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NYU Takes a Village with Campus Plan
NYU has proposed a fourth tower (center) for I.M. Pei' Silver Tower complex on Houston. Designed by Grimshaw, it needs Landmarks approval.
Courtesy NYU

A stroll along Washington Square South provides a good primer on NYU’s approach to development in recent decades. On one side is the park, former stomping grounds of O’Neill, Dylan, and Jacobs. On the other, a stretch of stone-faced institutional buildings, their imposing facades beckoning exclusively to students and faculty with a severity alien to the lively mood that otherwise energizes Greenwich Village. In the bad old days, these buildings were constructed in an as-of-right, piecemeal fashion with little community input.

The new tower mimicks its neighbors, though its proportions and height (38 versus 30 stories) vary. (Click to zoom)

sequestered open space at Washington Square Village will be replced with two towers and a two-story academic building below grade with a sunken garden.

Now the school is attempting a different approach, creating a masterplan that maps out the creation of roughly six million square feet in the city over the next two decades, an effort university officials said has been rooted in thorough planning and outreach. Yet despite the change in tactics, many in the community remain wary as ever, saying the university continues to ignore local input.

NYU is in fact looking as far away as downtown Brooklyn and Governors Island for opportunities, yet the heart of its plan—and of the university—remains in the blocks surrounding Washington Square Park, known as the Core. The university wants to put nearly half its new development in the area, much of it focused on the two Robert Moses superblocks north of Houston Street: Washington Square Village and the landmarked Silver Towers. By concentrating development in these already dense areas owned by the university, officials say, NYU can avoid buying up more of the Village.

The university and its designers—Grimshaw, Toshiko Mori, and Michael Van Valkenburgh—are proposing four thoughtful, albeit large, buildings that strive to minimize their impact on the neighborhood by peeling back the problematic parts of the superblocks, including serpentine fencing and landscapes, dreary street frontage, and a hodgepodge of circulation paths in order to create a more inviting environment.

Mori said the idea is to work within the logic of the disparate superblocks, where a plan for three slab buildings was abandoned by the original developer in the face of economic challenges in the late 1950s. Two of these Paul Lester Weiner–designed slabs were built, becoming Washington Square Village, which NYU then acquired along with the site of Silver Towers, which were built the following decade. “This is not a tabula rasa,” Mori said. “We’re not replacing the buildings but rationalizing, enhancing, and making them better.”

The first piece of the plan to enter public review will be a tower designed by Grimshaw for the Silver Towers site. Rising to 38 stories (eight more than its neighbors), the new tower will pay tribute to I.M. Pei’s distinctive facades with its own inventive glass treatment. The tower consists of four L-shaped volumes, with two elevated to create transparency and entrances, one for residents, the other for a controversial hotel.

Because the Landmarks Preservation Commission landmarked not only Pei’s three towers but the grounds surrounding them, NYU must seek its approval to build the new tower in line with Wooster Street, which the designers argue creates the best sight lines within the complex. The grocery store at the corner of LaGuardia Place and Bleecker Street would be replaced with an underground garage and a playground on top; the designers could have built here as of right, but prefer not to.

A playground will replace a Morton Williams grocery store, a move NYU argues creates more and better open space on the Silver Towers site.
Otherwise an ungainly as-of-right building would be built on the grocery.

To the east of the towers is the squat Coles athletic center, which would be demolished to make way for the 17-story, Zipper Building, so called for the light wells creating bays in the structure’s upper half. The Zipper would accommodate both a new grocery store and academic space.

The most complicated piece of the plan is at Washington Square Village. The designers are proposing to replace a park and underground parking lot between the extant slab buildings with a two-level, 500,000-square-foot academic building below grade. In the center, a sunken garden would provide natural light into the space inspired, according to the architects, by Dominique Perrault’s Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

The designers say they want to crete a Bryant Park feel within the new Washington Square Village open space. One of the new towers, which reflect light down into the subteranean building, is at center.
Currently the space between the Washington Square Village slabs is a tangle of fences and confusing circulation.

Bookending the site would be two more academic towers, one of which may also include an elementary school, a nod to the community. Rising up to 8 stories on LaGuardia Place and up to 17 on Mercer Street, the buildings are crescent-shaped in a yin-and-yang layout meant to reflect light into the heart of the new quad. NYU intends to take the entire project before the City Planning Commission next year, after Landmarks determines what, if anything, can be built on the Silver Towers site.

In spite of NYU’s efforts, the community is not happy with the ambitious plan. In part, their anger is based on a 2007 promise NYU made not to pursue non-essential development within the Core. NYU counters that it has reduced the amount of its development and concentrated it within a tight footprint. “For them to turn around and stab us in the back so quickly is unconscionable,” one local resident said. “Some of us tried to maintain as much goodwill as possible, but I don’t see how that is possible anymore.”

A model showing the new buildings at Washington Square Village (left), Grimshaw's Tower (center right), and Mori's Zipper Building (top right).
courtesy GVSHP

There is also rage about the proposed hotel and NYU’s apparent disinterest in considering Lower Manhattan because of its distance from the Core. That NYU presented it as a single ULURP rather than phased per project has attracted particular vitriol.

Just as when Moses created these superblocks a half-century ago, the designs on paper meet far different conditions on the ground. The university needs to expand; the community doesn’t want 2.6 million square feet of new development. The density, if not the design, is as of right. This being New York, it just might happen. This being the Village, it just might not.

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City Council Passes the Sugar
The two tallest towers, at the center of the New Domino development, will be shortened from 40 stories to 34.
Courtesy CPC Resources

How do you make a building smaller without actually making it smaller? That was essentially what negotiations came down to for the redevelopment of the old Domino Sugar refinery on the Williamsburg waterfront, which was unanimously approved by the City Council today.

Affordable housing developer CPC Resources wants to turn the six blocks around the refinery into the New Domino, a $1.4 billion mixed-income community of 2,200 apartments in 5 towers designed by Rafael Viñoly. The project would include the refinery itself, now being retrofitted by Beyer Blinder Belle for an as-yet undetermined set of uses. Of the 2,200 units, 30 percent will be set aside for affordable housing, well in excess of the 20 percent typically mandated for such large-scale projects.

Steve Levin, the local councilmember, has been fighting the project since even before he took office in January, when he was chief of staff to Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Both have been calling for a smaller project with fewer units, though more affordable ones, and lower towers, which range in height from 14 to 40 stories. Levin, as well as two-thirds of the community board, which voted against the project in March, argue that all those new residents will overwhelm local infrastructure and overshadow the waterfront.

While Levin fell short on a number of his goals today, he did strike a deal to reduce the height of the two tallest towers to 34 stories from 40. In exchange, a previous agreement made at the City Planning Commission to reduce the height of a commercial building on the northernmost lot to 25 stories has been reversed, and it will rise once again to 30 stories. “We don’t want to see a gold coast,” Levin said in an interview. “We weren’t happy about seeing these supertall luxury towers on the waterfront.”

The project covers five blocks surrounding the refinery next to the Williamsburg Bridge. The towers next to the refinery will be shrinking while the one at far right will remain at 30 stories.

Levin said that given zoning constraints, it was still possible that the number of units in the project could be reduced, but Susan Pollock, the project manager for CPC Resources, said a design similar to the current one, with the full complement of units, could be expected from the architects soon. “The zoning envelope remains the zoning envelope, so the project will continue to look much the way it is,” Pollock said. “Obviously it will have to change some with the heights coming down, but not much from our current plan.”

Pollock would not say whether the densities would be achieved through bulkier, wider buildings or smaller apartments. “There’s enough room to make that possible,” she said. The developer has held firm to its numbers throughout negotiations, arguing that it could not afford the project with anything less. “As we’ve always said, we need to keep those numbers to bring the community all of the benefits we promised,” Pollock said.

The developer also agreed to provide shuttle bus service to a nearby JMZ subway station to alleviate congestion on the L train (a much better option, now that the M runs to Midtown instead of downtown), as well as a possible extension into Manhattan. There was also a requirement that any changes of use to the 140,000 square feet of community facilities in the refinery go through the public review process, which could prevent the construction of a hotel, among some of the uses the community has raised concerns about.

The Bloomberg administration, which has been a firm supporter of the project, made a number of concessions to Levin on behalf of Williamsburg. There will be a Community Advisory Council overseeing Domino’s impacts on the community; upgrades to sewers and other infrastructure; additional funding for open space, tenant anti-harassment efforts, and a cultural center; and a comprehensive transportation study to address crowding on the streets and subways.

These may have been the biggest windfall from today’s vote. “As we do these very big developments, it’s important the infrastructure in the neighborhood keep pace,” Levin said, adding, “We’re going to constantly need to address these issues, address them and continue to address them.”

Four new streets will lead down to the waterfront, where a promenade is part of four acres of new open space, one of the project's hallmarks.

Levin was applauded for his efforts by his colleagues in the council, even if the concessions were not commensurate with his previous victories. Councilwoman Diana Reyna, who represents the district adjacent to Levin’s, had been a strong supporter of the project despite her colleague’s opposition, an unusual move at the council, where deference is generally paid. She argued that the affordable housing it provides was worth the density. “I’m happy to say this land will be reinvigorated and happy this project has reached a level of satisfaction for all parties,” Reyna said.

Even Councilman Charles Barron, a development skeptic and frequent no-vote, voted in favor of the project, saying it would be a boon for the community, though he also used the opportunity to rail against the state of affordable housing in the city. “We’re talking about 70 percent luxury housing and that can change the complexion of a neighborhood,” Barron said. “We need to be careful when we think about affordability. I don’t see why we have to be on the short end every time.”

The community was less enthusiastic about the results. "We were clearly hoping for more—or less, as the case may be," Ward Dennis, co-chair of advocacy group Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, said in email. "NAG's position was never to stop the Domino project, just to make it better. We look forward to the affordable housing, new open space, and supermarkets that this project will bring to our community. But we also need a sustainable model for growth going forward, and that is what we feel is still missing from the project."

And yet few hold Levin to blame for the final results. "Steve worked really hard on this," one local activist said. "The Bloomberg administration and the [council] speaker just didn't give him any room to negotiate. There was little that could be done."

Now Playing: Every Corner of New York
Our friends over at Urban Omnibus created this delightful video entitled Archipelago, a sort of cinematic corollary to the current New New York show at the site's mothership, the Architectural League. Billed as "a day in the life of five New York neighborhoods: Hunts Point, Jamaica, Mariner’s Harbor, Downtown Brooklyn, and Chelsea," the video really is amazing for how it so succinctly captures the mind-boggling diversity of the city, revealing both the familiar and obscure to even the most stalwart local in a way so seamless that the city, for once, seems truly bound together despite all its disparity. The soundtrack alone, from Mr. Softee in the Bronx to freestyling on Staten Island to the constant sirens, is irresistible. It's the fastest eleven-and-a-half minutes you'll watch for some time. Almost as fast as the city it chronicles.
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Toren has one of the most unusual facades in the city.
All photos by Michael Weinstein

Until 2004, Downtown Brooklyn was a checkerboard of gas stations, irregularly shaped parking lots, and blocks of brick rowhouses. But with a rezoning that year, the mile-long stretch of Flatbush Avenue from the Manhattan Bridge to the Atlantic Center mall was transformed, almost overnight, by a parade of luxury condo towers that soon started construction.

Toren is one of a parade of new towers rising above Flatbush Avenue. (Click to ZOom)

Of these half-dozen monoliths, one stands out among the rest. Eschewing the brick facades and square sides that characterize so many apartment buildings in the city, SOM has created a tower unlike any of its immediate neighbors, and even most other buildings in the city, which is precisely what developer Don Capoccia wanted. “We knew there’d be a lot of product coming on the market around the same time,” the BFC Partners principal said, “and we wanted a building that would really stand out from everything around it.”

Devised during the height of the real estate boom, the sleek, sustainable tower called Toren (that’s tower in Dutch) was designed to draw people across the city, not only those fleeing Manhattan’s skyrocketing prices, but those drawn to its unusual curtain wall, jagged shape, and staggered unit layout.

When the housing bubble burst, it was that difference from the norm that guaranteed BFC would have little trouble completing it. It helped that the developer also served as construction manager. “Now, in hindsight, this was still the right decision to make,” Capoccia said. “If we hadn’t, I think we’d be in kind of a jam.”

Toren began as one of those odd-shaped parking lots, acquired in 2006 by BFC after the rezoning. (The firm specializes in emerging neighborhoods, working previously in the East Village in the 1990s and more recently in Harlem.) And in spite of SOM’s limited experience with housing, particularly in the city, Capoccia turned to the firm because he knew one of its principals, David Childs, from their time together some ten years ago on the U.S. Commission for the Arts. Childs directed Capoccia to Roger Duffy, a young partner and one of SOM’s top designers. “How do you go wrong hiring SOM to design a tower?” Capoccia said.

SOM used parametric modeling to determine the best views for every apartment in the building.

One of the first design decisions Duffy made was to respect the street grid, turning Toren into a rhomboid tower with an almost Flatiron aspect. “We proposed a building that had an indeterminate quality, where you couldn’t tell what exactly the shape was,” Duffy said. This illusion is heightened by the pixilated curtain wall of light and dark glass and dimpled metal panels, which masks the building’s vertical structure without making it look overly tall.

This “camouflaging technique,” as Duffy describes it, was drawn into the building’s composite plinth, where the pattern was repeated with an added depth, at times up to two feet, to provide a dynamic vista for cars passing by. The plinth has the occasional turret reaching up into the tower so the two read as a cohesive object.

SOM designed the interior spaces as well as the facade, including kitchens and bathrooms, an unusual step for the firm.

Duffy said this approach was essential as the building occupies the entire zoning envelope, unlike, say, Lever House, which was under-built by half. “We couldn’t just create a compelling form,” Duffy said. “Few maxed-out buildings are beautiful objects because zoning isn’t about beauty. But here, I think we really achieved something special.”

Another unusual twist for SOM was the chance to design the building’s interiors, including the “amenities spaces” typical of most luxury condos, and they were fit together in a multifloor Tetris layout not unlike the units, with the fitness room looking down on the pool and a double-height library.

Some of the amenity spaces include a library, which can be seen from the workout room above, and a pool, all designed by SOM.

As for the 240 units themselves, there is great variety among them, as SOM created a digital model of the neighborhood and determined the best views for each unit based on their surroundings on all 38 floors. Coupled with the building’s unusual shape, it makes for some unorthodox living spaces. Thus far, the building is 50 percent sold, with penthouse units priced between $995,000 and $1.695 million.

Sustainability was also a high priority, including standard features like low-e glass, but the team also sought out innovative solutions, such as preferred parking for hybrid cars and a cogeneration plant in the building. The hope is to achieve a LEED Gold rating. “I think in this down market, this attention to detail has helped him do well,” Duffy said. “So many of these new buildings, they call them ‘luxury’ and they’re not. But here, I think it truly fits.”

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Green Acres
Sage and Coombe redesigned a mural intended for the World Trade Center construction fence for a similar one further downtown at Peter Minuit Plaza.
Courtesy Sage and Coombe

Last August, the New York City Department of Transportation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey launched a competition for a mural to adorn the construction fence around Ground Zero. The brief called for “bold, colorful imagery reflecting the vibrancy of the downtown commercial and residential neighborhood.”

The winning design, by New York–based Sage and Coombe Architects, was a chlorophyll wonderland of flora and fauna to be printed on vinyl mesh and installed on the fence's western side, along Church Street between Liberty and Vesey streets. “The design is in the spirit of embracing the cityscape with an eye toward greening it,” said principal Jennifer Sage. “The idea was to make a garden hedge that you could peel back and look into.”

But the original completion date in December came and went with no mural installed. In January, the competition sponsors announced that none of the entries (including the winner) were “extraordinary enough” for Ground Zero. Sage and Coombe’s work, it was decided, would meanwhile be installed at another Lower Manhattan construction site, Peter Minuit Plaza near the Whitehall Ferry Terminal, which is being overhauled as an intermodal transportation hub.

The mural’s design (super-sized, searchable version here) has been given some tweaks to reflect its new location, pays homage to the city’s heritage as well as its icons. Topiary windmills and a wooden shoe nod to New Amsterdam, Coney Island’s Parachute Jump and Wonder Wheel make an appearance, and the Brooklyn Bridge and Guggenheim Museum get the topiary treatment as well.

A cast of historical characters also inhabits the hedge: Henry Hudson winks through a keyhole, while the ghosts of Jane Jacobs and Frederick Law Olmsted float in the clouds. Civic leaders like Peter Stuyvesant and Mayor John Lindsay also get their due. “It’s a puzzle of disparate New York components, but all of the entities are the icons you think of when you think about New York,” Sage said.

The greening concept goes beyond the literal idea of the hedge to encompass other modes of sustainability. Sage and partner Peter Coombe have long pursued strategies that incorporate new technologies and green features, and the mural includes alternate means of transportation such as cyclists and skateboarders that navigate the hedge. City officials also intend to reuse the mural if possible.

As for the project’s new home, near UNStudio’s New Amsterdam Pavilion at the entrance to the Staten Island Ferry, Sage remains enthusiastic. “It’s a point of arrival, historically and today,” she said. “So many people trudging by every day are going to see it.” The firm has fine-tuned the mural for the site at Manhattan’s tip, embellishing the Dutch imagery and adjusting details like labels on subway cars to reflect the new surroundings.

While the Ground Zero construction fence will now remain as is—a Port Authority spokesman said the agency will periodically update individual panels with images that reflect new construction on the site—Sage and Coombe’s mural is expected to plant a splash of color in Peter Minuit Plaza by the middle of this month.

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A Flashier Fulton Mall
The first phase of City Point is designed to respect the neighboring Dime Savings Bank.
Courtesy Cook+Fox

It’s springtime, and while much of the New York real estate market may still be frozen, a bud of hope has sprouted on a troubled lot in Downtown Brooklyn. Last week, The Public Design Commission of The City of New York approved a scheme by Cook+Fox for a gleaming new 50,000-square-foot retail building on the otherwise dilapidated Fulton Mall.

The fallow City Point site. The first phase will be built in the souther portion adjacent the neo-grec Dime Savings Bank.
COURTESY bing maps

Albee Development, a consortium of developers that includes Acadian Realty Trust, Washington Square Partners, and others, is developing the project. Known as One Dekalb Avenue, it will rise on the former site of the Albee Square Mall, which the team purchased from Coney Island developer Joseph Sitt in 2004 for $125 million.

In 2007, when the city was still booming, Albee Development proposed a 1.5 million-square-foot mixed-use project for the pentagonal site, which is bounded by Albee Square, Willoughby Street, Flatbush Avenue, Fleet Street, and Dekalb Avenue. Called City Point, it included retail, office, and residential space, and a tower that would have been one of the tallest structures in downtown Brooklyn. When the market went south the project stalled out.

“After that we worked with the city to figure out how to move forward in a very different environment,” said Paul Travers of Washington Square Partners. “We decided to break it up into parts and start with what was probably most important to the neighborhood.” The project also got a boost when it was awarded $20 million in federal stimulus money by the city’s Economic Development Corporation in September.

A model of the project presented to Community Board 2 in February.
Courtesy Wired New York

Part of the reason the city was so eager to see the project move forward was because the original Albee Square Mall had been demolished by the developers in 2008, prior to the project’s stalling. This left a gaping hole in the urban fabric of downtown Brooklyn, a wound the designers at Cook+Fox worked diligently to mend.

“When the project became a phased project, we took a step back and designed a building that held the urban space on Albee Square and Fulton,” said Cook + Fox partner Rick Cook. “The goal was to create something that sits well between The Dime Savings Bank and an adjacent white terracotta building.”

The project is replacing the old Albee Square Mall, which was demolished in 2008.
Courtesy Gowanus Lounge

At four stories, the design steps down toward DeKalb and Fleet, opening up to its neighbors a to remain contextual with its neighboring structures. The building’s white terracotta cladding also echoes these edifices. A glazed corner maintains views to the Dime Savings Bank, while the large windows provide places for the advertising that once invigorated the Albee Mall.

The commission’s support opens the way for construction to begin. Previously, Community Board 2 approved the project in February. Travers expects the first phase to break ground in May, and the project’s second, which will include 500,000 square feet of retail and residential space, to move ahead in the next 12 to 24 months.

Up From Nowhere

In recent years, we’ve heard a drumbeat of support for density as the answer to urban ills: Build up, build big, build smart—and the future will follow. And as this issue’s feature shows, density is becoming an unlikely mantra even on Long Island as towns face the fact that if they don’t grow, they’re dead. This is surprising news for a place that long defined single-family sprawl. But thorny questions lie ahead as developers set about building up the suburbs.

To begin with, Long Island’s marquee project—the Lighthouse, a new community around the Nassau Coliseum—makes an odd beacon for smart growth, centering on a sports arena like Brooklyn’s troubled Atlantic Yards and sited on a former airfield that’s bereft of a rail stop. While the project has been backed by planning groups who applaud its promise of walkable urban design, new housing, and jobs, renderings may make it look like a gated enclave for affluent hockey aficionados, and not part of an important effort to support the area’s changing population.

For Long Island is no longer a bastion of the privileged. Poverty there increased 22 percent between 2003 and 2007, like other suburbs across the nation that are now home to the fastest-growing populations of the poor. While many new developments include some portion of workforce housing, better coordination at both local and national levels is needed to reckon with the gulf between low-income residents and employment opportunities.

Fine-tuning the housing mix is no simple matter. The health industry, for example, is Long Island’s largest employer, but is hampered by high turnover because nursing staffers can’t afford to purchase homes in the area. Much attention has been focused on attracting the “echo boomer” generation of young professionals, but offering more rental options for middle-income residents should be another bedrock strategy. Stronger federal support for suburban infrastructure investments, whether it’s wastewater treatment plants or new light-rail lines, would also help the burbs cope with the growing burden of basic services.

Because counties can’t—or won’t—do it themselves. The new Nassau County executive, Edward Mangano, has been slashing spending in what is one of the highest-taxed counties in the nation, and one where voters are averse to redevelopment. “There is a big fear that any type of new housing development is going to increase school property taxes,” said Christopher Jones, vice president for research at the Regional Plan Association, who adds that most multifamily developments—especially those built around train stations—do the opposite. Clearly, officials must get the word out about density’s bottom line.

Long Island needs investment at all scales to survive, but politicians should think through the implications before hitching their suburbs to huge developments like the Lighthouse and its brethren. As much as megaprojects, we would do well to promote the more fine-grained retrofitting under way across the region, a sensible strategy of incremental urbanism focused on one infill building, one renovated library, one reviving hamlet at a time.

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Norval White, 1926-2009
Norval White.
Fran Leadon

Architect, educator, and sharp-witted editor of the AIA Guide to New York City, Norval White died on December 26 at age 83. Here two colleagues remember the irrepressible champion of New York architecture.

Richard Dattner
Dattner Architects

If Norval White has been described as a larger-than-life personality, he was physically and acoustically even larger. My first sighting, and hearing, of Norval was at the Cooper Union in 1963—where I was joining him on the architectural faculty. Towering over the crowded reception in the Foundation Building, his stentorian voice commanded attention—and ultimately, appreciation—since he was usually the most knowledgeable person in the room. Norval was a polymath, conversant with architecture, literature, politics, French culture, and almost everything else.

Norval White was born on June 12, 1926, a New York City native who lived first in Manhattan and then in Brooklyn Heights. Educated at MIT and at Princeton under Jean Labatut, he had a deep understanding of the history of architecture and urban design. Norval taught architectural design at Cooper, and left in 1968 with colleague Bernard Spring to become founding chairman of the new City College School of Architecture. I succeeded Norval and his future AIA Guide partner Elliot Willensky in teaching their Urban History course at the Cooper Union, and later followed him to City College.

As planning progressed for the 1967 AIA Convention in New York City, Norval and Elliot took over space in Marcel Breuer’s office and began work on the 464-page first edition of the AIA Guide to New York City—the “original, self-published version feverishly prepared over a nine-month period.” The fourth edition (1,056 pages) credits the group of seven who assisted in this original effort (I had the honor of writing the section on Washington Heights and Inwood) and the many hundreds more who later contributed. In a typical Norval and Elliot touch, they wrote, “We, whose names begin with W are usually listed last, therefore list these individuals in reverse alphabetical order.”

In researching, writing, and editing these soon-to-be five editions of the Guide, Norval found the professional love of his life and his lasting legacy. Started in a time when IBM Selectric typewriters were still a novelty, the production of the early editions involved an immense effort of organization, research, and photography. Also unique for that time was the “voice” that Norval and Elliot established for their thousands of pithy, thumbnail project descriptions. I liken them to street-smart haiku by two hard-to-impress New Yorkers. Their directness was leavened by their enthusiasm for those projects they felt had made an original contribution, respected the neighborhood context, or overcame difficult conditions to improve the city.

I recall fondly when Norval was working on the second edition. He would join the CCNY Architecture faculty in the early 1970s on its excursions to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. But he always sat at a table by himself, avoiding conversation with the rest of us. Chopsticks in one hand and a stack of 4-by-5 cards by the other, he methodically annotated each with the narrative that would accompany the respective project. When the stack was finished, so was Norval’s lunch.

Norval helped found the Action Group for Better Architecture in New York (AGBANY) in the early 1960s to protest the imminent demolition of Penn Station and promote civic design. With Norval, Max Bond, Peter Samton, and many others, we staged picketing and marches in the ultimately fruitless effort to save that historic structure. Less well known is Norval’s work as an architect—with the firms of Levien Deliso White & Songer, and later Gruzen Samton—where his significant contribution was as project manager, with Peter Samton, for the Police Headquarters and Plaza in Lower Manhattan. In the last chapter of his architectural career he designed, with his wife Camilla Crowe, small residential projects characterized by classical simplicity and elegant detailing. A New Yorker to the end, Norval was working with Fran Leadon on the forthcoming fifth edition of the Guide from his home in France when he died.

Peter Samton
Gruzen Samton Architects

In the spring of 1962 Norval, then 35, together with Willensky and a small handful of others, founded AGBANY at his office on East 61st Street. There was a small group of us young architects (he was the senior member), which also included the late Norman Jaffe, Costas Machlouzarides, Jordan Gruzen, and Diana Kirsch. We were alarmed that Penn Station was being designated for demolition. Our ringleaders came to the conclusion that we needed to do something dramatic to get the private and public establishment to realize the extent of the crime they were about to condone.

AGBANY decided to organize a picket line in front of the monumental McKim Mead & White station building, but we were fearful that the press would ignore us. Norval proposed having Philip Johnson appear and this, along with getting other modernists such as Ulrich Franzen and Aline Saarinen, did the trick. There followed a universal uproar.

Norval tried to make the case that if we pushed to have the grimy Penn Station cleaned (they were beginning to do this in Europe at that time, especially in Paris and London) then people would better appreciate the wonderful landmark in their midst. A year and a half later, demolition went ahead and in 1965 the Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed, in many ways a direct response to this tragic act of municipal vandalism. When Penn Station was demolished it revealed, for everyone to see, that the granite exterior was a beautiful pink color, confirming our suspicion that cleaning, not tearing down, would have been the way to go.

Norval and I became partners with Jordan Gruzen and several others in 1967 at Gruzen & Partners, and worked on some major civic buildings that included the new Police Headquarters downtown, as well as winning a competition to build a stables in Central Park (the design was to be fully underground, adjacent to Calvert Vaux’s old stable at the 86th Street transverse). It would have been the first municipal “green” building, 40 years before its time. But the project was never built.

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The Decorated Shed
The Urban Umbrella could replace the old construction sheds with a lighter, friendlier alternative.
Courtesy UrbanShed/Young Hwan Choi/Andres Cortes/Sarrah Khan

During the real estate boom, it seemed like every block in the city was decked over with at least one construction shed. Even now, with construction in decline, the Department of Buildings says there are roughly 1 million linear feet of sheds covering city sidewalks and buildings. These structures may be valued for their safety benefits, but they have also led to an outbreak of rickets and vampirism.

In the hope of banishing these unsightly overheads, the Bloomberg administration and the AIA New York Chapter launched the UrbanShed design competition in August to find a new alternative, which the mayor unveiled today in Brooklyn. The sheds, called Urban Umbrella and designed by University of Pennsylvania/Penn Design architecture student Young Hwan Choi, with Andrés Cortés and Sarrah Khan of Agencie Group, are not mandatory, though Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg insisted they will be popular with New Yorkers.

Mayor Bloomberg (right) and commissioner LiMandri (left) look on as Young-Hwan Choi describes his winning proposal.
Matt Chaban

“It’s about creating better options for the public,” the mayor said. “Once they’re out there, those who have the influence, the retailers and restaurateurs, the apartment and building owners, they will demand it.”

Department of Buildings commissioner Robert LiMandri, whose office helped lead the competition, said that over time, the expectation is that the new sheds will cost 30 percent less than their $100-per-sqaure-foot forebears, which have not been updated since the 1950s.

Plans are underway to install a prototype of the Urban Umbrella at a Lower Manhattan construction site this summer, under the direction of the Downtown Alliance, and, if everything performs up to expectations, to roll them out across the city. The mayor emphasized that it was up to the private sector to embrace the new structures, but when asked by AN if the city might lead the way by requiring them on all public projects, he replied “Yes, absolutely.”

The new shed has a distinctive design eliminating the need for cross bracing, creating a more light, airy, and spacious environment.

The new sheds were heralded for creating more light and space on the sidewalk than their plywood predecessors. This is achieved by using translucent fiberglass decking, on which tinted appliqués can be added, creating a kaleidoscopic effect.

The design team, whose members also include Will Robinette, Todd Montgomery, and Zachary Colbert, created palm-like supports that eliminate the cross-bracing that makes sheds such an annoyance for the city’s pedestrians, blocking off open access to sidewalks. The structure also takes up less space, and a fan-shaped lighting system has been cleverly integrated. And because of the Urban Umbrella’s airiness, it will block less of the buildings, making storefronts and underlying architecture more visible on the street.

The sheds are intended to appeal to store owners, as they will obscure less of the building behind and take up less space.

“This solves a problem that has been ubiquitous for years,” said City Planning Commission chair Amanda Burden, who served on the jury with LiMandri, transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, and a half-dozen industry professionals, including David Childs of SOM, Craig Schwitter of Buro Happold, and builder Frank Sciame. “Walking on the sidewalk should not be an ominous adventure, but it is,” Burden added. “These new sheds are gorgeous and innovative and safe.”

Young-Hwan, in addition to having his designs realized downtown and possibly across the city, will receive a $10,000 prize as well as pride of place at the Center for Architecture, which has an exhibition of the three finalists from the UrbanShed competition up through February 10. The 28-year-old designer, who grew up in Korea, was somewhat shy during his remarks to the press, though he closed with gusto. “I’m really happy to see this on the street,” he declared, cracking a smile.

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The Answer
The designers wrapped the new call center in an aluminum rain scrim to make the monolithic structure more dynamic and humane.
Courtesy DDC

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 highlighted a number of deficiencies in New York’s emergency response system. As part of a broad overhaul of the city’s communications network, the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) recently broke ground on a new 911 call center. Designed by SOM and located in the Bronx on a site adjacent to the Hutchinson River Parkway, the Public Safety Answering Center II will provide a robust facility for managing tragedies from small to cataclysmic.

The project arose out of the city’s Emergency Communication Transformation Program, launched by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2006 to centralize and integrate the call-taking and dispatch operations among police, fire, and emergency medical responders.

“One of the things that came out of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was a perception that there was a real need to integrate call-taking for fire and police,” explained David Resnick, deputy commissioner of the DDC. “During that event, emergency call-takers were getting many individual phone calls, but were unable to see the bigger picture and understand that this was a categorically bigger emergency than they were used to.”

While the mayor’s initiative includes everything from upgrading radios to reeducating personnel, the new facility was designed as a redundancy to the city’s primary call center, which is just being completed at the MetroTech Center in Brooklyn. The city located the two facilities remotely from each other so that if something were to occur to one that would render it inoperable, the other would be unaffected. During day-to-day operations, however, both centers will work in tandem, with emergency calls being routed to the next available call-taker regardless of location.

In designing the second call center, SOM was faced with the challenge of imbuing the 550,000-square-foot building with humanity and urban sensitivity, a tall order considering the large footprint necessitated by the call floor and the minimal windows dictated by security concerns. To diminish the structure’s mammoth appearance, the designers set the plan at a 45-degree angle to the Hutchinson Parkway and serrated the facade to add dynamism to what otherwise would have been a blank monolith.

The serrations of the skin—a rainscreen system composed of 10-foot, powder-coated aluminum panels—are silver on one side and charcoal gray on the other, giving the building a different aspect depending on one’s viewpoint. The aluminum panels wrap a more robust blast-resistant wall, and all of the building’s windows are made of ballistic glass.

Due to the stressful nature of the call-takers’ job, the designers did all they could to create as pleasant an environment within the center as possible. Part of this involved creating rest areas where staff can collect themselves and recoup. The most adventurous gesture, however, was to bring green walls into the lobby, the largest public space in the building. More than just vertical topiaries, these vegetated walls are tied into the facility’s mechanical systems.

Designed by SOM in conjunction with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology, these phytoremediation walls clean air by drawing it through the plants’ roots and recirculating it through the building, which should help the project attain a LEED Silver certification.

Built by Tishman Construction with structural engineering services from Weidlinger and mechanical engineering services from Jaros, Baum & Bolles, the project is expected to have its core and shell complete by 2013, at which point it will be turned over to a separate contractor to complete the interior fit-out.

In order to meet this aggressive schedule, the agency has set up a dedicated office downtown where all of the team’s players are working together around a single BIM model. “Everyone is in the same place—architects, engineers, clients, construction management,” said Resnick. “If someone has a question, all they have to do is walk across the aisle.”

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Skin Condition
Putting the Verizon building behind bars—and plans for its recladding on ice. (StartAgain/Flickr) It looks like one of New York's ugliest buildings may also have turned out to be one of its naughtiest. The exchange place at 375 Pearl Street is reviled by many, including tall buildings expert and AN pal Carol Willis, thanks to its blank sides and besmirching of our Brooklyn Bridge panoramas. Fortunately, plans were in the works to have Cook + Fox reclad the building and turn it into something more befitting of an increasingly polished downtown, not unlike the recent transformation of another former phone exchanger across from Bryan Park, 1095 Avenue of the Americas. But that could all come tumbling down thanks to some long—or is it tall—overdue taxes. A rendering shows Cook + Fox's proposal to transform the building into something more palatable for developer Taconic Properties. (Courtesy Cook + Fox) Curbed sounded the alarm about a report in the Tribeca Trib that details some serious zoning and tax violations stretching back to when the building was first drawn up in 1972. Apparently, when the exchange place—basically floor upon floor of telephone connections—was constructed by New York Telephone, it added hundreds of thousands of square feet more than it promised in its deal with the city, from whom it bought the land for $17 million at the time. Had it not been for the 2007 sale of 29 of the building's 32 floors to Taconic Development, and the developer's subsequent advertisement of the missing square footage, the city might never have realized. But now, they're suing Verizon and the developer—the city alleges Taconic was complicit, given its below-market-rate price for the floors—for $53 million plus interest. And if that were not enough to kill the reclad, there's an injunction on any construction work taking place at the building until the case is resolved.
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Charge Me Up
As automakers vie to release the next generation of plug-in electric cars, many eco-conscious drivers have wondered about the lack of charging infrastructure in dense urban environments. Unlike in, say, London, where charging points are being planned within one mile of every citizen by 2015, New Yorkers have heard little about curbside electric pumps. Well, if you’re looking for a place to plug in your GM Volt, one company’s vision of the future has arrived. This week, Brooklyn-based sustainable energy company Beautiful Earth (BE) unveiled their new solar-powered electric vehicle charging station, the first in New York and one of just a few in the world. Designed and built by BE from recycled steel shipping containers, the off-grid station sits on a lot near the company headquarters in Red Hook, collecting the sun’s rays with a roof of Sharp 235-watt photovoltaic panels. With a battery bank that stores electricity around the clock, the 6-kilowatt station can charge a car even at night, and could potentially feed unused electricity back into the grid. For now, the new station’s larger impact is more symbolic than practical: It’s only being used to charge BE’s company electric sports car, a BMW Group Mini E (though it would work just as well with any electric vehicle). A full charge gives the Mini E a little over a 100-mile range and takes about three hours, but shorter charging times are well within reach. “As the technology advances, easy charging stations will become increasingly realistic,” said Amanda Cleary, BE’s manager of sustainability.