Activists Take Aim at Shadows News

| 24 Feb 2015 | 12:20

Olive Freud is rallying the community again, and the activist is willing to do whatever it takes – including following the lead of the late icon and preservation advocate Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – to call attention to her cause.

In 1987, Onassis teamed up with the Municipal Art Society and joined with over 800 fellow New Yorkers to demonstrate against office towers planned for Columbus Circle. To show the potential effect of the proposed 68- and 58-story buildings, the protestors, stretching from Columbus Circle to Fifth Avenue, opened hundreds of black umbrellas in a wave, symbolizing the shadows that would engulf the south end of Central Park.

“One would hope that the city would act as protector of sun and light and clean air and space and parkland,” Onassis said at the time. “Those elements are essential to combat the stress of urban life.”

While Onassis and her fellow activists succeeded in bringing attention to their cause and ultimately limiting the scope of the buildings, it’s clear that hers was only the first volley in an ongoing fight to preserve the city’s public spaces. Now Freud, who lives on the Upper West Side and serves are president of the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development, is prepared to take up the mantle, and said she’s thinking of recreating the umbrella stunt. She’s successfully led grassroots campaigns against what she and fellow advocates single out as irresponsible – and, she says, sometimes illegal – development. Her latest victory, which she shared with fellow West Sider Cleo Dana and parks advocate Geoffrey Croft, among others, came when Fashion Week was escorted out of tiny Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center. The city agreed to settle the lawsuit brought by Freud and her allies when it became clear to a judge that the city’s agreement with the organizers of Fashion Week violated a state law protecting park space.

Now Freud is taking aim at the more nebulous but no less urgent matter of shadows, and the gargantuan buildings casting them into Central Park.

While she’s not the first person to gripe about the effects the current and planned mega-towers in midtown, Freud wants to muster robust support and get major zoning changes approved. Many critics have focused on the sky-high prices these condo units fetch – many cost tens of millions of dollars – creating pockets of mega-wealthy residents. Freud, though, seeks to stir outrage against the environmental effects of the buildings themselves.

“Developers want to build and the mayor wants more housing. There isn’t anybody who seems to be thinking about the environment,” Freud said. “When you put one of these buildings in, all these trucks have to come through. [There’s an impact on] traffic, infrastructure, sewers, the garbage system. Nobody talks about that. The developers run this city, there’s no doubt about it.”

Freud hopes that focusing on the environmental impacts – of congestion, traffic, noise, diminished sunlight – generated by the towers will draw enough support to push city officials to alter zoning regulations that allow many of these residential buildings to be built without a public review process.

“There’s a strong element in this city that doesn’t like what’s going on [with these developments],” Freud said. “I think you can catch people’s eyes and attention with the shadows.”

While the shadows may certainly affect people’s enjoyment of the park, a spokesperson for the Central Park Conservancy said that current and future shadows cast by buildings would have no negative effect on flora and fauna. On a recent frigid weekday afternoon in the park, several people said they don’t much notice particular shadows from buildings, but would still be in favor of limiting development around the park.

The full petition (see sidebar) includes eight specific demands and asks that people sign and forward it to their appropriate city councilperson – Dan Garodnick on the East Side and Helen Rosenthal on the West Side – or to Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

Kate Wood, president of the preservation group Landmark West and a signatory of the petition, said that many people in the city don’t realize that these super-tall towers can be built as-of-right, which is why it’s important to draw attention to the issue before construction starts.

“What we’re seeing now is an unprecedented scale of development in the city, and what some people thought was confined to midtown in terms of mega-development is beginning its creep up the Upper West Side,” Wood said.

Wood pointed to a pair of 400-foot high residential towers built on Broadway between 99th and 100th streets, in 2007. The Ariel East and West towers, as they were called by developer Extell, shocked nearby residents so much that they rallied for local zoning changes to limit the height allowance on Broadway, and got them. Activists are now hoping to stir up the same outrage and action to get results for the whole of Manhattan, before more towers are built.

“This is really a grassroots effort of citizens who want to save their city,” Freud said.

For more information on the petition and the campaign, contact Olive Freud at 212-877-4394 or