The Black Hole of East 79th Street

After the demolition of a block-long swath of First Avenue, an eerie and spectral streetscape emerged. More than a month later, under fire from its neighbors, the developer is finally illuminating the site.

| 09 Sep 2019 | 11:40

One of the most high-profile street corners on the Upper East Side has become a dead zone at night – dark and desolate, shadowy and even a little bit spooky for passers-by.

The east side of First Avenue on the full block between 79th and 80th Streets literally appears pitch-black at times, turning it into a scary, potentially dangerous and inhospitable menace, residents say.

For 50 years, Tobina Rosenberg has lived around the corner at 425 East 79th St., and now, calling herself “a young 80-year-old,” she offers this simple piece of advice to fellow seniors: “Try not to ever be alone!”

Still, this is a story with a (mostly) happy ending.

Community voices were raised in anger. Elected officials reflected that outrage. Straus News started making inquiries. The developer who had created the ghostly conditions spoke with local constituents, absorbed a salvo of negative feedback – and pledged remedial action.

But it took more than a month.

At issue is a vast construction site where Extell Development Co. this summer razed nine humble four-story buildings. Each had a footprint of roughly 2,000 square feet, and together they housed 11 retailers and 104 apartments abutting historic St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church on East 79th Street.

Extell says it has no immediate plans for the parcel, which encompasses 1514-1528 First Avenue, as well as a ninth building around the corner, 403 East 79th St. A 10th low-lying structure, 402 East 80th St., still standing, is also expected to be demolished.

Unnerving UES Activists

A skyline-transforming builder with a penchant for steering ambitious plans to fruition after a decade-plus in development, Extell pioneered Billionaire’s Row on East 57th Street – first, in 2015 with its 1,005-foot One57, then, with another supertall, the 1,550-foot Central Park Tower, which bows on the strip in 2020.

That track record, charted by company president and founder Gary Barnett, unnerved UES activists. So did uncertainty about what would ultimately rise on the lot.

Adding to the unease: Extell can construct a bulky 250,000-square-foot building as of right. On top of that, it bought out, and then shuttered, a whole blockfront of bread-and-butter retailers on First Avenue – a diner, liquor store, nail salon, pizzeria, pharmacy, pastry shop and Szechuan restaurant. Those closures irked locals.

Against that backdrop, anti-Extell sentiment was already running high. So when the company finished site demolition on Aug. 9, hauling off its scaffolding and the lighting that undergirded it, reaction to the ensuing darkness was swift and condemnatory:

“There were people lingering in the dark, and you can’t see them, and it’s not safe, and it’s a little scary,” said Betty Cooper Wallerstein, the civic activist who has headed the East 79th Street Neighborhood Assn. for the past 35 years.

“It’s an enormous space that is very dark and desolate and empty at a time when crime is up on the Upper East Side,” she added. “You need it to be lit at night so people can walk safely without being afraid.”

"We Are Now Vulnerable"

Soon, an unsigned flyer, drafted and distributed by Wallerstein’s group, was posted in the mailrooms, laundry rooms and bulletin boards of residential buildings on East 79th Street and in dozens of shops on the avenues around the corners: “WE ARE NOW VULNERABLE,” it declared in part.

“An entire stretch of First Avenue was left dark and desolate without any notice to neighbors or coordination with city agencies to ensure that arrangements for the conditions post-demolition were remedied,” said state Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, who hung the flyer in the window of her York Avenue district office.

“It’s disappointing that there hadn’t been any anticipation of the darkness of an entire block, or the need for lights in an area that must be safe for our toddlers, our elderly and everybody else,” said Alida Camp, chair of Community Board 8.

“There’s a hole in the cityscape. It’s pretty ugly – and no area without lighting can ever be safe,” she added.

Meanwhile, Rosenberg summed up the attitude toward the developer: “They’re going to make millions and millions on this site, maybe even billions, so you’d think they could invest a little more to provide such basic needs as lighting to make the neighborhood a little bit safer,” she said.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what Extell now intends to do.

Solar Lighting

Ten days after the company effectively turned the site into a black hole, Eli Kopciel, its vice president for development, penned an Aug. 19 letter to Seawright, saying it would “install lights on the fence to illuminate both the sidewalk and the interior of the site,” a step it said exceeds the city’s Dept. of Buildings requirements.

But when? No date was given. Community leaders remained skeptical. More than two weeks passed. Still nothing.

Then on Sept. 5, Extell spokesman George Arzt told Straus News, “In an effort to assist the neighborhood with lighting around the site, we anticipate installing lighting on the fence during the week of Sept. 9.”

In an update a few days later, he said the installation would take place no later than Sept. 14.

The lighting will be solar, Arzt said. Once it’s in place, will residents be content? Not exactly.

While the unlit street was the No. 1 bone of contention, community activists like Wallerstein and Camp remain troubled by the brick-and-concrete dust they fear could blow onto the sidewalk and scatter from the site. Some have also called for higher fencing, enhanced vermin controls and more aggressive cleanliness efforts.

Arzt said the lot has been properly cleaned and graded. Maintenance efforts will be expanded, he said, “should conditions warrant it.” Weather-proof bait boxes will be maintained for pest control. All aspects of the project are DOB-compliant. The eight-foot plus fence is “entirely suitable” for the site so there are no plans to increase its height, he added.

Thus, the bottom-line question: Is Extell a good corporate citizen or not?

“If you ask neighbors, they would say Extell is responsive – but not as responsible as they should be,” Seawright said.

Countered Arzt, “Extell is proud of its widely-recognized reputation for making public safety a core priority, and for quickly responding to the concerns of the communities.”

“There’s a hole in the cityscape. It’s pretty ugly – and no area without lighting can ever be safe.”
Alida Camp, chair of Community Board 8