History & Milestones

When CIVITAS was founded in 1981 August Heckscher, its first chair, hearkened back to the Roman Republic to find a name that would express the spirit of the new community organization. The name chosen, “CIVITAS” referred to that quality of a citizen that made him deeply involved in the life and fate of his city. Such has been the guiding spirit for CIVITAS ever since.

CIVITAS started in 1981 with the Ruppert Brewery site between Second & Third Avenues and 93rd & 94th Streets. The site was being developed into a large residential complex, and CIVITAS was formed to protest the proposed plan. CIVITAS sued the City for an Environmental Impact Statement. The suit failed, but the building height on Third Avenue was reduced. CIVITAS was underway. Planning studies and another lawsuit followed. From there CIVITAS mobilized to address other areas of concern on the Upper East Side and in East Harlem. This is an overview of our work over 30 years.

The East and Harlem River Esplanade Waterfront Park is an under-appreciated asset for passive and active recreation. While CIVITAS is pursuing work to improve the Esplanade both south of Gracie Mansion and north of 125th Street, its focus has been on a stretch of the Esplanade from 90th to 125th Streets that has been severely under-maintained. At the same time, with the completion of the first phase of the Second Avenue subway and the prospect for the second phase extending to 125th Street, the growing population east of Lexington Avenue could benefit from an improved waterfront.

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In the spring of 2004, CIVITAS completed installation of 55 tree guards on East 86th Street between First and Lexington Avenues. This comprehensive project involved surveying the sidewalk, creating new enlarged tree sites and enlarging old tree beds, replacing old and planting new trees, arranging for soil covering, and the installation of Belgian blocks. Most important, sturdy but handsome iron tree guards have been set around the tree beds wherever possible to protect them from the elements, road vehicles, and dogs. The Parks Department contracted the work for $76,000. CIVITAS obtained a grant of $59,000 from the Manhattan Borough President’s Office and raised more than $15,000 in addition to complete the work.

A new contextual zoning for a substantial part of East Harlem—52 blocks—was enacted in June 2003. Improved zoning would allow East Harlem to preserve the village-like feeling of its side streets with their concentration of low-rise row houses and tenements, and at the same time provide the opportunity for contemporary housing and increased commercial activity along some of the area’s widest avenues.

Now, detailed planning and implementation are occurring; we will observe and contribute to make sure the original intent is preserved. A study by the Department of City Planning to consider further upzoning of Third Avenue will be closely monitored.

Click here to read the 2002 booklet New Zoning for East Harlem.

The CIVITAS Board of Directors convened a forum in March 1999 to review the New York development issues in the 21st century. Citizens, urban planners, community activists, politicians and real-estate developers discussed pressing issues facing New Yorkers now and in the future.

The study by planner Geoffrey Roesch includes recommendations for more trees, an improved streetscape, access to the waterfront and a pedestrian bridge to the Randall’s Island sports complex.

Property owners, city officials, community organizations, financial institutions and a not for profit housing rehabilitation company explored ways to develop the vacant stock in East Harlem. One facilitator was Raymond Cornbill of Mount Sinai Community Medicine (shown at right).

Both studies were welcomed by the community and received well deserved interest and admiration. They are being used by the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, local organizations and individuals, both property owners and developers. Rehabilitating and putting on the market 2,500 apartments will bring much desired changes in the area.

In early 1998 CIVITAS completed a huge undertaking: A Land Use Survey of the commercial corridors in East Harlem which was followed by A Call To Action: Rebuilding the Main Street in the Village of East Harlem. Based on the findings of the survey and the analysis of the data, A Call To Action became a wake-up call to rehabilitate and use the existing residential stock in these corridors, thus revitalizing the area and stimulating economic growth.

A troubling issue over the years has been the expansion of existing buildings in residential blocks into the rear yards, taking up space, light and air from its neighbors. CIVITAS conducted a study in 1997 A Community Facilities Study, and made several recommendations for changes to the Department of City Planning.

The Youth Committee of Community Board 11 realized the importance and need for effective communication skills as a means of Bridging the Gaps in the life of the community.

The study A Community View led to an extension, Opportunities and Issues: East 125th Street, which compiled up-to-date land use, zoning and transportation information and recommended a planning framework for the area consistent with its economic growth and preservation. The study, conducted by Paul Buckhurst, provided a vision for the area and its usefulness has become apparent as rehabilitation and new developments are underway that are consistent with preserving and enhancing the character of the neighborhood.

The study examined street activity and the effect of storefronts versus blank walls and vacant lots. Sociological consultants designed a survey for local youth to interview their peers and adult neighbors to determine what they viewed as their priority problems in their area. We discovered that blank walls attracted graffiti and vacant lots were a site for undesirable behavior, while storefronts encouraged commerce and provided services. The survey also indicated that local youth and unmarried mothers needed effective services, job-training, and jobs.

Download the PDF by clicking here!

The necessity for zoning literacy was becoming apparent to CIVITAS and in 1991 the organization commissioned Jack Huberman to write and illustrate a user-friendly publication entitled The ABC of Zoning that demystifies the issues of zoning and planning on the Upper East Side and East Harlem. All members received a copy of the booklet and CIVITAS has mailed hundreds of copies to various organizations and individuals that requested it, from Tokyo, Moscow, Riyad and Kenya to colleges and institutions in this country.  Download a copy of The ABC of Zoning here.

Then in 1993, The New School’s Simulation Center modeled different zoning scenarios from the Department of City Planning, The Real Estate Board, Oculus (American Institute of Architects) and CIVITAS.

As a result, the zoning was amended not only on the Upper East Side but also in other areas of Manhattan. New buildings will not exceed 35 stories, the street wall will match the other buildings and there will be affordable housing bonuses instead of plazas.

In 1986 CIVITAS initiated another study, No More Tall Stories, which makes the case for lower buildings, same height as their neighbors, and elimination of plazas. A video illustrating the issue was produced and Paul Newman narrated it.

This was followed, in 1989, by another study, A Draft for Discussion: Upper East Side Avenue Study. A land use survey was conducted in high-density zones on the avenues.

Street study led to the discovery of an illegal construction at 108 East 96th Street. A protracted legal battle lasting 5 years followed. In the end the 12 illegal stories were removed.

One of the first tasks was to conduct a study of East 96th Street with a view of recommending zoning changes (lower contextual buildings with affordable housing bonus) and other improvements. CIVITAS worked with community members on the Upper East Side and East Harlem to achieve more affordable housing in smaller scale buildings, improved streetscape, and traffic recommendations. Normandie Court’s design was modified accordingly.

East 96th Street: A Planning Study by CIVITAS and Buckhurst Fish Hutton Katz

It wasn’t just talk… There was also hands-on activity. Here CIVITAS members clean the 96th Street Subway Station.