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Uptown Blues

Manhattan judge shuts down Mayor de Blasio’s Inwood rezoning plan
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Verna Saunders nullified Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial 2018 plan to rezone Northern Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood to allow for the construction of larger apartment buildings on December 19. While touted as a necessary solution to the area’s housing crisis, community members, and activists fervently disagreed and sued the administration on account of their concerns being ignored. Saunder’s ruled that the city failed to look at these matters closely.  If approved, the plan would have rezoned 59 blocks north of Dyckman street to increase density and commercial development along 10th avenue, a move that protestors believed would accelerate gentrification, displace residents, and negatively impact minority and women-owned businesses. Despite these concerns, de Blasio vowed to appeal what he called the judge’s “wrong-headed” decision.  After Saunders sent the matter back to the Office of the Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department told The City, “We stand by the city’s thorough environmental review and will challenge this decision so important projects, including the building of 1,600 new affordable homes in this community, can proceed.” Despite the promise, protestors believe that income requirements for such housing are often set too high for many local residents.  State Senator Robert Jackson responded excitedly to the news in a tweet saying, “the Inwood Rezoning has been STRUCK DOWN!!!,” congratulating and thanking both Inwood Legal Action and Northern Manhattan is Not for Sale, activist groups and organizers responsible for filing the lawsuit. At a press conference on Friday, December 20, he explained that, “We deserve a JUST rezoning, not this one that put profits over people. I hope now the city will let the community lead, as should have happened from the beginning.”  Resident Ayisha Oglivie, a member of Northern Manhattan is Not For Sale said, “I was screaming at the top of my lungs,” when she read the decision. “It’s about justice for our community. This is about a precedent being set for this entire city.”
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Just Around the Riverbend

Harvard taps Studio Gang and Tishman Speyer for new innovation campus
Harvard University is getting larger. The Cambridge-based institution has long-planned to diversify its physical presence in Boston and has finally chosen a developer and several big-name architects to lead the build-out of its innovation campus in the nearby Allston. New York real estate firm Tishman Speyer was selected out of a large bid for the highly-sought-after project, as well as partner studios Henning Larsen, Utile, Studio Gang, and SCAPE. According to The Boston Globe, the team will transform 14 acres of Harvard’s land ownings across the Charles River into the 900,000-square-foot Enterprise Research Campus. “Capturing the spirit of innovation of the Enterprise Research Campus, our design will transform a former industrial site into a fertile new ground for the exchange of ideas and creative expression," said Jeanne Gang, lead architect of the project, in a statement. "We envision a neighborhood brought to life with low-carbon buildings and resilient green spaces that foster community and connect people to their natural environment." Rob Speyer, Tishman Speyer’s chief executive, also told The Globe the site would be developed in partnership with city officials and residents of Allston and will be the first phase in a series of developments totaling 36 acres dedicated to research, learning, and community. “This is going to be the furthest thing from a technology fortress,” said Speyer. “This is going to be a neighborhood, a neighborhood that embraces the diverse community around it.” Allston, though small and largely residential, boasts almost 30,000 people, many of whom are immigrants. Students and young professionals make up the majority of residents, which makes sense given the neighborhood's proximity to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The new research campus, meant to house a mix of offices, labs, a 250,000-square-foot hotel and conference center, as well as up to 300 apartments, will be located across from the university’s business school and the nearly complete science and engineering complex designed by Behnisch Architekten.  According to The Globe, the number of affordable homes on site has yet to be determined, although Harvard has a commitment to the city requirement of at least 13 percent. Another important part of the research campus will be its role as a start-up incubator. It’s been reported Tishman Speyer is partnering with the Cambridge-based shared space company LabCentral on the project.  A completion date for the Enterprise Research Campus has yet to be announced.
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screaming into the void

Battle over Snøhetta's Upper West Side tower continues
The debate over imposing height restrictions for the Snøhetta-designed tower at 50 West 66th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side continues. The preservation group Landmark West is arguing that Extell, the building developer known for its Billionaire’s Row towers along 57th Street, is continuing to illegally use mechanical void space to circumvent height restrictions according to Gothamist. Such voids are meant to hold mechanical equipment and have been, until recently, exempt from maximum floor area caps according to zoning regulations, giving developers leeway to inflate building heights and charge a premium for boosted units.  The life of the now-775-foot tall tower began in 2015 when the project was announced at just 262 feet, but the building had swelled to its current height by the time the first renderings were released in 2017. As previously reported in January, Extell was given a 15-day window to scale the design back after pushback from local politicians and community groups. The current design has a total of 176-feet blocked out for mechanical equipment, which was reduced from the original 192-foot void. A recent amendment to the zoning law, however, which counts any mechanical space over 25-feet toward the maximum floor area, will not affect 50 West 66th Street because it was passed after plans were already approved. Activists and politicians alike are now accusing Extell of keeping the majority of the building’s 176 feet of mechanical floors empty of any equipment. Landmark West claims that only 22 percent of the void space will actually be filled with equipment, meaning that the mechanical rooms are predominantly included to boost the building’s overall height. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal have both opposed 50 West 66th Street, which could potentially become the tallest building on the Upper West Side.  “These ‘mechanical floors’ are not being occupied by their purported use. They are more than half filler space that will go unused,” said Brewer in a statement to the Board of Standards and Appeals yesterday. “To permit this development to move forward as proposed sets a dangerous message to other developers who will surely seek similarly unjustified mechanical deductions for their buildings.”
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Vancouver Valleys

Squamish Nation approves $3 billion housing development in Vancouver
The Squamish First Nation’s plans to build a 6,000-unit residential development in Vancouver has taken a major step forward as the community voted in favor of the Revery Architecture-designed project on December 10. Eighty-seven percent of members voted in support of construction, which will be made possible through a 50-50 partnership with the developer Westbank.  Last Thursday, new renderings of the $3-billion, 11-tower development were published by The Daily Hive and they illustrate just how radically the project would transform the city’s Kitsilano neighborhood. Located on the reserve lands at Sen̓áḵw, the project will be Canada’s largest development on First Nations land. Because of this location, the city of Vancouver will have no ability to regulate what is built; however, this doesn’t mean that the Squamish Planning Group won’t work closely with the city on the vision for the site.  In 2014, the City of Vancouver was designated as a City of Reconciliation and outlined goals to “form a sustained relationship, mutual respect, and understanding with local First Nations and the Urban Indigenous community,” as well as “promote Indigenous peoples arts, culture, and awareness.” This project is just one example of these values being put into action. “It’s a change for us, but we deserve it,” Chief Janice George told CBC. “We deserve to benefit from this land, just like everybody else in Vancouver.”  The 11.7-acre development will be situated near the foot of the Burrard Bridge on a 500-acre parcel of land and will transform the existing neighborhood into a dense urban center. Out of the 11 towers, the tallest is expected to reach 56 stories. Between 70-and-90 percent of the units will be designated as market rental units and the rest will be leased as condominiums.  “The Squamish Nation is thrilled with the outcome of this referendum, which was approved by a landslide. It is truly a landmark moment in our Nation’s history,” wrote Squamish Nation councilor Khelsilem, in a statement on Facebook. “The Sen̓áḵw Project will transform the Squamish Nation by providing immense social, cultural, and economic benefits to Squamish Nation members for generations to come.” Construction of the first phase is expected to begin in 2021.
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Adaptive Residential

Defunct office buildings across Los Angeles are transforming into residential complexes
Los Angeles is not known for holding on to its architecture, whether those structures are architecturally significant or hastily constructed. Rare examples of streamline art deco, international modernism, and neo-Egyptian architecture have all met the wrecking ball to make way for contemporary alternatives. In the last few years, however, adaptive reuse has breathed new life into many of the city’s forgotten yet exemplary buildings, and the transformation of office buildings into residential complexes in particular is gaining significant traction as an alternative to demolition. In 2015, a 10-story building in West Hollywood, designed by Richard Dorman in 1964, was purchased by local real estate investment firm Townscape Partners with plans to transform the quirky structure into a residential complex. With the help of Olson Kundig, the international architecture firm behind projects including Washington State University’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum and the renovation of the Seattle Space Needle, the office building will become a 48-unit residential complex. The firm’s approach towards adaptive reuse intends to maintain the original integrity of the building by setting all of the new additions away from the street while renovating much of the building’s modernist exterior detailing, including the signature concrete balconies facing Beverly Boulevard. An innovative curtain wall glazing system on the upper floors and generously-sized roof terraces will help dissolve the boundary between inside and out to complement the openness of the original design. For shading and privacy, the renovated facade will be outfitted with an operable vertical shutter system. And true to the Olson Kundig name, the interiors of the new building will be materially sumptuous, including patinated bronze wall panels, custom-designed bronze detailing, and travertine floors throughout. On the other side of the city on a busy stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown, Jamison Services Inc. has been hard at work converting a 13-story office building from the 1950s into accommodations for 206 units with ample retail space on the ground floor. Local firm CORBeL Architects was hired to oversee the renovation, and renderings reveal that the massing and horizontal bands of the original building will be kept intact, with the addition of distinct red patterning on its most visible corner from the street. The construction team has already begun the process of transforming the building's interiors, and CORBeL Architects estimates that the project will be completed by late 2020. In Downtown Los Angeles, construction recently began on the adaptive reuse of the Lane Mortgage Building, a 12-story structure designed in 1923 by local architect Lester Loy Smith. After the building was acquired by the Delijani Family, they hired Downtown-based architecture firm Omgivning—responsible for renovating several other turn-of-the-century buildings in the immediate area—to oversee the project, which calls for transforming the upper floors of the building into accommodations for 109 rental apartments, some of which will be under 400 square feet. According to the firm, the units will feature “creatively-deployed areas for seating and storage,” to demonstrate the livability of small living spaces within adaptively reused buildings. The largest unit will be an 1,100-square-foot penthouse on the top floor with its own access to private outdoor access. The firm is maintaining several of the building’s quirky details, including the historically significant tilework in its entry lobby created by artisan Ernest Batchelder. Set to be completed by Spring 2020, the project will also include a bar in its basement that is sure to evoke the speakeasies that were common in the area when the building was first completed.
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Paleolithic Pains

Scottsdale’s oldest, Pueblo-revival style strip mall is being demolished
“It was a peculiar and visionary time, those years after World War II to which all the Malls and Towns and Dales stood as climate-controlled monuments,” Joan Didion wrote in her iconic 1979 treatise on Californian culture, The White Album. “The frontier had been reinvented... that new free land on which all settlers could recast their lives tabula rasa.”  Didion romantically reflected on the rituals of the freeway, the immediate gratification of the rising strip mall, as well as the architects who built them who she claimed: “Staked the past to seize the future.” Today, few typologies more accurately represent the promises and shortcomings of suburban life, its perils made clear as towns across America continue to witness the “death” of their local shopping mall. The demolition of Scottsdale, Arizona's oldest strip mall, Papago Plaza, and its replacement with a massive, mixed-use redevelopment, shows that this death is perhaps more akin to an evolution.  Vacant for years, demolition of the pink stucco strip began December 5, where Lee Mashburn of Pivot Development spoke at a ceremony that marked the beginning of the next phase of the site. “We’re not developing a strip center,” he said at the groundbreaking according to a local news network, “we’re developing a sense of place and I’m proud of that.”  The adobe-style landmark, Papago Plaza, was built in 1962 and originally named Frontier Town Plaza. In an attempt to stay true to regional architectural heritage, the plaza changed its name while simultaneously undergoing a Pueblo-revival style renovation in 1988. The term, Papago, is now an obsolete name given to the indigenous Tohono O’odham people by Spanish colonizers—it has since been rejected by the tribe. The redevelopment will keep the name in remembrance of the original strip. “Keeping the name was important to tell the legacy of the project. You gotta respect that. It’s been here for 60 years,” said Mashburn.  The $100 million redevelopment will consist of a 118-room Marriott hotel, more than 270 apartments developed by Alliance Residential, restaurants, retail, and an Aldi grocery store. It would be a stretch to call it adaptive reuse, though some have, but the developers plan to repurpose a few of the strip’s elements such as the kachina on the sign and the original wood beams. The new center will also feature murals, gathering areas for events, and a park with a water feature. Construction of the first phase retail center is expected to be completed in the fall of 2020. The hotel, apartments, and grocery store will follow.  Aesthetically, the redesign couldn’t be any different from the original mall, as the ethos of the American roadside establishment has faded—exchanging parking lots for 120,000 square foot garages, novelty gift shops for accessible green space, and suburbs for multi-level apartment buildings. And while it is certainly emblematic of good ole’ Americana, some residents could care less about the strip's demise. Local journalist Peter Corbett tweeted, “Good riddance to Papago Plaza. It's a stretch to call it iconic... the architecture was a mashup of Flintstone's Bedrock City and faux Pueblo style." But as Didion said, when it comes to the retail experience, frontiers will continue to be reinvented, sometimes at the expense of history and sometimes at the expense of pure nostalgia. See below for a video tour of the historic Papago Plaza before demolition:
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Brick by Brick

Woods Bagot reveals winning design for Adelaide Central Market Arcade
On December 5, Woods Bagot unveiled its winning design for South Australia’s Adelaide Central Market Arcade. As one of the world’s largest and most visited covered fresh produce markets with 8.5 million annual visitors, the firm's $400 million plan will integrate a mixed-use program seamlessly within the existing site while leaving the market itself unchanged.  “As part of a broader vision to attract the best and brightest people, the city intends to transform the market precinct into one of Australia’s most recognized lifestyle destinations,” wrote Woods Bagot associate principal and lead designer Alex Hall in a recent press release. The redevelopment will introduce additional retail, food and beverage, rooftop gardens, education spaces, a hotel, offices, and apartments to the precinct while leaving the historic central market untouched.   Owned by the city of Adelaide for two years, the shopping center adjacent to the market was handed over to ICD Property, who will be working alongside Woods Bagot on transforming the center into a 35-story tower with a central public hall and rooftop, and undulating, vegetated balconies. Other collaborators on the redevelopment include joint venture partner Nanshan Group and Australian real estate company Sinclair Brook.  “The Adelaide market dates back to 1869 (coincidentally when Woods Bagot was also founded in the area), when a group of local gardeners sold their wares without any structure other than gas lights and a fence,” Hall explained. “A century and a half on, we’re looking to sensitively create a space that can carry that local entrepreneurial spirit forward.”  The design sensitivity shines through the firm’s plans to reinstate some of the original brickwork and arches of the market dating from before the demolition of one of the facades in the 1960s. Hall expressed that these elements were “always emblematic of the market” and “part of the whole experience.”  ICD Property's managing director Matthew Khoo said that “The Adelaide Central Market Arcade has been a prominent community space for 150 years. What we intend to do is enhance the existing structure by restoring and protecting heritage items and building complementary new assets that will become new amenities for the community to enjoy.”  Construction is slated to break ground in 2021.
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Big-Time Bronx

See the four must-know developments coming online in the South Bronx
From artist studios to medical centers to sprawling mixed-use apartment buildings, various neighborhoods in the South Bronx have been facing a lot of new development this year. Over the past month, many of these projects have come into view through new renderings, names, and the beginning phases of construction. Despite popular opinions on the rising effects of gentrification, high-cost construction is inevitably altering the urban fabric of the borough. Here are four major developments to watch out for: Bankside 2401 Third Avenue & 101 Lincoln Ave. Mott Haven A couple of weeks ago, developer Brookfield Properties unveiled new renderings of its massive South Bronx waterfront redevelopment project titled Bankside. The seven-building project along the Harlem River in Mott Haven is one of the largest and most expensive development sites in the South Bronx, spanning 4.3 acres near the Third Avenue Bridge. With more than 1,350 apartments, a waterfront park, and ground-floor retail, Brookfield will invest $950 million into the project designed by Hill West Architects and MPFP. Construction is underway and anticipated for completion by 2021 to bring 450 apartments to the north side of the bridge.  The Peninsula 720 Tiffany St. Hunts Point The new mixed-use development that is replacing the Spofford Juvenile Detention Center is finally underway after four years of planning. Described as a “sign of gentrification” by Bronx Justice News, the five-building development called The Peninsula is said to include a mix of retail, recreational and industrial spaces, as well as health facilities, anchored by 740 units of affordable housing. The project was designed in collaboration with WXY Architecture + Urban Design and Body Lawson Associates. Phase one, which includes apartments for low-income households, is expected to be finished in 2021. Financed by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the NYC Housing Development Corporation, the first phase is slated to cost upwards of $121.5 million. The entire $300 million dollar project should be done in 2025. Richard Pruss Wellness Center 362 E. 148th St. Mott Haven Late November, Samaritan Daytop Village and Manatus Development Group kicked off construction for The Richard Pruss Wellness Center in the medically-underserved Mott Haven community. According to the Bronx Times, the facility will serve more than 6,000 individuals annually and will provide outpatient treatment for substance abuse and mental health services, while 10 percent of the building will be used as a primary health clinic. Designed by GF55 Partners, the six-story, 84,000-square-foot building will cost around $35 million and is privately funded by TD Bank.   Occupancy is expected in early 2021.  ArtCondo Gallery and Studio Space 368 E 152 St. Melrose On November 7th, local art collaborative, ArtCondo, launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to build a new gallery and studio space in Melrose. A community-driven real estate enterprise, ArtCondo sets out to collectively organize artists so that they can purchase their own studio spaces. In 2017, co-founder, Michele Gambetta, and 15 artists purchased a vacant lot in Melrose with hopes of building a community arts space at 368 E 152 Street by March 2020. The campaign only has a few days left with under $8,000 of their goal. Renderings of the prospective building were created by Michael Muroff Architect.
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Ruh roh

Roaming robot dogs could streamline jobsite documentation
Reality capture has revolutionized construction by increasing job site efficiency and safety and allowing for quick responses to design and building challenges. However, save for the use of drones, often operated by humans, on-the-ground monitoring has required the relatively traditional (and labor-intensive) task of walking around and taking photos and collecting data to feed into software. HoloBuilder, whose software helps builders document and analyze their underway projects, has partnered with the robotics firm Boston Dynamics to create a semi-autonomous solution to document under-construction projects. Using Boston Dynamics’ Spot, a dog-like robot that regularly goes semi-viral for its aerial acrobatics (and its more sinister uses, such as being put to work by the Massachusetts State Police), contractors can capture 360-degree overviews of their work and track changes throughout the build process. Controlled by the SpotWalk app, the robot is first semi-manually trained to walk its reality capture route via a user’s phone. Then, Spot learns to repeat the route on its own, avoiding obstacles and documenting the site consistently and regularly, creating documentation of the project over time. Contractor Hensel Phelps has been testing out Spot on the $1.2 billion San Francisco International Airport Terminal 1 project. A Spot unit walks through the site capturing imagery, which is then fed into HoloBuilder’s machine learning-powered SiteAI, which provides automated construction tracking and other data. Documenting construction sites currently is a tedious task that takes away time from project staff that could otherwise focus on other aspects of construction, safety, and design. It can only be done with relatively limited regularity because of the demands. With Spot, project managers predict that they could capture updates of their sites as frequently as twice a day with all the 360 imagery being automatically organized and analyzed. Because of Spot's greater consistency against humans, the photos are also more useful as tools and the collected data is more actionable due to its regularity.
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Falling Far from the Tree

Apple breaks ground on its new 133-acre campus in Austin, Texas
On November 20, multinational technology company Apple announced that it had broken ground on its new 133-acre office park in Austin, Texas, that will cost an estimated $1 billion to construct, and released a first look at the project. The campus, which will contain over three million square feet of usable interior space across 10 buildings once complete, will initially house 5,000 employees, with plans to eventually make room for over 15,000. Apple currently employs around 7,000 people throughout Austin, more than twice as many as it had just five years ago, and the company shows little signs of slowing down growth in the area. A production facility near the city has recently taken on the important task of building the latest fleet of Mac Pros and shipping them out to customers in December. “With the construction of our new campus in Austin now underway,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook in a press release, “Apple is deepening our close bond with the city and the talented and diverse workforce that calls it home. Responsible for 2.4 million American jobs and counting, Apple is eager to write our next chapter here and to keep contributing to America’s innovation story.” The company has partnered with Bartlett Tree Experts, an Austin-based tree and shrub care company, to ensure that the diversity of native trees on the property are responsibly preserved while increasing their numbers to stock the 50-acre nature and wildlife preserve planned for the site. In addition, the new campus will run entirely on renewable energy from locally-sourced solar power. The construction of the new campus reflects the company’s commitment to contributing $350 billion to the US economy between 2018 and 2023, during which time it also plans to create 20,000 jobs. Like other buildings in Apple's portfolio, the new campus will be awash in crisp white surfaces contrasted against floor-to-ceiling glass to reflect the company’s minimalist identity. The new Apple campus is expected to be completed by 2022. While Apple's UFO-like headquarters building in Cupertino, California, was designed by Foster + Partners, the company has not as of yet released information on who designed their Austin offshoot.
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Tightening the Belt

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is tying the world together—but what's the end game?

In addition to the more infamous killing and pillaging conducted by its various hordes, the Mongol Empire, first led by Genghis Khan and later by his grandson Kublai, brought nearly all of Asia, much of the Middle East, and some of Europe under a unified system of trade and commerce in the 13th century. Consolidating ancient Silk Road mercantile connections, it brought currency into widespread use and generally sought win-win trade deals with conquered territories. While that empire faded by the mid-14th century, it gave the world a precursor to the modern-day state of China, which has embarked on its own ambitious—and, to some, unsettling—quest to link a considerable portion of the world through trade.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013 by Chinese president Xi Jinping, includes hundreds of infrastructure projects financed and constructed in part or in whole by Chinese entities in lands far beyond China’s borders. Projects include ports, airports, rail lines, utilities, industrial centers, highways, and even entire new cities and urban sectors. “Belt” refers to roads and railways while, paradoxically, “road” refers to sea-lanes; together they aim for nothing less than the unification of almost all of Asia and Africa.

The initiative segments the globe into “corridors” and involves differing levels of participation from host countries. There is no official count of participating countries, but estimates range from 60—covering nearly all of Asia—to well over one hundred. The BRI’s six main economic corridors include the New Eurasian Land Bridge, the China-Central Asia–West Asia Economic Corridor, the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, the Bangladesh–China–Myanmar Economic Corridor, the China–Mongolia–Russia Economic Corridor, and the China–Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor.

Analysts estimate that trade generated by the BRI reached $117 billion last year. The total estimated cost, by 2027: up to $1.3 trillion. Whether that investment will pay off for China remains to be seen. Chinese banks and companies hope to profit from loan payments and contracts; the Chinese state hopes to benefit by opening markets and gaining influence. The World Bank estimates that the BRI could reduce transportation times on many corridors by 12 percent, increase trade between 2.7 percent and 9.7 percent, increase income by up to 3.4 percent, and lift 7.6 million people from extreme poverty.

Consisting largely of heavy infrastructure, these projects are unlikely to result in lavish Xanadus to stoke the architectural imagination. With the exception of some impressive new cities and city districts, such as Port City in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and some choice high-speed rail stations, BRI projects include workaday structures like cargo terminals, highway bridges, and the odd potash plant. The BRI recalls past geopolitical initiatives, like the Marshall Plan, by which the United States revived, and benefited from, Europe’s economy after World War II. But the BRI dwarfs the Marshall Plan, which comprised $13 billion of investment, or around $100 billion in today’s dollars—much less than BRI’s trillion-dollar scope.

As arguably the biggest collection of construction projects in human history, the BRI offers ample opportunities for architects, contractors, engineers, and other designers. Many, if not most, of the firms involved are Chinese concerns with close ties to the state. They include state-owned enterprises like China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) and China State Construction Engineering Corporation, the world’s third-largest shipping company and largest construction company, respectively. Both are massive enterprises with numerous subsidiaries, and though they are publicly traded, they ultimately answer to the Chinese Communist Party.

In many ways, this effort to build soft power through hard infrastructure extends a domestic development strategy that China has followed for the past two decades. Itself a developing nation not long ago, China has built up its own ports, roads, and railroads in order to unify its national economy and give its manufacturing sector—which comprises 20 percent of the world’s output of goods—access to global markets.

The Chinese government optimistically refers to the BRI as a 21st-century Silk Road, one that harmoniously links economies and increases prosperity for dozens of countries and billions of people, representing up to 60 percent of the world’s economic output. China pitches these projects to host countries as tools of economic development. Analysts say that success, for China and BRI partners alike, depends on far more than concrete and steel. The onus falls on host countries to make use of China’s largesse. Efficient trade relies on everything from effective local governance to the mobility of workers to the mitigation of environmental impacts. In the case of partners like Belarus (sometimes referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship) whose governments are unstable, corrupt, or underdeveloped, reforms may pose greater challenges than does the development of megaprojects.

In many cases, benefits to host countries have not materialized. Many projects use little local expertise or labor; rather, they are boons for Chinese engineering firms, construction companies, and suppliers such as steel and concrete manufacturers. Once built, they take on a nearly colonial tenor, moving raw materials out of host countries and moving Chinese goods into them. And no matter how economists feel about BRI projects, the initiative has already alarmed environmentalists. The number and physical size of projects promise to remake urban landscapes, alter—and destroy—natural landscapes, and consume untold millions of tons of natural resources, building materials, and fossil fuels. Chinese environmental laws and practices are also notoriously lax compared to those in the U.S. and Europe. In 2017 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) issued a report documenting BRI projects’ numerous incursions into sensitive habitats. WWF identified “high impacts” throughout nearly all of Southeast Asia and “moderate impacts” in BRI corridors in Central Asia. BRI projects have also been associated with increases in the use of coal for power production in many host countries. 

Beyond environmental effects, even when host countries own their assets, they are indebted to Chinese financiers. Reports indicate that many countries cannot pay off construction loans, leaving them indebted to China indefinitely. Many projects have turned into white elephants. Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Sri Lanka was designed to accommodate one million passengers per year. Though fully operational, Mattala currently serves zero passengers, while also servicing $190 million in debt to Chinese banks. Having been a relatively poor, developing country so recently, China likely understands the pressure points of the Myanmars and Mozambiques of the world better than any other global power does.

The Center for Global Development estimates that as many as eight countries involved with the BRI are already at risk of debt distress. Some countries are in debt to China by a factor of as much as 20 percent of their GDPs. Others are now approaching BRI proposals more gingerly than they might have when the program launched. Malaysia recently canceled $22 billion in BRI projects; other countries, particularly Kenya and Mozambique, are pushing back against proposals and renegotiating deals. Ultimately, economic domination via financing may not be a great strategy—flush with cash though they may be, Chinese banks want returns on their investments no less than Western banks do. Then again, even if they aren’t repaid, the Chinese state might still get what it wants in the form of global influence.

In other words, the BRI is as much a geopolitical experiment as it is an economic development strategy.

Josh Stephens is contributing editor to The California Planning & Development Report and author of the forthcoming The Urban Mystique: Notes on Los Angeles, California, and Beyond.

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Vancouver Visions

Squamish First Nation development could bring 11 towers to Vancouver
The Squamish First Nation’s extensive plans to build upon their land in Vancouver, Canada, have doubled since an initial announcement in April. According to a report by the Vancouver Sun, a new proposal for 6,000 units across 11 towers within the 500-acre land parcel, with the goal of coming in under the minimum parking requirements. This marks a major shift from the previous proposal, which originally only showed a two-tower development with 3,000 units. The project would radically transform the city's Kitsilano neighborhood from a low-rise residential area to a dense urban center. The project, named Senakw after the site it occupies, is expected to ring up at an estimated cost of 3 billion CAD. As Senakw is situated within the reserve boundaries of the Squamish band government, the Squamish Nation is not required to comply with the City of Vancouver’s regulations and processes regarding development, meaning construction could begin rather quickly and without the typical oversight delays. The Squamish planning group hopes to work closely with Vancouver city staff to construct a cohesive vision for the site. Since the projected is not limited by municipal zoning, initial renderings by Vancouver's Revery Architecture depict an unconventional vision. Located near the foot of the Burrard Bridge, the cluster of towers, with their undulating balconies and "fins" will make an instant mark on Vancouver’s skyline, with the tallest expected to top out at 56 stories. The towers will not make use of the podium design typical in projects of this scale, instead making 80 percent of the ground-level land available for public use and green space. According to Squamish Councilor Khelsilem, the ideas for 6,000 “mostly rental” units stems from a critical shortage of rental housing in Vancouver. Moreover, the development holds importance in the context of the historical treatment of indigenous peoples in the Vancouver area: “This is a government doing a project that has a particular history of injustice in the removal of our ancestors in 1913, who were evicted by the provincial government at the request of the Vancouver parks board and the City of Vancouver,” said Councilor Khelsilem. Final decisions for the project will be made in December when the band government votes in a referendum.