Never retiring, sometimes retired Michael Levine

Downtown Express photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer Michael Levine, Community Board 1’s urban planner, helped craft the 1971 law to allow Soho artists to live in former industrial buildings.

Downtown Express photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer
Michael Levine, Community Board 1’s urban planner, helped craft the 1971 law to allow Soho artists to live in former industrial buildings.

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER  |  Michael Levine, Community Board 1’s director of land use and planning, first retired in 1998 at the age of 55 after having worked for the City Planning Commission for 30 years. Then he went to work for the American Planning Association for eight years until 2006, when he accepted a part-time position at Community Board 1.

Levine, in addition to his job at C.B. 1, also teaches undergraduates at Pace University and coordinates the Community Planning Fellowship Program for the Fund for the City of New York.

Now that he’s 70 years old, Levine is about to retire again — sort of. He will remain on the C.B. 1 payroll until July 5, 2013 to receive all the unused vacation time he has accrued and will be replaced as director of land use and planning by one of his former students, Diana Switaj, who came to the community board as an Urban Fellow three years ago and has been serving as Levine’s assistant.

But Levine hopes to return to C.B. 1 in the fall as a consultant.

“How many times a day can I walk the dog,” he said.

Levine, who was born and brought up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, remembers that as a kid, he and his friends would take the subway to Greenwich Village to go to coffeehouses and jazz clubs. “We always loved coming into the city,” he said. “To me, it was the big time and Brooklyn was a suburb of Manhattan.”

He thought of being an architect and enrolled in Pratt Institute — but that didn’t work out. “After a year, they told me, you’re not an architect,” he recalled. “You think about the city and the excitement of the city and what makes the city work. You’re a city planner.”

Levine was in Hunter College’s first class of urban planners, getting his masters degree in 1968.

He then got a job immediately with City Planning. He was given small jobs to work on, before he got an assignment that he still recalls with wonder and delight.

In the fall of 1969, artists who were living illegally in Soho’s former manufacturing buildings applied to live in the buildings legally.

“I was terribly excited,” Levine said of the assignment. “Wow! What am I going to do with it?  Am I going to run out and interview all the people living there? It took a long time to gain their trust because they were living illegally in their units and doing their artwork.”

He said that it took him two years of negotiating with agencies, with the community and with the Board of Estimate — the original legislative body of New York City — to reach a solution.

“They were ultimately responsible for approving any zoning text changes,” he recalled. “And it was the greatest fun I had in my whole career — 1971 — three years out of school, and I’m negotiating with borough presidents to adopt a major zoning change for Lower Manhattan that had the longest-term effect imaginable. It’s Soho today! The district would have been demolished by Robert Moses had it not been for the zoning change and the historic district designation.

“That, to me, has been the most important thing I ever did… I saw the change on the streets immediately. Forty years later, we can see that it increased the cultural life of the city. It increased land values.  I invented it 40 years ago. It’s a good feeling to know that it happened.”

Though he will soon be officially retired from C.B. 1, he hopes to continue to work as a consultant on the Howard Hughes developments at the South Street Seaport, the Civic Center plan, which entails selling the buildings at 346 Broadway and at 49-51 Chambers St., and the issues involved with funding Hudson River Park.

About Howard Hughes and the Seaport, he said that he expects Hughes to make a proposal for developing the Tin and the New Market Buildings, which lie just north of Pier 17.

“To me, that’s an exciting project,” said Levine. “They would have to come back to us for a ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] action to dispose of city property and to enter into a long-term lease — and they would need a long-term lease because they do not have leasehold rights on that property. We’re talking about new development. I don’t know what it will be — residential, hotel, mixed? I don’t know.”

He said that he hopes to work on this project with Switaj. “It’s a continuation of what we’ve worked on,” he said. “To me, to see the Seaport alive and thriving is the most important thing.”

Regarding the Civic Center plan, he said that he agrees with the sale of the buildings. “They’re antiquated,” he said. “They don’t work anymore.” However, the community board is on record as opposing the sale unless it is accompanied by more school seats.

The third project on which Levine has been working is how to fund Hudson River Park. He has been serving as a representative of C.B.1 on the steering committee, which is reaching out to the public to guarantee a public review process.

“My job as a representative of C.B. 1 is to make sure that the public participation process happens and that everyone has a chance to speak,” he said. “I personally favor a Neighborhood Improvement District as a Greenwich Village resident, but I have to remain neutral. We’ve had opinions all over the place.”

“I’ve had a lot of fun,” he said of his work as a city planner. Considering his previous track record as a retiree, it seems likely that the fun isn’t finished.

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2 Responses to Never retiring, sometimes retired Michael Levine

  1. “The district would have been demolished by Robert Moses had it not been for the zoning change and the historic district designation.”

    Au contraire! With all respect to Mr. Levine, it was the other way around.

    After well over a decade of struggle by local activists and many other groups, the Lower Manhattan Expressway project was effectively killed in August 1969, when it was officially demapped by the Board of Estimate. The final nail was put in its coffin by Gov. Rockefeller in March 1971, a mere two months after SoHo’s unique zoning was enacted. Furthermore, the Cast-Iron District was not designated until 1973.

    Indeed, it was awareness of the impending doom of LOMEX that prompted the nascent SoHo community at the first meeting of the SoHo Artists Association in 1968 (the same year that Mr. Levine was still in grad school) to lead the charge to the change of zoning.

    Although he may have had a bureaucratic role in SoHo’s re-zoning, this zoning effort was overwhelmingly community-inspired and community-based. Even a thorough reading of the zoning history gives little credit to DCP or any of its employees in affecting the zoning change. It was the pioneers and volunteer activists who get – and deserve – the credit.

  2. It looks like Mr. Levine had a long and fruitful career doing something he believed in. I wish most of us were as lucky as him.

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