouse standing on 33rd St reel. The city agreed.
We have just signed leases wilh the F. W. Woolworth Company for a new building that will occupy part of the site of the old firehouse, the Herald Square Hotel, and the Savoy Theater, and which will be the largest store in the Woolworth chain throughout the Ended Stales. This new Woolworth’s will serve as an arcade; it will syphon off customers. Thus there will be a steady current instead of the log jam which exists between Macy’s and Gimbel’s; all will receive the benefit of greater customer cireulation. Incidentally , it has taken us nearly ten years to clear the block.
Our most challenging project in Manhattan involved the land that is now called the l niled Nations zone. This area runs north from 42nd Street to approximately 48th Street, and east from First Avenue to the East River. It is a rectangular section of about 500 feet ensl and west, and about 2000 feet north and south — roughly a million square feet.
At the time that we first heard or thought of it, the property easterly from First Avenue from 42nd to 10th was culled the slaughterhouse district of New York, and was occupied by the abattoirs of the Swift and Wilson companies. They had been there since the 1870s or ‘80s. Prior to that time it was a pesthole, and when it came to granting a privilege to slaughter cattle on Manhattan, it was decided that the best place for il was that pesthole area to the east. The slaughterhouses were built there then. They were the best that were built at the time, and probably for slaughterhouses they were pretty good-looking. But as time went on, the Grand Central zone came into concept, the subsurface rapid transit was developed, and the Grand Central Station was conceived. That 42nd Street zone became probably the most intensive and the most interesting new development of any urban area in the I’nited States. It was a great tribute to the planning and the foresight of the people who recognized its possibilities. I don t know of anything more important in long-term thinking than what was dme at this place in the first decade ol the century.
When the old steam railroad line was submerged under Park Avenue, which was a slum area, and air rights were built over the railroad tracks, there took place one of the most magnificent pieces of urban redevelopment ever seen. And it was so important and so virile that it overcame everything in its way— except the slaughterhouses. Its zone of influence moved easterly about as far as Second Avenue. It couldn’t take in any more than that because the physical stench of the slaughterhouses prevented it. But those slaughterhouses remained there while they built apartment houses that rentcd in the ‘20s for $500 and more a room, almost within niblick shot o( the slaughterhouses.
lint nobody did anything about the slaughterhouses. They stayed there indefinitely. I recall when I first went into the real-estate business as a broker that they said of the slaughterhouses, “They will never be sold,” because nobody could ever get a franchise to build a thing like that in Manhattan again even though from time to time the properties were offered to us for sale. They never could he delivered, and every" time somebody talked of it, it became a joke.
In the early part ot 1940 when a broker called up and said he wished to offer the slaughterhouses I asked him to see one of my associates. This had been going on in my ow n experience for over twenlv years, lie came and went, and a few minutes later the man to whom I had assigned him came in, and I said, “’What did that fellow want?”
“Oh,” he said, “the old chestnut, slaughterhouses.”
“I presume you gave him the usual brushed.
And he said, “Yes, sure, nothing to it. by the wav, he said he was related to the Swills.’
“Are vou sure? Let’s got him back here, I s;iid.
So we got the broker back, and I said, What, makes you think vou can deliver these slaughterhouses ? ”
“Well,” he said, “my daughter is the sole heir to thi’ Swift fortune and 1 think I can do it.
I said, “Sit down.”Which he did. I said, What do you want for them?”
He said, “Swift and Wilson have agreed that they want $17 a square foot, take one, take all. They have pooled their properties.”
“Are you sure you can deliver?”
His reply was “ Yes.”
“What is the best price?” I asked.
“Arc you aware of the fact that the properties on the other side of First Avenue, running up and down and westerly all the way over to Second Avenue, are selling for $5 a square foot and less?”
IIo said, “I know it’s a ridiculous price but that is what t hey want.”
“ Will you take back an offer of a lesser amount ?” “No,”' he said, “I’ve got to keep on offering it until I get a buyer.”
I asked, “Have you offered it anywhere else?” He replied, “No.
“Well,” I said, “I’ll talk about it with my associates if you’ll wait a few minutes.”
So 1 went inside and talked with my partners. “Here is the greatest opportunity that I have ever seen in mv life,” I said, ' and I never expect to see one like it again. This is the situation. Regardless of whether the properties are selling for $5 per foot, $1 per foot, halt a dollar a. foot, $9 a foot, around this area that they want $17 per foot for, that has nothing to do with it. The only reason they are selling for $4 a foot or $5 a foot is because the slaughterhouses are here. If you can think in pro forma terms of X the slaughterhouses, there is no excuse for the $5 land and there is no excuse for the $17 land. The whole thing is worth $50. Actually, by eliminating ihe abomination, you can pull the whole thing up by its own bootstraps.”
A very simple rule of real-estate economics. It was so cenlrally located, so beautifully located, with the site and size and dimensions of the property such that there were limitless potentials. Regardless of whether you could see them all the wav through to the end at first view, you knew that they were there. “Therefore, I said,”I advocate buying the property for $17 a foot. Which we did. We also bought the $5 land. We bought some land for less, some for as little as $1 a foot.
There was one fellow, an Italian, who had put his life savings into a purchase for $10,000 of the only outstanding property on the east side of First Avenue that did not belong to the slaughterhouses. That was ihe northeast eorner of 42nd Street. Fifty by one hundred — $10,000. That is $2 per foot . We sent the broker over 1o buy that property, and his wife said she wouldn’t sell it for less than $12,000. He came back and said, “Wife wants thirteen!” I said, “buy it.” This little dialogue went on between the broker and wife until finally we paid her $100,000. And that piece of real estate today would be worth a minimum of $500,000. A minimum! It would be a bargain at that pi ice. And it all happened the moment we said, there are no slaughterhouses. Just say it. Wipe them out with a piece of rubber. Here is the new concept of this development — this Grand Central zone at the East River point. Seventeen dollars a foot was meaningless. So was anything else. When you have a plot that size, located that way in an urban area, the values are almost infinite, limited only by your imagination, your courage, your ideas and your ability to execute them.
WE HAD a concept for the development of what is now the United Nations area which was very much publicized. That concept arose after much study in which Mrs. Zeckendorf was a great aid because her thinking from a woman’s viewpoint was of enormous help in projecting the residential phase of this development, which started commercial at the south and wound up residential at the north end at Beekman Place. We developed this plan, and the plan came into model form and was given a lot of publicity. On December 6, 1940, I read in the paper that the United Nations were going to Philadelphia because they were unwilling to go to the Flushing Meadows that New York offered them, they were rejected in the WestchesterGreenwich area where they wished to go, and the Russians had said that no “first class” diplomat would go to San Francisco. That morning I told Mrs. Zeckendorf that I was going to put those birds on the platform. And she said, “What birds on what platform?” And I said, “Those UN birds on the platform on the Fast River.”
I called the Mayor that day and he said, “What’s your idea?”
I said, “I hereby offer you—” I said, “Do you want to keep those follows in New York?”
And he said, “ Yes, I’d give anything to do that.”
“Well,” I said, “put this down. I’ll offer you seventeen acres of land on the Fast River from 42nd Street north at any price the United Nations wish to pay. That will be their new home.”
Now, the important thing about this whole thing is the value of the visualization of a concept. Thanks to Life magazine, a few other magazines, and a lot of newspapers, a great deal of publicity was given to the design that we had for the redevelopment of the area, so that when they brought around the Site Committee of the United Nations, no two of whom spoke the same language — and they were all ready to build a Tower of Babel — they were shown first the property and then the visualization of the plan. They saw this development along the East River and they recognized that it could look like what they had always dreamed of for the United Nations. I am sure that if they had just been shown those reel brick slaughterhouses with no concept, they never could have understood what we were t alking about. But they did understand it because they saw it in print. And within eight days, notwithstanding the eighteen months of previous searching. Air. Rockefeller, who recognized its potential, offered the money to buy it for the United Nations. The United Nations approved the site, and eight days later it was a fait accompli.
When it came to the development of an approach to the United Nations — a monumental boulevard that was going to be grand enough, beautiful enough, functional enough, as would be warranted by such a basic conception — we proposed a minimum concept for redevelopment . We said that as a minimum the city should do the following: it should use ils power of eminent domain, its right to redevelop communal area, and it should resell the surrounding zones so that the benefits of automatically increased valuation would go to the community and nol to the guys who did nothing to get it. That may sound communistic or socialistic. But I cannot see any reason why the people who own those cold-water tenements in the area of the United Nations should be permitted to get a free ride or to hold up indefinitely, at their own will and whimsey, the redevelopment of an area that should he rededicated.
Wo presented that idea to the City Fathers. “Condemn the north side of 46th Street to the south side of 49th Street from First Avenue to Third Avenue,” we said. That area would involve six square blocks: the north side of 46th to the south side of 47th, the north side of 47th to the south side of 48th, and on up to 49th; three blocks north, two blocks east and west, from First Avenue to Second, Second Avenue to Third. Those blocks are precise, gridiron blocks, 200 feet north and south each, roughly 800 feet east and west, and the intervening streets are 60 feet.
We said, “Take the two central blocks, the ones from the north side of 47th to the south side of 48th from First Avenue to Second Avenue, from Second Avenue to Third Avenue, which means a strip 200 feet long and 1600 feet wide plus the intervening street beds of 60 feet each, the street bed of 48th and the street bed of 47th. You have 120 feet of street bed, 200 feet of block, or 320 feet north and south by 1600 feet east and west. Redesign that for a great boulevard: 320 feet is 230 per cent of New York’s widest street, Park Avenue, which is 140 feet. Let that be a great boulevard for pedestrians and for well-designed traffic, with subsurface traffic and subsurface parking. And then you will wind up with these four blocks which you also condemned, from I he north side of 46lh to the south side of 47th, and the north side of 48th to the south side of 49th. Then take those four blocks, rezone them, dictate what may and may not he built, and say that they shall now go up at auction to the highest bidder, providing they are built that way. To assure you, the city, that you will take no loss for your speculation in having bought six blocks, but that you will get the two central blocks, plus the streets that you are going to use for this great boulevard, absolutely for nothing, we will guarantee to make a bid ourselves for a minimum figure which will equal 120 per cent of the assessed valuation of all six blocks, land and buddings. That 120 per cent is what we shall pay for the four blocks, so that you get the two blocks for free.”
I also proposed that the four blocks should have levied against them a land assessment which would equal the full tax assessment of all the land, of all the buildings, of all six blocks, and that any improvements on top of that should be levied at the regular rate of assessment. The pro forma Value of those four blocks fronting on that communal way and their plottage assembly value, which has been achieved by a single condemnation, is so vast as to make it a good real-estate investment for hard money, not boondoggling money. Here is a case where two thirds is greater than three thirds. Here is a case exactly like the situation with the slaughterhouses at $17 a foot against $5 surrounding land value. It is a subtle redevelopment by a new concept, and the center of New York could have been vastly improved at no one’s expense, not even at the expense of the fellows who were condemned, because they would have gotten more than they ever dreamed of getting at 120 per cent of assessed value. The City Fathers made one of the greatest mistakes of their lives when they turned us down, but we are still hopeful they will come to their senses and reverse their decision before the opportunity is wholly lost.
Again it comes back to concepts. I don’t believe that cities are lost unless we are prepared to abandon them. The present tendency indicates that we are ready to abandon them. I deplore that. I think that if any great challenge exists in this country for the architects and designers, the realestate economists and builders, the urban redevelopers and the city planners, it is the saving of a city.
I am not against decent ralization. I think every new means of transportation that conies along in the progress of mechanized development causes farther and farther flung communities. I believe those communities have to go out to meet ihe problem that arises from the new mode of transportation. But I do not believe it is necessary to have cities die on the vine and rot at the core. I think they can be things of beauty, light, and economic functionalism; but they have got to be attacked by a combination of three kinds of thinkers: the realestate economist, the designer and engineer, and the city planner and civic thinker.