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Techtown USA

The origins and perils of development in the urban tech landscape

In most major cities of the world, an urban tech landscape has emerged. One day, we were working on our laptops at Starbucks, and the next, we were renting desks at WeWork. We embedded our small architectural and design firms in low-rent spaces in old factories and warehouses, and then we emerged as “TAMI” (technology, advertising, media, and information) tenants, heating up the commercial real estate market. Friends who could write computer code started businesses in their apartments before moving into tech incubators and accelerators, which then morphed into a “startup ecosystem.” Though a competitive city in the 1990s might only have had one cutely named cluster of startups—New York’s Silicon Alley, San Francisco’s Media Gulch—by the 2010s, many cities were building “innovation districts.” How did this happen? And what does it mean for these cities’ futures?

The simplest explanation is that cities are catching up to the digital economy. If computers and the web are one of the primary means of production for the 21st century, all cities need the infrastructure—broadband, connectivity, flexible office space—to support them. Companies that control the means of production also need raw material—the data that newly “smart” cities can provide—to develop concepts, test prototypes, and market their wares. Local governments and business leaders have always reshaped cities around the businesses that profit from new technology; In the 19th century, they built railroad stations, dug subway tunnels, and laid sewage pipes; in the 20th century, they wired for electricity and erected office towers. Maybe we should ask why it has taken cities so long to rebuild for digital technology.

Inertia is one answer, and money is another. Entrenched elites don’t readily change course, especially if a new economy would challenge their influence on local politics and labor markets. Think about the long dominance of the auto industry in Detroit and the financial industry in New York, both late converts to digital technologies like self-driving cars and electronic banking, respectively.

Another reason for cities’ slow awakening to the tech economy is the post–World War II prominence of suburban office parks and research centers, part of the mass suburbanization of American society. On the East Coast, tech talent began to migrate from cities in the early 1940s, when Bell Labs, the 20th-century engineering powerhouse, moved from Lower Manhattan to a large tract of land in suburban New Jersey. A few years later, on the West Coast, Stanford University and the technology company Varian Associates spearheaded the construction of an electronics research park on a university-owned site of orange groves that later became known as Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley got the lion’s share of postwar federal government grants and contracts from the military for microwave electronics innovation, missile research, and satellite communications. Venture capital (VC) soon followed. Although VC firms began in New York and Boston, by the 1960s and ’70s they were setting up shop in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Valley’s hegemony was solidified in the 1980s by the rise of the personal computer industry and the VCs who got rich by investing in it. The suburban tech landscape so artfully represented in popular mythology by Silicon Valley’s DIY garages and in physical reality by its expansive corporate campuses was both pragmatically persuasive and culturally pervasive. Its success rested on a triple helix of government, business, and university partnerships, defining an era from Fairchild, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard (the first wave of major digital technology companies) to Apple, Google, and Facebook.

In contrast to the suburban postwar growth of Silicon Valley, the urban tech landscape was propelled by the rise of software in the early 2000s and gained ground after the economic crisis of 2008. Software was easier and cheaper to develop than computers and silicon chips—it wasn’t tied to equipment or talent in big research universities. It was made for consumers. Most important, with the development of the iPhone and the subsequent explosion of social media platforms after 2007, software increasingly took the form of apps for mobile devices. This meant that software startups could be scaled, a crucial point for venture capital. For cities, however, the critical point was that anyone, anywhere, could be both an innovator and an entrepreneur.

The 2008 economic crisis plunged cities into a cascade of problems. Subprime mortgages cratered, leaving severely leveraged households and financial institutions adrift. Banks failed if they didn’t get United States government lifelines. Financial jobs at all levels disappeared; local tax revenues plummeted. While mayors understood that they had to end their dependence on the financial sector—a realization most keenly felt in New York—they also faced long-term shrinkage in manufacturing sectors and office vacancies.

London had already tried to counter deindustrialization with the Docklands solution: Waterfront land was redeveloped for new media and finance, and unused piers and warehouses were converted for cultural activities. In Spain, this strategy was taken further in the 1990s by the construction of the Guggenheim Bilbao museum and the clearing of old industrial plants from that city’s waterfront. By the early 2000s, Barcelona’s city government was building both a new cultural district and an “innovation district” for digital media, efforts that bore a striking resemblance to the 1990s market-led development of the new media district in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley and the growth of tech and creative offices in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood.

Until the economic crisis hit, both spontaneous and planned types of urban redevelopment were connected to the popular “creative city” model promoted by Charles Landry in London and Richard Florida in Pittsburgh (later, Toronto). In 2009, however, economic development officials wanted a model that could create more jobs. They seized on the trope of “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” that had been circulating around business schools since the 1980s, channeling the spirit of the economic historian Joseph Schumpeter and popularized in a best-selling book by that title by the management guru Peter Drucker. Adopted by researchers at the Brookings Institution, urban innovation districts would use public-private partnerships to create strategic concentrations of workspaces for digital industries. It seemed like a brilliant masterstroke to simultaneously address three crucial issues that kept mayors awake at night: investments, jobs, and unused, low-value buildings, and land.

In the absence of federal government funding, real estate developers would have to be creative. They built new projects with money from the city and state governments, the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa Program for foreign investors, and urban impact funding that flowed through investment banks like Goldman Sachs. Federal tax credits for renovating historic buildings and investing in high-poverty areas were important.

Though all major cities moved toward an “innovation economy” after 2009, New York’s 180-degree turn from finance to tech was the most dramatic. The bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 and 2001, followed by the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and an economic recession, initially kept the city from endorsing the uncertainty of tech again. Michael Bloomberg, mayor from 2001 to 2013, was a billionaire whose personal fortune and namesake company came from a fusion of finance and tech, most notably the Bloomberg terminal, a specially configured computer that brings real-time data to stock brokers’ and analysts’ desks. Yet, as late as 2007, Mayor Bloomberg, joined by New York’s senior senator Chuck Schumer, promoted New York as the self-styled financial capital of the world, a city that would surely triumph over its only serious rival, London. The 2008 financial crisis crumpled this narrative and turned the Bloomberg administration toward tech.

By 2009, the city’s business elites believed that New York’s salvation depended on producing more software engineers. This consensus motivated the mayor and his economic development officials to build big, organizing a global competition for a university that could create a dynamic, postgraduate engineering campus in New York. Cornell Tech emerged as the winner, a partnership between Cornell University and the Israel Institute of Technology. Between 2014 and 2017, the new school recruited high-profile professors with experience in government research programs, university classrooms, and corporate labs. They created a slew of partnerships with the city’s major tech companies, and the resulting corporate-academic campus made Roosevelt Island New York’s only greenfield innovation district. Not coincidentally, the founding dean was elected to Amazon’s board of directors in 2016.

The Bloomberg administration also partnered with the city’s public and private universities, mainly the aggressively expanding New York University (NYU), to open incubators and accelerators for tech startups. After NYU merged with Polytechnic University, a historic engineering school in downtown Brooklyn, the Bloomberg administration made sure the new engineering school could lease the vacant former headquarters of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority nearby, where NYU’s gut renovation created a giant tech center.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn waterfront was booming. The Brooklyn Navy Yard added advanced manufacturing tenants and art studios to its traditional mix of woodworking and metalworking shops, food processors, and suppliers of electronics parts, construction material, and office equipment, and began to both retrofit old machine shops for “green” manufacturing and build new office space. While tech and creative offices were running out of space in DUMBO, the heads of the downtown Brooklyn and DUMBO business improvement districts came up with the idea of marketing the whole area, with the Navy Yard, as “the Brooklyn Tech Triangle.” With rezoning, media buzz, and a strategic design plan, what began as a ploy to fill vacant downtown office buildings moved toward reality. 

Established tech companies from Silicon Valley and elsewhere also inserted themselves into the urban landscape. Google opened a New York office for marketing and advertising in 2003 but expanded its engineering staff a few years later, buying first one, then two big buildings in Chelsea: an old Nabisco bakery and the massive former headquarters of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Facebook took AOL’s old offices in Greenwich Village. On the next block, IBM Watson occupied a new office building designed by Fumihiko Maki.

Jared Kushner’s brother, the tech investor Jonathan Kushner, joined two other developers to buy the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ former headquarters and printing plant on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The developers converted the buildings into tech and creative offices and called the little district Dumbo Heights. By 2015, the growth of both venture capital investments and startups made New York the second-largest “startup ecosystem” in the world after Silicon Valley. Within the next three years, WeWork (now the We Company) surpassed Chase Bank branches as Manhattan’s largest commercial tenant.

All this development was both crystallized and crucified by Amazon’s decision to open half of a “second” North American headquarters (HQ2) in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, New York, in 2018. Amazon organized a competition similar to the Bloomberg contest that resulted in Cornell Tech, but in this case, the contest was a bidding war between 238 cities that offered tax credits, help with land assemblage, and zoning dispensations in return for 50,000 tech jobs that the company promised to create. But in announcing its selection, Amazon divided the new headquarters in two, supposedly placing half the jobs in New York and the other half in Crystal City, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Many New Yorkers erupted in protest rather than celebration.

The amount of tax credits offered to the very highly valued tech titan, almost $3 billion in total, appeared to rob the city of funding for its drastic needs: fixing the antiquated subway system, repairing the aging public housing stock, and building affordable housing. The decision-making process, tightly controlled by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, enraged New York City Council members, none of whom had been given a role in either negotiating or modifying the deal. The deal itself was closely supervised by New York State’s Economic Development Corporation behind closed doors, without any provision for public input or approval.

Housing prices in Long Island City rose as soon as the deal was announced. A city economic development representative admitted that perhaps half of the jobs at HQ2 would not be high-paying tech jobs, but in human resources and support services. In a final, painful blow, Amazon promised to create only 30 jobs for nearly 7,000 residents of Queensbridge Houses, the nearby public housing project that is the largest in the nation.

Amazon representatives fanned their opponents’ fury at public hearings held by the New York City Council. They said the company would not remain neutral if employees wanted to unionize, and they refused to offer to renegotiate any part of the deal. Opponents also protested the company’s other business practices, especially the sale of facial recognition technology to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Yet surveys showed that most registered New York City voters supported the Amazon deal, with an even higher percentage of supporters among Blacks and Latinos. Reflecting the prospect of job opportunities, construction workers championed the deal while retail workers opposed it. The governor and mayor defended the subsidies as an investment in jobs. Not coincidentally, Amazon planned to rent one million square feet of vacant space in One Court Square, the former Citigroup Building in Long Island City, before building a new campus on the waterfront that would be connected by ferry to Cornell Tech.

After two months of relentless, vocal criticism, in a mounting wave of national resentment against Big Tech, Amazon withdrew from the deal. Elected officials blamed each other, as well as a misinformed, misguided public for losing the economic development opportunity of a lifetime.

Yet it wasn’t clear that landing a tech titan like Amazon would spread benefits broadly in New York City. A big tech company could suck talent and capital from the local ecosystem, deny homegrown startups room to expand, and employ only a small number of “natives.”

From San Francisco to Seattle to New York, complaints about tech companies’ effect on cities center on privatization and gentrification. In San Francisco, private buses ferry highly paid Google workers from their homes in the city to the company’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, green space and cafes in the Mid-Market neighborhood proliferate to serve Twitter employees and other members of the technorati, low-income Latinos from the Mission district are displaced by astronomical rents—all of these factors stir resentment about Big Tech taking over. In Seattle, Amazon’s pressure on the city council to rescind a tax on big businesses to help pay for homeless shelters also aroused critics’ ire. Until recently, moreover, tech titans have been unwilling to support affordable housing in the very markets their high incomes roil: East Palo Alto and Menlo Park in California, and Redmond, Washington.

It remains to be seen whether urban innovation districts will all be viable, and whether they will spread wealth or instead create highly localized, unsustainable bubbles. Venture capital is already concentrated in a small number of cities and in a very few ZIP codes within these cities. According to the MIT economist David Autor, although the best “work of the future” is expanding, it is concentrated in only a few superstar cities and only represents 5 percent of all U.S. jobs.

Yet urban tech landscapes emerge from a powerful triple helix reminiscent of Silicon Valley. Elected officials promise jobs, venture capitalists and big companies make investments, and real estate developers get paid. Though these landscapes glitter brightly compared to the dead spaces they replace, they don’t offer broad participation in planning change or the equitable sharing of rewards.

Sharon Zukin is a Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College, and is author of the forthcoming book The Innovation Complex: Cities, Tech, and the New Economy.

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The Hornet's Nest

Facades+ Charlotte will explore the growing dynamism of the Queen City
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Charlotte, North Carolina, is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, aided in part by the city's status as the nation's second-largest financial center after New York City. Thanks in part to a continually expanding light-rail system, entire corridors of the city have seemingly sprouted overnight, delivering thousands of residential units and dozens of significant commercial developments. On March 19, The Architect's Newspaper is bringing Facades+ to Charlotte for the first time to discuss the development and facade research being conducted in the city. Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, a local firm with an international presence, is co-chairing the event. Participants for the conference's symposium include Duda|Paine Architects, UNC Charlotte, NC State College of Design, MARC FORNES/THEVERYMANY, Northwood Ravin, BB+M Architecture, Perkins+Will, Crescent Communities, and Cousins Properties. In this interview with The Architect's Newspaper, Little Principal Eddie Portis, the conference co-chair, discusses the trends reshaping Charlotte and the work of Little within and outside the city. The Architect's Newspaper: Charlotte is one of the fastest-growing construction markets in the country. How is the current boom in development reshaping the Queen City?

Eddie Portis: Charlotte has been evolving toward an 18-hour city for several years and the current boom is accelerating this evolution. The improvements occurring within the Stonewall corridor are great examples of this. Over 4 million new square feet of office, hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail, including a Whole Foods grocery store, and countless new dwelling units are changing the fabric of our city.

AN: Can you expand on the above and focus on Uptown and corridors of transit-oriented development?

EP: We are experiencing the era of "convenience" as a result of the densification of our city’s core and the linear growth created by rail. When combined with our busing network, Uber, and even scooters, how we move through the city has undergone a massive, positive transformation. The way we can now move through the city is changing the way we shop, dine, work, and play. AN: What do you perceive to be the most exciting trends, be it in facade design or urbanistically, of this era of development? EP: I see a very positive trend in the downtown area as it relates to the public realm. There is a renewed focus on the ground plane and the involvement of buildings in our community. Large expansive office lobbies are giving way to more modestly-scaled lobbies so that more space can be created for retail of all shapes and sizes. The other factor we see, at least in office development, that is not a current trend but rather a constant pursuit, is daylight and views. The "fifth" facade—that from the view of the building occupant—has an incredible impact on our city. It creates eyes on the street and absorbs the energy of the city; it improves worker performance and enlightens our lives. AN: Little is one of the largest firms in the city. How are you embracing this moment and what novel enclosure practices are being used by your firm? EP: At Little, we encourage exploration and seek to implement breakthrough ideas. One way we do this is through our internal "ReThink" initiative. In this initiative, a team seeks to explore the latest thoughts in the industry and overlay those with design intent. This is demonstrated through a recent, winning design competition project where we worked with San Francisco State University to create a skin concept designed to capture water from the prevalent fog that helped allow for a net positive student housing facility. Another example is a design competition we recently completed through Metals magazine. Our "Living in the Wall" study demonstrated how the curtain wall can become more than a “line on a page," and instead become a multi-dimensional blur between people and the environment, technology, and humanity. Further information regarding Facades+ Charlotte may be found here.
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Open secret

Open House New York opens 20 downtown Brooklyn sites during AIA weekend
People can roam about in the Brooklyn Point Sales + Design Gallery designed by Kohn Pederson Fox Associates, the Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn by JDS Development, the Ashland by FXCollaborative Architects and SPAN Architecture, and many more old and new landmarks in Making Place: Downtown Brooklyn, organized by Open House New York. More than twenty sites are participating in the Open House event happening on June 23. A discussion about the change and transformation in the region featuring Downtown Brooklyn Partnership President Regina Myer, FXCollaborative Design Director Gustavo Rodriguez and other industry leaders will take place at the ISSUE Project Room at 10:30 a.m., kicking off the day-long events. Downtown Brooklyn has undergone dramatic changes in the past two decades. It has now emerged as a new area for real estate and commercial development. The neighborhood is flooded with commercial creativity and upscale living. This event will offer an insider look at the transformed, up-and-coming district. Other participating sites include Brooklyn Strand Action Plan by WXY architecture + urban design, the New York Transit Museum, Polonsky Shakespeare Center and the Schermerhorn. The general public can purchase tickets to attend tours and panel discussions in those private buildings. Tickets can be purchased at this link.
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Demo Day

URBAN-X’s latest startups bring AI to urban roads, floating cameras to the skies
At URBAN-X’s latest demo day, held at the nARCHITECTS-designed ADO creative hub in Greenpoint, Brooklyn yesterday, the incubator's third batch of cohorts presented technological solutions to urban problems, ranging from a “smart crane” to collaborative retail for small stores. URBAN-X, a startup accelerator and partnership between MINI and Urban Us, takes on up to 10 companies every six months, invests up to $100,000 in each, and connects them with business and design expertise. The most recent group, with nine companies, debuted products and services that were designed to change the way we live in cities, with a focus on the human-centric experience. Qucit (Quantified Cities) is attempting to improve not only urban mobility, but happiness, through artificial intelligence. While other companies have focused on monitoring narrow bands of things such as transit ridership, street usage, bike docking and other urban information, Qucit wants to integrate all of this information vertically into a cohesive model. By aggregating usage data, Qucit has already helped redesign a dangerous roundabout in Paris, and will be bringing its machine learning services to Downtown Brooklyn for a pilot project in early March. Swiftera is approaching similar problems from the air. By using a balloon and floating a camera above what drones can reach, but below satellites, the company is promising high-resolution imagery at specific locations with a short turnaround. By selling actionable geospatial data to planners, developers, architects and municipalities, Swiftera would be able to help monitor traffic and accessibility, as well as things such as roof conditions. Blueprint Power is addressing the disconnect between the energy grid and buildings by creating a market for the surplus energy that buildings are capable of producing. When the grid is stressed, buildings with co-gen plants or solar panels should be able to transfer their extra electricity back to the larger network, benefiting both the building owner as well as the general public and utility companies. This transformation of buildings into “intelligent energy nodes” would ultimately see the buildings’ energy systems automated and managed by an AI system. The complete list of cohorts and their pitch videos can be found here, as well as a video of their evening conference. While most of the group has already begun working with real-world companies, they will also be seeking venture capital funding in the near future. Keep an eye out for URBAN-X’s fourth cohort, which will be announced in May of this year.
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From the Archives

Instead of ads and porn, LinkNYC kiosks will now show photos of old New York

Beginning last Friday, select wifi kiosks in New York now feature scintillating pictures of the city from decades past. It's LinkNYC porn, but for buildings.

In partnership with LinkNYC, the city's wifi kiosk system, the Department of Records and Information Services is displaying dozens of historic photos on LinkNYC screens in the five boroughs. The images correspond to the blocks where they're displayed, so a person at Henry and Clark streets, for example, would see a black-and-white picture of the port in what is now Brooklyn Bridge Park. The New York Times reports that most of the photographs on display date from the 1890s through the 1970s, and the project will be up through the end of the year.

LinkNYC is taking residents' suggestions for where the archival images should be displayed; readers can tweet @LinkNYC to have their voices heard.

The program is the latest in a slate of apps and maps that disseminate New York City history online. This year, Urban Archive geotagged and released over 2,500 images of old New York that users can access on the go. Built in collaboration with Brooklyn Historical Society, the New York Public Library (NYPL), and the Museum of the City of New York, the app pings users with archival images when they're near a historic site in the database, prompting reflection on the changing city. Separately, the NYPL launched the NYC Space/Time Directory, a “'digital time-travel service' that combines the library’s map collection with geospatial tools to illuminate the city’s messy and beautiful development over more than a century." Downtown, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) debuted its Civil Rights & Social Justice Map, an interactive tool that reveals key downtown sites where marginalized people have fought for equity, dignity, and representation.

Beyond the archive, urbanists can now access maps to prepare for L-mageddondiscover the city’s noisiest neighborhoods, learn about future skyscrapers, and find the internet's favorite kind of architecture.

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Hot BODs

AN will bring you a building every day for Archtober 2017
Get ready New York City, the month of Archtober is almost upon us. While October heralds the return of chunky knits and PSLs, New York City's architecture and design community knows that the tenth month of the year is really Archtober, AIA New York's celebration of the built environment. In collaboration with the city's cultural institutions, Archtober (also known as Architecture and Design Month) fosters awareness of architecture's role in everyday life through exhibitions, conferences, films, lectures, and the Building of the Day tours – architect-led visits to the city's best-loved structures and landscapes. The first site this year is the Woolworth Tower Residences, apartments by SLCE Architects in Cass Gilbert's classic neo-Gothic skyscraper. In partnership with AIA New York, The Architect's Newspaper (AN) is pleased to be the one-and-only source for Building of the Day blogs. For all of October, we'll bring you on-the-ground stories and tour highlights, so you can ride on WXY's SeaGlass Carousel, step inside LOT-EK's shipping container Carroll House, or explore Paul Rudolph's Modulightor Building, all without leaving your office. But if you do decide to leave (and you should), tickets for all tours are now available at the Archtober website. Here is the complete schedule:
Oct. 1 The Woolworth Tower Residences Architect: Cass Gilbert (the Woolworth Building's original architect); SLCE Architects (Woolworth Tower Residences architect of record): SLCE Architects; The Office of Thierry W. Despont (interior design) Oct. 2 Empire Stores Architect: S9Architecture Oct. 3 Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm Architect: Bromley Caldari Architects Oct. 4 The Noguchi Museum Architect: Isamu Noguchi and Shoji Sadao (original architects); Sage and Coombe Architects (rneovation architect) Oct. 5 SeaGlass Carousel Architect: WXY architecture + urban design Oct. 6 Modulightor Building Architect: Paul Rudolph Oct. 7 Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning Architect: GLUCK+ Oct. 8 Project Farmhouse Architect: ORE Design Oct. 9 The Residences at PS186 & Boys and Girls Club of Harlem Architect: Dattner Architects Oct. 10 Naval Cemetery Landscape Architect: Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects Oct. 11 Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine Architect: Heins & LaFarge/Cram & Ferguson (1899) Oct. 12 Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House Architect: Cass Gilbert Oct. 13 New Lab, Brooklyn Navy Yard Architect: Marvel Architects Oct. 14 Open House New York Weekend Oct. 15 Open House New York Weekend Oct. 16 iHeartMedia Architect: A+I with Beneville Studios Oct. 17 56 Leonard Street Architect: Herzog & De Meuron Oct. 18 Staten Island Courthouse, St. George Architect: Ennead Architects Oct. 19 Carroll House Architect: LOT-EK Oct. 20 Columbia University – Lenfest Center for the Arts Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop (design architect); Davis Brody Bond (executive architect); Body-Lawson Associates (associate architect) Oct. 21 Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Architect: Maya Lin Studio (Designer); Bialosky + Partners Architects Oct. 22 Freshkills Park Architect: NYC Parks/James Corner Field Operations Oct. 23 The George Washington Bridge Bus Station Architect: STV – Program Architect/Architect of Record/Design Architect for Retail Development; PANYNJ Architectural Unit – Design Architect for Bus Station Oct. 24 Governors Island – The Hills Architect: West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture Oct. 25 Bronx River House Architect: Kiss + Cathcart, Architects Oct. 26 ISSUE Project Room Architect: McKim, Mead & White (original architect); Conversion to ISSUE Project Room: WORKac in collaboration with ARUP (ongoing) Oct. 27 Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District Architect: TEN Arquitectos Oct. 28 Morris Jumel Mansion Architect: Original Architect Unknown Oct. 29 Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center Architect: Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler Oct. 30 Cornell Tech Architect: Handel Architects; Morphosis; WEISS/MANFREDI Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism Oct. 31 The William Vale Hotel Architect: Albo Liberis
If your number-one-can't-miss tour is sold out, don't despair: There are more than enough events for everyone. Archtober has a new series called Workplace Wednesdays where firms like SHoP, Snøhetta, and others will open up their offices to ticketed members of the public for workshops, presentations, and talks. On October 29, AN Contributing Editor Sam Lubell will give a talk on Never Built New York, the exhibition he co-curated at the Queens Museum.
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Ta-Dah

The MTA says new stops on the Second Ave Subway are coming
Better bus service? A shorter L-mageddon? New Second Avenue Subway stops?? The MTA says yes, you betcha, to all these projects and a few more. Today the MTA Board voted on a number of initiatives it says will improve service and boost turnaround time on major projects, including phase two of the Second Avenue Subway and L train tunnel repairs. The Board also voted to spiffy up train stations and add new buses citywide. “Today’s votes will bring convenience and better service to the millions of New Yorkers who use our system every day,” said interim executive director Ronnie Hakim, in a prepared statement. “Improvements include modernized train stations in Astoria and a shorter closure of the Canarsie Tunnel, which will lessen the impact on L train riders as we undertake these necessary Sandy storm repairs.” Phase two of the Second Avenue Subway, which now ends at 96th Street, will eventually bring Q trains zooming north to 125th Street. In the spirit of git-'er-done, the Board voted to grant a $7.3 million contract for outreach services in advance of two new stations at 106th and 116th streets. A partnership between Spectrum Personal Communications and transportation planners at Sam Schwartz Engineering will bring a community information center to East 125th Street this spring. At the center, English- and Spanish-speaking staff will be on hand to answer questions about the subway; lead educational events; and prepare plans for the Community Boards and elected officials. Be on the lookout for a project schedule once the (already underway) phase two preliminary design and engineering work wraps up. Downtown, the MTA is pushing for L train tunnel work to be completed in 15 months, three fewer than initially projected. The $492 million project was awarded to Judlau Contracting and TC Electric, though Judlau is the same firm behind construction delays on the Second Ave subway (¯\_(ツ)_/¯). Over in Queens, $150 million will go towards improving above-ground subway stations on the N and W line in Astoria. Improvements will add security cameras, art, better lighting, and countdown clocks, the commuter's godsend. F0r a preview of what's in store for the borough, look no further than the work being done on the first group of stations in this project, along 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. Buses were not left out amid the many new things for trains. The city will get 60-foot articulated buses (53 in all) to replace the aging 40-footers in its fleet. These new buses will be suited up with, among other features, turn warnings for pedestrians, wifi, USB charging ports, and passenger counter.
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Lost Man Creek

Take a trip through this redwood forest in downtown Brooklyn tomorrow
Instead of staring out the window into the gloomy morass of this weekend's unrelenting rain, head over to downtown Brooklyn tomorrow for the opening of a real—and really small—public forest. Artist Spencer Finch has set up a 4,000-tree glen in MetroTech Commons for his latest solo exhibition, Lost Man Creek. In partnership with Save the Redwoods League, Finch has recreated a 790-acre chunk of California's Redwood National Park at 1:100 scale. The height and placement of the thousands of scaled-down redwoods, ranging from one to four feet tall, mimic the topography of the real redwood forest (although the trees there reach heights close to 400 feet). “Through both a scientific approach to gathering data—including precise measurements and record keeping—and a poetic sensibility, Finch’s works often inhabit the area between objective investigations of science and the subjectivity of lived experience,” said exhibition organizer and Public Art Fund associate curator Emma Enderby, in a statement. “In a world where climate change is at the core of societal debates, Finch’s installation in the heart of one of the most urbanized neighborhoods of the city presents us with the universal reality of nature’s power to awe and inspire, and the importance to remember and protect such wonders.” Visitors will be able to view the triangular patch of nature from a platform or at ground level. A custom-rigged irrigation system will keep the redwoods alive (although they'll probably get more water here than in their native, water-deficient California). Like the old-growth redwoods, Lost Man Creek will be around for awhile: The exhibition opens tomorrow and remains on view through March 11, 2018. The work is reminiscent of Michael Neff's suspended forest at the Knockdown Center, although Neff prefers his conifers dead.
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Top Shop

SHoP makes the Brooklyn skyline with a “brooding, elegant, and badass” supertall... There goes the neighborhood?

If you zone it, they will build, and they will build tall. New York–based SHoP, in partnership with JDS Development Group, revealed plans earlier this year to build 9 Dekalb Avenue, a 73-story, 1,066-foot-tall residential tower fused to the landmarked Dime Savings Bank in Downtown Brooklyn. Last month, the design cleared a crucial hurdle when the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) approved the tower’s design and consequent modifications to the bank.

“There’s a sort of brooding Gotham to it,” noted Gregg Pasquarelli, founding principal of SHoP. “There’s a little bit of badass to it, but it’s quite elegant at the same time. Isn’t that what we all want to be as New Yorkers?” The 417-unit building is clad in bronze, stainless steel, and stone, with view-maximizing interlocking hexagonal exposures. Pasquarelli explained that the facade detailing is such so that when two sides of the hexagon are viewed from an oblique angle, it will resemble one face, a sleeker reference to the grand old New York skyscrapers like Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building.

Michael Stern, founder of JDS Development Group, proclaimed: “The tower will be Brooklyn’s next icon. Brooklyn was really missing that one iconic statement that was worthy of the borough. This building will really put Brooklyn on the map.” Drawing from the landmark on-site, the spacing of the tower’s vertical facade elements mirrors the spacing of the bank’s neoclassical columns. The color and materials palette picks up on the bank’s colorful stone interiors, which will be converted to retail, while parts of the bank’s roof will be used for the building’s private outdoor spaces.

“The downtown rezoning of Brooklyn in 2004 has been very successful. This is a place where the city could handle density. It’s an incredible kudos to the city they upzoned that area, that they thought about tall towers,” said Pasquarelli. At the prow of Flatbush and Dekalb, the building will be visible from all over Brooklyn, and its distinctive facade will reinforce its prominent position on the skyline.

He and Stern enjoy experimenting with exteriors. Referencing the terra-cotta facade on 111 West 57th Street and the cladding on the East River–facing American Copper Buildings, Pasquarelli intimated that developers and architects are obligated to build for the public realm. “Some people get to live in these buildings, but we all have to live with the exterior.”

While preservationists sometimes bristle at the modification of an individual landmark, Gina Pollara, executive director of the preservation advocacy organization Municipal Arts Society (MAS), thinks there’s a larger issue that’s expressed in the development of tall towers like 9 Dekalb. “For us, it’s not really about the towers itself. Most of these supertalls are going up as-of-right. Because they’re not asking for any variance or any change, there’s no opportunity for public comment.” This tower was unusual, she elaborated, because it involved a landmarked structure. “These buildings are so out of context or out of scale with the neighborhood, and there’s no space for public comment until developers release their renderings. There’s no discussion of the cumulative effects these towers are having on public space.”

In an interview with AN, Stern said that he could not react to critiques like MAS’s (which he had not heard about), “but I can tell you that the commissioners had comments ranging from, ‘the best of urbanism’ and ‘flawless,’ and the LPC approved the project unanimously, as did the community board. It’s something we’re quite proud of.”

Pollara would like to see a better conversation around the 100-year-old zoning code, and reform beyond Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability, the recently codified zoning text amendments. “It’s time to make zoning much more transparent—not just to the layperson, but to elected official,” Pollara said. “We need to get in front of the issue rather than being at the mercy of what is being built around us. Preservation in the 21st century is not necessarily rallying around a specific building, but looking at open space, light, air—all of the elements we want to preserve. We don’t want to live in a city that’s created by default.”

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Book it to Brooklyn

Claire Weisz on WXY's reimagining of the Brooklyn Strand

From a pedestrian perspective, Downtown Brooklyn and its waterfront have an odd relationship. Despite the Brooklyn Bridge’s looming (literally) presence in DUMBO, the area’s potential to become an idyllic promenade and an active space has never quite been realized.

Now, however, New York practice WXY architecture + design—who specializes in planning, urban design, and architecture–is proposing to connect DUMBO, Downtown, and Brooklyn Bridge Park. As part of a public-private scheme, in collaboration with the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP), WXY’s project, the Strand, sets about creating views within the site, giving it an identity while creating a place that puts pedestrians first.

WXY principal Claire Weisz said that the first thing her practice sought to do was to see what connections needed to be reestablished with a focus on who they should serve. “One of the main priorities of the Strand effort is to privilege pedestrians and cyclists,” said Weisz. “We [looked] at what spaces used to connect and then we sought a way to reimagine and provide resources to the public spaces and places that are valued by the people living, working, and studying in this area.”

Striking a dialogue and creating a “positive sense of journey” was another key aspect of the scheme. Working with Copenhagen artist group Superflex, a responsive and pedestrian friendly scene was established: Here, functional, yet visually inspiring routes were developed, evoking the cultural and historical aspects of the area’s neighborhoods from Fulton to Farragut and the Navy Yard.

Weisz also spoke of new subway connections and the potential to develop sites around infrastructure, adding how the Gateway to Brooklyn action plan concept “demonstrated the importance of approaching access holistically.” In light of this, Weisz proposed connecting Cadman Plaza East with the walkway off the Brooklyn Bridge, thus protecting pedestrians who “have to dodge traffic at Cadman Plaza West.”

Weisz noted how the dominance of car travel has led to the emergence of “unappealing leftover public space.” Here, she explained, a “continuous city fabric where walkable, bike-able, active streets connect Downtown Brooklyn to the Waterfront” is a necessity from an infrastructure perspective.

While improved circulation is a priority, visual connectivity is also on the agenda. Weisz plans to give landmarks visual precedence to celebrate Brooklyn’s history and improve wayfinding throughout the Strand. As a result, the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges are allocated framed views from within the Cadman Plaza Park, Anchorage Plaza, and Trinity Park, in order to reaffirm the sense of place throughout the Strand.

“The Strand’s identity is linked to not losing the layers of history that made Brooklyn what it is today but adapting them for today’s needs,” said Weisz, who added that creating a “cohesive” identity was discussed with stakeholders.

“The main challenge of the Strand has been demonstrating the potential of spaces that are currently invisible to the public,” said Weisz. “Whether it be spaces around, over, or under highways [or] a new vantage for accessing and experiencing the Brooklyn Bridge, residents can look forward to a rejuvenated place that realizes the potential for the Strand to better connect downtown Brooklyn.”

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Propose Your Plaza

City of Baltimore to open design competition for McKeldin Plaza

The City of Baltimore is hosting a citywide design competition to seek proposals for the redevelopment of McKeldin Plaza in downtown Baltimore. The call follows plans to demolish the existing McKeldin Fountain later this year and the Department of Planning will supervise the open competition.

This follows years of talk about redesigning the plaza, which is currently dominated by the 1982 Brutalist concrete McKeldin Fountain. The fountain stands adjacent to the Inner Harbor area and memorializes former Baltimore mayor Theodore McKeldin, who was instrumental in  revitalizing the harbor area in the 1960s.

The Waterfront Partnership recently released plans for “Inner Harbor 2.0,” which will improve the area with new green spaces and pedestrian connections using Brooklyn Bridge Park and Waterfront Seattle as precedents.

 

McKeldin Plaza is an important fixture of Downtown Baltimore, and a designated free speech zone that was the focal point for the city’s Occupy and Black Lives Matter protests. In addition, the fountain is a historically significant holdout from the Brutalist movement, and its design attracts tourists and office workers from the surrounding area.

The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore supports redevelopment of the plaza into an open space, while many local artists, designers, and architects support its preservation as a public art piece.

The fountain itself has fallen into disrepair, and according to the Downtown Partnership its mechanics are prone to expensive breakdowns that leave it non-functional for months at a time. However, maintenance and enhancements could also go a long way toward revitalizing the plaza while preserving the fountain.

Up until recently the Brutalist design of the fountain matched the nearby Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, which was demolished in 2015. The theater was designed by John M. Johansen and opened in 1967, remaining in use until 2004. After its owners chose not to renew the lease on the building in favor of the newly reopened Hippodrome Theatre, the building fell into disrepair. A new high-rise residential and commercial space is now under construction on the site. Since the demolition of the Mechanic, McKeldin fountain is the only example of Brutalist architecture in Baltimore.

The fountain has its share of defenders, including Baltimore’s City Council president, who introduced a bill to block the demolition last year.

A Change.org petition calls for the postponement of demolition until a new design is approved. Others—including the fountain’s designer—are against the demolition entirely and want to preserve the site.

The Downtown Partnership plans to move forward with the demolition in Summer 2016 pending approval of permits. The fountain and the skywalk across Light Street were recently closed to pedestrians.

The architecture firms Ayers Saint Gross, Mahan Rykiel, and Ziger/Snead will oversee the project and finalize designs. Details about the public competition are still taking shape. 

 
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Strand Plan

New renderings, community vision revealed for WXY–designed Brooklyn Strand
Today, 40 stakeholders released the Brooklyn Strand Community Vision Plan, a set of recommendations for developing almost 50 acres of public space that links the Brooklyn Bridge to Downtown Brooklyn. The plan focuses on broadening connectivity along the corridor by making the space more attractive and pedestrian-friendly, and improving access to the waterfront between the Navy Yard, DUMBO, and Downtown Brooklyn. In 2014, Mayor de Blasio announced a set of plans to further catalyze the growth of downtown Brooklyn. One of these plans was the Brooklyn Strand, now a disjointed set of parks, greenways, and plazas bisected by highway feeder ramps that present wayfinding challenges even to seasoned New Yorkers. Since then, New York–based WXY Architecture + Urban Design has led not-for-profit local development corporation Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of Transportation, and over 250 community stakeholders through an intensive planning process to re-vision the Strand. Recommendations from the just-released community vision include enhancing non-car links between Borough Hall Park, Columbus Park, Korean War Veterans Memorial Plaza, Cadman Plaza, Commodore Barry Park, the Bridge Parks, and Trinity Park; a "Gateway to Brooklyn" adjacent to Brooklyn Bridge Park with a viewing platform; creating a permanent market at Anchorage Plaza; reopening the long-shuttered Brooklyn War Memorial to the public; broadening access to Commodore Barry Park; widening sidewalks; installing public art to animate under-utilized public space; realign Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) ramps to make the pedestrian experience less alienating. “The Brooklyn Strand Community Vision Plan is an exciting and ambitious effort to reconnect Downtown Brooklyn’s historic neighborhoods to each other, reinvigorate open space and improve access to the waterfront,” proclaimed New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) president Maria Torres-Springer. “The Plan is the result of an extensive and collaborative community engagement process, and it provides a promising roadmap to the future for this historic business district. At NYCEDC, we look forward to continuing our work with the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, community stakeholders and elected leaders, and to making the reinvigoration of the Brooklyn Strand a reality.”