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By Martin Gottlieb

  • Oct. 18, 1985
Image CreditCreditThe New York Times Archives See the article in its original context from
October 18, 1985, Section B, Page 1Buy Reprints View on timesmachine TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers. About the Archive This is a digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems. Please send reports of such problems to [email protected]

The glittery commercial centerpiece of Battery Park City officially opened for business yesterday in ceremonies that were imbued with a sense that something more was involved than a cluster of office towers.

Called the World

Financial Center, those towers are imposing in their own right - they will cost $1.5 billion, contain seven million square feet of office space, decorate the western tip of Manhattan with a distinctive new skyline and provide homes for some of the most prestigious companies on Wall Street - Merrill Lynch & Company, Shearson/American Express, Dow Jones & Company, and Oppenheimer & Company.

A Symbol of Change

But symbolically, they represent even more, because there is perhaps no other piece of New York City that so embodies the volatile changes -economic, political, and philosophic - that have swept through the city over the last 15 years.

At once, these four towers, built by a Canadian development company, Olympia & York, and distinctively topped with stylized copper roofs, symbolize the city's growing preeminence as a financial capital, its emergence from a dark decade of fiscal crises and corporate departures, and the muting of the traditional liberal politics over which most of Battery Park City's early battles were fought.

At the same time, as intimated by Governor Cuomo in remarks at yesterday's ceremony, Battery Park City may also find itself at the heart of another political shift that may accompany a growing confidence that the city and state have finally recovered from the financial upheavals of the last decade.

The Battery Park City of today -which has the World Financial Center at its heart across West Street from the World Trade Center and a projected 14,000 units of luxury housing on either side of it on 92 acres of landfill - is decidedly different from the Battery Park City proposed by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller almost 20 years ago.

In that project, half the apartments would have commanded luxury rents, 40 percent would have been geared to middle-income residents and 10 percent would have been set aside for the poor.

When a compromise with the Lindsay administration in the late 60's dropped the proportion of apartments for the poor to 7 percent, a howl of protest arose from the city's potent liberal community, which argued that government should not be involved in building predominantly for the rich and that housing for the poor should be integrated into neighborhoods of every income strata.

Borough President Percy E. Sutton of Manhattan, the last minority-group member to serve on the Board of Estimate, derisively dismissed Battery Park City as a ''Riviera on the Hudson.'' And, speaking at a City Planning Commission hearing in 1969, a representative of the Women's City Club characterized the compromise as ''the kind of tokenism which is an affront to the needy and the frustrated of our city.''

The politics of the day was such that Mayor John V. Lindsay reversed his position in the midst of his 1969 re-election campaign and won City Planning Commission acceptance of a program that called for two-thirds of the housing units to be subsidized, divided evenly between the poor and the middle class.

None of this, of course, ever came to pass and, in the end, it was the buildings of the World Financial Center rather than apartments for low- and middle-income people that received government subsidies in the form of tax abatements.

'Economic Reality Intruded'

''What happened was the fiscal crisis,'' Manfred Ohrenstein, the minority leader of the State Senate and a longtime liberal standard-bearer, said before yesterday's ceremonies. ''Economic reality intruded.''

Even those who question how much in the way of social programs had to be jettisoned agree.

Along with a belief among city and state administrations that social programs had to be cut back came a realization that the concepts of endless office development and economic growth were inaccurate.

By 1971, Manhattan's office market had been so overbuilt that there were real questions about the offices proposed for Battery Park City, and by mid-decade more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies had moved their headquarters out of the city.

At the time he took office in 1977, Mayor Koch recalled yesterday, Battery Park City was still virtually empty landfill and was commonly referred to as ''the Beach.''

The Battery Park City that emerged from a rescue plan fashioned by the Koch and Carey administrations in 1979 was as much a product of its time as the Rockefeller concept was a child of the 60's.

Gone, at least for the time being, was talk of subsidized housing. Moved from the southern tip of the project to its physical center was the office development, which was no longer looked at as a sure thing, but as something that had to be nurtured with 10-year tax abatements.

'Wall Street II'

And dropped was a master plan that Meyer S. Frucher, current president of the Battery Park City Authority, described as ''a futuristic design based on the voguish concept of the 60's of new towns.'' In its place was a less ostentatious plan that integrated the project into the street grid and architecture of Manhattan.

As the project was being refashioned under Richard A. Kahan, chairman of the Battery Park City Authority in the late 70's, the city's economy began its second unexpected turn in a decade, generating more than a quarter million new jobs - the bulk of them in the financial sector - in eight years.

The results? ''A soaring triumph,'' said Governor Cuomo at yesterday's ceremonies.

''A part of the city that will be recognized as the new Wall Street - Wall Street II,'' said Mayor Koch.

''A major governmental success and an example of what government can do,'' said Mr. Frucher.

And what of that old 60's notion of subsidized housing?

Aid for Housing

After pronouncing the crisis of Battery Park City solved, Mr. Cuomo said, ''I want to tell you, there's another crisis at hand.'' He described this as a ''housing crisis'' in which 900,000 housing units in the state were judged to be substandard.

As the cornerstone of a proposed 10-year, $1 billion housing program, the Governor and the Mayor have proposed that the Battery Park City Authority float $400 million in bonds that it would back with anticipated revenues.

The money would be spread among neighborhoods all over the city, with at least one exception as the plan is now conceived - Battery Park City.

The thought of an economically integrated housing development on some of the most valuable land in the city seems to have gone the way of the 60's, and many housing advocates argue that there are compelling reasons for this - more subsidized apartments can be generated on less expensive land.

At yesterday's ceremonies, Mayor Koch said it was of fundamental importance that ''we continue to build here and to make sure we continue to be the financial center of the world.''

As for subsidized housing after a decade of government retrenchment, Brian Sullivan, of the Pratt Center for Community and Environmental Development, observed, ''Advocates of low-income housing will take housing wherever and however they can get it.''

A version of this article appears in print on , Section B, Page 1 of the National edition with the headline: BATTERY PROJECT REFLECTS CHANGING CITY PRIORITIES. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe