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Powering Down
Christopher Payne

In another sign of the rapid changes along Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront, the Kent Avenue power station in Williamsburg is currently being demolished. The monumental masonry power plant, designed by Thomas Edward Murray, was built in 1907 for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company and is owned by Con Edison. “We have permission to demolish it. It is being demolished in phases,” said Alfonso Quiroz, spokesman for the utility. “We have no specific plans for the site.” Like the Waterside Power Station site south of the United Nations, which was also designed by Murray, and demolished last year to make way for a development by Sheldon Solow, the cleared Kent Avenue site promises to attract significant interest among developers.

Preservationists hope to persuade Con Edison to halt demolition, which is currently not visible on the building’s exterior. “From what I understand, demo permits have been pulled, but it’s not too late to save the building,” said Lisa Kersavage, director of advocacy and policy at the Municipal Art Society. The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance also believes the building should be saved, noting that the Brooklyn industrial waterfront was named one of the eleven most endangered sites in America last year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Con Ed is supported by the rate-payers of this city,” said Roland Lewis, president of the alliance. “There is a selfish interest and a public interest at stake.”

Both Lewis and Kersavage implied that cultural institutions, such as museums, may be eyeing the building, but declined to cite any specific interested parties. “Look at the Tate Modern in London. This could be a wonderful location for a cultural institution,” Kersavage said. But Quiroz said that Con Edison is moving ahead with demolition plans and is not negotiating with any cultural institutions that may wish to rehabilitate the building. “There is no discussion,” he said.

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Into Thin Air
Courtesy San Francisco Planning Department

On April 30, the San Francisco Planning Department unveiled a rezoning proposal that would increase building heights south of Market Street beyond the current 550-foot limit, essentially shifting the skyline’s center from the existing business district north of Market Street to the south, toward the new Transbay Transit Center.

The proposed rezoning, further outlined at the Transbay Citizen’s Advisory Committee meeting on May 8, will be presented in greater detail in a draft environmental impact report scheduled for spring 2009. The rezoning is the culmination of years of civic plans that are only now coming to fruition. The city’s 1971 Urban Design Plan, reiterated  in the 1985 Downtown Plan, had originally proposed increased heights south of Market Street, reinforcing the idea of a high-density street wall along the city’s main spine.

With this new set of guidelines, city planners are attempting to contrast the city’s undistinguished skyline with the creation of an urban topography that plays against the undulating natural landscape. At a scenic vantage point, three “mounds” would be identified: Telegraph Hill, the Transbay Transit district, and Rincon Hill, with Folsom Street as the lower “saddle” between the latter two.

Pelli Clark Pelli’s recently unveiled Transbay Transit Center Tower—measuring somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 feet—would act as the crown of the new city center, with surrounding towers forming a lower “ringed zone” 150 to 200 feet away. Nothing is set: The planning agency is hedging its bets, presenting a variety of height scenarios ranging from maintaining the existing 550-foot cap to the 1,200-foot upper limit as proposed by the Pelli scheme.
 
Architects’ and planners’ responses to the plan largely favored the possibility of increased density in the city and a more dynamic, even sculptural, skyline. But they also cautioned that the new construction be sensitive to its surroundings and were wary of the ongoing tension between the city’s aspirations as a metropolis and local planning politics constraining its development to incremental urban gestures.
 
UC Berkeley planning professor Peter Bosselman, who participated in the development of the 1985 plan, pointed out that the creation of these artificial “hills” will be difficult to manage in the face of developer pressures. Already, he pointed out, there are projects underway that would undermine the idea of a “saddle” between the Transbay mound and Rincon Hill.
 
Glenn Rescalvo, principal at Handel Architects—which is designing the 60-story Millennium Tower under construction next to the Transbay Terminal—asserted that the area’s success will be driven by the architectural quality of the surrounding projects. “When you build tall, you have to respond to everything else,” said Rescalvo, who did not speak highly of most tall buildings going up around Rincon Hill, and suggested that future development build taller around these projects and shift the focus to the Transit Center. Dana Merker of Patri Merker Architects pressed new construction to take into account the context of existing and future development, and to develop a sculptural vision of the city landscape as a whole.
 
The zoning process, scheduled to last at least 18 months, will aim to address unanswered questions regarding the planning proposal and clarify the vision not just for the Transbay Center and Rincon Hill, but the scheme’s wider urban implications.
 
For instance, little has been said so far on how the increased height limits will change the character of the existing district; how new high-rise buildings should relate to each other and to buildings in the area; how new development will connect to Mission Bay, the ballpark, and the Embarcadero; or how the new landmarks will change the face of the city as a whole.
 
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Into Thin Air
The San Francisco skyline stands to be transformed by new development around the Transbay Terminal.
Courtesy San Francisco Planning Department

On April 30, the San Francisco Planning Department unveiled a rezoning proposal that would increase building heights south of Market Street beyond the current 550-foot limit, essentially shifting the skyline’s center from the existing business district north of Market Street to the south, toward the new Transbay Transit Center.

The proposed rezoning, further outlined at the Transbay Citizen’s Advisory Committee meeting on May 8, will be presented in greater detail in a draft environmental impact report scheduled for spring 2009. The rezoning is the culmination of years of civic plans that are only now coming to fruition. The city’s 1971 Urban Design Plan, reiteratedin the 1985 Downtown Plan, had originally proposed increased heights south of Market Street, reinforcing the idea of a high-density street wall along the city’s main spine.

With this new set of guidelines, city planners are attempting to contrast the city’s undistinguished skyline with the creation of an urban topography that plays against the undulating natural landscape. At a scenic vantage point, three “mounds” would be identifiable: Telegraph Hill, the Transbay Transit district, and Rincon Hill, with Folsom Street as the lower “saddle” between the latter two.   

Pelli Clark Pelli’s recently unveiled Transbay Transit Center Tower—measuring somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 feet—would act as the crown of the new city center, with surrounding towers forming a lower “ringed zone” 150 to 200 feet away. Nothing is set: The planning agency is hedging its bets, presenting a variety of height scenarios ranging from maintaining the existing 550-foot cap to the 1,200-foot upper limit as proposed by the Pelli scheme.

Architects’ and planners’ responses to the plan largely favored the possibility of increased density in the city and a more dynamic, even sculptural, skyline. But they also cautioned that the new construction be sensitive to its surroundings and were wary of the ongoing tension between the city’s aspirations as a metropolis and local planning politics constraining its development to incremental urban gestures.

UC Berkeley planning professor Peter Bosselman, who participated in the development of the 1985 plan, pointed out that the creation of these artificial “hills” will be difficult to manage in the face of developer pressures. Already, he pointed out, there are projects underway that would undermine the idea of a “saddle” between the Transbay mound and Rincon Hill.

Glenn Rescalvo, principal at Handel Architects—which is designing the 60-story Millennium Tower under construction next to the Transbay Terminal—asserted that the area’s success will be driven by the architectural quality of the surrounding projects. “When you build tall, you have to respond to everything else,” he said.

Rescalvo did not speak highly of most tall buildings going up around Rincon Hill, though, and suggested that future developers build taller around these projects and shift the focus to the Transit Center. Dana Merker, of Patri Merker Architects, agreed, pressing for new construction to take into account the context of existing and future development, and to develop a sculptural vision of the city landscape as a whole.

The zoning process, scheduled to last at least 18 months, will aim to address unanswered questions regarding the planning proposal and clarify the vision not just for the Transbay Center and Rincon Hill, but the scheme’s wider urban implications.

For instance, little has been said so far on how the increased height limits will change the character of the existing district; how new high-rise buildings should relate to each other and to buildings in the area; how new development will connect to Mission Bay, the ballpark, and the Embarcadero; or how the new landmarks will change the face of the city as a whole. 

Eric Lum


The general consensus among planners and architects is that the san francisco skyline lacks distinction.
all images courtesy SF planning Dept
 
city planners hope a new rezoning, centered around the transbay terminal, will help create a more natural skyline reminiscent of san francisco's undulating hills.
 
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Lost City in the Woods



Architect and photographer Christopher Payne is fascinated with the afterlives of buildings. A chronicler of ruins, he has photographed disused factories on the East River, the High Line on the West Side, outmoded transit electrical substations throughout Manhattan, and, for the past few years, shuttered insane asylums and state hospitals across the country. Payne’s latest subject is the buildings and landscape of North Brother, a derelict hospital island in the Bronx under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, far removed from the cycles of development and change that are transforming the city. Evidence of habitation and of the island’s checkered history is literally disappearing into the woods.

In the 1880s, the island was home to a contagious disease hospital and was a model of reform-era hygiene and efficiency, earning the praise of the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis. Among its inhabitants was “Typhoid” Mary Mallon, the cook and notorious source of several outbreaks, who died there in 1938. The island was also the site of one of the nation’s worst nautical disasters, the 1904 downing of the steamship General Slocum, which sank just offshore carrying German immigrants on a holiday outing. Nurses and patients on the island rescued nearly 250 passengers, but more than one thousand people died. The tuberculosis hospital was completed in 1943, but was quickly repurposed to house World War II veterans who were attending college in the city through the GI Bill. By 1952, the island became a treatment facility for juvenile drug addicts before being abandoned altogether in 1964.

Today North Brother has largely slipped from public consciousness. It does not, for example, appear on the MTA Subway map: The place where the 29-acre island would be shows only water. “The city has an uncountable number of histories and events that are lodged, hidden away in some archive or someone’s memory,” said Randall Mason, a professor of historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the island extensively. “But things have a way of coming back; they resurface.” He cites the African Burial Ground as an example. “Places become invisible if they’re not used,” he said. The Parks Department classifies North Brother as a nature preserve. Department representatives visit only a few times a year and the public is prohibited because of safety concerns.

While photographing sites for the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, Payne first saw the island from afar. “I felt like I had found a lost city in a jungle, and yet here I was in New York City,” Payne said. His boat, he realized, was too big to get close to the island’s ruined dock. “Here was this lost world, a hundred feet away, that I couldn’t get to.” On a second trip, he found its buildings—a hospital, power plant, boiler, morgue, housing, cistern, and other infrastructure—receding into the landscape. “It’s strange to look at old photos and see how it functioned, how clear it was, a modern, open campus,” he said. “It’s amazing how quickly Nature reclaims what’s Hers.” In his photographs, trees sprout from the foundation line of the solitary staff house as layers of brick peel away from the facades. Brightly painted interiors are visible through the shards of glass in the robust-looking art deco tuberculosis hospital.

For the Parks Department, the island’s most important resident is the Black-crowned Night Heron, a rare bird that has slowly been returning to the region since the passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s. North Brother is part of a chain of small islands throughout the region called the “harbor herons complex,” according to Bill Tai, director of natural resources for Parks. The much smaller South Brother Island came into the Parks portfolio this November, when the federal government bought it for $2 million and turned it over to the city. Acknowledging the island’s history and its crumbling architecture, Tai called North Brother “the most interesting of the heron islands.” He added, however, that “maybe its highest and best use is to preserve it for wildlife.” Parks is sympathetic to the island’s history and the concerns of preservationists, and according to Tai, the department is hoping to do a partial restoration of the dock to make it occasionally accessible for small groups, and has secured $500,000 in funding toward that goal. Restoration of one of the smaller buildings as an interpretive center may be possible, but he noted, “We have very reduced budget forecasts, so it’s not a very high priority.”

In this era of public-private partnerships, piecemeal development, and limited public resources, the state of limbo in which the island sits is not altogether uncommon. The scale and significance of its architecture, once accessible by frequent ferry service, is a disquieting reminder that such limitations were not always commonplace. For Payne, abandoned public buildings hold a particular attraction, not just for the romance of their ruin but as vestiges of civic aspirations long since jettisoned.

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And Then There Were Four


brookfield hudson
Brookfield’s Manhattan West. COURTESY SOM
 

Since the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced five bidders to buy air rights over its Hudson Yards that span the lower West 30s from 10th Avenue to the river, the Brookfield Properties bid has stood apart from the others. It rejected the MTA’s guideline to create a platform over the yard, arguing that it could keep the rail lines in service by locating buildings on the avenues and their entrances at street level. It also employed 11 architecture firms, including SHoP Architects and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, in a proposal that won the affection of members of the local community board and passersby at the MTA’s December exhibition. All of this has made the developer’s decision to abandon the bid raise eyebrows in the architectural community.

One reason that Brookfield may have dropped its scheme is that it violated the city’s 2005 zoning for the eastern portion of the site, meaning that a fresh rezoning would likely add at least 15 months to the schedule.

“Everyone who has worked on this will tell you they would like to relook at that zoning,” said a source associated with another bidder, who asked for anonymity. “I thought Brookfield’s proposal was entirely feasible from an urban design point of view, and there were good, intelligent principles in it.” 

Those principles may yet drive some of the site’s planning. It will take at least a decade to build out the project, and no developer will want to sink a lot of capital into it without knowing the prospects for Moynihan Station just to the east. So most observers (and some participants) expect players to lean on or borrow from each other in executing the project. That means Brookfield could get back in, as an investor in a single building or by virtue of its control over the site’s eastern gateway.

Brookfield recently secured $105 million in predevelopment financing for Manhattan West, a 5.4 million-square-foot mixed-use project featuring twin SOM skyscrapers. That project, on a deck from 9th Avenue to Dyer Avenue, will abut Hudson Yards, so Brookfield will still affect how construction crews, buses, and pedestrians eventually cross from Moynihan Station (or Penn Station, if it doesn’t change) into the Hudson Yards site.

The local community board and other well-organized civic groups in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen have advocated a plan integrating Moynihan and the Brookfield site into plans for Hudson Yards. Their advocacy has already led the MTA to release design proposals to the public: After the authority selects a bidder, support for the Brookfield idea may bring that model back into the picture. 

brookfield hudson
The Hudson Yards version of the SOM towers.COURTESY ARCHIMATION
 

“We’re all wondering whether there’s going to be room for change in urban design,” said someone who has participated in the bid process since last year. “The community itself is looking for it. The problem is, I don’t think anyone is going to take the time to build consensus.”

Governor Eliot Spitzer, at a February 28 speech, promised resolution of Moynihan Station’s unsure financing: MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said the agency will consider bids this month. As economic assumptions change, Brookfield’s choice to sit out the term-setting on Hudson Yards may prove wise later on if zoning problems make the project seem less financially; it doesn’t mean the company won’t get involved at a later point. 

ALEC APPELBAUM

 

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Krens Leaves: What’s Left?

 

krens
COURTESY GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM
 

Last month, Thomas Krens, the man who defined the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for two decades, announced he will no longer be running the place. 

Like much of what Krens and the Guggenheim have proposed over that time, his public resignation was vague and tentative. Krens will stay on as an international adviser, and he will coordinate the construction of the planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a cultural complex of buildings designed by Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, with smaller structures by such younger architects as Greg Lynn, Ben van Berkel, and Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture. The Guggenheim shares its site with the Louvre’s grand Persian Gulf outpost. 

As Krens gives up his day-to-day duties, he leaves a Guggenheim molded in his image and an indelible imprint on museums internationally. Krens pioneered the creation of international museum outposts with the high-profile Guggenheim Museum Bilbao that made Frank Gehry a mainstream celebrity. The Guggenheim now has some half-dozen outposts, depending on how you count them, and the practice has been copied by the State Hermitage Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and more recently, by the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou. 

bilbao guggenheim
DAVID HEALD/COURTESY GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION
 
 

Krens gave the Guggenheim over to unlikely objects, like motorcycles and clothes, both in shows funded by interested manufacturers like BMW and Armani; cars by Cai Guo-Qiang are now in the 5th Avenue atrium. He also took art and high-profile architecture to gambling casinos in Las Vegas (with another project planned for a casino in Singapore, initiated without telling his trustees) and he transported art from under-funded Russian museums to western audiences that were eager to pay to see it. 

Yet the man who sought “positions” in regions all over the world left some flops in his wake—in Rio de Janeiro, where public outcry over construction costs stymied a Guggenheim by Jean Nouvel; in Taiwan, where a Guggenheim master plan with buildings by Gehry and Hadid never got past the models; in downtown Manhattan, where a Gehry mega-museum died after 9/11; and in Guadalajara, Mexico, where a Guggenheim skyscraper by Enrique Norten hasn’t been mentioned again since its trumpeted announcement almost three years ago. 

Sources close to the museum say that before Krens stepped down, the Guggenheim struggled to find a replacement for the museum’s director, Lisa Dennison, who left last summer for a job at Sotheby’s. Her job is still not filled. Now the Guggenheim may have to search for two executives, just as the Metropolitan Museum of Art is seeking to hire a replacement for outgoing director Philippe de Montebello. 

Insiders say that the Guggenheim Board and any future director will refocus the museum away from expensive architectural globalism and toward its New York site and its neglected collection. The rhetoric echoes an approach suggested by Peter Lewis, the insurance tycoon and former board chairman, who left the board in 2005 after Krens refused to abandon plans for more expansion. Lewis was the Guggenheim’s most important donor since the death of its founder. After leaving, he kept his promise to fund the conservation of the Frank Lloyd Wright pavilion’s exterior on 5th Avenue. To date, the combined Guggenheim board has failed to match Lewis’ generosity. 

Krens’ new role will free him to make deals and leverage real estate gambits with Guggenheim art, forgoing the administrative duties that were never his strength. It could also free him to work on behalf of other museums, and Krens could turn out to be an even bigger global brand than the institution he ran for 20 years. The architects, artists, and oligarchs in his circle are his personal capital, not the Guggenheim’s. 

To believe Krens, cities are still lining up to build and run a Guggenheim, or something that looks like one. Yet back on 5th Avenue, the over-extended and under-endowed institution that Krens leaves behind is already scaring off potential successors. 

DAVID D’ARCY

 

Dome Drama

The dome, the whole dome, and nothing but the dome: This was the demand from angry New Yorkers when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) discussed its plans to strip down the design for the Fulton Street Transit Center in a meeting with Community Board 1. “We want the Fulton Street Transit Center built as originally designed, and we want it built now,” said Alliance for Downtown New York president Elizabeth Berger at the February 11 meeting. “We can’t settle for less, and we can’t wait any longer.” 

The MTA first announced its plans to rethink the Grimshaw Architects and James Carpenter Design Associates building at the end of January, when it revealed a paralyzing funding gap (“Folly at Fulton St.,” AN 03_ 02.20.2008). The project was budgeted at $390 million, but the sole bid for construction came in at $870 million. CB1 World Trade Center committee chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes called the towering glass dome that focuses sunlight onto the subway platforms below “an iconic design that the community fell in love with.” 

At the February 11 meeting, CB1 passed a resolution demanding the building it says downtown was promised. “It would be utterly unconscionable,” the resolution reads, “to not build this project in a timely manner after 145 Downtown businesses were sacrificed to assemble the site and the entire population of Lower Manhattan has been forced to navigate around and through this massive dirty construction site for years.” 

The dome would enclose 23,000 square feet of retail space that the Downtown Alliance and CB1 argue is crucial to the process of reinvigorating a neighborhood still struggling after September 11. But CB1 is worried that the city’s priorities don’t match its own. The Transit Center was supposed to open this year, according to Hughes, but it remains in pieces even as other redevelopment projects churn along. “After 9/11, we had meeting after meeting to go over the top priorities for downtown,” said Hughes. “The South Ferry Terminal is almost done, and it was at the bottom of the list, whereas Fulton Street was the top priority.” 

The MTA argues the building itself is just the tip of the iceberg, and less pressing than the mess of train lines submerged underneath it. “Transportation benefits are the most important part of the project,” said spokesperson Jeremy Soffin. That part of the project is scheduled to open in 2010. 

The MTA is in the middle of a 30-day reevaluation of the design and its funding. It hopes to have a revised plan by the end of the month. Meanwhile, the Downtown Alliance has suggested a public/private partnership to help distribute some of the project’s cost overruns. It’s unclear at this point what shape the Transit Center will take, but according to Soffin, “This is not going to be left as a hole in the ground.” 

WILLIAM BOSTWICK

Next Big Thing

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) is designing San Francisco’s largest new development, the 393-acre Treasure Island. As if that weren’t enough, the firm’s San Francisco office is now also working on a blockbuster on the other side of the city: a transformation of Park Merced. If approved, the scheme for the World War II-era housing development will add about 5,700 new units to the 115-acre site, now renamed Parkmerced, tripling the number of apartments there today. Like Treasure Island, the project’s cost is estimated at $1.2 billion. In January, Parkmerced’s owners, Texas-based Stellar Management, filed an environmental evaluation application, effectively starting the planning process and giving rise to vocal opponents from the community and beyond.

The original Park Merced, composed of simple, modernist towers and town houses arranged around varied green spaces, was designed by Leonard Schultze and Associates and built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which also put up similar complexes like Park La Brea in Los Angeles and Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. Completed in the early 1950s, it was intended for moderate-income families, many of them from the military. Most agree that its most notable feature was the relationship of its buildings to its landscaping, with its intricate internal courtyards and interrelated terraced patios largely designed by Thomas Dolliver Church, who also oversaw the master planning of UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and the Mayo Clinic.

Stellar Management bought Park Merced in 2005 and has already begun a $130 million renovation. The development’s four-phase plan will retain the largest towers and replace its two-story buildings with four-story units. The plan will also add retail and slightly reconfigure Park Merced’s street grid, create more intimate green spaces, and stagger new buildings to minimize cold winds coming off the waterfront, said SOM partner Craig Hartman, who likens its current feel to a retirement home. He points out that the new buildings will be designed by several architecture firms (as yet, unselected) in a style “that reflects our contemporary culture.”

Hartman also hopes to bring the entire development off the grid and reduce energy consumption by about 60 percent using wind power, solar power, high-efficiency fixtures, water recycling, improved insulation, and co-generation (using existing power sources to generate energy on-site). The new plan will connect the park to public transportation by moving an existing MUNI stop, adding a new one, and providing low-emissions shuttles to BART.

But the intensive scheme, which would radically change this once-sleepy development, has its opponents. Aaron Goodman, an architect at San Francisco’s Studios Architecture and vice president of the Park Merced Residents Organization, the area’s recognized tenant group, complains that the new plans will be unaffordable and will disturb the area’s neighborly atmosphere. 

“The character of the site will be lost,” said Goodman. “I wouldn’t call it charming, but it’s very effective.” Goodman is one of the leaders in an effort to landmark the property, and has filed documents with the city’s Landmark Preservation Advisory Board. Docomomo (International Working Party for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement) is working together with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the California Preservation Foundation, San Francisco Architectural Heritage, and the Cultural Landscape Foundation to get Park Merced placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s highly significant,” said Andrew Wolfram, president of Docomomo’s Northern California chapter, who pointed out that Park Fairfax, also built by Metropolitan Life, is already on the National Register. “We’re not saying it needs to be frozen in time, but its important elements should be preserved.”

Stellar Management spokesperson P.J. Johnston points out that the scheme has been through 63 community meetings, and that many of the buildings on the property are too degraded to save: “It’s a property that’s well beyond its use-by date. It needs to be revitalized and rebuilt.”

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Harlem’s Future?
Courtesy Vornado Realty Trust

Harlem has long been a divided community, between color and creed, between haves and have-nots. The Bloomberg administration’s recent proposal to rezone 125th Street, Harlem’s historic, cultural, and economic epicenter, has brought some of those groups together while pushing others further apart. On January 30, during a hearing of the City Planning Commission on the project, these divisions and alliances came into full focus.

For landlords, developers, and the street’s numerous arts institutions, the city’s plan is an opportunity to secure their economic triumph in a long-suffering neighborhood. But local residents, businesses, and some politicians fear the changes may threaten those who have stood by Harlem through the highs and lows by choice, circumstance, or both.
Relative to the recent spate of rezonings across the five boroughs, the 125th Street plan is modest in size, covering only 24 blocks running along a 1.6-mile strip from Broadway to Second Avenue, but it stands to have a major impact, for good or ill, on a community already under duress.

As City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden declared back in September when the plan was certified, “This comprehensive initiative will fulfill the promise of Harlem’s ‘Main Street’ as a vibrant corridor and a premier arts, entertainment, and commercial destination in the city.” But others see it as the latest tremors of gentrification. Craig Schley, who founded VOTE People to oppose the rezoning, said Harlemites would never accept the city’s proposal. “With the stroke of a pen, you will achieve as much destruction as Hurricane Katrina,” he told commissioners, underscoring the racial sensitivity of the project.

Many, however, are excited by the proposal, perhaps none more so than local arts organizations such as the Apollo Theater, the Studio Museum, and the National Jazz Museum. They stand to benefit because the rezoning creates a special arts and cultural sub-district at the center of 125th Street. There, any new building must devote five percent of its space to an arts organization in order to achieve maximum square-footage on the site. “I want to go back to a time when I couldn’t count the arts and cultural institutions on two hands, there were so many,” JoAnn Price, vice chair of the Apollo Theater Foundation, told AN

To create new commercial space, much of which is underutilized because of 125th Street’s generally small lots, the street has been upzoned to allow for larger and denser buildings; to counteract overdevelopment, height caps have also been instituted for the first time. These concentrate development between Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X boulevards and the Metro-North station at Park Avenue. This and similar measures have gained the support of the 125th Street Business Improvement District and other economic groups hoping to capitalize on the projected 6,000 jobs the new commercial buildings will create.

But some developers still want more, such as the Vornado Realty Trust, whose representatives asked the commission during the hearing for an exception in order to build the Harlem Park, a high-end office tower at 125th Street and Park Avenue. This request drew jeers from the crowd, who see it as emblematic of the overdevelopment threatening the area.

For Nelly Bailey, director of the Coalition to Save Harlem, Harlem Park is precisely the sort of project she is defending against. “They are handing us something that will destroy Harlem,” Bailey told the commission. She then described the proposal as “Mayor Bloomberg’s masterplan, on a scale that has not been seen since Robert Moses. It is a plan that seeks to replace a working class community of color with an affluent white community.”

Franc Perry, chair of Community Board 10, which voted against the rezoning, said that Harlem is not opposed to development, and in many cases needs it. Instead, the concern is whether Harlemites will be driven out. “We understand that change is inevitable,” he told AN, “but there has to be change with conscience, with consensus from the community.”

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Folly at Fulton St.
Grimshaw's original design for the Fulton Street transit hub is sure to be scaled back, and may not get built at all.
Courtesy Grimshaw

In the face of budget shortfalls and mounting construction costs, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (MTA) plans for the Fulton Street Transit Center have been all but discarded. The glassy, conical transit hub designed by Grimshaw and James Carpenter Design Associates was meant to be the MTA’s showpiece at the new World Trade Center, an elegant solution to a mess of subway lines, but cost overruns could leave the site vacant for some time to come.

The decision to rethink the transit center, announced on January 28, arose when the MTA received only one bid for the aboveground portion of the project, a $870 million offer that far exceeded the $390 million budgeted for the project. (The underground portion of the project, which streamlines connections between a tangle of subway lines and was designed by ARUP, will be unaffected by the cutbacks.) MTA executive director and CEO Lee Sander said the MTA has gone back to the drawing board to consider all its options. “I would not say it can’t be done, but clearly we have to find a way to redistribute the costs of the current project or come up with a new one,” he told AN.

Sander declined to say whether Grimshaw was still involved with the project, and an MTA spokesperson, Jeremy Soffin, said he was not sure. A source with knowledge of the MTA’s plans, or at least what remains of them, did tell AN that the British firm was still involved with the project, but did not know what that involvement would entail, or even if the MTA did. “I don’t think they really know what they’re doing right now,” the source said of the MTA’s intentions. Grimshaw declined to comment.

Across the street, there had been speculation that Santiago Calatrava’s PATH station at the World Trade Center site could be sapping funds from the Fulton Street project, especially as its price tag has skyrocketed from $2.2 billion to $3.4 billion. Soffin insisted this was not the case and, whatever gets built, a high level of design would be maintained.

Initial reports from the hearings claimed that only Carpenter’s towering oculus, which is meant to bring natural light down into the bowels of the project, would be lost, but now the MTA is considering every available option, even nothing at all. Carpenter said the MTA has kept him in the dark so far.

No matter what happens, MTA board chair H. Dale Hemmerdinger stressed that the site would not remain barren. “Rather than leave an empty lot, I thought we could put something there that would be useful to the community,” Hemmerdinger told the Daily News on January 31. His alternative, a public park or plaza, did not leave much hope for the sort of design the previous plans presented, but that may be the best the MTA has to offer. 

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From Rusty to Renewable
Courtesy Department of Transportation

City planners have worried about maintaining New York’s web of roads, sewers, bridges, and public transit since commissioners drew up a blueprint for growth in 1811. Now, though, consensus is emerging that agencies must coordinate their upkeep if the city is to survive climate change and enormous population increases. Worries that our sewers are filling up and spewing wastewater into rivers are as old as city planning itself, but a coordinated response to those worries is new. Public officials from San Diego to Stockholm are addressing their cities’ ecological future, and they are less focused on technological fixes than on coordinating the way parks, transit, and economic development agencies share the land.

“We must think more holistically to achieve true, sustainable growth,” Empire State Development Corporation downstate chairman Patrick Foye told attendees at a New York Building Congress lunch on September 20. He’s got company. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s ambitious 127-point sustainability program PlaNYC 2030 asks Parks Department officials to work with transportation planners to develop standards that will make new parking lots into grassy sponges for stormwater. And the chief of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is responding to the aftermath of the storm that shut down subways on August 8 by surveying for sites where it can tap porous pavement or new vegetative landscaping to soak up water.

While the MTA consults landscape architects to make its far-flung properties more efficient, Foye’s agency is shelving its traditional emphasis on megaprojects like the Atlantic Yards development in favor of a measured approach. “The state’s historic focus on large-scale projects has actually short-changed our region,” Foye told the September 21 meeting. In the speech, Foye proposed a rezoning around the new Moynihan Station that would sprinkle air rights along the 34th Street corridor: This, he said, would “mean less disruption to commuters and tie development to the market.” In other words, it would temper demands on subways, sewers, and roads, lessening the odds of a catastrophe. That same incremental focus will guide Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 agenda, now six months old, through its implementation.

At the Hudson Yards site, which the MTA is selling to developers who want to link new buildings to the new station, PlaNYC has proposed a test site for a new system, called HLSS for “high-level storm sewer.” Such a sewer can sweep rain and snow into the river, reducing the risk that nearby older sewers will fill with combined stormwater and wastewater and shut down. “We emphasize backup systems for water supply, upgrading the energy grid,” said Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff in an interview with AN. “If we don’t upgrade our infrastructure, the risk to life and property and costs going forward are only going to magnify.”

These may seem like harsh words even from Doctoroff, a man who is known for his steely style. But he doesn’t come off like a Cassandra—his thinking is in line with his counterparts in London, Chicago, and other cities trying to increase housing densities and upgrade mass transit. Mayors in Sacramento and Boston are striking deals with big employers and adopting sustainability plans that will guide their public investment for the next generation. “Anybody who has eyes and ears and a brain,” he says of the city’s physical condition, “will be reminded that we are in a perilous state.”

That state demands clever collaboration across agencies. The crammed acreage that makes the city so logical for high density and mass transit also means that any effort to repair pipes and plumbing leads, logically and politically, to new patches of literal green. When the city wants to put a new water node or sewer line underground somewhere, explains assistant Parks commissioner Joshua Laird, it wants to make sure no developer builds anything on the site that would make it inaccessible for tests and repairs. So it creates new parks. “The land will have a park on it that we will manage with the caveat that if DEP needs to get back in there they will be able to,” says Laird. “There’s a new shaft site on Bowery adjacent to one of our houses. They had acquired an old Edison site, and when it is done, will be required to put a park on top.”

The MTA is also trying to keep development within its control by developing mixed-use hubs at some of its commuter rail stations, beginning with Beacon in Putnam County. Moreover, executive director Sander has convened a panel of green advisors. He promises the outlines of a masterplan for improving the MTA’s stormwater management, track upkeep, and energy efficiency by April 22, the first anniversary of Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 kick-off speech. This would go beyond the MTA’s longstanding use of new energy-efficient technology to make existing tracks carry more trains and existing bus routes carry more customers. Sander hopes to cover some of the involved expenses with revenue from the mayor’s much-discussed congestion charge.

Congestion pricing has emerged as a point of solidarity among Sander, Doctoroff, and EDC chief Robert Lieber, who all have been known to approach isolated economic-development issues focusing on the priorities of their respective agencies. Lieber is using his influence to urge executives whose companies might generate jobs to urge legislators to stop bickering over congestion pricing. Lieber, whose agency coordinates all waterfront conversions around town and accordingly must clear a host of rotting piers and suspect industrial sites, told audiences at an Economist-sponsored powwow and a New York Building Congress breakfast that he plans to use his pulpit to fight for new sources of infrastructure funding from all levels of government.

That call will expose discord between the no-nonsense city government and the more theatrical lawmakers in Albany. After a Con Edison steam pipe exploded in July and forced Midtown traffic to grind to a halt, Doctoroff described the new authority as inevitable. “Con Edison has got to invest more money, but you also have to change the way you think about energy,” said Doctoroff at the time. “Demand for energy by 2030 is projected to grow about 45 percent, and our plan holds it constant. We want to take stress off the system, and that means distributed generation.” PlaNYC calls for a city-created Energy Efficiency Authority to help finance building retrofits and create scattered small power plants, but Albany must approve the authority’s creation.

Finally, leaders are trying to persuade the private sector to invest in unglamorous upkeep. The administration disclosed plans in October to connect private landlords with the Clinton Climate Initiative, which has amassed $5 billion in loans to finance building retrofits. And PlaNYC’s implementation will require owners of parking lots over 6,000 square feet to plant trees along their edges and will promise a property tax break to offset 35 percent of the cost of new green roofs.

This kind of broad-based, small-bore work will define planners’ mandates and architects’ work for the next several years, but even if it is entirely successful, its achievement will hardly make the city an oasis of efficiency. Sander exposed the city’s fragile bones at a planners’ conference in mid-October when he confidently answered a question about how congestion pricing fees would help the MTA improve service. “You’ll see a 19th-century transit system moving into the 20th century.”

Urban Jungle to Get Denser

On August 7, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed the Downtown Planning Ordinance. Initiated by the Department of City Planning, the measure is part of a concerted effort to update and urbanize planning codes that were appropriate for postwar suburban developments, but woefully out of sync with the current needs of the city and its ever-increasing population.

The ordinance is also expected to create more highrise density downtown as well as more affordable housing by offering a 35 percent floor-area-ratio (FAR) bonus as an incentive for developers to include affordable units.

News of the ordinance’s passing set off a flurry of newspaper opinion pieces and letters from readers, critics, and urban planners, some of whom bemoaned the notion that LA was falling victim to “Manhattanization,” a term used during the 1960s by critics of San Francisco’s highrise developments. Others applauded the city council’s effort to steer LA toward a denser, vertical profile, accusing critics of being “urbanphobes.”

In the LA Downtown News, urban design critic Sam Hall Kaplan wrote, “Interestingly, the paramount concern of our persistent ‘urbanphobes’ is not about making these developments more accessible and pedestrian friendly, nor how to provide more housing choices, nor how to offer more inviting parks and public spaces. Rather, what apparently worries them, and many others in Southern California, is the ogre of traffic.” 

Scott Johnson, principal at Johnson Fain, a downtown-based architecture firm, said that any move toward more density and mixed land use is a good thing. But he considers it only one part of the total equation. “We need to see sustainability, affordable housing, and expanded use of public transportation happening at the same time as density,” he said. “LA is really behind on every one of these fronts.”

Even while LA is expanding its transit system to the further reaches of the metropolitan area, only about 12 percent of new residents in downtown, the public transit hub for greater LA, say they use the train or bus.

What most concerns Beth Steckler, policy director at Livable Places, an affordable housing and environmental advocacy group in downtown LA, is not public transportation or density but the lack of available affordable housing downtown.

“The real purpose of this [Downtown Planning Ordinance] is to streamline market-rate housing in highrises,” she says. Steckler argues that there are too many ways for developers to get around applying FAR bonuses toward affordable units. Livable Places proposed alternatives to the incentives detailed in the ordinance, which among other things would require higher percentages of affordable housing units than currently accepted by the city council.

Clearly, LA has a long way to go before reaching a consensus, and even further to a skyline of Manhattan-like density, if that’s even desirable. But what is apparent is the public’s ongoing interest in the debate, particularly on matters concerning the city’s unrelenting transportation woes. “The public is ready,” says Johnson. “We’re beginning to change.”