February 26, 2014 —
“We know that many of the neighbors are here,” the woman in a business suit said diplomatically. “We, of course, expect that most of them are against us getting this application approved.”
“You can say that again,” a very kind looking older woman sitting next to me muttered under her breath. My eyebrows raised. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be as boring as I had originally imagined.
Tensions were surprisingly high in that small basement room, as the woman in the business suit introduced herself as the lawyer representing the new owners of a building on 12th Street. The five well dressed people behind her are the team of experts she has brought with her (“including the architect”) in the hopes of gaining approval for construction from the community board.
Emily and I are here because of a sign that hung in the elevator of our building last week asking us to attend to “protest the permanent deleterious effects of this construction on our quality of life.” Our building on 11th Street shares a back wall with the building in question on 12th Street.
It was with a mixture of the seriousness of the wording of that sign, the fact that we have been making more of an effort to get to know our neighbors and simple curiosity that Emily and I decided to venture down to Thompson Street on a Monday night for this community board meeting.
The lawyer introduces the architect; he is dressed well, with dark frame glasses and a grey suit, exactly what you think of when you picture an architect. He introduces a young mousy assistant and the two of them begin something that seems to be a very expensive presentation.
There are placards and mock ups and plans on thick whiteboard, sitting on an easel, and these two do not have command of any of it. They are not entirely prepared.
“Where’s the front view?” the architect says, as the assistant scurries behind him to fish it out of a stack.
“For all of this money,” the kind looking woman said loudly, “you’d think they’d have a better presentation.” The man next to her snickered. The architect heard and looked up at the woman. (Eye contact: a critical mistake in avoiding a confrontation.)
“Shame on you,” the woman mouthed, tapping her fingers together. His heart sank.
“Why,” the architect said, before the lawyer whispered something in his ear to silence him.
At first it seemed as though the board was a unified front. There was a chairman, who had welcomed the crowd by way of introduction, but he gradually grew more and more impatient with both the rowdy crowd and his fellow board members who started to ask questions out of turn.
“I would like them to make their presentation. Then we ask questions. Only clarifying questions about things you don’t understand…. I’m sorry we keep interrupting you. You have a very nice presentation here.”
“That’s OK,” the architect says, “I’m here to answer your questions.”
“No, it’s not OK,” the kind looking woman beside me said sarcastically.
The building on 12th Street is a landmark, protected so the front must be kept the same. The new owners want to raise the roof four feet, add air conditioners and make the elevator bulkhead six feet larger.
They also want to excavate a large basement (“to add a theater.”) The crowd hisses.
Our neighbors were pleased to see us there, though in all honesty the changes and construction probably won’t affect us much. It was nice to support the people in our building. And I started to understand that this had less to do with actually stopping the construction and more to do with making sure it was done properly—the minimum intrusion possible.
But, it was a guy in another building who summed up the issue at the heart of the matter.
“These are going to be our neighbors. We all live in the neighborhood. Do you live in the neighborhood?” He said to the lawyer.
“That’s not really relevant.”
“I’m certain you do not. So why am I having this conversation with you and your team of experts and not my new neighbor?”