In Manhattan, population density heightens real estate rivalries

As if it wasn’t too hot — really excruciating — here all summer, New York was also embroiled in matters of too close, too tall and too intrusive.

A proposed Islamic community center two and a half blocks from the World Trade Center site provoked a now-international uproar over whether it was too close and therefore too painful a reminder that the terrorists who murdered nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, said they were acting in the name of Islam. Meanwhile, the owner of the 1,250-foot-high Empire State Building objected to a proposal to build a 1,216-foot-high glass tower practically next door, saying it would be too close, too tall and, of all outrages, too imposing on the Manhattan skyline.

For all the sparring, both proposals are still officially on track to be built once their developers raise the cash to start construction.

Real estate rivalries and not-in-my-backyard disputes certainly play out at a whole other level in the most densely populated city in America. Developers of a stylish tower atop Museum of Modern Art galleries were forced to hack off 200 feet in part because it sapped sunlight from the area. It’s all about that quintessentially New York concern: location, location, location.

So what is too close on Manhattan, an island 14 miles long and two miles at its widest? Four blocks? Six blocks? A mile? Maybe Queens?

“Unlike in Los Angeles or any other city in America, two blocks can be a long way in New York,” says Kenneth T. Jackson, editor in chief of the “Encyclopedia of New York City.” Neighborhoods transform block to block and from year to year, he says, offering the example of the areas north and south of East 96th Street on the Upper East Side: South at Park Avenue is pricey Carnegie Hill with its gazillion-dollar co-ops and boutiques; to the north, commuter trains rattle out of a tunnel onto elevated tracks past the tenements and bodegas of East Harlem.

“Historically, there haven’t been many sacred places in New York,” Jackson says. “Maybe only Central Park. Maybe you couldn’t open a McDonald’s there. Maybe.”

According to several polls, New Yorkers agree with the majority of Americans — that a sacred space should be expanded around the World Trade Center site that prohibits religious activity they’re not comfortable with. The 13-story Islamic center proposed to replace an old coat factory is supposed to include a prayer room as well as a swimming pool. Only Manhattanites — 53% according to a Marist Institute poll — don’t mind the location. “The irony of this NIMBY battle is that it comes down to Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx saying, ‘Not in My Manhattan,’” says Marist’s Lee Miringoff.

Shortly after Sept. 11, the prediction was that New Yorkers would turn queasy about working or living in tall buildings. But before the real estate bust, more than 200 buildings taller than 15 stories were under construction, and an ever-more extravagant skyline was emerging.

So is there such a thing as too tall?

The owner of the Empire State Building, which became the city’s tallest building again after Sept. 11, tried to protect its primacy — and their investment — arguing not only against a hulking glass office tower two avenues away but also for a 17-block no-skyscraper zone surrounding King Kong’s perch.

The City Council didn’t buy any of it — and overwhelmingly approved plans for the new tower.

New York isn’t completely heartless about its airspace. After all, some skyscrapers agreed to dim their lights for the fall migration to avoid having tens of thousands of birds slam into tall buildings and end up dead on the streets.

But New York is seldom so sentimental. There is no such thing as too resilient in Gotham.

Imam Shamsi Ali understands this. He is the spiritual leader of the city’s largest mosque, located on the Upper East Side. On Friday, during the well-attended midday prayer service coinciding with Ramadan, he preached that the best response to this painful time for Muslim Americans confronting “unfortunate racist attitudes” was to understand their neighbors and allow their neighbors to understand them.

He was referring not just to the tensions around the plans for the Islamic center but also to the stabbing this summer of a Muslim cab driver by a deranged college student spewing anti-Muslim rhetoric. Estimates are that half the city’s 12,779 cab drivers are Muslim and, judging from the dozens of double-parked yellow cabs during Friday’s service, there were certainly many among the 2,500 in attendance.

“Be good Muslims but also be businessmen, be educators, be baseball fans,” Ali said was his message to Muslims kneeling in the grand hall of the domed mosque on East 96th Street, where a minaret pokes at the Manhattan skyline 6.5 miles from the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

“Live your lives,” he added. “Be New Yorkers.”