The Parkland Group has filed demolition permits for 424 East 90th Street, the quirky brick parking garage with the “Weprin and Glass Building” sign that currently houses an AVIS rental car garage. According to InSight - a “vertically integrated self storage developer, operator, and manager” - the site is going to become a self-storage facility. I live across the street and am more than a little frustrated by this, not so much because the building is going to be demolished but because it so clearly shows how our city planning process is failing to meet the affordability and environmental challenges we face.
Some 3,600 New Yorkers sleep on the street every night, another 75,000 live in the City’s homeless shelter system or transitional housing, and 1.5 million live crammed into overcrowded and unsafe homes. At the same time, we’re struggling to make the transformative changes needed to bring carbon dioxide emissions down to prevent catastrophic climate change. In light of these issues, it’s pretty shocking that instead of a modern, energy-efficient building for families who need a place to live, this plot of land is going to be used as a warehouse for people’s junk. East 90th will be inundated with idling U-Hauls and a spot that could become a brand new community of neighbors will instead be a nondescript industrial building.
So, what’s going on here? 424 is a pretty large lot, it sits between a high-rise apartment building and a school, and it’s a 10 minute walk from the still brand new Second Avenue subway. Surely Parkland could make more money on something other than self storage. Well, back in the 1960s this and a few other blocks running across the East 90s were zoned exclusively for automotive and industrial development in order to keep the Upper East Side separated from Harlem, and for all the Mayor and City officials like to talk about social justice, nobody has bothered to correct it.
The building’s zoning designation is C8-4, which the City describes as being “for automotive and other heavy commercial services.” This despite the fact that most of the other buildings on the block are residential. It’s one of a string of C8-4 and M1-4 “light industrial” zones that run from Asphalt Green up to 94th and Lexington, effectively surrounding the Holmes-Isaacs public housing complex. The current zoning resolution was adopted around the time the City was planning the redevelopment of the Municipal Asphalt Plant, during the height of the Robert Moses era when they notoriously used highways and automobile traffic to separate predominantly white neighborhoods from communities of color. It doesn’t get the same level of attention as the Cross-Bronx Expressway or the BQE, but it was and remains a very glaring example of environmental injustice.
It didn’t have to be like this. A few blocks over and around the same time in the ‘60s, when the Ruppert’s Brewery building was sold, the City worked with a private developer under the State Mitchell-Lama program to build a new park and more than a thousand homes affordable to middle class families. 424 East 90th isn’t big enough for something of that scale, but if we are serious about tackling climate change and unaffordable housing we need ambitious proposals to replace garages like this one with mixed-income housing and community space.
I like looking out my window and seeing 424’s ornamented sign and the exposed side wall with the fading 1920s laundry advertisement. I hope that regardless of what gets built there they can retain some of those features. But it’s a garage and I don’t expect the City to do anything to stop it from being demolished. What I do expect is for them to use this land to meet our housing and environmental needs, rather than deferring to a decades-old industrial designation.
More than 250 apartments could fit on that lot in a building much shorter than the one next door. The next mayor, borough president, and City Council need to move quickly to remove the C8-4 designation and to work with the owner to ensure new homes are built with rents affordable to middle class families and to strict environmental standards. Anything else is a dereliction of duty.
Benjamin Wetzler is a Democratic Party District Leader for the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island