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Editorial: Public Transit in Every Pot

When a steam pipe exploded in Midtown last July, and the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed just weeks later, people around the country began listening to the Cassandras who had been warning about the decrepit state of our infrastructure, urban and rural alike. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the cost of bringing it all up to date would be $1.6 trillion, and at the time, that number seemed just impossible—would Congress ever allocate that kind of money to something as unsexy as infrastructure? No way.

Fast forward 15 months—and one $700 billion bailout later—and it doesn’t seem so crazy. More traditional quarters of the Republican Party may regard New York Times columnist David Brooks as the skunk at the picnic, but he is squarely in line with a growing number of people who believe that the one way to pull us out of the looming recession is to devote significant federal resources to public works, especially those that focus on transportation and the development of alternate sources of energy. A “Green New Deal” has been championed in one form or another by people across the political spectrum: President-elect Barack Obama, Al Gore, T. Boone Pickens, the Regional Plan Association, and even Martin Feldstein, the economist who advised President Reagan on policy.

For New York City, and the Northeast in general, Brooks’ argument for transportation spending is the central one. In a recent Times column, he suggested a “National Mobility Project,” which argues that we should take the mix of fiscal stimulus and research in alternative energy, and focus it on the realm of transit. This makes sense: Many supporters of a Green New Deal advocate turbine farms in the Southwest and the Dakotas to capture that region’s least-exploited resource, the wind. Our version of that is our regional transit system—everything from Amtrak and Metro-North to NJ Transit and the MTA. One of the Obama campaign’s platform issues was a commitment to thinking about cities on a metropolitan scale, and that means thinking about transportation of every kind.

One of the most striking elements of the Skyscraper Museum’s recent symposium on density in Hong Kong was the way that the government there believes in the centrality of investment in infrastructure and transit to future development. Project after project detailed train stations built before the new neighborhoods that would use them, and the assembled panel of New Yorkers—including MTA commissioner Elliot Sander, Port Authority chief Chris Ward, and developer Vishaan Chakrabarti of the Related Companies—looked on with a mixture of awe and envy. There are many reasons why the Hong Kong model wouldn’t work here, but the straightforward premise that infrastructure feeds growth does. Architects, developers, planners, and urbanists have a rare opportunity to argue for the kind of investment that will strengthen the city and its connections to the region. If the Obama administration does in fact begin to formulate an infrastructure-based stimulus program, New York must be a part of it.

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Stepping Up
One Bryant Park breaks new ground, as in the use of underfloor ventilation throughout the entire height of the structure.
Courtesy Cook+Fox

When 4 Times Square was completed in 1999, the project was touted as the harbinger of a new era of environmental responsibility in the design of tall buildings. But for a while longer, skyscrapers in New York City continued to be designed and constructed in more or less the traditional manner. The games of one-upmanship that would have indicated a dedicated consensus of green builders did not immediately materialize. “When we built 4 Times Square, we were creating a template of a way of building that people would have to follow,” Douglas Durst, president of The Durst Organization, developer of 4 Times Square, told AN. “Not many people did. It takes a while to see how successful and adaptable it is, for it to spread to other people’s projects.”

It took some time for the benefits of green design for tall buildings to be better understood, for the industry to accumulate hard data linking healthy, daylight-filled offices to higher worker productivity, and greater energy efficiency to lower electricity bills. But the green building boom didn’t begin in earnest until developers realized that they could charge higher rents for spaces that adhered to greater levels of sustainability. The trend first became apparent in the city when Larry Silverstein decided to seek LEED Gold for 7 World Trade Center, and Hearst did the same for its new tower. “It was disappointing that it took so long, but a lot of people in the industry thought it was a quacky idea,” said Bruce Fowle, partner of FXFowle, designer of 4 Times Square. “Now it’s a marketing tool.” The change in attitude can be seen quite clearly in the example of the New York Times Building. While the project took great strides in energy efficiency and usage of daylight, Forest City Ratner and the New York Times Company opted not to pursue LEED. “In 2004 when we had to make the decision [to pursue LEED], it was still a fairly new idea, and they didn’t feel that they had to put a label on it,” continued Fowle. “In my last pitch to them I told them they were going to spend the rest of their life explaining why they didn’t go for LEED rating. And that’s what’s happening.”

David Sundberg/Esto


Top: When 4 Times Square was completed in 1999, it was heralded as the first green skyscraper. Above: Ten years later, One Bryant Park will become the first LEED Platinum office building in New York City.

The LEED system was still under development when 4 Times Square was designed and built, so there is no reliable way to quantify just how it measures up to the certified office towers now up and running in the city. Some experts think, however, that most of the new green skyscrapers haven’t gone far enough in pushing the envelope on sustainable design. That honor has been reserved for Durst’s latest project, the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park, which is currently nearing completion. Once finished, the building will seek a LEED Platinum rating. “It’s a pretty easy comparison to go from 4 Times Square to One Bryant,” Serge Appel of Cook + Fox, designer of One Bryant, told AN. “At One, Durst took what they learned at 4 and went on from there. In terms of green building, 4 might be at 25 on a scale of 1 to 100, while One’s a 75. There’s more infrastructure, more thinking. It’s the next generation.”

So what did they learn? What defines the next generation of green skyscrapers? First, One abandoned some of 4’s more showy energy-producing features, namely the building-integrated photovoltaics. In the final analysis, the solar cells generated very little energy, only about one percent of the base building needs. Even at the current state of the technology, photovoltaics did not prove feasible for a tall building that remains in shadow half of the day. Instead, the designers at One opted for a 4.5-megawatt, gas-fired cogeneration plant, which recycles waste heat from the engine for heating and to power absorption chillers for cooling. And while the plant will not cover the building’s overall energy usage, producing energy onsite is more efficient than pulling it off the grid, which is only about 50 percent efficient.

The interior’s environmental air quality was improved at One with a better filter. It removes 95 percent of particulates, while 4’s removed around 85 percent. Not a huge jump, but the real advance in this area is the usage of underfloor displacement ventilation, while 4 uses a traditional overhead delivery system. The underfloor method was used in the New York Times Building, but only in the newspaper’s half of the structure. One will be the first project to use it throughout. It keeps the interior healthier by creating successive air chimneys on each floor, which avoid mixing exhaust air, which rises to the ceiling, with fresh air. The method also requires less energy for air conditioning, since it only conditions from the floor to the tops of people’s heads, rather than all the way from the ceiling to the floor.

The building envelopes also differ. While 4 can boast of greater insulation values, as a large portion of its exterior is masonry, at One, the designers decided to go with an all-glass system. The loss in energy savings is balanced out by the fact that a completely transparent facade brings more daylight into the interior, which, when combined with daylight-dimming light fixtures, drastically cuts down on the power needed for lighting—the greatest energy consumer for buildings of this type. While 4 employed similar strategies, few if any tenants actually implemented daylight-dimming fixtures and many fitted out their spaces with perimeter walls, which cut down on daylight transmission.

In addition to the savings in lighting energy usage, the designers of One picked an all-glass system to create a more daylight-filled environment for the workers. And the glass curtain wall at One does go as far as current technology allows to insulate the building: It is a thermally broken system, which prevents heat exchange between exterior and interior mullions, and the low-e coating and ceramic fritting on the glass panels significantly cut down on heat loading from the sun.

One takes a definite lead in its conservation and reuse of water, employing systems that were not available at the time of 4. The entire building is outfitted with waterless urinals and systems for gray water recycling as well as rain and ground water collection. Overall, the building should save 55 percent of water usage over a traditional building, easing effluence into the sewer system.

Both projects distinguished themselves by adhering to green practices, though it is difficult to compare the two projects in this regard as no metric existed at the time of 4 to let the designers know just how green they were being. Materials were sourced locally even when a premium had to be paid. At One, countertops are made from Icestone, a recycled glass product manufactured in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which cost more than Italian marble. Construction components were reused on site. The big item in this regard at One was wire spools—contemporary office buildings have a lot of wiring. The construction teams were coached on green building practices and monitored by a third party.

But while it appears that One has exceeded 4 in just about every green check box on the list, it’s hard to regard it as the trailblazer that the previous building was. “There’s nothing in One that is experimental,” said Appel. “Everything has a legitimate payback period that a developer can justify.” Rather, it seems that the steps taken at One should be taken these days as a matter of course. The next generation of green skyscrapers, then, must lie elsewhere. “We need to be thinking beyond LEED,” said Fowle. “How can we do zero carbon and zero net energy buildings? Buildings that are not just better, but that have a positive effect on the environment, as opposed to a less negative effect.”

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Share the Road

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)
Tom Vanderbilt
Knopf, $24.95 

Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic
David Engwicht
Envirobook, $23.00 

The High Cost of Free Parking
Donald Shoup
Planners Press, $59.95

When my wife and I visited Lebanon in 1998, we rented a little Renault and spent a couple days on the road, and saw one working traffic light the entire time. The streets of Beirut were packed with a chaotic tangle of aggressive, pushy cars, and I was sure we’d hear steel shrieking on steel the moment we rolled off the car rental lot. We safely got out of the city, and while driving on the winding, two-lane Damascus Road in the foothills of the Chouf mountains, we found ourselves driving next to another car, each going at a good clip. Just then, a third car roared between us, making its own lane. I realized at that point on Lebanon’s roads, all bets were off. And yet, for the rest of our visit, I became more and more convinced that this was one of the safest places I’d ever driven: It was predictably unpredictable.

The time many of us spend getting from one place to another comprises most of our interactions with fellow citizens; it is as much a social experience as anything else. Since time in the car shapes our impressions of each other and of our cities, it might explain the appeal of Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).


Vanderbilt adroitly navigates a mountain of findings and opinions from traffic engineers, economists, psychologists, and even entomologists. Like an excited and precocious teenager, he parenthetically mentions one psychological study while describing another, adding, “more on that later.” But far from being overwhelmed, the reader is swept up in his enthusiasm.

Traffic is the latest in a series of books like Freakonomics and The Tipping Point that draw on diverse and sometimes arcane academic fields to create a coherent narrative for the lay audience. But I hope Vanderbilt will reach more than the casual reader: Planners, architects, and policymakers would do well to read his book.

Perhaps Traffic can best be summed up by one of its innumerable takeaways: You don’t drive as well as you think you do. And if you knew this, you’d drive better. But we don’t even know what we don’t know. That Rumsfeldian quip alone sums up so much about how we behave on the road that awareness of it on our part would make us safer as motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. Also, awareness of behavior among the people who design our roads and set transportation policy could change our cities for the better. Traffic engineers—who, for the most part, do not appear to be familiar with many of the psychological studies cited in Traffic—try to make our roads safer with more signage, wider lanes, shoulders, and gentler curves. But a growing number of dissidents are pointing out that a safe environment, surprisingly, is one that appears to be dangerous, because it forces us to be more attentive.

The idea that the perception of danger is good for us runs counter to standard reasoning in road design, which argues that since people will make mistakes, the road should provide a comfortable margin of error. This is generally thought to have worked well on highways and arterials, but in cities and towns where different types of users vie for a share of the same space, designing a margin of error into a road for the benefit of motorists is dangerous. They’ll just typically drive faster around that turn, and they’ll be less attentive in that wider lane. To paraphrase the late Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer whom Vanderbilt interviews, when you treat people like idiots, they will behave like idiots.

Monderman also features prominently in David Engwicht’s Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic, a slim and entertaining read that, while nowhere near as broad in its scope as Traffic, is nonetheless insightful. Engwicht, an Australian traffic consultant whom Vanderbilt discusses, had grown increasingly frustrated with the standard traffic-calming measures like speed bumps, neckdowns, and chicanes, and began to develop strategies to deal with aggressive driving in a completely different way. Rather than use negative stimuli to get people to slow down, he argues for positive stimuli—intrigue, uncertainty, and even humor—to engage motorists in their social environments. In other words, pull motorists out of the “traffic world” and into the “social world”—make them interact with each other and with others on the street via eye contact.

In Mental Speed Bumps Engwicht describes how, in his work with neighborhood groups all over the world, he advocates that everyone reintroduce the social world to their streets: bring their chairs outside into the car’s realm, and let their kids play there. In one city, a traffic engineer insisted that cones be placed in the center of the street to separate vehicle traffic from the neighbors socializing and playing, and that signs be erected to warn passing motorists. “It was without doubt the most dangerous street event I have ever conducted,” Engwicht writes, because “the signs and cones were a [false] promise of predictability and certainty.”

The streets of New York City display engineers’ best efforts to introduce predictability for motorists into a town rich in intrigue and uncertainty. They seem always to be fighting an uphill battle: There is nothing to be done about falafel guys pushing their carts in the streets, or brooding hipsters jaywalking while glued to their iPhones. Unfortunately, some of New York’s long-standing policies reinforce the misguided efforts of traffic engineers, and are pulling us out of the social world and into the traffic world. As Donald Shoup observes in his excellent book, The High Cost of Free Parking, the off-street parking minimums that city planning departments require of builders wildly distort the transportation market and wreak havoc on the public realm and on real estate development. The transportation market is distorted because motorists receive a benefit at low cost, subsidized by everyone. When presented with free goods, we consume them.

A professor of urban planning at UCLA and an economist by training, Shoup, who is also profiled in Traffic, is an engaging and passionate thinker, and The High Cost of Free Parking, while it looks thick enough to stun an ox, is as entertaining as it is informative. The book pulls the curtain aside, revealing all the parking space calculations for what they are: best guesses, often padded, and often based on just a single survey of actual conditions. Or, as Shoup says, “pseudoscience.” This pseudoscience is driven by the notion that parking lots should be able to handle peak demand. A Toys R’ Us parking lot has to accommodate shoppers the day after Thanksgiving. But what about the other 364 days of the year?

Parking is essential to transportation in any city. As Shoup points out, though, “food also produces enormous benefits, but this does not mean that we need more food, or that food should be free.” Economists, Shoup says, “do not define the demand for food as the peak quantity of food consumed at free buffets where overweight diners eat until the last bite has zero utility. Nor do economists, when asked for policy prescriptions, recommend that restaurants should be required to supply at least this quantity of free food no matter how much it costs. Yet planners do define parking demand as the peak number of spaces occupied at sites with free parking, and cities do require developers to supply at least this number of parking spaces, whatever the cost. Planning for parking is planning without prices.”

This might seem irrelevant to New Yorkers, whose neighborhoods are more likely to have parking maximums than minimums; however, there are a surprising number of minimums in place, especially for new development. Even plans for dense areas of New York—Hudson Yards, Willets Point—include shockingly high numbers of parking spaces. As Shoup argues, parking not only meets demand, it fuels it.

Traffic, Mental Speed Bumps, and The High Cost of Free Parking are all testaments to the complexity and centrality of social interactions and behavioral economics to our public lives and the fabrics of our cities. Drawing primarily from observations about psychology and economics, these authors show us that what characterizes our cities is much more than an aesthetic experience, traffic flow, or standard land-use metrics. The best urban thinking is done by those who truly observe and understand how we behave.

Editorial: Public Transit In Every Pot

When a steam pipe exploded in Midtown last July, and the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed just weeks later, people around the country began listening to the Cassandras who had been warning about the decrepit state of our infrastructure, urban and rural alike. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the cost of bringing it all up to date would be $1.6 trillion, and at the time, that number seemed just impossible—would Congress ever allocate that kind of money to something as unsexy as infrastructure? No way.

Fast forward 15 months—and one $700 billion bailout later—and it doesn’t seem so crazy. More traditional quarters of the Republican Party may regard New York Times columnist David Brooks as the skunk at the picnic, but he is squarely in line with a growing number of people who believe that the one way to pull us out of the looming recession is to devote significant federal resources to public works, especially those that focus on transportation and the development of alternate sources of energy. A “Green New Deal” has been championed in one form or another by people across the political spectrum: President-elect Barack Obama, Al Gore, T. Boone Pickens, the Regional Plan Association, and even Martin Feldstein, the economist who advised President Reagan on policy.

For New York City, and the Northeast in general, Brooks’ argument for transportation spending is the central one. In a recent Times column, he suggested a “National Mobility Project,” which argues that we should take the mix of fiscal stimulus and research in alternative energy, and focus it on the realm of transit. This makes sense: Many supporters of a Green New Deal advocate turbine farms in the Southwest and the Dakotas to capture that region’s least-exploited resource, the wind. Our version of that is our regional transit system—everything from Amtrak and Metro-North to NJ Transit and the MTA. One of the Obama campaign’s platform issues was a commitment to thinking about cities on a metropolitan scale, and that means thinking about transportation of every kind.

One of the most striking elements of the Skyscraper Museum’s recent symposium on density in Hong Kong was the way that the government there believes in the centrality of investment in infrastructure and transit to future development. Project after project detailed train stations built before the new neighborhoods that would use them, and the assembled panel of New Yorkers—including MTA commissioner Elliot Sander, Port Authority chief Chris Ward, and developer Vishaan Chakrabarti of the Related Companies—looked on with a mixture of awe and envy. There are many reasons why the Hong Kong model wouldn’t work here, but the straightforward premise that infrastructure feeds growth does. Architects, developers, planners, and urbanists have a rare opportunity to argue for the kind of investment that will strengthen the city and its connections to the region. If the Obama administration does in fact begin to formulate an infrastructure-based stimulus program, New York must be a part of it.

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Rough Sailing
Thirty-five cents. One quarter, one dime. That's how much—or how little—it cost to buy one share of stock in General Growth Properties at the end of trading today. It's been a rough year for the 54-year-old mall developer and operator as it stock has tumbled—in concert with the real estate and retail markets—from a high of $67 per share in March 2007. Yet that stock was still valued at $38 as recently as June 18, when the company announced its plans for new South Street Seaport. Even when it presented those plans to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on October 21, when the stocked closed at $4.84, GGP remained confident in the future of the project. But that was before Monday's report in The Wall Street Journal that General Growth might file for bankruptcy. Bloomberg News blames the problems on the company's $11.3 billion leveraged buyout of the Rouse Companies in 2004. "They took a big, big gamble, and it did not pay off," real estate analyst Richard Moore told the financial news service. What, then, does this mean for the Seaport project? Nothing, insisted Jim Graham, a company spokesman:
Regardless of our situation, our properties and company will continue to operate, stay vibrant and remain open.  We are looking forward to a prosperous holiday season. [As for the seaport:] Our intent is to continue as developer, that’s why we have invested so much in working with world-class planning experts and with the community to create our proposals.  Our plan for the South Street Seaport  sets the course for the future.  Getting the plan in place protects the community against market cycles by setting the framework for development over a multi-year window.   Approving the plan now sets the stage for development later when the economy improves.

Hooked on Biking
Speaking of biking in the city, the Forum for Urban Design held an exhibition and party last night for its first-ever competition. Entitled Reimage Red Hook, the competition sought to make the pioneering, cobblestone neighborhood the premier cycling spot in the city. Red Hook is notoriously inaccessible, with only one distant subway station and two bus lines. More than the jobs or cheap furniture it brought, the opening of the new IKEA was most celebrated by locals for the free water taxi and shuttle bus services it brought to the neighborhood. Which is why Lisa Chamberlain, the group's executive director, said it decided to set the competition where it did. "Red Hook has a serious transportation problem," she said. "We didn't want to take a nice neighborhood and make it nicer. We wanted to take a neighborhood where it could actually have a real economic impact." At the exhibition, hosted at the Beard Street Warehouse adjacent Fairway, six finalists were displayed, along with ten honorable mentions. Jonathan Marvel, principal of Rogers Marvel Architects and one of the jurors, made brief remarks about the six finalist, before Chamberlain announced the winners. The four runners-up were Heather Aman Design, Route Peddlers, H3 Hardy Collaborative + EWT, and Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture. She then called the remaining two teams up, HOK Sport and Jonathan Rule, had them say a few words about their projects, before announcing the upset winner, Rule, who also happened to be the only individual entrant. A recent grad from GSD, Rule has actually been working in Spain for morcillo + pallares the past few years, though he is a native son of Brooklyn. His father, a fellow architect who was beaming after the winners were announced, said Jonathan had almost not flown over because of the $1,000 ticket. Thanks to the $10,000 prize, though, the elder Rule joked, "He should have no problem covering that now." Asked by AN if he might be swinging by Disneyland, or at least Euro Disney, with the remains of his prize money, Jonathan paused before admitting to the unsexy truth. "No," he said. "This is going to pay back Harvard." As for his triumphant return to the borough of his youth, Rule acknowledged that is was familiar territory, having written his thesis on the Gowanus Canal. He also said it was gratifying to beat out such big names as HOK Sport and Hugh Hardy. On a more somber note, Rule said his entry was dedicated to Sam Hindy, a childhood friend and son of Brooklyn Brewery founder Stephen Hindy, who died in a cycling accident last year. "It's been on my mind ever since," Rule said. "How can you educate motorists and make the city safe for bicyclists." Here's hoping, through Rule's hard work, that we're one step closer. Be sure to check out the Forum's special competition page for videos, renderings, and explanations of all 16 projects. Chamberlain said the group is still deciding the best way to further these designs, though she also pointed out that representatives of both the city planning and transportation departments were on the jury. "Hopefully they absorbed some of our ideas," she said.
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Speed Bump for Museum Plaza
The Beaux-Arts Speed Art Museum.
John Nation

After nearly a decade of research and soul searching, the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky has just announced an eclectic shortlist of firms for its planned expansion. While the Speed finally moves ahead, the city’s most ambitious architectural project, the REX-designed Museum Plaza, has been put on indefinite hold.

The Speed, an encyclopedic collection that is also the state’s largest, sits on the campus of the University of Louisville, which is well outside of the downtown area. It has had difficulty drawing students and its visitor numbers are relatively modest. The eight finalists for the expansion, who range from experienced museum builders to up-and-comers, include SANAA, Gluckman Mayner Architects, Bernard Tschumi Architects, Bjarke Ingels Group, Snøhetta, Studio Gang, Henning Larsen Architects, and wHY architecture. “We wanted a range of architectural thinking, which we believe will produce unexpected solutions for our difficult site,” said Charles L. Venable, the director of the Speed. The museum is also expecting the teams to work closely with a landscape architecture firm, which has yet to be announced.

A decade ago the museum’s board of governors, which then included the prominent local art collector Steve Wilson, began deliberating an expansion, including relocating to or opening a satellite branch in downtown Louisville. Following a feasibility study conducted by Cooper Robertson, the board decided to expand on its present two-acre site instead. “When I arrived a year ago, the board had done an enormous amount of investigation and research,” said Venable. He helped jump-start expansion plans by hiring the Chicago-based firm Rise Group, an owner’s representative that is known for working with institutional clients, to sift through the research and develop a plan of action. Venable, who was last deputy director at the Cleveland Museum of Art, had previously worked with Rise on that museum’s ongoing expansion, designed by Rafael Viñoly.

REX's Museum Plaza includes a contemporary art center, hotel, condominiums, and offices.

The Speed and Museum Plaza have been intertwined from the start. After the Speed decided not to expand downtown, museum governor Wilson, with his wife, Laura Lee Brown, heiress to a liquor fortune, and two partners, initiated the Museum Plaza project, a mixed-use 60-story tower that includes a 35,000-square-foot kunsthalle, which will host traveling contemporary art exhibitions, at its center. Wilson eventually left the Speed’s board, though he and Brown continue to be involved with the museum. “Steve and Laura Lee have been very generous to the museum, and they really pushed the institution to set its sights at the highest levels,” Venable said. The Speed plans to formally announce its capital campaign after it selects an architect and landscape team in early 2009.

Ground was broken on Museum Plaza last year, and thus far a street has been closed, extensive utility and infrastructure work is underway, and several historic buildings have been demolished, though their facades have been retained, to make way for the building’s tilted entrance. REX’s Joshua Prince-Ramus wrote in an email, “Owner, design team, and general contractor remain totally committed to the project. We are waiting for the bond market to strengthen to secure the tax increment financing. It is not a question of if the project will get built, but when.” Alice Gray Stites, managing director of the planned contemporary art center at Museum Plaza, believes the city can support both institutions. She added by email, “Steve and Laura Lee’s desire to create a contemporary art institution in the heart of downtown was fueled by their commitment to both contemporary art and to the revitalization of downtown Louisville. The Speed’s decision to expand on its own site does not alter the need for a strong, contemporary visual arts presence on Main Street.”

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Concrete Is Forever
Rudy Ricciotti's Villa Navarra in Le Muy, France.
Philippe Ruault

Concrete inspires numerical superlatives when describing its ubiquity: Slightly more than a ton of concrete is produced every year for each human on the planet—over six billion—with Americans responsible for 2.5 tons per citizen. Produced at an estimated rate of five billion cubic yards per year, concrete is the second most widely consumed substance on earth after water. Concrete is the world’s oldest man-made building material. Yet, it’s the material’s dual personality that makes it both ubiquitous and appealing. Since the Industrial Revolution, concrete has been the robust, utilitarian workhorse for constructing bridges, tunnels, aqueducts, sidewalks, roadways, and barriers. Modern concrete is reinforced with steel and other materials, poured-in-place, precast, pre- and post-tensioned, tinted, molded, embossed, polished, and drilled. In its most modest state, it provides a building’s structure, which is then hidden behind a prettier skin. But it can also be a glamorous material, especially when it performs simultaneously as structure, form, and surface.

Earlier this month, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation hosted a conference called Solid States: Changing Time for Concrete. A series of panel discussions explored the dual personality of the material with some stunning examples of form following innovation. French architect and engineer Marc Mimram presented his study of what he calls “living infrastructure,” a project underwritten by Lafarge, one of the world’s largest producers of cement, concrete, aggregates, and gypsum, and the conference’s sponsor. Mimram’s work focuses on reconciling a city’s infrastructure with the inhabitants. He is currently investigating that uneasy relationship by designing four hypothetical bridges for four cities, using Lafarge’s high-performance, fiber-reinforced Ductal concrete.

Ductal is indeed glamorous, which makes it a high-profile achievement in the realm of concrete innovation. French architect Rudy Ricciotti designed the Footbridge of Peace entirely out of Ductal in 2002. The pedestrian bridge crosses the Han River in Seoul, South Korea, with a 400-foot arch, no middle supports, and a deck only a breathtaking 1 1⁄4-inches thick.

The “world’s first” anything always captures the public’s imagination. Although many exquisite feats of engineering and design were presented at the conference, much attention was given to how much priorities have shifted with regard to building materials and construction. Global environmental imperatives are now at odds with concrete’s numerical superlatives. Not all large numbers are desirable. For example, the production of concrete uses approximately one trillion gallons of water each year—a devastating impact on many societies, especially if water becomes a diminishing resource, as scientific research suggests.

The environmental impact of manufacturing concrete is not lost on the industry. In 2000, the U.S. concrete industry’s Strategic Development Council (SDC) conducted a workshop to discuss the past, present, and future of concrete. A year later it published Vision 2030: A Vision of the U.S. Concrete Industry, a guide to the future presenting ambitious goals. First of all, it establishes the concrete industry’s commitment to sound energy use and environmental protection. Secondly, it commits the industry to improving efficiency and productivity in all concrete manufacturing processes. Research in new materials, processing technologies, delivery mechanisms, and applications of information technology is being developed to ensure that concrete remains the construction material of choice based on life-cycle cost and performance.

Vision 2030 is particularly focused on finding ways to unify a diverse and localized industry, which will have a positive environmental impact. The guide admits that because the industry is fragmented, it has been “slow to investigate new technology options, reluctant to invest in research, and hesitant to adopt new technology as it becomes available.” Risk aversion slows innovation, but there are external obstacles in play as well. For instance, transportation accounts for 20 to 50 percent of the cost of ready-mixed concrete. And yet, many communities have adopted a “not-in-my-backyard” attitude toward heavy industry, so concrete and cement plants and aggregate sources are forced to move farther away from delivery points.

According to the industry, manufacturing operates in a prescriptive rather than performance-based environment. Thus, the full potential of concrete often is unrealized. And yet, as long as concrete procurement favors the lowest bidder, manufacturers will have to keep costs low to be competitive. As a result, they have little incentive to spend money on the research and development of improved performance.

Extenuating circumstances such as these are not always apparent when discussing how all industries must reduce their impact on the environment. While the challenges are great, they are not insurmountable. A year after Vision 2030 was published the Concrete Research and Education Foundation produced Roadmap 2030, an initiative to assist implementation of the SDC’s goals. Roadmap 2030 is frank, detailed, and includes a myriad of alternative constituent materials, delivery systems, and manufacturing processes. It appears that the concrete industry would like to realize its goals in its own way before environmental compliance regulations do it for them, potentially reducing market share. Progress since 2001 is hard to quantify, but the SDC’s Accelerating Implementation Team has several promising initiatives underway, including the long overdue adoption of performance-based specifications.

There’s another way to think about concrete. It has been in existence for thousands of years, because it is so flexible. It has accommodated every era’s technological progress. Its recipe allows for all sorts of material substitutions, including industrial waste. For example, typical production of one ton of Portland cement releases one ton of CO2 into the atmosphere, which accounts for about seven percent of all greenhouse gases. Increasingly, however, cement is being made of waste, such as fly ash (a byproduct of coal burning), slag cement (a byproduct of metal smelting), and silica fume (a byproduct of silicon metal production). Christian Meyer, chair of the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at Columbia, and one of the organizers of Solid States has been researching how to make all kinds of waste valuable for concrete production—glass, carpet fibers, and even the highly contaminated dreck at the bottom of New York Harbor. The simple theory being, one industry’s detritus is another industry’s valuable resource. Waste—the new renewable resource.

Sara Hart is a writer in New York City who contributes regularly to Architectural RecordArchitect, and other publications.  


Concrete Poetry 

To survey the latest advances in concrete applications, AN presents ten projects that explore its structural and expressive potential. Whether for high-performance uses or elegant finish effects, these works show that the oldest construction material is still the most fluid.

With contributions from Alan G. Brake, Jeff Byles, Matt Chaban, Anne Guiney, Julie V. Iovine, and Aaron Seward. 

Villa Navarra
Philippe Ruault

Pont du Diable
Courtesy Agence Rudy Ricciotti

Villa Navarra / Le Muy, France
Pont du Diable / Hérault, France
Agence Rudy Ricciotti 

Two projects from French architect Rudy Ricciotti are among the first to explore the structural potential of Lafarge’s high-performance Ductal concrete. With its visor-like roof jutting from the Provencal landscape, the Villa Navarra marks a boldly framed villa and gallery space for collector Enrico Navarra. Featuring a stunning, 25-foot cantilever, the roof is composed of 17 fiber-reinforced Ductal panels, each engineered to take into account thermal expansion, wind resistance, and size restrictions due to transportation of the units, which were precast by Montpellier-based Bonna Sabla using metal molds fabricated by an aviation-industry supplier. Each 7.7-foot-wide panel is edged by two lateral inertia ribs, which taper toward the cantilever and are joined together with a resin-injected socket. A silicon joint keeps the upper portion of the ribs waterproof, while perforations along the structure’s edge—which measures just over 1 inch thick at its tip—allow light to penetrate the porch-like gallery below.

Ductal’s compressive strength is taken more dramatically to task in Ricciotti’s Pont du Diable, a footbridge spanning 236 feet across a gorge in the Hérault district of southwestern France. Composed of 15 sections weighing 10.5 tons each (also precast by Bonna Sabla), the sleek structure, completed in August, makes a low impact upon this world heritage site along the route of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. JB



Dean Bierwagen

Ultra-High Performance Concrete Pi-Girder Bridge
Aurora, Iowa
Federal Highway Administration 

In building infrastructure, and especially bridges, the Federal Highway Administration does not choose a preferred material; it makes choices based on site-specific performance issues such as safety, construction speed and ease, and rate of deterioration. The new ultra-high performance concrete (UHPC)—in the U.S., Lafarge’s Ductal is the only one currently available, although Densit in Denmark and Bouyges in France have also developed UHPCs—makes the most sense for locations where weather conditions are subject to random freezes and sudden thaws. In late October, a UHPC was used for the first time in the U.S. for a bridge in Buchanan County, Iowa. The Aurora bridge differs from conventional concrete usage in that both beams and deck were fabricated off-site. Once cast, the bridge was assembled on-site in less than a week. “The advanced concretes are inherently more durable, quicker, and safer to use,” said Benjamin Graybeal, a research engineer for the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). Additionally, UHPC lends itself to a new girder shape developed by the FHA in collaboration with MIT, known as the Pi-Girder, where pier and deck plate are of a single piece, an added efficiency. “It’s a shape that optimizes the properties of this particular concrete and its abilities to address structural demands,” said Graybeal, noting that Ductal is still too expensive to be considered for widespread FHA use. JVI



Peter Mauss/Esto

College of New Rochelle, New York
Ikon.5 Architects 

As part of a new wellness center for the 100-year-old College of New Rochelle, Princeton-based Ikon.5 Architects used concrete to create a modern-day grotto, sandblasting the material in order to emphasize the rough texture of its aggregate content. A double shell vault spans 80 feet without structural interruption, with the exterior casing operating as both waterproof barrier and green roof container. Mechanical ductwork, fire suppression material, and lighting are contained within the poche, allowing the grotto space to maintain its raw simplicity. The concrete mix contains recyclable blast furnace slag, reducing the admixture of less sustainable Portland cement by 50 percent. There was a challenge when it came time for the concrete pour. Due to the natatorium’s irregular elliptical curve it was difficult to make a concrete without air pockets at the bottom. “Based on a site mock-up, the problem was solved,” said Joe Tattoni of Ikon.5, “by widening the back of the form—which was invisible—to a shape somewhat like an elephant’s foot, it allowed for a more generous flow. And that worked perfectly.” JVI




One Madison Park
New York
Office of Metropolitan Architecture

For its first highrise condominium in Manhattan, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture put high-strength reinforced concrete to the test with a 30-foot cantilever graduated in steps extending over ten stories. The structural system, according to project architect Jason Long and developed with WSP Cantor Seinuk, is a shear tube or “3-D reinforced box system with concrete column sections like Vierendeel trusses” that thicken depending on the changing load (from a thickness of 4 feet 8 inches to 10 inches at the top). Rem Koolhaas described it as a “structural corset” squeezing the building’s midsection, from the 6th floor, where forces are transferred to the sidewalls, to the 15th floor at the maximum point of the cantilever. Openings in the sheer tube expand and contract the maximum amount allowed in relation to stresses, forming apertures for windows. The use of a structural tube system also meant column-free interiors, always a plus in residential work. While the architects wanted the condo to possess a certain urban toughness and hoped to reveal the structural concrete on the facade, the client balked (“If we were in Portugal the quality of concrete work might have made it possible,” said Long). Now the facade is to be finished in fiber reinforced concrete held in place with a polished stainless steel grid. JVI



Courtesy Reiser + Umemoto

Reiser + Umemoto

With its concrete structure pulled to the exterior as a latticelike shell, Reiser + Umemoto’s 22-story Dubai office tower dispenses with conventional interior columns and walls. While freeing the core from the burden of lateral forces, the efficient, load-bearing shell also offers an appealing shading solution for exposed glass towers in the region’s blazing sun. Working with New York structural engineer Ysrael Seinuk, the architects modulated the tower’s circular openings to manage both structural requirements and sun exposure, cutting down on direct light while still permitting strategically placed views. A one-meter-deep cavity between the shell and building enclosure also creates a chimney effect, drawing hot air away from the building and cooling the tower’s inner glass surface. The perforated shell is created by pouring super-liquid concrete around a mesh of woven steel reinforcement, resulting in a structure that is roughly 60 percent solid and 40 percent void. The 1,326 apertures in the shell are achieved by introducing computer-numerically-cut polystyrene void forms into the rebar matrix, then siding the voids with modular steel slip forms prior to the concrete pour. The shell’s thickness tapers from 1.9 feet at the tower’s base to 1.3 feet at the parapet, offering a ruggedly refined addition to the Dubai skyline. JB



Courtesy Steven Holl Architects

Vanke Center
Shenzhen, China
Steven Holl Architects 

The 1.3-million-square-foot mixed-use office, hotel, and condominium is depicted by its architect Steven Holl as a recumbent Empire State Building. Supported on eight legs, this floating skyscraper is unusual in that it takes a concrete structural frame and transforms it into a suspension bridge-type structure with elevator and mechanical shafts serving as piers. Now under construction and due to be completed in late 2009, the building hovers on 50-meter spans from core to core. Steel cables in stiffening tubes support the bottom deck suspended above a tropical garden, with a high-strength composite concrete structure rising five stories above. The bamboo formwork used on parts of the exterior adds a modest decorative effect. Before construction began, a full-scale mock-up was created and subjected to maximum simulated shaking to make sure this novel concrete megastructure would be tsunami-proof. JVI



Courtesy Allied Works Architecture 

Clyfford Still Museum
Denver, Colorado
Allied Works Architecture 

Brad Cloepfil, like so many notable architects before him—Le Corbusier, the Smithsons, Tadao Ando—has been fascinated by the limitless possibilities of working in concrete. “I always think about concrete as witchcraft,” he said. “No one knows everything you can do with it.” Starting with his earliest work, the Maryhill Overlook on the Columbia River Gorge, the Portland architect has always pushed the boundaries of concrete. Now, with Allied Works’ designs for the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, he is attempting to render it as the very earth from which it came. To evoke the prairies from which the museum rises, Cloepfil is developing a unique pouring process that will create geological bands of concrete within the walls. “The feeling is that it’s almost carved out of the earth,” he said. Using a monolithic pour, the design team has been experimenting with varying the types of aggregate, dryness of the mix, and time between pours so that each pouring, which takes place in 12- to 36-inch bands, takes on its own character. Cloepfil said he has never encountered such an application before, and he thinks he knows why—it is incredibly challenging to get right. After 30 4-foot-by-8-foot mock-ups, he’s still experimenting. “It’s like a choreography,” he said. “We’re doing a dance, and it’s got to be perfect, but that takes an unbelievable amount of work.” MC



Courtesy Toshiko Mori Architect

Darwin Martin Visitor Center
Buffalo, New York
Toshiko Mori Architect 

In the otherwise all-glass Darwin Martin Visitor Center, the designers at Toshiko Mori Architect inserted a solid concrete wall at the back of the space to conceal bathrooms, kitchens, and other non-public spaces. Rather than settle for a blank screen, they wanted the wall to respond to the Frank Lloyd Wright house which the facility serves, and so introduced horizontal banding across the surface to match the Roman brick and recessed mortar joints of Wright’s work. Achieving a materiality that the designers were satisfied with turned out to be more work than they expected. They experimented with nine different mixes of architectural concrete and conducted numerous studies to realize a smooth finish. The mix they wound up using employs a superplasticizer, which increases the material’s fluidity by softening the mix before it hardens and reducing the amount of water needed, thus increasing compressive strength. The method of installation also required extensive testing, as avoiding bubbles in the surface was made more difficult by the horizontal bands. In the end, the contractor injected the concrete into the base of the custom-made forms, filling them from the bottom to the top, and used an internal vibrating machine to shake out excess air. AS



Rien Van Rijthoven

Congregation Beth Sholom Synagogue
San Francisco
Stanley Saitowitz | Natoma Architects 

The ark-like form which is the distinguishing feature of Congregation Beth Sholom’s new synagogue in San Francisco presents a perfectly smooth and solid face to the street that belies the difficulty in creating a 24-foot-high, 24-inch-thick concrete double shell. According to Neil Kaye, project manager at Stanley Saitowitz | Natoma Architects, to achieve the incredibly fine finish that they wanted for both interior and exterior of the volume which holds the sanctuary, they built several full-scale mock-ups and tested everything from the form release to the way the sealant affected the concrete’s color. “It was a very plastic mix because we had to keep a certain level of liquidity during the lift in order to get fine cold joints,” said Kaye. The outer shell went up first in three separate lifts, and then the rebar was laid in; the inner shell came last. On the interior, Saitowitz made use of concrete’s plastic qualities and incorporated the acoustic baffles into the walls themselves. The acoustician, Charles Salter, had determined that a 15 degree offset would be optimal for the space, and so when the formwork for the inner shell was going in, they inserted pre-fab fiberglass liners. The resulting panel-like forms incorporated into the sanctuary’s walls serve a second and valuable function of decoration, as they shape sunlight as well as sound. AG



Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing

SOS Children’s Village Lavezzorio Community Center
Chicago, Illinois
Studio Gang 

With material costs rising and a fixed budget of $3.5 million, the architects at Studio Gang had to rethink their design for this community center, stripping away the planned brick screen. That left the double-cantilevered concrete structure exposed. “We thought, ‘let’s investigate the fluidity of concrete,’” said managing architect Mark Schendel. To express this structurally, the architects used three different strengths of concrete in alternating bands for the 12-inch-thick walls. They used chemically stiffened concretes with very low slump, or viscosity, so that even after vibration, the bands kept their wavy appearance. Each of the seven bands was a separate pour, or lift, and each is reinforced according to the strength of the concrete (if the wall had been constructed conventionally, it would have been poured in two lifts). Working with general contractor Bovis Lend Lease and engineer Thornton Tomasetti, the architects choreographed the elaborate sequence of pours to keep costs low. “Bovis was working on Trump Tower at the time, so whenever they had a truck with the strength of concrete we were looking for, they would pull it out of the line and send it to our project,” he said. That allowed them to leverage the economy of scale from the massive skyscraper project. In addition, the architects economically tested their ideas by using the elevator core as a mockup. AGB

Editorial: Vote Local

This presidential election, seemingly unending, but now just days away, is being called the most vital and important election in a generation. But there will be more on the ballot than just the choice for president. As architects you also have a responsibility to vote for priorities that can benefit our urban and built environment, not to mention voting for your interests as a profession.

California’s largest cities have several major initiatives on the ballot that could help rectify problems that have long plagued their urban fabric. Perhaps most significantly in the Los Angeles region, voters will have a choice to vote for improved public transit in southern California with Measure R. Through a half-cent sales tax increase (providing more than $4 billion in funds) the measure would provide an expansion and improvement of local rail and bus systems, road improvements, and traffic reduction. That could include expansions of LA subway and light rail lines in all directions, new HOV lanes for highways, better traffic monitoring, and even reduced fares for bus riders. As our Protest column points out this month, it is not perfect, but it is far superior to the alternative of continued gridlock and environmental degradation. Also, San Francisco voters will have the chance to vote for support for much-needed affordable housing in a city where it is sorely lacking. Proposition B would require the city to take about $30 million out of the budget each year and use the money to build affordable housing over the next 15 years. That measure isn’t enough, but it will help. And in San Diego, Measure S would provide $2.1 billion to help rebuild the city’s crumbling school infrastructure.

I support all three of these measures. But besides these essential propositions there are important, ongoing initiatives that require your vote, including the local legislation and reforms that local AIA chapters are pushing. Unlike ballot measures, getting these passed will take continuous pressure and resolve. In LA that includes implementation of a distributed power generation network; getting more architects on city commissions; and enhancing local streetscapes to address environmental and pedestrian concerns. In Sacramento that means making new buildings carbon neutral by 2030; reducing sales taxes on architectural services; and blocking an interior design practice act. In San Francisco that means, in addition to pushing for more affordable housing and new zoning, establishing rules that respect individual neighborhoods’ specific character.

So for all of you that have been glued to CNN and voted for or contributed to your preferred candidate, why not participate in a local process that can have an equally significant impact? That means paying attention to and voting for propositions. It can also mean attending your local chapter’s legislative day or putting pressure on your local council member. Of course we have a responsibility to vote for our national leaders. But we also need to ensure for ourselves that our priorities are heard loud and clear at a local level.

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Protest: HOV and Bothered
A map of METRO's proposed road and rail extensions, pending the passage of Measure R.
Courtesy LA METRO

One of the handful of state and local initiatives on the ballot this November, Measure R, sponsored by Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), looks to provide $40 billion over 30 years to fund both future and ongoing transportation projects within the county. Before I get into the ineptitude of Metro’s long range planning and their lack of a system-wide approach to providing transportation to the region, let me say first that any vote for public mass transportation is a good investment. Therefore, I support Measure R on the November 2008 ballot. However, Metro is pondering other funding sources that I oppose, several projects that should not be funded, and several other projects that need some serious guidance.

It has been said that if you build it they will come. If Metro successfully builds its planned expansion of the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on every freeway in Los Angeles County as stated in their 2008 Draft Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP), released this summer, then we will certainly have more cars and congestion to deal with (20 percent of funding from Measure R will go to HOV lane expansion and other highway improvements). The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a six-county Metropolitan Planning Organization that includes Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Imperial counties, expects over six million more people in the region by 2035. With every major freeway built to its right-of-way, and virtually no support to bulldoze entire neighborhoods to build more freeways, it seems like southern California has reached its limit on freeway expansions. So Metro has decided to make our highways more efficient with a seamless HOV lane system. God help us if every freeway becomes a double decker I-110 knock off where instead of the current impermeable trench dividing our community we have large impermeable walls of loud, polluting automobiles. While we should be encouraging people who do not have any options other than the automobile to carpool, why does Metro not seek to get at the heart of the problem and build more transit to more places, making the entire transportation system more efficient, instead of just our freeways? And why can they not see that creating more efficient freeways increases the capacity for more cars on the road, creating more congestion and a continued land use nightmare of single-family home subdivisions gobbling up dwindling farmland and desert at our urban periphery?

Now Metro tells us that we should seek more funding to expand transit by generating new sources of revenue on top of their latest ballot initiative. Their answer is to take some of these existing HOV lanes and transform them into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. Again, why would we now tax those who are doing what we want them to do, carpool, and then allow other single occupancy vehicles to pay to enter these specialty lanes? Metro transit engineers and policymakers claim that an HOT lane is more efficient then any free HOV lane because you can essentially price out much of the traffic during peak times, allowing a free flowing HOT lane. This congestion pricing scheme would make total sense if there was not already an existing HOV lane, plus thousands of carpoolers who already use these lanes, reducing the congestion on our freeways. The fact that these HOV lanes are becoming more and more congested is a positive sign that we are changing people’s habits, and more HOV lanes should be built to accommodate this shift. Instead of the HOT lane, why not create a countywide congestion pricing zone, and charge everyone who drives into the county except for those who use our HOV lanes? This would surely make more money than any other congestion pricing scheme for Metro, and it would deter the number one culprit of our congestion problem, the single occupancy vehicle. And similar to the HOT lane strategy, all funds from this toll would then go into building alternatives, i.e., more mass transit.

This brings me to my second point. Metro is currently studying a Regional Connector transit line that they claim is needed to join the 7th and Metro transit station, which is the terminus of the Metro Blue Line light rail, to Union Station, connecting all three transit lines (Metro Blue light rail, Gold light rail, and eventually the Expo Line light rail to Culver City) in downtown Los Angeles. Well it just so happens we do have a train that links the 7th and Metro station to Union Station and the Gold Line. It is called the Metro Red Line subway. So, why are they spending millions of taxpayer dollars to study a route that would duplicate existing infrastructure, add only two or three more stations, and not even extend to Union Station but to the Gold Line station on 1st and Alameda Streets (currently under construction as part of the Gold Line eastside extension project)?

Why not take that $650–$800 million and use it for more worthy and pressing projects? City Council member Jose Huizar is having trouble funding his streetcar down Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. With an estimated cost of around $90 million, why not build the Broadway street car line plus eight or nine other street car lines in downtown? This would be a much more logical use of the allocated funds to the poorly conceived regional connector. I can think of several other streets of equal length that could use a rebirth of the streetcar in addition to the proposed Broadway line: 1st Street, 4th Street, 7th Street, Olympic/9th Street, Grand Avenue, Main Street, and Alameda Street, with one or two more lines to spare. Or what about using the money for Metro’s proposed Purple Line extension? The Purple Line subway currently runs west from Union Station heading along Wilshire Boulevard to Western Avenue. An extension west along Wilshire would be the primary east-west arterial through the county, and Wilshire would have all the appropriate density and infrastructure to support a subway. It would connect an extensive part of the Westside to downtown, and it would immediately pull thousands of people out of their cars everyday. An extension that should be all subway, all the way to Santa Monica along Wilshire.

I know I have posed a lot of questions for Metro, but they have given me—and the general public—even fewer answers.

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The Hardest Choice
The LPC decided on hardship grounds that St. Vincent's Hosptial could demolish the iconic O'Toole Building
Matt Chaban

The only thing gloomier than the weather today was the members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, sitting out this morning’s thunderstorm as they decided the fate of Albert C. Ledner's iconic O’Toole Building, which St. Vincent’s Hospital hopes to demolish and replace with a new 300-foot-tall hospital.

“This is the most distressing challenge to the landmarks law that I have witnessed since the Grand Central case in the 1970s,” commissioner Roberta Brandeis-Gratz said. Fred Bland, the commission’s newest member, said he awoke at 3:30 this morning, unable to sleep, and stood out in the rain at dawn for one last look at O’Toole. He had hoped it would help his “highly frustrating” decision between preserving a one-of-a-kind building and expanding the increasingly limited medical facilities downtown.

"In a perfect world, no individual landmark or contributing building would ever be demolished,” Bland declared. “But we live in New York, a place very much grounded in reality.” And with that, he cast his vote, the final deciding vote, in favor of the hospital. By a tally of 6-4, St. Vincent’s was victorious.

“We’re pleased with process and we’re pleased with the landmark commission’s decision,” Henry Amoroso, the hospital’s president and CEO, told AN afterwards. “But we are also sorry it had to come to this. It's certainly not an occassion to celebrate.”And the trial is not over. St. Vincent’s still has to get approval from the commission for its new hospital designs before they can build on the O’Toole site.

Back in May, the commission turned down a similar proposal from the hospital and its development partner, the Rudin family, which is paying $310 million for the right to build condos on a group of buildings across 7th Avenue that St. Vincent’s will vacate when it moves into the new hospital. At the time, the commission said the plans did not meet the standard of historical appropriateness to warrant demolition.

On second try, the hospital submitted a hardship application, arguing it could not continue its charitable mission of providing equitable healthcare in its current facilities. It was on these grounds, and not those of preservation, that today’s decision was to be made, following a number of hearings in recent months on the matter.

Each of the ten commissioners gave a halting, deliberative explanation before casting their vote, all expressing the difficulty and trepidation it brought them. Some questioned whether sufficient alternative sites had been vetted, whether a mid-block or off-site proposal belatedly offered by the hospital might not be more sufficient than administrators said. Others recalled the tragedy of 9/11 and how it reinforced for them the importance of ample and accessible medical facilities in the city. Many worried about what sort of precedent their decision could set.

No one was happy making this decision, but perhaps commissioner Joan Gerner best encapsulated this damning ambivalence. “I think this is a matter of life and death,” she said. “Which is why I’m voting to demolish the O’Toole Building with great regret.”