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All summer, a lively cavalcade of events and performances testified to a reawakened cosmopolitanism in Detroit and proclaimed a community that is growing in size and complexity. Detroit’s 139 square miles are suddenly teeming with contemporary art, design, and development activity. The projects are no longer isolated but connect larger tracts: the Jam Handy industrial film production building-turned-performance space hosts a temporary Sunday market, around the corner from the ONE Mile funk revivalist project by Anya Sirota and Jean Louis Farges, with Catie Newell’s studio halfway between. A land rush has begun in the area.
Enter Culture Lab Detroit. The three-year-old brainchild of Birmingham-based designer and creative director Jane Schulak, Culture Lab Detroit orchestrates dialogues between the Detroit community and internationally renowned designers and urbanists, instigating potentially paradigm-shifting collaborations that evangelize green interventions in the landscape.
“My platform is about connectivity,” Schulak said. “I pose a design question each year and try to identify people who will respond to that question in all very different ways.”
In early September, urban ecology-themed panels in packed auditoriums at the College for Creative Studies and the Detroit Institute of Arts brought together San Francisco chef Alice Waters, industrial-scale urban farmer Will Allen, French vertical gardener Patrick Blanc, Oakland landscape architect Walter Hood, and Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto to discuss strategies for greening the city and evolving architecture with nature.
“I’ve always thought that agriculture could be the lead piece to bringing these cities back,” Allen, who grew up in a sharecropping family in Maryland, said. “This city is really primed for local production because all of the vacant land where you could grow food. There’s a lot of opportunity.”
At Acre Farm in North Corktown, several blocks adjacent to the highway form a patchwork of fertile fields that skip over paved streets, the only sign of a once-populous neighborhood. Acre Farm is in an in-demand but mostly demolished area between the MotorCity Casino Hotel and a retail strip on Michigan Avenue (pioneered by restaurateur Phil Cooley). The farm is marked with large plywood “CITY DO NOT CUT” signs to prevent public agencies from mistaking it for overgrown lots.
Urban agriculture is not new, yet the diversity of greening tactics and players spreads benefits far from the heavily invested downtown, the Woodward strip, and Midtown areas. The number of farming and gardening initiatives has multiplied: Keep Growing Detroit has supported 4,000 gardens in the last decade with seed packs, transplants, educational, and technical assistance. Nonprofits like the Greening of Detroit have planted about 4,000 trees in the past year, while Hantz Woodlands installed 15,000 trees in a square mile of East Detroit. In 2013, the City Council adopted a zoning ordinance that legalized existing urban farms and set standards for agricultural land use.
“For some of the more grassroots or ground-up entrepreneurs, it’s all based on returning to true connections between people, relying on businesses that can help support your businesses that are within the city itself, and producing real food that you know who grows it,” said D MET studio’s Liz Skrisson. D MET designed offices and a Great Lakes Coffee shop for Midtown Inc., a major player in cultural developments and a tech innovation district near the Detroit Institute of Arts.
The Ye-Olde-Brooklyn style pioneered by John McCormick in Williamsburg—repurposed wood, distressed paint, thematically culled antiques, industrial objects, and Edison light bulbs—is as pervasive here as elsewhere. Culture Lab Detroit, however, is cognizant of a need to move beyond adaptive reuse to pioneer innovative buildings: nothing of any architectural significance has happened here in decades. Schulak’s advisory board is packed with a savvy group of local and international cultural leaders, among them Reed Kroloff, David Adjaye, collector Marc Schwartz, and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit founder Marsha Miro.
Schulak selected Hood and Fujimoto for a panel that emphasized ecological design to create landscapes and structures that connect people and evoke delight. Fujimoto incorporated vegetation into high-rises that mimic both repetitive and idiosyncratic patterns in plant life. Like inversions of vacant houses overgrown with wilderness, the design rationalizes natural forms into building technologies.
“I do think fresh voices are good for a place,” Hood said. “Places that become so insular keep repeating the same patterns over and over again: bringing people in might help others get excited.”
The dialogues double as provocations for speakers to explore Detroit: local facilitators tour designers around sites and schedule meetings with project organizers and entrepreneurs, offering a platform to present proposals. For the past year, Patrick Blanc has speculated on ways to grow vegetation on the concrete embankments along the Dequindre Cut. Blanc seeks to irrigate the plants without access to running water.
Hood is working on a concept for a square-mile area near the northeastern edge, incorporating blue-green infrastructure concepts from the 2012 Detroit Future City strategic plan to deploy large depopulated spaces for the benefit of those still living there. “One of the things that I’m interested in is how you can change people’s sociology through the pattern on the landscape,” he said.
The Flower House, a project by Lisa Waud, will create floral installations in a blighted building facing the I-75 highway in Hamtramck. Inspired by the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, twenty or so florists will descend on the house during the weekend of October 16, filling its rooms with flower arrangements. Afterward, the house will be deconstructed and the lot will become a flower farm.
Further north, near the Squash House, the Play House, the Power House, the Sound House, and the Ride It Sculpture Park—a well-known collection of repurposed homes and lots by Gina Reichart and Mitch Cope of Design 99 and Powerhouse Productions—ceramicist Abigail Murray and architect Steven Mankouche (Archolab) are building a passive greenhouse in the burned out foundation of a 1920s bungalow. The team erected a slanted south-facing polycarbonate roof within the existing foundation, cladding the exterior with dark charcoal slats (cutoffs from a lumber mill) charred using the ancient Japanese shou-sugi-ban method. Inside, they plan to grow almond, olive, and pomegranate trees, as well as other non-native plants.
“The project is in dialogue with blight in a lot of ways, and how we can deal with blight other than just ripping everything out of the ground and carting it to a landfill,” said Mankouche, a professor at the University of Michigan’s College of Architecture. After the project is completed, Archolab plans to donate it to a local gardener and evaluate its reproducibility in other places.
Elsewhere in Hamtramck, sculptors Andrew Mehall and Ben Hall, co-owners of the Eastern Market’s Russell Street Deli, are using a large warehouse as a gallery to stabilize a block overgrown with weeds and grass, its double-height space presenting a fair likeness of industrial Bushwick. However, these reclamation projects demand fortitude. The day we visit, Hall struggled to open the gallery door after a break-in the night before—scrapping metal is a full-time occupation for pickup-driving bandits in southeast Michigan. Inside, the gallery exhibits colorful truck-sized inflatable pieces by Chicago-based Scottish artist Claire Ashley.
“In a lot of ways the gallery is just a basic stopgap to keep the neighborhood solid,” Hall wrote in an email. “In one way we’re pretty anti any kind of Richard Florida narrative...As the businesses in the neighborhood that were hanging on by a thread gave up, or let go, or demurred, or decided to forfeit, it became a matter of introducing some solidity, or reintroducing occupants for the sake of the building not being vacant.”
Within this ambivalence lies much of the trepidation about the city’s fast-moving developments. Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loan-led renovations—all paid for with the ill-gotten gains of payday lending—gobble up dozens of downtown buildings to restore long-lost landmarks. Among these is a planned SHoP-designed replacement for the symbolically important Hudson’s building.
Another example is Chene-Ferry Market, a voluminous closed-down farmer’s market in Poletown that is part of large-scale urban design initiative led by Dan Pitera’s University of Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC). Situated in a spottily inhabited area on the East Side, RecoveryPark uses urban farming, fisheries, value-added foods, and a farmer’s market to provide job skills training to substance abusers, the formerly incarcerated, and others struggling to land on-the-books employment. Working with the mayor’s office and the new planning director Maurice Cox, DCDC is designing RecoveryPark and other mile-wide areas far from the central business district with a mixture of ecological and commercial functions.
“We wanted to show that every area that looks like this is right adjacent to a dense area,” said Pitera. “Can they be seen more as a unit? Then you design them in a way that this could become blue-green infrastructure, more interesting design opportunities, like retail, that become assets for the denser area. How do we think about design in ways that can keep people in place, think about more off-grid ideas for people who live in neighborhoods like this?”
A wide array of architects chosen by Walmart owners for Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program
|Anmahian Winton Architects||Cambridge, MA|
|Alta Planning and Design*||Davidson, NC|
|Bing Thom Architects||Vancouver, BC|
|Brian Healy Architects||Somerville, MA|
|Brininstool + Lynch||Chicago, IL|
|David M. Schwarz Architects, Inc.||Washington, D.C.|
|De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop||Louisville, KY|
|Deborah Berke Partners||New York, NY|
|DLAND Studio Architecture and Landscape Architecture*||Brooklyn, NY|
|Duvall Decker Architects||Jackson, MS|
|Ennead Architects||New York, NY|
|Eskew+Dumez+Ripple||New Orleans, LA|
|Grimshaw||New York, NY|
|GWWO, Inc./Architects||Baltimore, MD|
|HBRA Architects||Chicago, IL|
|HGA Architects and Engineers||Minneapolis, MN|
|Lake-Flato||San Antonio, TX|
|Louise Braverman Architect||New York, NY|
|LTL Architects||New York, NY|
|Marlon Blackwell Architects||Fayetteville, AR|
|Martinez + Johnson Architecture||Washington, D.C.|
|Marvel Architects||New York, NY|
|Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle||Minneapolis, MN|
|Michael Van Valkenburgh Architects*||Brooklyn, NY|
|Modus Studio||Fayetteville, AR|
|Overland Partners||San Antonio, TX|
|Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects||Little Rock, AR|
|Rice+Lipka Architects||New York, NY|
|Robert A.M. Stern Architects||New York, NY|
|Robert Sharp Architects & Massengale Architecture PLLC||Fayetteville, AR | NY, NY|
|Schwartz/Silver Architects||Boston, MA|
|Spackman Mossop Michaels*||New Orleans, LA|
|Stoss Landscape Urbanism*||Boston, MA|
|Trahan Architects||New Orleans, LA|
|WXY Architecture + Urban Design*||New York, NY|
- * denotes a landscape architecture firm.
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As part of the AN developers feature, Matt Shaw interviewed representatives from four developers who are innovating in New York and elsewhere using alternative models for development. These perspectives offer new ways forward as the architecture and business communities work together to find new design, housing, and community-oriented solutions to our 21st century urban issues.
Sumaida + Khurana
Up-and-coming developer Sumaida + Khurana is bringing high-profile international architects to do its first buildings in New York, including NoLita condos by Tadao Ando and a forthcoming 400-foot midtown tower by Alvaro Siza. Amit Khurana has more than two decades of experience in the real estate industry, while Saif Sumaida holds an architecture degree from the Cooper Union. Together, they are changing how New York development is designed.
Matt Shaw: How did you end up working together as developers?
Saif Sumaida: I graduated from Cooper Union with a degree in architecture, and the education was very rich in discourse and concepts. Just by accident, I actually ended up in construction, and over the last 23 years, I’ve been building in New York. I like working as a developer because you have control of authorship both from a construction and architecture perspective, but also as the developer when you put the vision together.
Amit Khurana: Saif is tremendously experienced and when we met it was an interesting fit just because I love architecture and design. I have to give Saif such credit for this but when we are in a room with an architect and we sit down, his knowledge is so fantastic, to not only think of just construction but to think of how architecture relates to construction. And I think that it was a unique situation because there was a shared vision and very complementary sets of skills.
What do you feel these projects bring to New York as a city, not just for the residents of the buildings?
AK: We see ourselves as developer/custodians of the built environment and ultimately we have a responsibility because we play a very important role that really changes the city. Small or large—it doesn’t matter. It’s about uplifting people, and fulfilling the dream of the city too, right? I think if you ask anyone, at the end of the day people appreciate excellence. It’s not about the asset type, it’s not necessarily about who is going to live there or rent there or work there. It has something to do with a kind of purity of design and the impact it has on people.
SS: I think the problem is a lot of developers are really looking at buildings as commodities to monetize. But I think there is a legacy to be made in selecting the architect and making something that has meaning and has a place in the fabric of the city and that is something that you’ll ultimately be proud of. We want to create places. We feel that we have some sort of a social responsibility to do that.
Why bring in these architects?
AK: New York is a melting pot with a lot of influence from outside. We also came from different countries although we spent so much time here. We wanted to just focus on, in a very pure fashion, this idea of bringing master architects to New York to design their very first buildings here. Especially in New York where as-of-right sites are such a tremendous opportunity to work in a specific way and to push the envelope a little bit. looking at it and finding a site, we’re actually looking for a site for Ando or for Siza. This inverted process allows us to think about things a little bit differently.
SS: A lot of developers rely on marketing people to tell them what has worked. They’re following formulas because they believe that these are the formulas that will get them the profit. People find a proof of concept and just follow it. You don’t have to think too much. When you bring somebody else from abroad or somebody who hasn’t built anything in New York, they actually bring a certain amount of freshness. What’s amazing about New York is that it allows for this diversity. You can still be visionary and make it successful.
Do you think that your experience as an architect lets you work with these architects in a different way rather than other developers?
SS: I think the one thing is, I’m very respectful of the process. I’m always able to talk to architects in their language. Instead of looking at it, again, as a commodity, I can engage them in their concepts and be able to enter that dialogue and be able to discuss it with them as opposed to always looking for an end product. I can enter the process and into a discourse with them so that once I understand what they’re trying to do we can then figure how best to get there.
You mentioned affordable housing a little bit. Do you see that as a project that could be interesting to take on?
SS: Very much so. I think there’s a responsibility for developers to be able to bring to the city various projects. It can’t just be building for the wealthy, you have to be able to do it for all. Otherwise, you’re not really making an impact in the city as you think you are. To make an impact on the city you have to touch on the various fabrics.
AK: Well I think that it’s also responding to the realities of where you are in a market cycle. Currently we’re in a market where land is insanely expensive. So we have to respond to that. It’s always allowing yourself to be flexible with different opportunities. I mean, imagine bringing in a famous Spanish architect to New York to build a wonderful, affordable housing project or something like that. It isn’t about how many dollars per foot you spend on a construction; it’s about thoughtfulness. We have the ability and skillset that allows us to also control costs and control some of these variables that can get out of control.
Thorsten Kiefer, HFZ
Thorsten Kiefer is Director of Design and Development for HFZ Capital Group. In this role, he has helped initiate collaborations with architects such as David Chipperfield, BIG, Moshe Safdie, and Isay Weinfeld on projects at various scales in New York and Miami. He talked with AN about his background at OMA, SOM, and SHoP, and what someone in his position can bring to the firm and ultimately the city.
As an architect at OMA in Rotterdam, his job included working in collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro on a master plan for Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2001. This experience at OMA also led to HFZ bringing in OMA to develop an entire empty city block in New York between Tenth and Washington streets along the High Line. However, OMA wasn’t able to continue because of previous contractual commitments, so HFZ turned to another OMA alumni, Bjarke Ingels of BIG, who had worked with Thorsten 15 years ago.
Matt Shaw: You have an interesting background. How did you end up in this role as an experienced architect working directly for a developer?
Thorsten Kiefer: My time at SHoP was truly formative. At SHoP I worked on competitions in London and New York as well as the redevelopment of the South Street Seaport, initially with General Growth and then followed by Howard Hughes. I formed a number of connections with the development side of the business and after a couple of years at SHoP I began looking for the next career challenge. This opportunity seemed interesting for myself.
What is your role at HFZ?
As Director of Design and Development, I work closely with the marketing team and our executives on the overall conceptual and programmatic framework. The team establishes a list of architects, which we believe would be a great fit for the project. In high-end residential development, the branding aspect of an interior designer or design architect can make a difference in sales.
The global desire for design is higher now than it was 20 years ago. There is money from many countries. Different cultures have different attitudes toward design, and the global market is reacting to that. A lot of global people invest in the city. HFZ tries to offer a high quality product. We do high-end residential, and without design, we wouldn’t get the margins. The value added from the architecture is necessary to get the numbers. 432 Park Avenue by Viñoly has a tremendous location, so people would buy there anyway. But 432 is getting astronomical numbers. Would you get the same price per square foot without the good design? Would the Russians, Chinese, Europeans, and South Americans still choose it?
This position is more common than maybe known in the architectural community. Large developers like Related or Extell have in house design teams. I do believe that this role is valuable. There are very different mindsets in design, construction, and development. The architect is best suited to mediate in between all of them. I also work with zoning lawyers to see if our massing is possible, and also with the construction team to make sure quality is good.
How do you see your role impacting the designs and ultimately the city?
Ziel Feldman, founder and chairman of HFZ as well as Nir Meir, Principal partner at HFZ are very keen on design and quality. Good design simply distinguishes our product within a very competitive market, and we understand this well. I’m also really interested in finding smart solutions to making the city a nice, vibrant place to be.
We are working with David Chipperfield on the last empty lot at Bryant Park and those units will come on the market in the next couple of months. I truly believe that it will not just be a beautiful piece of architecture completing an important urban space in New York, but also a very successful development.
What can this position bring to a company?
I believe an architect is best suited to communicate between all the different groups involved within the development process. We all know that the motivations of construction, marketing, development, or design are not always necessarily aligned, so the role we have with the position is to bring the different mindsets a little closer and hope that the end result is good design.
Do you ever push for different types of projects, like affordable housing?
I certainly have my personal opinion on “affordability” in New York and I do think that affordable housing will be a challenging component in any future residential development in this city.
Brenda Rosen, Common Ground
Common Ground is the largest supportive housing developer and operator in New York. The organization offers formerly homeless people quality environments and services to recover, and also works to develop more traditional affordable housing. Its non-profit status makes its work different from many other developers in the city. Brenda Rosen is the president and CEO, and she gave us some insight on how Common Ground supports its tenants and navigates the non-profit development process.
Courtesy Common Ground
Matt Shaw: What is the mission of Common Ground?
Brenda Rosen: Supportive housing is affordable housing with onsite services so that’s what is different from your cookie-cutter affordable or market rate operation. There is a percentage of the tenants that come through the lottery process like any other affordable low-income tenant. And the other part of the building is filled with formerly homeless people who oftentimes are suffering from mental illness or substance abuse issues or medical issues and often times all of the above.
So there’s 50 percent or 60 percent of the building that is set aside for people coming from those circumstances and that is why we have onsite support to make sure that all of our tenants—low-income, regular working people, and those who are formerly homeless and who are coming with a lot of challenges and a lot of issues—have the support that they need to do that and to be as successful in housing as anybody else. With the exception of a few projects, one in Rochester and two in Connecticut, we are the property managers for all of our projects so we never leave the project.
We are about to break ground on our first stand-alone conventional affordable project which will be 248 units of affordable housing and that will not have a supportive housing component at all. Because our buildings are tax-credit buildings, your income has to be at 60 percent or less of the Area Median Income. We do the same marketing, advertising, and lottery like any other developer in the city for the affordable housing.
What are some of the challenges of being a non-profit? What does it mean to be a non-profit developer?
What it means is that the financing of the projects can be incredibly complicated compared to for-profits. When we finance a project we have multiple streams of support coming in for capital and for operating. We’ll use bonds, we’ll use tax credits, we’ll use state and city subsidies. And sometimes borough presidents or city council funds will fill a gap that we might have on the capital side. We also have government contracts that are providing operating support so we have regulatory agreements and government contracts, which means we are under intense scrutiny at all times regarding the services that we’re providing and the quality of the housing.
Can you talk more about what it means to be non-profit and specifically do affordable housing?
Fortunately or unfortunately we are not in this business to make a ton of money as we develop. Any non-profit developer that builds housing—for whatever population—will be collecting a developer fee. I think that the thing that really sets a non-profit apart from a for-profit developer is that all of the development fees that we collect, all of the net proceeds of whatever we’re doing, goes right back into the services and the housing that we’re providing. At the end of the day, again, we’re here to have a sound investment for investors that will buy our tax credits and finance a building. But we aren’t here to come out with this monstrous surplus in our budget. I think that because we are a mission-driven organization, our goal is ultimately to develop and operate housing for vulnerable people in New York.
What role does design play in your mission and in your projects?
Design in all of our projects is a top priority for us. We believe that a pride in home and surroundings helps recovering people to gain stability and to really end up succeeding. Ennead [Architects] did Schermerhorn in downtown Brooklyn for us. It has a ton of green elements, is cantilevered over a subway, and it’s incredibly beautiful. We have worked with COOKFOX who designed a building for us in Brownsville and is designing our next two buildings up on Webster Avenue in the Bronx—both a supportive building and an affordable building. The apartments and hallways are really flooded with natural light.
COOKFOX and Robert A.M. Stern are normally known for high-end buildings and yet they come back and work with us again and again, and bring those same design elements into an affordable project. Not many non-profits get to say that Robert A.M. Stern is going to be doing their next project and build in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn. We also develop mini studios, where the average apartment is between 225 to 300 square feet. We have to be really thoughtful about the design of the interior of each apartment. I’ve joked that we were doing micro units long before micro units were popular.
What are some of the challenges that you face when choosing sites?
Years ago when we were looking for land, we would site projects in Manhattan and in Brooklyn and in other places. Over the last several years we’ve done new construction in downtown Brooklyn, Brownsville, the South Bronx, and the Lower East Side, in addition to our older Manhattan sites in Midtown. But now primarily the only affordable land for us at this point is in the Bronx.
Common Ground tends to build large. Our smallest building has 72 units and our largest has 640. We prefer to have a building with 200 or more units. So you need a lot of buildable square feet for that, because in addition to the apartments we have a lot of community space in our buildings for our tenants—so we can have computer labs, a multi-purpose room, a gym, outdoor spaces, and offices for the onsite support staff.
Lisa Kim, Two Trees
Two Trees Management Company was founded in 1968 and has developed over 3 billion dollars in real estate. It is most famous for its redevelopment of the industrial neighborhood of Dumbo, Brooklyn. The company has remained committed to fostering artistic and cultural activity in the area through subsidized spaces for arts community tenants, and more broadly, supporting art as an urban issue. Lisa Kim is the Cultural Affairs Director for Two Trees. She formerly served as Private Collection Manager and Director of Exhibitions and Operations at Gagosian Gallery.
Courtesy Two Trees
Matt Shaw: What initiatives does Two Trees have to support arts and culture?
Lisa Kim: Just having someone in my position is different. I am not a real estate person. My entire background comes from the art world. And so they brought me in to be the liaison to the art community and to think about this notion of organizing the company’s efforts of cultural philanthropy and making space for arts and artists in the neighborhood and how that integrates into our development. For Two Trees in Dumbo, it was really organic from the beginning. They own the majority of this neighborhood, and have seen it change.
It has become expensive for artists to work in Dumbo. The reason for the cultural space subsidy program is to find an organized way to create a level of support for the art community and open up space in our buildings for artists and non-profit groups. We thought an application process was the best way to do it. The space subsidy is rather dramatic. If you are granted a space subsidy here you’re given a lease of up to three years at basically a dollar a foot per month.
It’s tricky because there are a lot of people that certainly do want to bring artists in just to kind of spruce stuff up and then leave them when they don’t need them, but that’s not our case. We have 17 tenants—11 artists and six non-profit groups. With the cultural space subsidy tenants who’ve come in, we want to make sure that they’re also an active part of the community over there.
We want them to know who else is in the neighborhood. We had a little happy hour event last month where we brought in, not just the cultural space subsidy tenants, but our other artists and arts organizations tenants.
Who are some of the tenants?
We have New York’s first feminist cooperative gallery that was founded in 1972 and has been in Dumbo for eight years. On the 2nd floor of 20 Jay Street is a young theater group that goes to empower young women, to teach them how to write, direct, and perform plays about women’s issues. So here you have an A.I.R. gallery, a 40-year-old institution meeting Girl Be Heard, a six-year-institution with very-like minded initiatives talking about what they do.
We’ve been the go-to for arts groups that need a space once they’ve been booted from Tribeca, or Chelsea, or Soho. So we have arts support groups such as the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Marie Walsh Sharpe Faith Program. We also have the sculpture studio for the NY Studio School. Brooklyn Arts Council has their offices here. Arcadia is another arts funding organization that has its office here. We’ve been very supportive, for decades, to St. Ann’s Warehouse and to Smack Mellon. These are all tenants who had free to low rent. So it creates a very serious art community and a cluster in this neighborhood.
Do these cultural initiatives translate to added value for the developers? Or is this sort of a cultural, philanthropic project?
I think it’s cultural and philanthropic. A lot of people want to quantify what happens when you bring culture, but you can’t say when you put in X amount of dollars into arts support that you’re going to affect your bottom line by another number because you can raise property values or rents are higher or various other things. I mean I think it’s really anecdotal. I wish I could give you a metric. If you have cool shit for people to see they’re going to come see it. So who’s doing the cool shit, it’s the arts groups, right?
So how are these initiatives structured financially? Are they part of a separate non-profit? How does it relate to Two Trees?
Well, we’re a two-person part of the staff of Two Trees. The cultural space subsidy program is straight out of Two Trees. You get the same commercial space you would get if you were a market rate tenant. In Dumbo we have three commercial buildings—45 Main, 54 Washington, and 20 Jay Street—and our subsidy tenants are spread throughout all three buildings.
Then, separately, there is the non-profit Walentas Family Foundation with two programs as part of it. One is a neighborhood school program where grants are given for innovative school programs. The other half is the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program that offers 17 selected artists free studio space for one year in New York.
What does someone in your role bring to the development firm?
Because I’m naive to the world of development I can really be fresh about my approach in thinking about the art first. I go create it first and then there’s the reality check of is it possible to do this? On this site? Is it possible to do it in this budget? Does it make sense for this project or development?” And that’s when you start to put things together.
One of the buildings is a rather significant renovation and that’s the old Galapagos Art Space building at Water and Main streets. Four galleries will occupy that space. We spent the winter and spring months renovating that building from a cavernous, theater event space/bar to four beautiful sixteen-foot-ceiling white box gallery spaces.
We are all familiar with the story of American design practices and development companies working in China’s booming markets. Less discussed is the growing interest of Chinese capital and architectural talent in the United States. Here, Ann Lui wades into the increasingly two-way street of these intricately entangled economies.
Much has been written about United States architects and developers finding opportunities in China’s building boom, which is seemingly on perpetual fast forward. American architects are building small and large in the East—from corporate offices’ design of tall towers, such as KPF’s Shanghai World Financial Center, to the exhibition of boutique firms at Ordos 100, the new community in Inner Mongolia featuring houses designed by 100 architects from 27 countries. Yet, as the U.S. economy recovers from the recent recession, the trend is becoming paralleled by a flow in the other direction. Cities across the U.S., which once saw mostly outbound traffic of architectural design and real estate investment, are now brokering a two-way exchange. Metropolises from New York to Detroit have seen growing real estate interest from individual Chinese buyers as well as large developers. In parallel, Chinese architectural design practices—especially young and innovative ones—are seeking commissions in the U.S. and opening local offices to pursue new work. A fast-growing economy in China and decades-old bi-national relationships in architecture and development are resulting in new types of partnerships in the building industry, rooted in two deeply linked economies.
In the beginning of 2015, two noteworthy buildings made headlines in Chicago, capturing the breadth of new exchanges with China in the city’s architectural scene. In November, design publications headlined Beijing-based MAD Architects’ unveiling of a scheme for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art on the city’s lakefront. Founding principal Ma Yansong proposed—in his own words—a “futuristic” mountainous building in partnership with two Chicago offices. In April, stakeholders watched in a hotel ballroom as final plans were unveiled for the Wanda Vista: Three towers in Lakeshore East by Studio Gang, the highest of which, at 1,200 feet, will be the third tallest in the city. Behind the scenes, these towers are bankrolled at a cost of $1 billion by the Beijing-based developer Dalian Wanda Group. Set to break ground in 2016, according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, these Chinese-funded buildings are estimated to add 2,000 construction jobs to the city.
Bi-national exchanges between China and the U.S. in Chicago’s built environment are also simmering at a smaller scale. According to the National Realtors Association, in 2014 Chinese buyers purchased $22 billion dollars of United States real estate, more than any other foreign group. Chinese buyers represented 24 percent of all foreign sales nationally, up from 19 percent the previous year. According to Sam Van Horebeek, a director at East-West Property Advisors, a company that connects Chinese buyers to U.S. realtors, his clients are buying real estate in the United States to diversify assets, as investments, or for immigration purposes such as supporting a child enrolled in an American university. Increasingly, cities like Chicago are becoming of more interest. “In the past, it was only New York, Boston, or San Francisco,” said Van Horebeek. “Now there is more interest in second tier or third tier cities. We expect that to continue. There’s a higher demand than ever before and it will accelerate.”
More broadly, Chicago’s new relationships with Chinese real estate investors and architects serve as a microcosm for broader currents of interest from China in the U.S. building industry. Wang Jianlin, chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group and one of China’s richest men, announced his attention to further his real estate investment in the U.S. beyond the Windy City. “Investing in Chicago property is just Wanda’s first move into the U.S. real estate market,” he said in a press release. “Within a year, Wanda will invest in more five-star hotel projects in major U.S. cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.”
Other Chinese developers have entered the U.S. real estate market, often in partnership with local companies. In 2013, the Shanghai-based Greenland Group purchased a 70-percent stake in Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards project from Forest City Ratner Companies and is functioning as an “active partner” involved in construction as well as financing. Across the East River in Manhattan, China Vanke, the nation’s largest real estate developer, is building a glassy 61-story condo building on Lexington Avenue. In Los Angeles, Greenland invested $1 billion in residential towers and a hotel, in part of the city’s push to reactivate the Broadway corridor. Even smaller cities, like Tacoma, Washington, are benefiting from Chinese investment: Shanghai Mintong Real Estate is constructing a two-tower hotel and condo complex in downtown. Financially strapped Detroit has also attracted foreign real estate interests: This year, Dongdu International purchased three iconic buildings in the city’s downtown. The increased forays by large developers are in part due to the availability of EB-5 visas, which allow financiers to acquire green cards for investment purposes, drawing more Chinese capital to U.S. cities. Other reasons for the uptick include broader economic changes in China, characterized by a stronger yuan and a marked decrease in the nation’s own real estate market, which just dropped to a five-year low, according the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. “At an annual Chinese real estate convention,” said Van Horebeek, “one [developer] told me that in a two- or three-day convention during which there were a lot presentations on different topics—when typically most would be about the Chinese property market—[this year], one third were about America. So you have Chinese developers, major ones, discussing their plans for expansion overseas.”
As Chinese developers increasingly look to the U.S., the country’s architects are also looking to enter the market. Two decades ago, most Chinese architectural designers would have been headed for state-run architectural practices. Yet beginning in 1993 with Atelier FCJZ, the firm often billed as the nation’s first private architectural practice, Chinese architects are establishing independent firms with international reach. Yung Ho Chang, who founded Atelier FCJZ, is a former head of the architecture department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He built his career in U.S. academia before establishing his now prolific practice in Beijing. Today, many Chinese architects are trained abroad and establish offices in the U.S. with an international scope. “For this generation of Chinese architects, I think it’s very natural for them to practice in any place,” said Ma Yansong, the designer of the Lucas Museum. “This generation feels already that they are in the global scene.”
Recently, young Mainland Chinese architecture firms have garnered international accolades and are maintaining U.S. offices, paving the way for more commissions abroad. Wang Shu of Amateur Architecture Studio won the Pritzker Prize in 2012, the first time the accolade was awarded to a Chinese citizen. The firm OPEN Architecture was founded in New York City in 2011 by Li Hu and Huang Wenjing, closely followed by a Beijing branch. While the office’s projects are mostly in China, OPEN Architecture’s increasingly international practice was recognized for its design of “Garden in the Garden,” which spoke to both mass production and traditional Chinese landscape, at last year’s Venice Biennale. Studio Link-Arc, selected to design the 2015 China Pavilion at the Milan Expo, was founded by Yichen Lu and also operates out of New York.
This model of young cutting-edge practices with bi-national roots is characterized by SO-IL, a firm founded by Jing Liu, a Chinese-born architect, with Florian Idenburg, who is from the Netherlands. The firm’s project “Pole Dance” was constructed for the P.S.1 Young Architects Program in 2010 and the office has since gone on to design commercial and cultural projects in the U.S. and internationally.
Ma Yansong argues for the positive potential of Chinese developers with both civic and investment interests in the U.S., especially when paired with design architects whose agendas focus on context and revitalization. “I don’t work with many commercial developers in China,” said Ma, “but I think that the Greenland Group, in the U.S., has a good vision. Many large developers come for the market, for financial reasons, and of course Greenland has financial targets too, but they really want Greenland to be a local office [in the U.S.]. Those are the same reasons we come to the United States. We want to bring new ideas to the American city and we want to find people who share the same vision. That’s why we have the office in Los Angeles, to try to blend into the community and understand what is going on.”
On one hand, China’s growing role in the U.S. architecture and real estate scene can be chalked up to the globalized economy, in which the borders of nations have become less significant in light of multinational corporations and fluid trade. On the other hand, the architectural exchange between the two nations deserves closer inspection. In early 2014, the Chicago Tribune ran a series of articles titled, “Designed in Chicago, Made in China,” which profiled the work of Chicago architects working in the East. Yet undergirding the lucrative commissions for U.S. architects working abroad are the architectural and real estate currents going in both directions between the two nations, emerging from the complexity of two deeply linked economies. As the architectural exchange between China and the U.S. increasingly flows both ways, critics and professionals will continue to navigate a new iteration of an old encounter that brings both fresh competition and new opportunities.