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All architecture, to a certain extent, is a response to the demands of external forces and interior programming. Eleven Times Square, however, a new speculative office tower designed by FXFowle now nearing completion on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, goes further than most structures in deferring to its surroundings while catering to the needs of tenants. In the process, the skyscraper has moved beyond even its most environmentally friendly contemporaries—the New York Times Building, Hearst Tower, and One Bryant Park—to set a new standard for tall building design.
The tower’s sensitivity to the streets and structures around it is immediately apparent upon visiting Times Square. Though it stands 40 stories tall and encompasses 1.1 million square feet, the tower is far from imposing. In fact, it’s hardly noticeable. This is because at the northwest corner, after the sixth floor, the building steps back significantly. Higher up the elevation, it cants out again to regain floor space, creating a skewed profile, but the gesture is highly effective.
Eleven’s highrise neighbors to the north and south also influenced its form. The podium and setback tower motif echoes Arquitectonica’s Westin Hotel across 42nd Street, creating an open gateway to Times Square from the west. Meanwhile, the massing of the building’s south face mirrors Renzo Piano’s Times Building across 41st Street, with its cutout corners, sheer verticality, and horizontal detailing.
Following these disparate design cues created two different aesthetics and, for each, a distinctly defined side to the building. FXFowle harnessed this dynamic to create what might be New York City’s only solar-oriented skyscraper—a factor that added points to the project’s target LEED Gold rating. The south portion of the building features perforated aluminum sunshades—a nod to Piano’s exterior shading system across the street—and the glass is more reflective than in the north portion, which was outfitted with fritting at the upper regions of the vision panels.
Overall, the curtain wall is extremely performative. It is structurally glazed, meaning that there are no exterior mullion caps, which can create heat transfer points. The insulated panels are filled with argon gas rather than a vacuum, further adding to their insulation value.
In addition, stainless-steel spacers were used between the lites at the edges of the panels, where curtain walls lose most of their heat, rather than aluminum, which is one of the best conductors available. Altogether, Eleven’s envelope boasts a U value—or rate of non-solar heat loss—of approximately .28, making it more efficient than the curtain wall at 7 World Trade Center, a previous touchstone for highly insulated glass walls.
While allowing the context to mold their building, the architects did not give short shrift to Eleven’s unnamed future tenants. This meant maximizing flexible floor space, access to daylight, and views. The site itself is L-shaped, an awkward template for a skyscraper, but FXFowle again used the two-faced nature of the building to their benefit.
Like nearly all New York City office buildings in the post-9/11 era, Eleven has a composite structure of a concrete core and steel-framed bays, marrying the security of the former’s rigidity and fire resistance to the versatility inherent in the latter’s long-span capabilities. The architects couched the core in the crook of the L, keeping the street faces open and dividing the north and south sides into distinct spaces, each large enough to accommodate disparate programming.
Eleven’s plan also turned out to be a boon for views of the city. The cutouts made on the south face created a kind of bay window, adding to the panoramas and daylight available to tenants—factors that earned more points in the LEED tally. The north side, however, is even more of a view machine.
FXFowle rotated the canted portion of the building, a volume known as the crystal, by several degrees to the west so that the north-facing windows did not look out directly onto the Westin, but instead opened up dramatically to nearly unobstructed vistas—at least on the upper floors—of the Hudson River and New Jersey. The crystal also features perimeter columns pulled back from the facade, creating cantilevers of as much as 15 feet ending in unbroken expanses of glass.
The architects were also able to avoid placing columns in the building’s many corners, a consideration that will no doubt add to the allure of these locations for offices, while at the same time perhaps opening them up to more than just the upper echelon of the corporate chain.
Last year’s bursting real estate bubble left the five boroughs littered with vacant and half-built projects, many of them market-rate units few can now afford. But city officials are hoping to rescue some of those stalled projects, create much needed affordable housing in the process, and begin to steady the real estate market as a result. Wednesday, the City Council and Bloomberg administration announced a $20 million program known as HARP—as in Housing Asset Renewal Program—that would subsidize the conversion of upwards of 400 stalled market-rate units into affordable ones.
By thawing frozen projects, the hope is to free up financing to finish construction on those that are not yet built and to fully occupy those that are. (The imprimatur of the city should help with financing, as well.) Meanwhile, the city will help stabilize these buildings and their surrounding neighborhoods, thus avoiding the blight that plagued the city during the decline of the 1970s and 1980s. With 138 stalled projects confirmed by the Department of Buildings, and countless more unaccounted for, there are plenty of projects in need of support.
“Private developments that sit vacant or unfinished could have a destabilizing effect on our neighborhoods, but we’re not about to let that happen,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement. “This program holds out the promise of addressing the unintended blight caused by vacant sites, while transforming what would have been market-rate buildings into affordable housing for working class New Yorkers.”
The program is the result of a council taskforce on affordable housing launched in 2008, though many of its ideas crashed along with the housing market. Instead, the taskforce began outlining HARP, which speaker Christine Quinn introduced in February during her State of the City address. The council then turned to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to implement the details and administer the program, which is still in the pilot phase. The cost is also shared between the council and the city through the reallocation of existing capital funds.
The city will issue a request for funding applicants—a sort of RFP with a rolling deadline—in July that is expected to run through December. Applicants will be judged on three criteria: those who offer the deepest discounts, require the least amount of subsidy, and provide the most “stabilization” to the neighborhood. For instance, a single building in need of subsidy in a ten block radius would be more likely targeted than 15 buildings in need within a five block radius, according to Andrew Doba, a council spokesperson.
While details of the plan are still being worked out, the expectation is that most of the money will be spent in the outer boroughs, where the greatest speculation and destabilization took place, and also where the city can stretch its money the furthest. For each unit of a project pledged as an affordable rental unit, applicants will receive $50,000 an amount officials emphasize is about a third to a half as expensive as the typical rate paid for new affordable units. Both unfinished and finished-but-empty projects are eligible for the program, though the expectation is that only a portion of a project’s total units would be converted from market-rate to affordable.
But first those seeking money must agree to take a loss on their projects, as the city insists that the program is not intended as a handout or bailout. “This will require real sacrifice from the banker and the developers,” Catie Marshall, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said. “We’re not going to bankrupt anyone, but we’re not making them whole, either.”
Marshall said the department expects to get many of its applications from banks that have foreclosed on projects and want to get rid of them as quickly as possible. When money will begin to flow out remains to be seen, but it could be as soon as the department begins getting applications back. “We could start working on projects, depending on what comes in and how clean it is, by the Fall,” Marshall said. If the pilot phase goes well, the city will consider expanding it or even making it a permanent housing program.
Developers large and small, not-for-profit and high-end are already hailing the project. “I see a plus-plus for the city of New York, both for the people in the neighborhoods, who won’t have to look at these half-built buildings anymore, and the affordable housing users who will have shelter,” said Vincent Riso, a principal at the Briarwood Organization, which has been developing affordable housing since the 1980s.
Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, acknowledged that while the program would not directly benefit his members—many of the city’s biggest name developers—it would provide a benefit by absorbing excess inventory and stabilizing lending. “I think it’s a creative use of rather limited city resources, and at the same time to throw a little help to a developer in challenging times,” he added. “It will create opportunities that did not exist before.”
And given the continued stasis in the financial markets, HARP could be the only opportunity for developers to get projects off the ground. “There’s so much inventory, why would a bank finance any new construction?” said Julien Vernet, Briarwood’s marketing director.
The only criticism of the program so far was that it would primarily support middle-income families because lower income housing would require greater subsidies. “They can either serve a large number of folks with a moderate income or less folks with low income,” Josh Lockwood, executive director of Habitat-NYC, said. “We just hope there’s room in the conversation for low-income families.”
But Lockwood was also quick to praise the program as one-of-a-kind. “They’re light years ahead of anywhere else just trying to make this work,” he said. “I just hope other cities will follow.”
The vacant storefronts in commercial districts throughout New York City are among the most striking signs of the economic downturn. However, on old industrial sites and in neighborhoods where national retail has never ventured before, developers are betting that a new generation of malls will bring in hordes of shoppers. One such mall is the $500 million Gateway Center at the Bronx Terminal Market, which in May held a ribbon cutting for its first tenant, Home Depot.
Situated on a 16.5-acre site along the Harlem River near the new Yankee Stadium, this 950,000-square-foot project for the Related Companies represents a major departure from the traditional suburban mall. Instead of being enveloped in parking lots, this mall is pedestrian friendly. It has wide sidewalks, a small outdoor plaza with seating, and several street-level spaces for restaurants and retail. Sloped roofs and interior streets break up the massing of the enormous development.
Instead of big-box stores spread out laterally, here they are stacked on top of one another in two three-story retail blocks that flank a six-story garage for 2,341 cars. The two retail blocks are staggered by about 15 feet, allowing each big-box store to connect to its own dedicated parking deck by walkways that pass over interior streets. If a mall of this size were built in the suburbs, it would typically take up 100 acres.
The vertical design, with its relatively modest footprint, resolves many concerns that critics have about malls, said John Clifford, principal at GreenbergFarrow, which did the project’s master plan and retail design. A large share of shoppers, about 37 percent, are supposed to arrive by public transit and on foot. “There are a lot of urbanists who hate the suburbanization that these uses bring,” Clifford said, “but when you think about it, there couldn’t be a better use of land resources.”
Gateway is one of several vertical-style malls under construction in the city that GreenbergFarrow has helped design. East River Plaza, planned by the Blumenfeld Development Group on a three-block site between East 116th and 119th streets adjacent to the FDR Drive, is due to open this fall. Vornado Realty Trust’s Rego Park II in Queens will also open this year. And a GreenbergFarrow design for another Related project, the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, is in the midst of a contentious public review process.
These massive developments will undoubtedly change the way that many New Yorkers shop. Gateway, which is 90 percent leased, will provide the Bronx with its first Bed Bath & Beyond and its first wholesale club, BJ’s. East River Plaza will house the first Costco in Manhattan. The new malls also promise thousands of jobs for low-income neighborhoods that suffer from high unemployment.
Yet many community groups and local business advocates are not thrilled by the new designs or the shopping opportunities these developments promise. While some opponents are willing to accept new malls if they commit to paying a living wage, others ask whether the new malls, which receive generous tax abatements and subsidies, are coming at the expense of more sustainable and less inherently auto-dependent forms of development.
Irwin Cohen, a developer who specializes in adaptive reuse, had plans to redevelop old industrial buildings at the Bronx Terminal Market into a multipurpose facility that would rent to independent food vendors, much as he did when he turned a former Nabisco factory into the highly successful Chelsea Market. Local operations would have been better anchors for the Bronx site than big-box national retailers, he argued. “Why should we have what is being done in the rest of the United States foisted on us—shopping malls and cars?”
For his part, Clifford has long pondered such questions. He began designing malls out of GreenbergFarrow’s Atlanta office for Home Depot, and helped introduce the big-box concept in New York in 1993, designing the city’s first Home Depot in Ozone Park, Queens. Since then, Greenberg Farrow has designed more than 6.5 million square feet of big-box stores and malls in New York City alone. In recent years, as developers have looked to more urban neighborhoods, new design strategies were required: hence the vertical mall.
Take East River Plaza. Instead of existing as a monolith that eats up three city blocks, the 650,000-square-foot project is broken up by an open-air galleria, similar to the one at Gateway, that lines up with 117th Street, providing orientation to the neighborhood and to stores on four above-grade retail levels. Here, every other level of retail is accessible from the adjacent, eight-story parking garage by pedestrian bridges that connect over the galleria.
The project also seeks to harmonize with its surroundings through a facade of masonry and brick, chosen to echo the texture of the neighborhood and to reference the 19th-century Washburn Wire factory, which occupied the site. While these are worthwhile tactics, one wonders if the factory might have been salvaged for reuse in the project, making a more than symbolic nod to neighborhood history.
A similar strategy has been used at Gateway Center, where remnants were incorporated from the art deco Bronx House of Detention, demolished to make way for the new mall. Eagles from the structure’s frieze, for instance, are perched on steel columns around the mall’s street-side plaza. The building also references heroic 1930s warehouse architecture through four 30-foot-tall glass towers, which conceal exit stairways and serve as beacons above the Deegan Expressway.
“We wanted to take a little bit of the history of the site and impart it onto the design of the building,” said Gregory Cranford, partner at BBG-BBGM, which served as design architects for the massing and exteriors of the buildings, and as overall architects for the project. “So we have done that with the massing and with the big forms. We wanted to have a little bit of the same scale, but in a modern vocabulary.”
Among the new malls, Rego Park II may best address its surroundings. First, the superblock is not out of place here—neighbors include tower-in-the-park residential developments, along with the original Rego Park mall. And instead of being primarily a retail zone dominated by big-box stores, the 1.675 million-square-foot development called for a more diverse mix of uses to animate the public spaces, including a 25-story residential tower atop a seven-story parking garage with ground-level retail. Currently, however, the tower is on hold.
Other elements of the project go well beyond window-dressing. A tensile fabric canopy covers a 50-foot-wide galleria along the central axis of the development. In contrast to the gallerias at Gateway Center and East River Plaza, which accommodate cars and pedestrians, the one at Rego Park is strictly a pedestrian mall that attempts to bring an urbanistic feel to the neighborhood. “We are trying to integrate open space into the community,” said Giovanni Valle, project architect for Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, which designed the facade for Rego Park II. (SLCE is the architect of record.)
Kingsbridge Armory, meanwhile, represents another approach. This project involves building a vertical mall inside the landmarked Kingsbridge Armory. Under the plan developed by GreenbergFarrow, the inside of the armory would be ripped out and a steel-truss-framed structure would be inserted inside the shell of the building.
The project, though, has been opposed by groups like the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), which demands that Related commit to have tenants pay a living wage, as well as add recreation space for children. There is also outrage about plans for a 60,000-square-foot grocery store, which residents say could drive out local grocery stores that pay union wages.
“We are not looking to create a poverty wage center in the middle of Kingsbridge,” said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a KARA spokesperson. (Glenn Goldstein, senior vice-president of the Related Companies, said that it was too early in the approval process to discuss plans for the armory.)
There is much to praise about New York’s newest vertical malls. They’ll revitalize old industrial areas, and relate more sanely to the city than earlier megaprojects did. But worries remain that these projects are still suburban—reliant on car and truck traffic, and a threat to local businesses.
That is a particular concern given the subsidies and tax abatements involved. Related, for example, received a $7.1 million city subsidy toward the expense of razing the original Bronx Terminal Market, as well as about $133 million in city tax abatements for Gateway. The company also received preliminary approval for subsidies and tax abatements on the mall it plans for Kingsbridge.
“These urban mall projects fit into a pattern of public dollars being used to fund the expansion of national chain retailers,” said Stacy Mitchell, the author of Big-Box Swindle, “while independent businesses never see a dime.” There is no reason why forward-thinking design couldn’t also serve a more balanced vision of community investment—and a still more sustainable wave of shopping in the city.
On June 25, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the city had acquired a 30-acre spit of land in Queens to build the largest middle-income housing complex since Starrett City in 1974. Situated where Newtown Creek empties into the East River, the Hunter’s Point South project sounded like the best of all possible worlds: a school, 3,000 units of affordable housing for true blue New Yorkers—those cops, firefighters, and schoolteachers that everyone roots for in movies but otherwise ignores—and an 11-acre waterfront park. As usual, however, it was hard not to be cynical.
That great mascot of American independent spirit, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote that every soul must learn from making its own mistakes. But that hardly seems like a game plan where the collaborative business of making cities is concerned. New York is currently glutted with grand plans gone awry, dead in the water, or compromised beyond recognition: Atlantic Yards, Hudson Yards, Moynihan Station, ground zero. They do not inspire confidence that this one will fare any better. Apparently, past errors in judgment—May we cut you another deal, Mr. Ratner?—have only served to fuel a determination to repeat until bankrupt.
The mayor’s press release made no mention of the hurdles and controversies looming at Hunter’s Point South. Even Wikipedia knows that Newtown Creek is one of the most polluted industrial sites in the country, flowing with an “estimated 30 million gallons of spilled oil and raw sewage.” A clean-up plan was not mentioned.
Nor was it disclosed that this largest subsidized project in the city in 35 years is based on creating a specious nonprofit by which developers would be paid in federal tax-exempt bonds rather than municipal bonds, thus avoiding the requirement to include 20 percent low-income housing in the project. (Originally, years before the site was to be the Olympic Village of the failed NYC2012 bid and was called Queens West, it was all going to be low-income housing, a plan that would have paid off nicely right about now.)
But the real purpose of Hunter’s Point South seems to boil down to the mayor’s need to get a move on his $7.5 billion New Housing Marketplace Plan and its promise of 165,000 affordable housing units. Now, 68 percent of those are supposed to be low income, but none of them, it seems, will be at Hunter’s Point South, where the 3,000 units of middle-income housing will be rounded out with 2,000 market-rate apartments.
The mayor did toss in this bone: 3,000 permanently low-income units will be built someplace else in Queens “over the next 10 years,” and an adjacent site will be rezoned to allow for at least 330 low-income units. That’s not much comfort to local residents who have been complaining for years that no one consulted with them about the project, and that the housing qualification of a $55,000 to $158,000 household income is way over their own heads. Once again, city leaders have projected their ambitions on what they see as a blank slate but others know to be an existing and needful community.
In Urban Design (Minnesota Press, 2009), an excellent collection of persuasive essays rehashing the hits and misses in the field, Michael Sorkin describes post-Moses urban planning in New York as “the ongoing willed incapacity to think comprehensively.” To which one might add: “or to learn from one’s own mistakes.”
A Natural History of New York City
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
Through October 12
In the opening pages of Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas states that the physical form of New York City is the product of a self-conscious urge to rewrite the past in order to serve a particular vision of the future. Writing of the pre-European New York, he asks, “What race first peopled the island of Mannahatta?” Quoting the 19th-century historian Peter Belden, he answers, “They were, but are not,” victims of a vast, fictitious plot in which barbarism gives way to refinement.
As recounted in Koolhaas’ delirious reality, European settlers erased all traces of the island’s pre-existing civilization, replacing it with “a city renowned for its commerce, intelligence, and wealth.” According to Koolhaas, the outcome of this Darwinian survival of the fittest, the New York we know, love, and hate, is the product of a “cyclical restatement of a single theme: Creation and destruction irrevocably interlocked, endlessly reenacted.”
Markley Boyer/The Manahatta Project, WCS
The ecologist responsible for this Arcadian vision, Eric A. Sanderson, is careful to state that the imagery should not be seen as a call to return Manhattan to its primeval state, but rather as a visualization tool that reveals “something new about a place we know so well, whether we live in New York or see it on television, and, through that discovery, to alter our way of life.”
Consequently, the exhibit challenges the viewer to see the contemporary city as “a place shaped by the relationship between nature and people.” In order to function as good stewards of this ecological heritage, we, individually and as a society, must realize that the “principles of diversity, interdependence, and interrelativity operate in a modern mega-city much as they do in nature.” The clear implication is that this newfound understanding will enable the people of New York to re-envision the future as a sustainable ecological reality.
The exhibit begins with an interactive display. One click and an aerial view of the current urban grid transforms into an image of long-ago ecological abundance. A topographic map of Manhattan dominates the center of the space, and functions as a display screen for the cultural, natural, Native American, and ecological history of the island. But the real heart of the exhibit is a Muir web, a set of computer-generated connections between the ecologies that once composed the Manhattan landscape.
Consisting of abstract lines that converge and cross to define dense, multi-dimensional landscape communities, the web emerges from simple relationships such as “squirrels eat nuts.” Even though the relationships lose some of their dynamic power when rendered in two dimensions, the resultant forms clearly illustrate the complexity of the natural environment. A quote from Jane Jacobs is used to relate this natural complexity to healthy urban growth: “Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration.”
Mannahatta’s modeled reality is a harmonious vision that showcases the best of nature’s resilience and abundance. Here, sylvan ecologies synergistically combine to create a gentle mythology of the island’s natural history. There is no Sisyphean struggle between creation and destruction. As I viewed this algorithmically derived Arcadia, I couldn’t help but wonder how much different the images and the exhibition would be if the true depths of the growth and decay cycles that govern the forms of nature were plumbed, as the artist Robert Smithson did when he pictured himself one million years ago, “alone on the vast glacier covering Central Park.”
In the silence, he wrote, one would not sense the glacier’s “slow, crushing, scrapping, ripping movement as it advanced south, leaving great masses of rock debris in its wake. Under the frozen depths where the carousel now stands, you would not notice the effect on the bedrock as the glacier moved itself along.” Smithson’s vision, carefully documented with historical and Polaroid images of Central Park, oscillates between creation and destruction. Though a less nominally beautiful vision of nature, Smithson’s embrace of destruction as the necessary seedbed for a lively, diverse, and creative growth is perhaps more truthful.