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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.”

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Grate Expectations
Courtesy Rogers Marvel Architects

The August 8 flooding and closure of the subway system left a lot of people wondering about the vulnerability of New York’s infrastructure. If a few hours of rain could bring the city to a halt, is its transportation network prepared for larger-scale natural or manmade disasters? While the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and other agencies wrestle with the long-term answers to this question, a group of designers has been asked to figure out how to keep sheets of water from pouring into sidewalk subway gratings during heavy rains.

On September 11, the MTA’s Arts for Transit convened Grimshaw Architects, Rogers Marvel Architects, and Antenna Design to investigate ways to remake the subway grating at stations that are prone to flooding. “This is an emergency situation,” said Sandra Bloodworth, director of Arts for Transit, “so we called some minds together who have worked on these issues.” All three firms have worked on public space infrastructure, including Grimshaw’s street furniture (“Newsworthy Newsstands,” AN 16_10.03.2007), Rogers Marvel’s security bench/bollard combos in the Financial District, and Antenna’s new subway cars.

Subway grates provide fresh air as well as ventilation in case of fire, so the goal of the redesign is to keep the airflow open while raising the grates above the sidewalk’s surface. Grimshaw’s proposal is based on a standard kit of parts and forms a bench. Rogers Marvel’s is blockier but has an undulating seating surface that makes it difficult to use for skateboarding tricks. Antenna’s combines benches with planters, which help to absorb rainwater. All three are designed to plug into existing grate openings and require minimal work on the sidewalks.

“We are so excited to be working on another project for the city,” said Jennifer Carpenter, partner in TRUCK Product Architecture, Rogers Marvel’s industrial design department. “I think we all want this piece of infrastructure to be a public amenity.”

“The MTA’s director, Eliot Sanders, likes to talk about how his mother had to go pick up his father after the Queens Boulevard lines flooded 40 years ago,” said Jeremy Soffin, press secretary for the MTA. “So this problem has been around, but we’re trying to come up with innovative solutions.” Longer-term plans include modified streetscapes, with greater permeability and more greenery, and more powerful pumping systems.

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Delirious Newark
Downtown Newark
Courtesy Regional Plan Association

When two poodles sauntered from a freshly converted apartment house in downtown Newark this summer, it made the news. No, the dogs weren’t in any trouble, they were merely tethered to a well-heeled woman out for a stroll: a perfect specimen of that species beloved to real estate brokers, the highrise urban dweller. For New Jersey Business magazine, which reported the incident, they are a sign of better things to come.

As Mayor Cory A. Booker swept into office in 2006 on a platform of radical reform, he vowed to make Newark a “national standard for urban transformation.” And in June, he took a big step forward by appointing Toni Griffin as director of community development, charged with rebuilding the planning machine of New Jersey’s largest metropolis nearly from the ground up.

To many New Yorkers, this city of about 280,000 on the Passaic River has long been a tattered way station, glimpsed from passing Amtrak trains or en route to Newark Liberty Airport. But beyond the image of shells of buildings and broken windows is what planners call a robust urban infrastructure primed for a new half-century of growth. Though Newark’s population had dwindled dramatically from its peak of more than 440,000 in the 1930s, a boomlet since 2000 made it the fastest-growing major city in the Northeast. With commuter-friendly transit links to New York, dormant development capacity, and ample urban amenities waiting to be tapped, the Booker camp is betting hard on Newark’s future.

“With the coming of the Booker administration and changes in the region, Newark is in quite a different position than it was a few years ago,” observed Max Bond, partner at Davis Brody Bond. “As housing in New York gets more expensive, more and more people are looking at the possibility of living in Newark. In the regional context, there really are terrific opportunities.”

Shortly after the 38-year-old Booker came to office, he delighted planners by sitting down with the Regional Plan Association (RPA) and volunteers like Bond to draft a vision plan that would knit together the 100-odd neighborhood studies, urban renewal plans, and sundry agendas that had been moldering in City Hall file cabinets. This remarkable document, the product of dozens of planners, architects, city and state officials, and faculty of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, sprang from a three-day charette in 2006. With groups brainstorming about specific projects—from airport economic growth to the new downtown arena—a focused plan emerged: Revamp the 17-year-old masterplan. Overhaul the 1960s zoning ordinance. Ban sky bridges. Establish rapid-transit bus routes. Make mixed-use a mantra. At public meetings presenting the report, administration officials got an earful from residents keen to put Newark’s plans into practice.

Enter Griffin, who grew up in Chicago and studied architecture at Notre Dame, as well as at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (where she is now a visiting design critic). Launching her career at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Chicago office, she gravitated to planning and was hired to direct planning and tourism development for New York’s Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation. She then moved to Washington, D.C., where she oversaw large-scale redevelopment for the city’s planning office, taking charge of downtown, waterfront, and commercial corridors. She later served as vice president and director of design for the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, helping to make 2,000 acres along the Anacostia River corridor into a model for rebuilding inner cities. She is known for hitting the ground running.

"As an architect,” Griffin said, “my training is in problem-solving and in building. I see planning in the same way. I’m not interested in doing plans that sit on the shelves.”

Digging in on the first phase of Newark’s masterplan, Griffin convened a team including SMWM, Phillips Preiss Shapiro Associates, Justice and Sustainability Associates, and Chan Krieger Sieniewicz to define a vision that will lead to a more proactive and transparent planning process. Staff will also draw on the RPA’s draft vision plan and local design firms with the aim of revising the master plan and zoning ordinance for the 24-square-mile city, a task expected to be a multi-phase, multi-year effort. To build a central planning department out of what had been, in the James era, splintered among varied boards and offices, Griffin also aims to beef up her own staff, now home to four planners. “I want to hire a mix of planners with design backgrounds, designers with planning backgrounds, and economists,” she said.

Shifting to more immediate goals, the Booker team has targeted downtown residential development as a priority, citing 1180 Raymond Boulevard, a long-vacant Art Deco office tower in the heart of downtown. Recently converted into 317 rental units, it is rapidly filling with, yes, the aforementioned poodles—and just the commuters the city hopes to attract. (Eighty percent of the tower’s occupants work in New York.) “We’re aiming to build upon the trend started by premier new residential buildings like 1180 Raymond Boulevard,” said Stefan Pryor, Newark’s deputy mayor for economic development. Pryor, who led the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation through its forced quiescence before arriving as a high-profile hire for the Booker administration, is actively working on projects that have been thwarted by Newark’s outmoded regulations. He cites the city’s incoherent zoning rules as a persistent problem for developers who want to convert commercial buildings into housing. “There are side yard requirements and backyard requirements and onerous parking requirements,” he said. “We are going to eliminate those.”

Bringing momentum downtown is New Jersey Transit’s mile-long light-rail link between the city’s two major transit hubs, Newark Penn Station and Broad Street Station. Opened in 2006 at a cost of $207 million, the line connects New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, PATH trains, and the city’s subway. It will hopefully extend residential and retail growth north across I-280, and to the two gemlike Mies van der Rohe towers known as the Pavilion Apartments. Opened in 1960, along with a third Mies apartment building near Branch Brook Park called the Colonnade, the towers today look lonely amid Colonial-style townhouses built on the site of the Christopher Columbus Homes public housing project, which were razed in 1994 after becoming a symbol of neglect and poverty.

Back near Broad Street, which Griffin sees a as focal point for the 45,000 college students who attend Newark’s five colleges and universities, there’s the Barton Myers-designed New Jersey Performing Arts Center, widely hailed as the project that put Newark back on the map when it opened in 1997. “It’s an area that can help to change the whole image of the city and brand it as a waterfront downtown,” Griffin said. Work has slowly progressed on the Joseph G. Minish Passaic River Waterfront Park, which would stretch north from the dominantly Portuguese and Brazilian Ironbound district (and its swinging tapas bars) to the downtown core. Griffin looks toward a teeming, two-sided waterfront along both banks of the Passaic; plans are already progressing across the river in Harrison, where the first phase of a development with 1,800 residential units, a soccer stadium, and a riverfront park is under way.

For many watching Newark’s redevelopment, the most bothersome legacy of the James administration may be Prudential Center, the city’s new downtown arena. Branded a boondoggle by Newarkers who questioned its $375 million price tag and prospects (it is home to the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils), the arena was nonetheless under construction by the time James left office. Mayor Booker, who once denounced the project as a “betrayal of the public trust,” has determined to embrace the squat, brick-and-glass behemoth, which opens this month with a ten-night stand by Bon Jovi. Ever the optimist, Griffin thinks the arena could catalyze restaurant and retail development just as the MCI Center (now Verizon Center) did for Washington.


The city’s hottest vehicle of change, however, is less likely to be Bon Jovi than the Port of Newark, because it has one thing Newark needs most: jobs. The city is closely studying how to redevelop land and capture job opportunities at the port, which employs relatively few locals. A similar strategy is taking shape around the airport, which Griffin suggests could be groomed as an “aerotropolis,” surrounded by efficient business and residential nodes. “Cities like Dallas are looking at neighborhoods around airports,” she explained, “and developing them as attractive places to live.”

Newark’s real estate boom has had unintended effects. As the market revived in former no-go neighborhoods, suburban-minded builders found a cheap formula to fill empty blocks: the Bayonne Box. A source of consternation to Newark planners, the narrow, three-story house has deep setbacks, vast curb cuts, and car-forward frontage (“a machine for parking,” growled one planner). The now-ubiquitous Bayonne Box is anathema to a rich and lively public realm, and Griffin’s team is looking to tweak zoning regulations to reduce curb cuts, hide vehicles, and create greener front yards. Her office has also drafted guidelines for new housing typologies, and will be hiring architects to test those concepts throughout the city. A similar program is under way to check the growth of car-centric shopping hubs. “We want to look at guidelines for how mixed-use town centers can fit back into the fabric of Newark,” she said.

Community groups, long inured to promises, are guardedly optimistic about their city’s future.

“So far Ms. Griffin has been sensitive and responsive to what we see as critical issues,” said Richard Cammarieri, chair of the master plan working group for the New Community Corporation, a network of citizen groups. “The biggest challenge is going to be ensuring that the planning process is in fact internalized for the entire city government. Everyone really has to buy into this.”

Longtime Newarkers have an endearing knack for looking at the bright side. “At least we have a planning department now,” Cammarieri dryly noted, “which we’ve never had before.”

Eavesdrop: Editors

Design for the Other 10 Percent
We had to chuckle when we got the invite to the Ingo Maurer show at the Cooper-Hewitt: It is a big slab of Plexiglas, more suitable for use as a cocktail coaster than as entrée to a party. Not very sustainable, ladies and gentlemen! Apparently, the folks over at the museum didn’t get the memo that Maurer is a major hippie! Like, totally into being green and stuff! During a Q&A there, he raved about the freedom and experimentation he finds at Burning Man, the temporary city for 49,000-cum-arts festival in the Nevada desert. (Eavesdrop also went, and should add that it is also a great excuse to take off your clothes, though we were very, very modest.) To make matters worse, this year’s event was called Green Man! Because he was prepping for his show, Maurer couldn’t make it. Bummer, dude, but let’s meet at Center Camp next year!

Just an Old-fashioned Love Song, In Three-part Harmony
And from parts north comes word of an event we would have cut off a leg to have seen, that is, if we were ever organized enough to get on Metro North: At the Yale Art Gallery Auditorium, Peter Eisenman restaged a 30-year-old debate with Tom Wolfe on the merits of modernism as dean Robert A. M. Stern looked on. A wheezing Eisenman chided Stern for his use of ornament, to which Wolfe added, “I have seen him sin in that way.” Hey Tom: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!

The lovefest, however, quickly turned into a quarrel about campus architecture. Of Yale’s Collegiate Gothic buildings, Wolfe pronounced, “Everyone who has ever spent a year at Yale feels immensely grander because they have lived within the most spectacular example of conspicuous consumption.” Eisenman retorted with a jab aimed at both school’s new temporary swing space by Kieran Timberlake and the construction schedule for Gwathmey Siegel’s addition to Paul Rudolph’s A&A building, which will take its place. “We don’t feel richer in that building,” Eisenman said, “that building we’re going to be in forever.”

“You’re shooting yourself in the foot,” snapped Stern, who has banked a significant part of his legacy at Yale on the A&A renovation. “I don’t have any feet left,” replied Eisenman.

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Imitation of Life

There’s a rising star in the architecture and design communities. She can build homes so strong, they withstand more than 2,000 times their own weight. She taught Mercedes-Benz a thing or two about making more aerodynamic cars. And in her spare time, she developed a technique for creating vibrant colors with no toxins.

So who is this superstar? You know her already—her name is Mother Nature. Time and again, she’s proven herself to be a master architect and engineer. (In case you’re wondering, tests have shown snail shells can support more than 2,000 times their weight, the streamlined form of the boxfish helped Mercedes-Benz build an ultrafuel-efficient car, and butterfly wings have their glorious color embedded in their structure.) We might feel humbled, but then again, nature’s been at this game a lot longer than we humans, honing her designs through the process of evolution.

As scientist Janine Benyus wrote in her influential book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (1997), “After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival… All our inventions have already appeared in nature in a more elegant form and at less cost to the planet.”

Scientists and technologists have been imitating nature for years to foster innovations in engineering. The strategy is known as “biomimicry” or “biomimetics, ”meaning “imitation of life.” Many architects and designers are catching on, reading Benyus’ book and others on the topic, and some are giving biomimicry a try themselves.

Biomimicry can be applied at various levels: forms (biomorphism), functions, or entire ecosystems. In architecture, mimicking nature’s forms is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Consciously or not, builders of primitive huts echoed the form of a skeleton, crafting simple wood frames covered by animal skins. More modern architects, too, regularly develop their designs visually inspired by organic forms: the curves, tendrils, and floral shapes of Art Nouveau, the spiny spires of Gaudí, the structural vertibrae of Calatrava.

Biomimicry gets more interesting, though, when it goes beyond form. “For us, it’s asking a deeper question of how the natural world does it: not what is the form but what is the function that that form provides,” says Dayna Baumeister, who helped found the Biomimicry Guild, along with Benyus. The group is devoted to biomimicry consulting, education, and research. Best of all, according to the guild, is biomimicry that echoes the workings of entire ecosystems, encompassing principles of adaptability, synergy, and efficient uses of limited resources.

While the deeper forms of biomimicry have more to offer in terms of sustainability and functionality, they’re also more tricky to execute well. “It needs very careful thought,” says Julian Vincent, director of the Centrefor Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath. “When you’re looking at biological systems, they tend to solve problems in very different ways from engineering systems, which is why the area is so interesting. But that means that if you’re looking for an answer, you shouldn’t look for it in the most obvious place.” To even be able to formulate the right questions to ask and the right areas of nature to emulate, “you always need a biologist on hand,” he says.

Despite its potential pitfalls, architectural biomimicry has resulted in some striking successes. The most famous example is the 1996 Eastgate building in Harare, Zimbabwe, which uses natural air conditioning modeled after the air flow in a termite mound. Designed by architect Mick Pearce with engineering by Arup, the office and retail building reportedly saved its owner $3.5 million in energy expenses in the first five years alone.

Biologically obsessed architect Eugene Tsui once designed a house in Berkeley, California, with lighweight, strong trusses modeled after seagull bone marrow and a subsurface solar heating system based on the bone and capillary structures of two dinosaurs, the stegosaurus and the dimetrodon. Grimshaw Architects covered their Waterloo International Terminal in London with glass sheets that overlap like snake scales, to better hug the structure’s serpentine curves.

Some biomimetic projects in the works show promise, too, such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s spongelike design for the Pearl River Tower, a 71-story corporate headquarters. The design won a competition calling for sustainable design thanks to some unconventional thinking by Roger Frechette and his team in SOM’s performative design group. Frechette says they turned to the sea sponge for inspiration because “we found it doing a lot of things we look to buildings to do but without mechanical energy or electricity.” The squishy creatures are superbly engineered to harvest fuel from the sea: They can pump thousands of gallons of water a day, from which they draw their food. Sponges also shelter and protect a multitude of tiny inhabitants, which benefit from the flow of food-bearing water.

So what do you get when you cross a highrise with a sponge? The design for the Pearl River Tower is porous, with four holes that house wind turbines to create electricity from the strong winds that blow above the ground. Defying convention, the tower faces the wind, to better harness its energy; the holes also relieve wind pressure. The building soaks up energy from the sun as well, thanks to strategically placed photovoltaic cells. With these and other energy-saving measures such as radiant cooling, the building’s energy use will be reduced by 58 to 60 percent. Frechette claims it will be by far the world’s most energy-efficient supertall tower when it’s completed in 2009.

In another competition-winning design, landscape architects Grant Associates of Bath, England, designed a grove of “supertrees” as part of a larger future project to develop three parks around a Singapore marina. Reaching around 100 to 180 feet high, they are tree-shaped structures that will serve as homes for orchids and ferns, and shelter the humans below from rain and sun, as real trees do. The plants grow on and through the supertrees’ steel lattice skin. “Current computer analysis studies are investigating a structural design solution for the skin that reflects natural patterns of branching and cellular structures,” says Andrew Grant, director of Grant Associates.

The supertrees also absorb solar energy in a way that’s analogous to their organic counterparts, since they support extensive arrays of photovoltaics and solar thermal panels, he says. Canopies collect rainwater, and the structures even have irrigation and misting systems that mirror natural transpiration. At night, the trees’ high-tech origins are revealed, for they transform into lanterns for the garden.

Kevin Stack, president of Syracuse, New York–based Northeast Natural Homes and Northeast Green Building Consulting, exemplifies biomimicry on the grandest scale: emulating the intricate interworkings of ecosystems. His sustainable strategies recently helped him win the state’s first LEED-H Gold rating, for a residence in Skaneateles, New York.

Stack has been in the sustainable home building business for nearly 30 years, and he recently became immersed in the concepts of biomimicry through reading Benyus’ book and studying at the Biomimicry Institute. He found the concepts eye-opening, especially the emphasis on studying and learning from the ecological systems of the local environment. After examining patterns of rainfall in upstate New York, he found that in an unbuilt area, 30 percent of rainfall goes into the aquifer, 30 percent is taken up by vegetation, and 40 percent evaporates. He now makes sure his buildings don’t disturb those natural proportions.

Stack regards the trees that surround his construction sites as natural capital since they provide shade and oxygen and their roots help manage stormwater, so he treats them accordingly. “We actually hand-dig around their root system when we have to get close, and instead of just excavating roots out of the way, we’ll bend them by hand,” he explains. “If we have to cut a root, we cut it cleanly, and we apply a hormone that stimulates regrowth.” Instead of using materials that would have to be shipped in, such as bamboo, he chooses local ecofriendly materials such as recycled wood from old barns and PureBond, a type of plywood made from local hardwoods using a natural, nontoxic adhesive.

When it comes to green building design, “everyone’s going out, looking throughout the entire world for this special item or technology or material, but the answers are right in front of us,” Stack says. “You just need to pay attention.”

A Second Act for the Bam Cultural District

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music decided to throw its cultural heft into remaking its then-dingy neighborhood, it did so the BAM way, i.e., con brio. With a master plan from Rem Koolhaas’ OMA and Diller + Scofidio, and renderings of a state-of-the-art new public library by TEN Arquitectos, the future looked glamorous. And while it took almost nine years, new architects, scaled-back projects, and some political shifts, several significant pieces of the plan are about to go forward. By Alan G. Brake. 

When the Brooklyn Academy of Music burned to the ground in 1903, the New York Times opined, “In short, there has hardly been a great public movement of national import but the old Academy has been at one time or another its principal focus.” BAM quickly relocated from Brooklyn Heights to its present location on Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene where it has enriched the city’s cultural life for more than a century. Over the last ten years, however, BAM has added an unusual element to its portfolio of offerings, and that is neighborhood redevelopment.

In 1998, Harvey Lichtenstein began to move out of his position as the institution’s director, and looked outward at the neighborhood. It wasn’t pretty: The 1970s and 1980s had not been kind to Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn, and one of the most respected performing arts organizations in the country found itself surrounded by a nondescript mix of parking lots, liquor stores, and not much else. But with a location near commercial hubs and lots of subways, there seemed to be no reason why the area couldn’t come back. Lichtenstein formed the BAM Limited Development Corporation (LDC) as a catalyst for the transformation of the ten or so blocks immediately around the theater into an arts district. The organization hired New York’s Diller+Scofidio and the Rotterdam-based OMA to develop a conceptual masterplan in 2000. Two years later, it held a competition for a Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) branch for the Brooklyn Public Library; the jury chose TEN Arquitectos, and images of an ship-like building were published everywhere.

But things seemed to slow down soon after, and there wasn’t much news from the intersection of Flatbush and Lafayette Avenues. In 2004, WORK AC quietly took over the planning job. “The Diller +Scofidio/OMA masterplan still provides the basis for what will be built,” says principal Dan Wood. Wood founded WORK AC after leaving OMA and continued to be involved in the project. The main innovation of the latest version is shifting the site of the Theatre for a New Audience, a respected Shakespearian company, to Layfayette Avenue, next to the Mark Morris Dance Center and catercorner from BAM, opening up space on Lafayette for a substantial new park with the working name Grand Plaza. Toward the end of the process, WORK AC brought in Ken Smith’s firm to consult on open space and streetscape plans. The Grand Plaza will act as a front door for three of the major cultural institutions, making it a sort of Lincoln Center stitched into the fabric of brownstone Brooklyn. Parking will be built under the plaza and will match the existing number of spaces. “The modified plans allows us to create a park where you want to be, not just a remnant patch,” says Christian Gabrial, a designer at Ken Smith Landscape Architecture.

After the masterplan was complete, the teams switched roles to further develop the open space and streetscapes, with Ken Smith’s team as the prime consultant and WORK as the subsidiary. “A lot of time and energy are going into the streetscape, which will have a key role in pulling the district together,” says Louise Eddleston, a designer at Ken Smith. “The district is primarily residential and with more units of housing going in it will remain that way.” She says the short blocks and intimate scale of the neighborhood have to be understood and used to their best advantage. The firm will present schematic designs to the Economic Development Corporation in the Fall, and hopes to get the contract to build the project.

This is more likely to happen than it would have been even a year ago: Last year, the city, frustrated by the lack of action on the VPA and other projects, stepped in and moved the BAMLDC under the umbrella of the larger and more powerful Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP), which includes business improvement districts for Metrotech and the Fulton Street Mall. DPB has close ties to deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff, and this has clearly contributed to the recent up-tick in development activity in the district. “There was a sense in early 2006 that the city needed to step up, not just in terms or time, but also in terms of high-level attention,” says Joe Chan, the DBP president. “Coordinating development with cultural groups is a lot more complicated than private developers.”

The move is yielding results. Though the VPA library was recently declared all but dead by the Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin due to lack of fundraising on the part of the Brooklyn Public Library, several other significant projects are moving forward in the district. Along with the streetscape design, a revised design for the Theatre for a New Audience is in the works by Frank Gehry and the H3 Partnership, and the department of Housing Preservation and Development just concluded an Request for Proposals for a new mixed use building that will house Danspace, the contemporary dance incubator. All of this is happening in the shadow, metaphorically speaking, of Forest City Ratner’s controversial and gargantuan Atlantic Yards development.

But curiously, the fighting around Atlantic Yards seems not to have affected plans for the BAM cultural district, at least thus far. “It’s sort of an elephant compared to an ant,” says Wood. “The BAM cultural district can fold into an existing neighborhood, whereas Atlantic Yards will generate its own.” From the beginning, too, BAM LDC also worked with community groups, local churches, and elected officials to address concerns about rising rents and over development. “There was a call for many opportunities for input,” said Chan. “Gentrification and displacement is the greatest fear.”

Chan, however, sees Atlantic Yards and the cultural district as complementary projects. “Both projects emphasize the development of mixed-income communities,” he says. “They are a part of changing perceptions about Downtown Brooklyn and about catering to diverse and inclusive tastes for art, culture, entertainment, and sports.” Gabrial adds, “The cultural district operates within a web of existing neighborhoods, including Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn. It’s really a linchpin project.”

While coordinating multiple city agencies and cultural groups and meeting fundraising goals has somewhat slowed and altered development, the district’s largely positive reception in the community speaks to the thoughtful and neighborly scale of the project, as well as a flexible, piecemeal approach. The subtle way in which increased cultural programming,open space,and higher density are being woven into the neighborhood could prove to be a model for the borough and beyond. It also shows that Brooklynites aren’t averse to change, they just don’t like to get steamrolled.

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Supersized and Sustainable
Courtesy Hargreaves Associates

To help bolster the region’s fragile water supply, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California completed three new dams in 2000 in Hemet, California, creating what is now called Diamond Valley Lake.To call the project gargantuan is an understatement: It is, in fact, the largest earthworks project in the history of the United States, requiring 40 million cubic yards of foundation excavation and 110 million cubic yards of embankment construction. The lake now holds 260 billion gallons of water.

The project’s monumentality wasn’t lost on Silver Lake architect Michael Lehrer, who, with Burbank architect Mark Gangi, was charged with creating two new museums near the foot of the new lake, the Center for Water Education and the Western Center for Archaeology and Paleontology. “We tried to honor the infrastructure,” said Lehrer, describing the results as “primal, rudimentary, abstract, and simple.”

The architects designed a complex that resembles the area’s massive water structures, calling to mind a pumping station, a filtration center, or even the dam itself. At more than 60,000 square feet, the complex carries the architectural sophistication one might expect from new art museums.

The $36 million project was funded by a combination of state, federal, and private money, and the Water District donated 23 acres of land. The Western Center for Archaeology and Paleontology, which opened in November 2006, houses a significant number of fossils and prehistoric artifacts discovered while digging the dam’s foundations. Because of fundraising difficulties, construction was suspended on the Center for Water Education, though it is mostly complete. Lehrer hopes the museum, which is devoted to raising awareness of water-related issues, will be finished in another three to six months.

Arranged in a rectangular grid plan, the structures comprise a series of multi-story patterned steel boxes separated by slightly shorter glass curtain walls. They are divided by a large courtyard, which frames views of the nearby mountains. The courtyard’s steel loggia are enclosed with a series of long, horizontally perforated metal screens. The screens filter the area’s bright desert light, producing an effect that resembles shimmering water, while also generating dramatic linear shadows that move throughout the day.


The steel beems and metal screens of the loggia create dramatic shadows at night.
BENNY CHAN / FOTOWORKS

The buildings’ roofs are completely covered with dark photovoltaic tiles, placed over clear glass panels. The energy they provide canpotentially reduce energy costs up to 50 percent over conventional construction. Lehrer said that despite initial hesitation, the museums eventually embraced sustainable building techniques, a natural choice given their ecological missions. Aside from the photovoltaic panels, green elements—which Lehrer said may garner the buildings a LEED Platinum certification— include radiant heating and cooling, digitally controlled electric systems, waterless urinals, insulated glass, insulated slab, native landscaping, and environmentally friendly paints and wallcoverings, to name a few.

Inside, the Western Center entry is a double-height public space with exhibitions introducing visitors to the region, its history, and its geology. A windowless black-box space features a theater (with boulders for seats), displays of prehistoric remains, and re-creations of wooly mammoth skeletons. Michigan-based Design Craftsmen created the exhibition design.

Other facilities, located behind the museum areas, include 10,000 square feet of storage, learning labs, a café, and administrative offices. Landscaping, which circles behind the buildings, was undertaken by Lehrer’s wife, well-known designer Mia Lehrer. The grounds nestle around the museum with braided streams, native trees, and an undulating landscape of colored crushed granite and desert fauna.

While the complex is huge, it doesn’t feel imposing. Capturing its surroundings’ drama and scale, it is something completely new that still feels like it is in the right place. 

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Dialogue: Shaun Donovan & Gwendolyn Wright

In March, the Department of Housing Development and Preservation announced that it had reached the one-third mark in its initiative to develop and preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing. To mark the occasion, AN asked housing historian and Columbia professor Gwendolyn Wright to sit down with HPD commissioner Shaun Donovan.

Gwendolyn Wright: What surprises you about working in city government?
Shaun Donovan: One of the most pleasant surprises has been that in a city so famous for politics, how un-political this administration has been. I think Rolling Stone did a profile of the mayor that said New Yorkers have an opportunity to see what government can be without politics, and it actually feels that way inside. It’s amazing how much support we have from the mayor and City Hall to stand up and say this is why we do what we’re doing. 

GW: Having lived in New York for the last 25 years, I can tell you it wasn’t always that way. What does that actually mean in terms of the way things work downtown?
SD: It has a broad set of implications, but there’s a piece of it that’s all about leadership. For example, Iris Weinshall [the recently-departed transportation commissioner] called me the other day and said, “You know what, we’re going to give you these seven parking lots.” For her to make that decision is actually a remarkable thing inside government, because what’s the upside for the transportation commissioner? Not a lot. Even though a given lot is only 25 percent full most of the time, she’s going to get yelled at by the local merchants because the people who use it can’t get to their shops as easily. To me, that says there’s a clear message from City Hall that affordable housing is a priority for the mayor.

GW: What is the role of the private market in the New Housing Marketplace initiative?
SD: That has been the single biggest challenge and opportunity here. When I arrived, the mayor had already started to shift the strategies towards recreating a market in places where there wasn’t one, such as the South Bronx and lots of Harlem. He did this through the New Housing Marketplace plan. I think the real shift that I’ve tried to make is to figure out how to harness the market, rather than recreate it. In affordable housing, a $5 million condo can actually be your friend: It can be as simple as building a few market rate units for the cross-subsidy they create for affordable ones. I think it has also meant that we have a broader opportunity to create mixed-income communities across the city than we did before. One of the great failures of housing policy has been to think about low-income housing as something dangerous that has to be separated out. We try to blur the lines as much as possible, and leveraging the market is really important in doing that. 




Donovan (top) and Wright.  
Aaron Seward
 
 

GW: It is interesting that the mayor and your agency speak about a marketplace, which is different from the market. When people invoke the market they tend to mean the upper tier of it, and how to keep those guys happy—and they’re pretty happy right now! But the marketplace is a circumstance where you have the realities of economics: many different prices, many different groups, and many different kinds of markets. You’re allowing New York to function like a city as opposed to a place defined by the market aspirations of a few major developers.

SD: Housing advocates often focus on how much money government is putting into something, but the levers that we hold in government are often much more powerful than the money. Inclusionary zoning is a perfect example of that. We’ve got million-dollar condos going up on the waterfront in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, but we could never have thrown enough money at those projects to end up with what we’re getting, which is that 20 to 30 percent of these buildings are affordable. This is some of the most prime real estate available. The only reason it will be a truly integrated community is because we used the powers of zoning to say that there is a benefit to the marketplace, and we want the marketplace to flourish there. We’ll allow you to build taller, but if you do, you’ve got to give something back for that density.

GW: You seem quite interested in design innovations of various sorts. What are the possibilities for architects?
SD: At the simplest level, it’s about increasing our engagement in design and opening up the process to architects. I think [commissioner] David Burney has really done that for public work through the Department of Design and Construction, and I hope that we’re following that example. Look at all the entries for the New Housing New York competition we just held. I think it is the best example to date of a process that integrates architecture in a way that was not just about design, but about creating a sustainable community. We’re going to do more design competitions like that, but we can’t do it on every single project. It was an enormous effort and expense, but there are a lot of principles that we can integrate into our smaller projects. 

GW: One of the things that you’re doing, which is unusual and wonderful, is challenging architects to imagine and innovate in new ways.
SD: I think there has been a mutual fear within affordable housing and the architecture community about the failure of design in public housing. I strongly believe that design gets a bad rap for lots of other failures, most of them around the social makeup of a project or its financing, all of which have fed into the disintegration of many public housing communities. There’s disillusionment about the possibilities of architecture. I worry about the retreat into traditionalism and contextualism as a way of repairing that. In this competition, we had a long discussion about whether the city was ready for a tower in the park that wasn’t the traditional model. 

GW: I think you’re absolutely right. A lot of architects have felt that housing in general, beyond very expensive luxury housing, tied their hands; there was a demand that it be traditional because then it would seem familiar and somehow ease over all the social problems. It’s almost modernism in reverse. How do you think we can open up a definition of housing beyond the accretion of units in some kind of block or bar?
SD: I think a lot of that is thinking about urban design as part of the work that we do. If you look at Arverne [Arverne Urban Renewal Area, Far Rockaway, Queens] we’re essentially creating new towns there. Our relationship with City Planning is so much stronger than it once was.  

GW: Let me shift a little and ask you about homeownership. It’s emphasized in a lot of the literature put out by the Bloomberg administration. It’s also becoming more controversial due to the problem of subprime mortgages. Homeownership is not the right thing for everyone. What do you see as the advantage of homeownership?
SD: We just reached a record high of homeownership in New York City: 33.3 percent, though it’s the lowest rate of any metropolitan area in the country. We’ve created close to 20,000 low-income homeowners through the limited-equity properties we created through cooperative programs. These were city-owned buildings that we took in foreclosure, renovated, and sold for $250 a unit to the residents. That’s an incredible amount of equity that’s been created for low-income people, and has built a stable financial existence for them. In that sense, I think it’s an increasingly important tool that works within the marketplace. It will never be our primary strategy, but is an important piece of the overall strategy. 

GW: There are several exhibitions on Robert Moses in the city right now. He’s a controversial example of someone not elected to office who exercised enormous political power over the environment, social services, transportation, and housing. What does he teach political figures today?
SD: This goes back to my earliest experiences in government, when I realized the importance of balancing public consensus with moving ahead consistently. That balance is probably the single most important thing that a public servant can achieve, but it is extremely difficult to do. I think it’s very clear that Moses was too far on one side of the spectrum. There was no respect for the importance of building consensus. On the other hand, I think this administration has tried to move toward big things again. Look at Williamsburg: It’s two miles of waterfront. It’s not about small plans. A lot of it is about setting a framework for growth that has an organic quality. The city is a living organism and we have to think of it in that dynamic way. We can’t freeze New York at any time. We have to be ready for change.