Urstadt, a neighborhood founder, reflects on his last days in Battery Park City


By Julie Shapiro

Forty-two years after Charles Urstadt founded the Battery Park City Authority, his days on the board are numbered.

Urstadt, 81, will likely lose his position as acting chairperson of the authority in the shakeup Gov. David Paterson is planning (See related article, page 3).

“This is my swan song,” Urstadt told the authority’s board and staff after they gave him a standing ovation at a meeting Tuesday. “It’s been a great gratification to me to see what’s happened since we first started this…. I’ve seen tremendous progress.”

Often called the “Father of Battery Park City,” Urstadt is the only person at the authority today who was there at its birth. He frequently regales board members with history lessons at meetings, reminding them of the gumption and pure political will it took to build 92 acres of landfill in the Hudson River.

Urstadt’s legacy extends beyond Battery Park City to the many other projects he did for Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the ’60s and ’70s. Affordable housing advocates censure him for pushing the Urstadt Law and vacancy decontrol, which weakened rent protections in New York City. Urstadt also spent decades in the private sector, building a commercial real estate company, and in his spare time he recently set world records in swimming.

“Charlie is a visionary,” said Sandy Frucher, president of the Battery Park City Authority from 1984 to 1988 under Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo. “ I don’t always agree with him, but I respect his creative mind, his commitment to the public good, and his willingness to say what he thinks.”

Urstadt’s penchant for speaking his mind — even when that means criticizing the governor and other members of the authority — could be part of the reason Paterson is replacing him. As vice chairperson of the authority for the past 12 years and acting chairperson for the past two weeks, since former Chairperson James Gill stepped down, Urstadt has emphatically stated that he is loyal not to Paterson but to the good of the authority, and he often criticizes the authority for inefficiencies.

In an extensive interview with Downtown Express in December, Urstadt said he sometimes considered leaving the authority board, especially when he realized how much time he spent on Battery Park City business as opposed to on his own company or with his grandchildren.

“Why am I still involved in doing this?” Urstadt said two months ago. “I guess it’s almost hard to explain. Pride. Parental. You know a lot about it and you don’t want to waste that knowledge. A feel for it, maybe? It’s hard to explain. Whatever you want to call it, but you don’t want to give it up. You want to see it through.”

This week, as it looked more likely that Paterson, a Democrat, would replace Urstadt, the Battery Park City veteran sounded less sentimental.

“It’s inevitable,” Urstadt said on Monday. “I have no control over it. That’s the way these things work.”

Paterson’s intervention comes as Battery Park City itself is at a crossroads. The neighborhood’s final buildings are under construction, meaning that the authority’s role as a public development corporation is nearly complete. That, in turn, raises the question of how much longer the authority should exist.

Urstadt’s view on the matter is blunt: “The job is finished,” Urstadt said. “And when the job is finished, ’fess up.”

At any time, the city can exercise its $1 option to buy Battery Park City back from the state, and Urstadt thinks the sooner that happens, the better. The city would have to shoulder Battery Park City’s debt, but would also have permanent control over the revenue the neighborhood produces. Cutting the authority staff would save $15 million a year, Urstadt said, and there is more than enough money to provide generous severance packages for laid-off authority employees. Urstadt would keep the B.P.C. Parks Conservancy, an arm of the authority, to maintain the grounds.

Urstadt has met with city officials about what he wryly calls “my simple plan,” but so far it hasn’t gained much traction, so the authority is likely to stay in place for now.

Charlie Urstadt, 81, has set world swimming records for his age group, top. He’s proud that Battery Park City cost $25 a square foot to build and is now worth over $2,000 a foot. Even after heavy snowstorms, joggers still enjoy the B.P.C. esplanade.

Creating B.P.C.

The idea of Battery Park City seems self-evident in retrospect, but Urstadt remembers it having many powerful critics, including Mayor John Lindsay and Hugh Carey, who was a U.S. representative in the 1960s and later became governor. (Ironically, the neighborhood and authority is officially named for Gov. Carey, who went on to support and oversee B.P.C.’s early construction.) Urstadt said part of the problem was that politicians tend to have two or three-year horizons, while investments like Battery Park City take decades to pay off.

As a real estate developer, Urstadt believed in Battery Park City because hundreds of thousands of people worked in Lower Manhattan and “everybody wants to shorten their commuting time,” Urstadt said. “How best to do it? Fill in the land, and let them walk to those jobs Downtown. That was the basic idea.”

Today, the land that Urstadt and others built for $25 per square foot is worth $2,000 to $3,000 per square foot, he said.

“If I hadn’t stuck with that thing, it wouldn’t be there,” Urstadt said. “It would have been killed, or turned into a garbage dump or turned into a park or whatever, but it wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t persisted.”

The modern Battery Park City is different in several ways from what Urstadt and the other original planners envisioned. Based on the urban unrest across the country in the late 1960s, Battery Park City was designed with only two entrances to the rest of Manhattan, so the entire neighborhood could be closed off in case of danger. The buildings would be connected by skyways, so people wouldn’t have to set foot on the street.

While future planners abandoned such an isolated vision for the neighborhood, Battery Park City retains a separate, cloistered feeling, with the tall buildings and wide boulevards forming a streetscape unlike the rest of Lower Manhattan. Many residents like the neighborhood precisely for that reason.

The mix of housing planned for Battery Park City also changed over time. Urstadt saw the neighborhood as a home for people of all income levels, but he agreed with his successors’ decision to fill the desirable waterfront property with mostly market-rate housing and use the income it generated to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city.

That plan has had hiccups over the years, as mayors took the Battery Park City money for the general fund rather than using it for affordable housing. Now Gov. Paterson is trying to siphon off some of the money to fill the state’s budget gaps as well, which Urstadt and some affordable housing advocates oppose.

Urstadt’s outspoken opposition of the governor’s use of the money, perhaps more than anything else, is what will likely earn him the boot from the authority. At the end of last year, shortly before his term expired, Urstadt said he would like to be reappointed but admitted, “I am a bit of a thorn in some people’s side.”

Urstadt also opposed the authority’s recent renegotiation of ground rents on a few B.P.C. condo buildings. He was concerned about less money going into the affordable housing fund, but the deal prevented huge spikes in fees to many neighborhood homeowners.

“I’m not trying to make friends at this age,” Urstadt added. “I’ve got enough friends already.”

This week Urstadt did not sound angry about possibly leaving the board, but he sounded frustrated by the governor’s plan for the B.P.C. money, which Urstadt thinks should go to the city, and concerned about the authority’s future.

“I have no ax to grind except that I want to see what’s right and good for the authority,” Urstadt said this week. “All I’m trying to do is carry out the intent of this whole thing.”

Urstadt’s law & legacy

Asked late last year what he wanted his legacy to be, Urstadt paused. He spoke of his two grandchildren, his world swimming records, his company and his work for Rockefeller.

“That I did a good, a decent job,” Urstadt said. “But as far as what are you going to leave behind, family is the most important.”

Urstadt only briefly mentioned the state law that bears his name, which is likely the first thing that comes to mind when most people in New York’s political world hear Urstadt’s name. Widely reviled by affordable housing advocates, the 1971 Urstadt Law gave New York State, rather than New York City, control over the city’s rent regulations.

“It’s been a disaster,” said Michael McKee, executive director of Housing Here and Now and a longtime activist. “The Urstadt Law has allowed the real estate lobby to control the debate and control the…shape of rent-protection laws for 40 years. It’s been harmful to tenants and the preservation of affordable housing.”

Passed when Urstadt was Rockefeller’s housing commissioner, the Urstadt Law prevents the City Council from passing laws that increase protections for tenants. Instead, any changes have to go through Albany, where many of the legislators come from districts that don’t have any rent regulation. Rather than answering to constituents, those legislators are often influenced by the real estate industry, McKee said.

Urstadt has heard the criticism and still thinks it was the right thing to do. The law “actually protects the city against itself,” Urstadt said. Without the Urstadt Law, the City Council would control rents and would be forced to yield to tenant groups demanding stricter controls, Urstadt said. Landlords would not be able to maintain their properties and would foreclose by the hundreds, and new construction would halt because developers would be afraid the city would regulate the units, Urstadt said.

McKee called Urstadt’s argument “nonsense,” because the City Council voted in 1994 to weaken rent-stabilization by allowing landlords to deregulate vacant apartments where the rent topped $2,000 a month. The state later broadened vacancy and luxury decontrol in 1997 to affect existing tenants.

Urstadt thinks the Council would be under pressure today to roll back rents if they got control. Urstadt said City Councilmembers and even an ACORN representative have privately thanked him for the Urstadt Law.

Urstadt also spearheaded the state’s first vacancy decontrol law, allowing landlords to remove units from rent-stabilization when tenants moved out. The Legislature repealed the law a few years later but vacancy decontrol returned in the 1990s under Gov. George Pataki. Urstadt’s other projects for Rockefeller included founding the Urban Development Corp. and building Mitchell-Lama middle-class housing complexes, including Co-Op City in the Bronx and Starrett City in Brooklyn.

Big Ideas

Some of Urstadt’s grand, iconoclastic ideas have never come to fruition, but that doesn’t stop him from fighting for them. After seeing the success of Battery Park City, Urstadt has long advocated for expanding the landfill still further, including into South Cove, which is often strewn with garbage. Urstadt envisions an iconic 2 million square-foot office building taking the cove’s place. Designed by an international competition, the new structure would become as identifiable with New York as the Sydney Opera House is with Australia.

Many B.P.C. residents have panned the South Cove suggestion, and some of Urstadt’s other ideas, like filling in the Harlem River or demolishing the landmarked Pier A, also seem unlikely to say the least.

But another of Urstadt’s proposals — to extend the landfill up from Chambers St. to Canal St. — came much closer to happening than many people realize.

“I, in fact, recommended that,” said Frucher, the president of the B.P.C. Authority from 1984 to 1988.

Frucher saw Lower Manhattan’s fledgling residential community and realized that the neighborhood needed more large park spaces. Frucher would have split the 200 new acres north of Battery Park City evenly between parks and residential development. He saw full-size fields for Stuyvesant High School, and enough new residents to build real community services for the surrounding neighborhood.

Frucher still describes the idea with enthusiasm and said he agrees with Urstadt that it could work today. Back in the ’80s, the proposal got tied up in the environmental debate over Westway, which was never implemented. Another obstacle today is the fact that the Hudson River Park Trust is rebuilding Piers 25 and 26, stretching out into the water right where Urstadt and Frucher see apartments and playing fields.

“There’s no point rebuilding piers no ships are ever going to use,” Urstadt said when reminded of the Hudson River Park project. “What’s the point of a long skinny finger sticking out in the river, when you could put something where kids can play soccer or softball?”

Real estate and swimming

Urstadt grew up on W. 195th St. in the Bronx, in a building his grandfather owned and his father managed. He skipped third grade and then did an accelerated program at Creston Junior High School, before attending Bronx Science and graduating at the age of 16.

Urstadt’s lifelong aptitude for swimming started on City Island, where his mother was born and his family spent summers. At the age of 12, Urstadt swam in his first race in Crotona Park in the Bronx. He won three events and got a taste of both fame and disappointment: The next day, the Bronx Home News dedicated a headline to Urstadt, but they misspelled his name. It read, “Wistadt Triple Winner.”

Urstadt continued swimming at Dartmouth College, where he studied economics and made the All-American Team twice. While continuing his studies at Dartmouth’s business school, he coached the freshman team.

Urstadt then attended Cornell Law School and after the Korean War, he served in the Navy in the Pacific and in California. By the time he was discharged as a full lieutenant in 1956 and married his wife, a woman from Smith he met through mutual friends, Urstadt found swimming harder to fit in, so he took a 42-year rest.

Urstadt’s first big real estate job was in the legal department for legendary developer Bill Zeckendorf. Urstadt worked on hotels, shopping centers and office buildings and was so busy he missed more than one New Year’s Eve.

“He was the greatest real estate guy of the time, still is,” Urstadt said of Zeckendorf. “He was more than the Donny Trump of his time.”

But when some of Zeckendorf’s big urban projects were bought out by the conglomerate Alcoa, Urstadt started looking for work outside the corporate machine.

At that time, Urstadt’s good college friend Bob Douglass (now chairperson of the Downtown Alliance and the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association) was working for Gov. Rockefeller and invited Urstadt to join him. As commissioner of housing and urban development, Urstadt launched some of the projects that continue to define his legacy, including Battery Park City and changes to rent regulation.

“He’s a delightful guy,” Douglass said of Urstadt. “He’s smart, quick, ebullient, creative, great sense of humor.”

Until Urstadt started working for Rockefeller, he was known by his middle initial, “J.” But Rockefeller, who liked giving out nicknames, christened Urstadt “Charlie,” and he’s been known by that name ever since, Douglass said.

After leaving government when his Battery Park City chairperson term ran out at the end of 1978, Urstadt went to work in real estate, ultimately building Urstadt Biddle Properties, a collection of grocery-anchored shopping centers in the tri-state area. The company has weathered the economic ups and downs solidly, increasing the dividend paid to its shareholders for the past 16 years, Urstadt said. Douglass is vice chairperson of the company’s board.

In 1999, while Urstadt was leading Urstadt Biddle Properties and shortly after he rejoined the Battery Park City board, appointed vice chairperson by Republican Gov. Pataki, Urstadt’s son-in-law prodded him to give swimming another try. Although it had been decades since Urstadt swam competitively, he found that he was fast for his age bracket and soon began winning races. In 2008, Urstadt set the worldwide record for the 50-meter breaststroke in the age 80-84 category, and he regularly wins national championships and sets new national records.

Now Urstadt swims every day, usually at a YMCA, unless he lifts weights. In addition to the health benefits, Urstadt noticed another boon at his 60th college reunion: “All my contemporaries who walk or jog have shrunk,” Urstadt said. “If you swim, you don’t shrink as much.”

Urstadt, who lives in Bronxville with his wife, is quick with jokes about his age — “I’m so old that I remember when the Dead Sea was just sick,” he quipped at a recent B.P.C. board meeting — but he’s slower to take his age’s limitations seriously.

“I don’t want to retire,” Urstadt said late last year. “I’m happy to work. I wouldn’t know what to do, sitting around. You don’t have as much energy as you used to have. You slow down. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t want to dedicate my life to golf, or sit outside the supermarket waiting for my wife to come out. I can’t handle that. I’ll keep going as long as I can.”