Mr. Stephenson, Tear Down This Wall


To:  Randall Stephenson, CEO and Grand High Poobah, AT&T

From:  Erik Seims

Re:  33 Thomas St., New York, NY, a.k.a. “The Long Lines Building”

April 29, 2012

I’m writing to ask you to do something about this:

Where hope goes to die. Image:

The Long Lines Building is a terrible thing to do to a city.  Opened in 1974, this Brutalist hellbeast went up near the end of an era when blank street-level walls, windswept plazas, and excess sidewalk space for the sake of space were somehow seen as good things, or at least were seen as secondary to aesthetics designed to overawe.  On those grounds it succeeds completely.

Brutalism doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.  Whatever one might think of Boston’s City Hall and the surrounding plaza, architects Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles were clearly trying to develop a thoughtful interpretation of what a modern democratic space should be.  The Long Lines Building, on the other hand, could only have been developed under the following scenario:

(Scene:  City Hall, 1973)

AT&T CHAIRMAN FREDERICK KAPPEL:  We’re building a structure a few blocks north of City Hall that is the manifestation of Fear, a dark temple devoted to the crushing of souls, a dead wind blowing in the face of the human spirit.  It shall blot out sun above and life below.  It shall be stillborn and age badly.  And it shall be built so strongly, that decades hence, it shall be impossible to tear down.  Your. City. Shall. Suffer.  It.  Forever.

MAYOR LINDSAY:  The city’s going broke.  Sounds swell to me!


Look.  I’m a realist.  It won’t be easy to tear down this building.  Aside from the obvious question of where to relocate everything that it houses, it’s so fantastically overbuilt (A well-sourced Wikipedia article says that its floors were built to carry live loads of 200-300 pounds per square foot, and that it can remain inhabitable even after 2 weeks of radioactive fallout), that demolishing it will probably require opening the Ark of The Covenant and the launching of multiple nuclear weapons laced with streptococcus and Spam.

Perhaps a more realistic scenario would be to wrap the building — or at least the lower levels of the Church Street and Worth Street sides of it —  with a retail or commercial-use exterior, not unlike the hot dog in the middle of a pizza crust that is currently entombing people too stupid to eat regular pizza.  Unlike the aforementioned lousy idea, though, a commercial exterior is entirely viable.  In fact, it’s already been done.  Returning to Boston, 500 Atlantic Avenue is a residential property which is wrapped around a ventilation building for the Central Artery Tunnel.

The area’s also zoned C6-4.  Think of everything you could do with a C6-4-zoned space down there.  Golly!  Overpriced wine bars and little nibbly things at $17 a pop.  Everyone else seems to be doing it.  And you’ll still have enough room to shield the bedrock of our society or whatever you’ve got in there from The Day After.

Feel free to catch the next flight up from Dallas to walk around the building yourself.  I eagerly await your reaction to it.

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2 Comments on “Mr. Stephenson, Tear Down This Wall”

  1. Keith June 30, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    Is there a formal interactive planning tool available between the public and the government? As I read through the various city planning blogs I see a lot of good ideas. So how are these ideas put to use in the city planning department? Can or have the government, academia and business created a best practice process and data base to ensure that best solutions are incorporated into city planning models? Like open source code (e.g. LINUX OS) that people can examine and contribute, is there or should there be a place for open source design as part of a formal and standardized participative design process utilized as an interactive planning tool. The right open source process would be a silver thread that tags project phases with public inputs. A person could drop-in a requirement at a desired location e.g. handicap access, more green space or easier tourist access, then a viable design, technology or procedure could be input as a solution. People could then comment on their merits and concerns. Planners could then facilitate and balance public need with governmental resources. This process should also provide public transparency by documenting public comments with developer goals. These case studies should be placed in a searchable date base and accessible to the public; that is the clear and concise; and provides cost or return on investment for each project. As Facebook mines data, should the city planning department have an official website to mine ideas for data in a planning model? The cost to built such a model could be offset by utilizing some of these good ideas.


    • alinefader July 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

      NYC has this: I think this might be the sort of thing you are referring to.
      It is not just about planning, but I think that is good!
      Cities handle public input and organize practical operations in a variety of ways, and often it is hard to separate Planning Department specific issues from general concerns about city life. For instance, if parking is problematic in a specific area, is it a problem of zoning controls, police enforcement, street design, transit access, street cleaning frequency or some mix of the above? Each of those concerns could conceivably be handled by different entities, so it is hard (practically speaking) for a municipality to address it just through their planning department.


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