Amsterdam Avenue and 67th street: On a dilapidated lot nestled between new and old luxury towers stands one of the last vestiges of what the Lincoln Center area once was in the 1980s and 1990s, before Lincoln Center became a neighborhood in its own right. Already clad in scaffolding, it is only a matter of time before this structure is converted. When I was a teenager attending Juilliard, this building was a mix of random shops, including a fantastic and divey Chinese restaurant called “Yin-Cheng.” It was one of those places with fish tanks in the front window filled with lobsters cohabitating with flounders, tacky backlit pictures of Chinese landscapes and temples, gray tiled floors and pink tablecloth underneath glass tabletops.
According to the New York City Zoning Map, this lot has the same zoning code as the Aire complex, “R8.” This is defined as a non-contextual moderate and higher-density district “where there is a mixture of building types and no predominant context.” For more detailed information on the allowable floor area ratios (FAR) for this lot, see the New York City Zoning Reference. The building can be up to 8 to 10 stories if it takes up the entire lot, or much taller if it is set back from the street (exactly how the “Aire” got its height).
Today, with residential skyscrapers stretching from Broadway to the West Side Highway, it’s hard to imagine that this was once primarily a low-density neighborhood. I moved to the Upper West Side in 1994 into one of the only two skyscrapers in the vicinity. I had unobstructed views to the Hudson River, the George Washington Bridge, Central Park and a view of Amsterdam Avenue stretching infinitely towards the horizon. Even more drastic than the changing skyline is perhaps the change in use. Back in the early ‘90s, the only major retailer was the now defunct Tower Records at 66th and Broadway, in a building that has since been demolished and rebuilt. Columbus Circle was a dangerous and abandoned marketplace and there was a post office and a burger joint in what is now the 5-floor Barnes & Noble. There were two small movie theaters, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas playing independent and foreign films and a two-screen theater playing the latest hits.
Now there’s the Loews multiplex theater, an Apple store, Best Buy, Pottery Barn, West Elm, and a slew of clothing and makeup retailers. The Empire Hotel is now a pop-culture landmark thanks to Chuck and Blair from Gossip Girl. The forthcoming closure of the Barnes & Noble in January heralds a shift in this neighborhood as it redefines itself once again: A Burberry Brit store opened on Columbus Avenue and Fashion Week will open its tents in Lincoln Center for the first time next week. Lincoln Center itself has just been completely revamped in an urban planning and architectural feat. It’s extremely well-planned, user friendly, modern and shiny. The austere marble and granite architecture is now partially re-clad in glass, silver and even green grass. And as a neighborhood you’ve made it when double-decker tour buses drive by.
Nonetheless, all these changes always seemed organic and almost natural. I saw an old film once, where a character was crossing Broadway in front of what is now the Barnes & Noble and I was reminded that there was really nothing there before (mostly because the largest black neighborhood in New York was razed in order to build Lincoln Center, ironically exacerbating neighborhood decline after the “slum” was cleared). People didn’t live right on Broadway until the old buildings were demolished and rebuilt as high-rise condos. And since the beautiful Beaux-Arts buildings lay further north near 72nd street, there was nothing architecturally missed when many low-rise buildings were knocked down. Only Broadway was changing, while Columbus Avenue’s brownstones and cafes remained practically untouched. Amsterdam Avenue south of 72nd street never had much, but perhaps change is in the “Aire,” so to speak. Gentrification is the wrong word to use here, because not too much was pushed out. But the question is, can Lincoln Center retain is cultural cache if surrounded by an overwhelming presence of capital consumption?