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Tom Wolfe Takes on the Developers

Posted by: Peter Coy on December 3, 2006

Tom Wolfe is rarely at a loss for words. This past Sunday, the dapper novelist (Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, etc., etc.) and preservationist issued a 3,644-word manifesto in the New York Times against a plan by German developer Aby Rosen to construct a 30-story building on Madison Avenue on Manhattan’s East Side. Here’s a snippet of Wolfe’s prose:Tom Wolfe.jpg

On top of this block-long low-rise he intends to build one of his Aby Rosen jumbo glass boxes full of commercial space and condominiums, rising straight up a sheer 30 stories. His big problem — or, to be more accurate, ”problem” — is that 980 Madison is in the heart of the Upper East Side Historic District, and it would be hard to dream up anything short of a Mobil station more out of place there than a Mondo Condo glass box by Aby Rosen.

But lest one think that all intelligent people are against the construction, consider this. Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser, himself a native of the East Side, fired back in the New York Sun, which is cheekier and more conservative than the Times. He wrote:

Edward Glaeser.jpg

On the costs side, blocking new development ensures that Manhattan will stay unaffordable. New supply is the only way that middle-income people will be able to afford the city.When supply is choked off, people must pay more for housing, and firms in New York must pay higher salaries to their employees. The mayor has courageously fought for and achieved an increase in granting construction permits because he knows that the city’s economic vitality depends on its affordability.

The core issue in this battle is respect for private property. Aby Rosen, not the community, owns 980 Madison Ave. The Landmarks Commission’s stripping him of the ability to build would represent a great step in state power over private property. It seems odd for members of the normally nonsocialist urban haute bourgeoisie to support so enthusiastically such a massive expropriation of private property.

Fights over development go on every day all over the country, but they’re especially fun to watch in Manhattan because so many very smart, very wealthy people get into sweaty wrestling matches that make it very hard to sort out the seating arrangements at the next society dinner.

Reader Comments

Toby Munk

December 3, 2006 5:56 PM

There is something to be said for the rights of property owners. There are zoning laws and historic designations to preserve the nature of something worth preserving.

But these things have to be done, not in response to a single development project but in a coherent manner that affect a whole district or section of properties.

If redevelopment and building of a ugly glass box will not yield anybody that is willing to live in it, it will be self defeating. Until one has lived in one of those anonymous monstrosities it will be hard for people to imagine what it would be like.

But again, private property rights have been trampled on too much already, instead push for a change in the laws to restrict redevelopment with a decent lead-time and make it fair to everybody. But stop singling out individual projects.

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BusinessWeek editors Chris Palmeri, Prashant Gopal and Peter Coy chronicle the highs and lows of the housing and mortgage markets on their Hot Property blog. In print and online, the Hot Property team first wrote about the potential downside of lenders pushing riskier, "option ARM" mortgages and the rise in mortgage fraud back in 2005—well ahead of many other media outlets. In 2008, Hot Property bloggers finished #1 in a ranking of the world's top 100 "most powerful property people" by the British real estate website Global edge. Hot Property was named among the 25 most influential real estate blogs of 2007 by Inman News.

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