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Greenpoint Rising
Jonathan Bernstein has proposed a new condo project for the far reaches of Greenpoint designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects.
Courtesy Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects.

When the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint were rezoned in 2005, a parade of luxury condominium towers were expected to replace moribund factories and warehouses along the North Brooklyn waterfront. Few of those towers materialized before the collapse of the real estate market, though, and with thousands of apartments already under construction in the area—and many sitting empty—it could be years before developers renew their march to the water.

The towers seen from the water. Click to view a slideshow of the project.
 

But this is New York City, where developers never cease to dream. And so, up in the far reaches of Greenpoint, first-time developer Jonathan Bernstein is plotting what would be the tallest tower on the waterfront—nearly 20 percent taller than current zoning allows—making it among the most audacious projects in the borough to date.

Located two blocks from the last G-train stop before Queens, the project is being designed by marquee firm Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. Adjacent streets would be transformed into parkland. Piers would be built to accommodate historic ships, ferries, and Water Taxi service. A new beach would offer sorely needed waterfront access. And all of these perks would help blunt community concerns about the project’s blockbuster proportions.

So far, the plan seems to be working.

“It’s a beautiful project with a hard sell,” Ward Dennis, chair of local Community Board 1’s land-use committee, said in an interview. “What the community needs to decide is where that balance is between density and open space and affordable housing. And really, that’s what all of these projects come down to.”

For a 100,000-square-foot lot on India Street currently occupied by a warehouse, Bernstein—who was once Donald Trump’s personal attorney—is proposing two muscular glass towers, one rising to 470 feet, the other to 200 feet. As with all new projects on the North Brooklyn waterfront, the towers are surrounded by a base of more contextual row buildings that rise no higher than 65 feet. And the project is not only taller than zoning allows but also bigger, containing roughly 890,000 square feet, as opposed to the 660,000 square feet potentially allowed as of right.

“We are asking for radical changes to the zoning, but we do think it’s way different than anything that’s been proposed on the waterfront,” Bernstein said during an informal presentation to the community board’s land-use committee last week. “We think it will be a gateway to Manhattan and Greenpoint.”

Bernstein has employed some clever zoning tactics to make his radical moves. Under the 2005 rezoning, the most a developer could expect to build would be two towers, one at 400 feet, the other at 300 feet. More typically, buildings top out in the range of 300 feet and 150 feet, as is the case at the Edge condominiums further to the south. So far, no building has even reached 400 feet, though a third tower at Northside Piers is planned for that height.

Even more unorthodox is Bernstein’s proposal to demap all of neighboring India Street and part of Java Street. Bernstein wants to turn these streets into parkland that connects with a larger-than-required park on the waterfront, replete with an amphitheater, sand dunes, and wetlands designed by W Architecture and Landscape Architecture. By incorporating thousands of square feet from the roadbeds into his project, Bernstein would significantly increase the project’s density, and hence the tower’s permitted height.

Bernstein said he must build big in order to afford his project, citing the expense of creating required public amenities, even arguing that zoning restrictions are one of the main reasons the waterfront remains under-developed. “We have to pay for these things,” Bernstein said. “We’re trying to create something that is good for the community and yet financially feasible.”

While the tower would be an eye-popper for such a lowrise neighborhood, it would not be the first in the area to exceed zoning restrictions. This spring, 155 West Street, an Ishmael Leyva–designed project proposed for a site directly north of Bernstein’s, won approval to rise to 400 feet, instead of a permitted 300 feet.

On that site, however, a sewer easement prevented the developer from building out the entire lot. Instead of a 300-foot tower and a 150-foot tower as of right, the two were combined into a single, 400-foot tower, plus a $2 million waterfront park. Moreover, in this case the developer was simply shifting density, unlike Bernstein, who is seeking to increase it.

Bernstein has yet to seek the numerous city approvals it would take to realize the project, including permission from the city planning, transportation, and parks departments, and one of his associates emphasized that specifics could still change ahead of public review. Bernstein said he has spoken with these agencies, though, and that they’ve expressed enthusiasm for the project. (He has even signed a contract with the city’s Economic Development Corporation to serve as the Greenpoint stop in an East River ferry service program.) Representatives of the agencies did confirm such meetings to AN, but said it was premature to make any judgments before a formal public review.

Elected officials, including local Assemblyman Joseph Lentol and Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman Vito Lopez, have expressed reservations. A Lopez spokesperson said that he is particularly uncomfortable with the project’s height: “He’s against anything that’s not contextual with the neighborhood, especially a 45-story tower.”

Some in the community believe this opposition is why Bernstein has come to them first, seeking their support ahead of a formal public review expected in the next few months. And despite reservations about the project, locals have been keeping an open mind, such as Christine Holowacz, co-chair of the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning. “I love the open space on the project,” Holowacz told AN. “I’m not so sure about the tall towers.”

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Amanda in Demand
Playing up to NYC Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden is usually more strategy, than pleasure. But the standing ovation she received today from architects, developers, and city agents, including Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Lieber, felt real as Burden stepped up to accept the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development from the Urban Land Institute. Established in 1936 with offices around the globe and 40,000 members in the U.S., the Washington DC-quartered Urban Land Institute supports enlightened development research and practices. The Nichols Prize for community building comes with $100,000; past winners have included Senator Patrick Moynihan, architecture historian Vincent Scully, Al Ratner of Forest City Enterprises, and developer Gerald Hines. According to prize presenter Lieber, Burden really does sweat the little stuff. He cited her paying attention right down to the root balls for street-lining trees.  (Profiles this week in Crain’s and the Observer talked about interest in window sill widths.) The gist was that she used her power wisely and in the service of improving the city as she said herself “one block at a time.”  The guys from ULI were distinctly old school, dragging in references to wives and, repeatedly, Burden’s gender. But Lieber injected some good old New York panache by noting about the High Line—the current jewel in city development’s crown—that at the beginning, “People said to me ‘What a stupid use of public money’.” But it was Burden who charmed the socks and leggings off the 100-strong crowd at the ceremony recalling that it was an epiphany at Paley Park, that tiny vestibule with waterfall on 53rd Street so beloved by solitary lunchers and established by CBS Chairman and Burden’s stepfather William Paley, that led her to a passion for urban planning.  Now, after rezoning 8,000 New York City blocks, she described her ambitious—but never over-reaching—approach as “setting our goals according to Robert Moses, knowing we’ll be judged by Jane Jacob’s standards.”  There was a Sally Field’s moment when she said she loved everyone in the room, but Burden ended on a classy note, announcing that she was turning the $100,000 prize back to the Urban Land Institute to establish a new prize for “outstanding examples of new or revitalized urban spaces that are urban magnets, readily accessible, and intensively used.” In other words, here’s to more Paley Parks.
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Good Old New York
Yesterday, the city released a report, "Age Friendly New York," [PDF] about creating a place that is more appealing to seniors. After all, New York can be hard enough as it is without a bum hip and fifth-floor walk-up. (Why else do so many of us flee for Florida in our autumn years?) The report contains the expected investments in senior centers and "social inclusion," but roughly 40 percent of the 59 initiatives deal directly or indirectly with issues of equal concern to architects and planners, like more seats at those fancy Cemusa bus shelters, more affordable housing dedicated to seniors, and improved elevator and escalator access. “The initiatives we’re launching will go a long way towards helping older New Yorkers live more connected, vibrant, and meaningful lives,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a press release. The best part is, it might even mean a nicer city for the rest of us, not to mention some much need work for the city's designers. See all 23 initiatives after the jump. HOUSING Affordable Housing Development
  • Target housing funds and streamline process of building low income housing for older New Yorkers
  • Examine parking requirements for affordable senior housing and amend the zoning code as necessary to facilitate construction of senior housing
  • Provide loans for rehabilitation and new construction of affordable housing
Homeowner & Renter Assistance
  • Provide loan assistance to older New Yorkers for home repairs
  • Engage NYC home improvement contractors in best practices for the older adult market
  • Improve access to SCRIE through transfer to Department of Finance
  • Expand eviction prevention legal services for older New Yorkers
Aging in Place
  • Provide additional supportive services to NORCs
  • Target Section 8 vouchers to vulnerable older adults at risk of eviction
  • Promote development of and access to new models of housing that support aging in place
PUBLIC SPACES & TRANSPORTATION Accessible & Affordable Transportation
  • Improve elevator and escalator service and enhance accessibility of subway stations
  • Improve efficiency of Access-A-Ride by equipping vehicles with GPS devices and implementing phone notification system
  • Match accessible taxis with users who need them
  • Develop model accessible taxi
  • Develop taxi voucher program for older New Yorkers who are unable to use public transportation
Safe & Age-Friendly Public Spaces
  • Increase seating in bus shelters
  • Install public restrooms at key locations citywide
  • Create new, pedestrian friendly public spaces while calming traffic
  • Redesign street intersections at key locations citywide to improve safety for older New Yorkers
  • Identify age-friendly parks and encourage older adults to utilize them
Planning for the Future
  • Provide environmental stewardship workshops and engage older New Yorkers in planting trees as part of PlaNYC and MillionTreesNYC
  • Conduct study to better address the mobility needs of older New Yorkers
  • Promote use of Universal Design Guidelines through education and awareness efforts
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A Grander Concourse
The city's proposal envisions apartment towers and waterfront open space as a focal point of the Lower Concourse rezoning.
Courtesy NYC DCP

Designed by Alsatian-born engineer Louis Aloys Risse, the Grand Concourse in the Bronx was modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and boasts one of the highest
concentrations of art deco architecture in the world. But not all of the great boulevard’s five miles are so distinguished. Along the southern tip, stretching from 150th Street to the Harlem River, gas stations, auto body shops, and disused lofts predominate, remnants from the area’s industrial past.


A map of the recently approved rezoning.
 
The city hopes to transform the area's disused waterfront.
 
Historic loft buildings will be preserved, some as residences, others as factories.
 
All images COURTESY DCP
 
 
Now, the city hopes to transform this stretch of Mott Haven into a modern-day, mixed-use, mixed-income community—a 21st-century version of Risse’s vision—through a rezoning plan approved by the city council on June 30. The plan, which covers a 30-block triangle where the river bends, calls for a mix of preservation and new construction to create market-rate and affordable housing and some manufacturing, while opening up parts of the waterfront for the first time in decades.

Though some contend the plan may only spur further gentrification of the South Bronx, it has been widely embraced for its equity. “I think the community as a whole will create an environment for development we have not seen in a long time,” said Cedric Loftin, district manager for Community Board 1. “It creates an opportunity for jobs and housing.”

The heart of the plan transforms the lowrise industrial landscape into midrise residential lots, mirroring the eight- and 12-story apartment houses to the north. In a much bolder move, most of the formerly industrial waterfront is being given over to the type of highrise development that now characterizes the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts, with 40-story residential towers surrounded by parks and open space. A 2.2-acre park is also planned for the upland section of the district.

The Department of City Planning, which developed the rezoning plan, has set aside loft buildings adjacent to MetroNorth and the Major Deegan Expressway as manufacturing facilities that would retain so-called green-collar jobs. Meanwhile, lofts in more suitable areas will be converted for residential use. The plan uses the city’s inclusionary housing bonuses to encourage affordable housing development by offering additional density in exchange for making 20 percent of a project affordable.

But Harry Bubbins, executive director of Friends of Brook Park and a longstanding critic of the rezoning, fears it could have adverse impacts on surrounding areas. “It’s the same cookie-cutter gentrification model the Bloomberg administration has deployed throughout the city,” Bubbins said. He argued there is not enough infrastructure or public amenities to support an influx of new residents.

Chauncey Young, the education organizer at Highbridge Community Life Center, maintained a healthy skepticism about the city’s goals. “Our concern is how long it’s going to take,” Young said. “These are the guys that promised us a park after the Yankees took ours, and still nothing’s been built. As long as they keep their promises, though, this plan can work.”

A version of this article appeared in AN_07.29.2009.

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The Emerald Coast of Queens
On Thursday, we wrote about a new park that had been unveiled as part of the city's plans for Hunter's Point South. Not to be outdone, Gantry Plaza State Park, Queens West's original greenway, is expanding, with a new 6-acre stretch opening tomorrow. Designed by Abel Bainnson Butz, the new section of park brings Gantry Plaza to 10 acres of waterfront open space. With Macy's fireworks moving north up the Hudson this year, those new lounge chairs and hammocks could be a perfect place to watch. Check 'em out after the jump.
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A Park Fit For Queens
A rendering of the new park, with apartment towers rising behind it.
ARUP, Thomas Balsley, Weiss/Manfredi/Courtesy NYC EDC

As if developing affordable housing were not hard enough, carving out a slice for middle- and moderate-income New Yorkers is even harder. The Hunter’s Point South project was developed largely to address that problem, and with the city’s acquisition of the 30-acre spit of land just south of the Queensboro Bridge today—along with the release of new plans for the complex’s 11 acres of waterfront open space—this community-in-the-making can move forward.

“With the acquisition of the site and the start of the design work,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said in a statement, “we are setting the stage for the largest investment in permanently affordable housing for our police officers, nurses, teachers and public employees and other middle income New Yorkers.”

The city’s Economic Development Corporation paid $100 million to the Empire State Development Corporation and the Port Authority for the land. It will house dozens of apartment towers similar to those at the Queens West development to the north. Of the 5,000 units that will be created, roughly 60 percent will be affordable, targeted to New Yorkers making between $55,000 and $158,000.

The concept plan for the new park. (Click to Enlarge)
ARUP, Thomas Balsley, Weiss/Manfredi/Courtesy NYC EDC

The project sits on the former site of the Daily News’ printing plant. Originally planned as the third and fourth phases of Queens West, the project stalled during the early ‘90s recession. Revived by the mayor as part of the city’s 2012 Olympic bid, it was later repurposed for affordable housing, and the 30-acre site was rezoned last year.

A key part of the plan is reconnecting Queens with its formerly industrial waterfront. To this end the city hired landscape architecture firm Thomas Balsley Associates, who have brought on Weiss/Manfredi as co-designers of the waterfront parkland. Arup is responsible for all engineering on the site, as well as project management.

“It’s nice to bring a park like this anywhere, but especially nice to bring it to an underserved corner of Queens,” Thomas Balsley said in a telephone interview. The architect happens to have experience in the area, as he developed the open space plan for Queens West.

Balsley described the new park as a seemless progression from the man-made to the natural, as it transitions from open recreational fields, concession stands, and an urban beach into lagoons and picnic lawns. But rather than create signage making these uses explicit, the designers are taking a more intuitive approach, letting the landscape direct the users. There is also a linear park that reaches up one of the central streets, creating a clear link between the park and its new neighborhood and helping to drawn residents in.

Details of the Promontory and Linear Park, with conceptual inspiration.
 
 
The Green, a massive ovoid lawn, will be a focal point, while the playground and basketball courts located just north, in the Grove, will be dotted with trees to emphasize a remove from the city beyond. To the south are tighter paths and more passive recreation. A small peninsula is where native species begin to take over, leading to a 25-foot-high promontory created by infill originally trucked in to make space for the printing plant. “That’s an elevation one does not experience in any park on the East River, so we wanted to keep it intact,” Balsley said.

While most of the park’s waterfront edges will be protected, get-downs will allow direct access to the water. In at least two places, paths will be built up to provide observation decks, as will the roof of the multi-use building just to the Green’s south. On the southern tip, at the mouth of Newtown Creek, will be a kayak launch. Balsley said the mix of uses would be similar to those in his work on Riverside Park South.

“We’re not dictating much,” Balsley said. “We think people find their own spots, and our job is to set the stage for that to happen.
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The Woodstock of Street Design
The city has transformed parts of 9th Avenue into a haven for cyclists and pedestrians.
Courtesy NYC DOT

Traditionally, most New Yorkers’ attitudes toward their city’s streets could be summed up by the proverb “familiarity breeds contempt,” according to Deputy Mayor for Operations Ed Skyler. “They only noticed the streets to complain about potholes,” he said. But Skyler and company have been working hard to change that in recent months by creating a growing number of no-car zones, including a prime piece of Times Square roadway that closed to traffic last weekend.

While car-free Broadway has grabbed headlines, the city took another major step toward reinventing streets on May 20, with the release of New York’s first Street Design Manual, a “playbook” of guidelines for creating new streets and retrofitting old ones. The joint product of ten different city agencies, it offers guidance on everything from paving materials to the ideal width of bike lanes on different types of thoroughfares. Although it does not mandate policy change directly, the manual will become the new standard for the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Public Design Commission when they review proposed projects.


A view of the new Times Square from one of the many towers overlooking it. But this is not the only plans the city has for its streets, as outlined in the manual.
Valerio_B/Flickr
 
 

Skyler was on hand for the official launch of the manual on Wednesday at the Municipal Art Society, along with DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Parks and Recreation commissioner Adrian Benepe, Design and Construction commissioner David Burney, and a large crowd of planners, engineers, and designers. Excitement ran high among both the speakers and the crowd, not just for the manual itself but for what it represents: New York’s determination to conceive of greener, more people-friendly streets, and an unprecedented interagency collaboration toward that end. “This is like the Woodstock of urbanism!” laughed Benepe.

Although the Street Design Manual delves into the finer points of paving and planting, all those details are in the service of a few underlying principles. One of the most prominent is to further PlaNYC’s goal of making New York a sustainable city by 2030. “When you realize 26 percent of the city’s surface area is sidewalk and street, there are enormous opportunities there,” Burney told the crowd. And although environmental considerations are less of a rarity in street design guides now than they were a decade ago, the New York manual is exceptional for weaving those concepts throughout the guidelines rather than shunting them off into a separate section. The description of every design feature includes suggestions for “Sustainability Opportunities,” such as planting trees in medians or paving sidewalks with porous materials.

The manual is clearly committed to being in the vanguard of street design, venturing beyond the tried-and-true standards into more experimental waters. “When there are things that we don’t know work in New York, we have them in there as pilots,” said Andy Wiley-Schwartz, Assistant Commissioner of the Division of Planning and Sustainability and one of the guide’s primary authors. That includes speed cushions (speed bumps with gaps that allow emergency vehicles to pass through at full speed), and separated busways (currently enjoying success in Quito, Ecuador).
 

A sizable crowd turned up for the unveiling of the manual at the Municipal Art Society last Wednesday.
Julia Galef

It’s also a champion for pedestrians. The guide is packed with strategies for making intersections more pedestrian-friendly, and for reclaiming street space by widening sidewalks, adding corner and mid-block extensions, and narrowing streets. Its authors are especially protective of the public realm, criticizing streets that try to use design to discourage public access: “For example, private streets along waterfronts should not significantly differ from public streets in their appearance,” they warn.

There remain a few blind spots in the guide, notably a lack of discussion about how the community fits into the planning process. Filling in that part of the picture will be crucial, both in ensuring these principles get implemented, and in making New York an inspiring role model for other cities to follow. But as Sadik-Khan emphasized at the launch, “This is just the beginning.” She encouraged feedback for future incarnations of the Street Design Manual, and added: “Knowing this crowd, I’m sure you’ve got plenty.”

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The Gatekeepers
The Public Design Commission controls most every detail of most every public art and design project in the city, including the new Grimshaw-designed bus stops.
Courtesy Cemusa

For nearly 35 years, Paul Broches of Mitchell/Giurgola Architects has been working to make Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island a reality. On a recent Monday, he unrolled his drawings in a low-ceilinged City Hall annex before one of the least known but most influential deliberative bodies in New York: the Public Design Commission (PDC). On this afternoon, the engineer Guy Nordenson, one of 11 commissioners, took a typically conscientious line of questioning: “Will the park be high enough above the East River waterline,” he asked, “to endure rising sea levels due to global warming?” You bet it will, said Broches, who counted the meeting as one more modest victory for the quixotic Kahn project.

For Broches and other architects, the Public Design Commission is a customary stop on the road to public-works approvals. But ask many in the design community about the PDC, and you’re likely to draw a blank. Known until last August as the Art Commission, the PDC has maintained an air of mystery even as it exerts a strong influence over the city’s built environment. According to its mission statement, the commission is charged with approving all “permanent works of art, architecture, and landscape architecture proposed on or over city-owned property.” Yet many architects who have presented municipal projects for review are unclear how the commission works, where its jurisdiction begins and ends, and what guiding principles the commissioners hold in shaping the city’s future.


The commission oversaw the expansion of Staten Island's St. George Ferry Terminal, designed by FTL Design Engineering Studio, which includes these pavilions.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO

The Design Commission’s low profile is all the more surprising, since its operations are effectively hidden in plain sight. “All our hearings and meetings are open to the public,” said PDC Executive Director Jackie Snyder. The commission’s online calendar includes a docket of every project currently under consideration, and recent committee meetings—informal rehearsals for city agencies in the early stages of a new project—have featured everything from the installation of signage for a library book drop in Queens to a comfort station in the Bronx. Public hearings, where official submissions are made and approval granted or withheld, have recently ranged from newsstands on Madison Avenue to the reconstruction of East Fordham Road in the Bronx.

The PDC’s bailiwick has remained largely unchanged since the Art Commission’s creation in 1898. As called for in the charter of the then newly consolidated City of New York, the commission’s first members were appointed for three-year, unpaid terms at the recommendation of the Fine Arts Federation, an independent cultural consortium. The federation nominated one architect, one painter, a sculptor, and three “lay members.” Three additional commissioners were selected by the most prominent cultural institutions of the day: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the New York Public Library. Today, the PDC’s membership breaks down in precisely the same way, chosen by the same process, with one more lay member appointed at the mayor’s discretion and a landscape architect rounding out the group.


James Carpenter designed The Inclined Light Wall for a Polshek addition to the hall of Science in 2004.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO
 
The Commission Also oversees public institutions, such as the Hospital for Special Surgery, which expanded in 2006
Courtesy HSS
 
One Stone (2007) by cai guo-qiang was conceived in concert with the Bronx County Hall of Justice, by Rafael Viñoly Architects.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO

 

 

 

The commission’s review powers are much as they were over a hundred years ago. In developing any public works project, every branch of the city’s vast bureaucracy must prepare a series of presentations for the commission. Usually the work of the consulting architect, these presentations follow a three-step process: conceptual, preliminary, and final.

The first two take place during public hearings in the commission’s offices, attended by members of the agencies involved (invariably) and by concerned members of the public (infrequently). The presenter outlines the project’s objectives and design strategies, while the commissioners make suggestions and take a casual thumbs-up, thumbs-down vote. The final stage entails only a submission of project documents. The result is fair and reasonable, according to veterans of the process. “I’ve presented to the PDC many, many times,” Broches said. “Even though the character of the commission changes as the commissioners change, I’ve always found them to be smart, serious-minded, and amicable.”

Some civic construction escapes the commission’s purview: Federal and state buildings fall outside their mandate, and some city buildings are the province of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The PDC also passes judgment on a surprising volume of construction beyond the city limits, like the entire Croton Aqueduct system, with its headhouses, gatehouses, and signposts scattered throughout Westchester County.

Other projects submitted for review aren’t actually being reviewed at all. “Courtesy” reviews are commonplace, delivered by non-city agencies in an effort to garner broad political support. As it turned out, the presenters of Four Freedoms Park, which is to be built on state-owned land, were performing one such courtesy call. “The Design Commission is involved with so many projects on public land in New York, it just seemed eminently reasonable to get their opinion,” said Sally Minard, who has helped spearhead the project.

The commission strives to avoid unexpected—and expensive—design revamps as much as is practical. As Snyder explained, “We usually try to have people come in earlier, so that it’s easier and less expensive for agencies to change designs.” But clearly, the committee isn’t just applying a rubber stamp. At a recent hearing, Department of Transportation (DOT) personnel milled around the PDC’s waiting room, having just finished their “second or third preliminary” for a Bronx highway improvement. More anodyne projects—a public toilet for Prospect Park, for example—are sometimes fast-tracked, given final approval at their preliminary hearing.

So what is the PDC’s yardstick for successful design? “Our goal is not to turn people into clones of us, but to make their project the best it can be,” said Signe Nielsen, principal of environmental planners Mathews Nielsen and the commission’s current landscape architect. The “us” of the moment constitutes a fair cross-section of influential New Yorkers: Other commissioners include architect James Polshek, Paula Scher of Pentagram, and a former director of Forest City Ratner, James Stuckey. “Whether we are wealthy patrons or scruffy academics, professionals or artists,” Nordenson said in an interview, “we share the belief that we can build a discourse about what is good design or not and cut through the bureaucratic yadda yadda.”

At times, New York’s small design world can cause complications. At a recent hearing, Nielsen recused herself for one session as Anne Trumble of Mathews Nielsen gave the preliminary proposal for the firm’s DOT-sponsored redesign of West 125th Street just landward of the Hudson River. The renovation includes moving and resurfacing crosswalks to coincide with Columbia University’s planned satellite campus for the neighborhood. At the advice of the PDC, benches with rounded armrests will be scattered around the site, echoing the looped arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct above.

 


Rendering of a Department of Transportation-sponsored redesign by Mathews Nielsen of West 125th Street at Fairway Plaza; the PDC suggested bench arms to echo the shapes of the viaduct passing overhead.
Courtesy Mathews Nielson

And the commission has had its share of contention. An uproar over the Parks Department’s Washington Square renovation brought crowds to commission meetings in 2005. (To little avail: The project moved forward.) Another episode, described in former commissioner Michele Helene Bogart’s illuminating book about the commission The Politics of Urban Beauty, involved former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, whose enthusiasm for “yardarm” flagpoles and animal motifs led him to circumvent the Art Commission on a number of occasions. This prompted a lawsuit, eventually settled, from Commission President Reba White Williams.

More typically, though, the PDC expressly avoids confrontation. “If the person running the meeting senses there’s a mixed opinion, we table the project,” said Nielsen. These rare differences are ironed out at executive sessions that are closed to the public, and where, according to Bogart, members discuss projects candidly. “When the politics around a project are particularly sensitive, it’s better to have an executive session,” Bogart explained.

Politics do occasionally intrude. Former Commission President Jean Phifer of architecture firm Thomas Phifer & Partners described an attempt in the late 1990s to abolish the commission outright, spurred on by a Staten Island councilman. (Phifer is the author of the new book Public Art New York, which includes the photography of Francis Dzikowski that can be found accompanying this article.)

The commission oversees work of all sizes and uses, including Barretto Point Park in the Bronx, designed by landscape architect Ricardo Hinkle with designer Rachel Kramer.
Malcolm Pinckney/Courtesy NYC Parks & Recreation

Mayor Giuliani interceded on the commission’s behalf, but Giuliani was otherwise less supportive of the commission than Mayor Bloomberg has been. “The difference between now and then is that the commission under Giuliani had no clout,” Bogart said. Mayor Bloomberg’s support of the PDC and of urban design generally has helped bolster the commission’s efforts, as evidenced by his creation, with the PDC’s input, of the Design and Construction Excellence program. One more change under Mayor Bloomberg has been the reassertion of PDC review power in the case of private leases on public land, a move that has helped extend the commission’s reach.

The best evidence of the commission’s scope and vision is in the city’s public works over the past decade. Hudson River Park, the Fulton Street Transit Center, the
Van Cortlandt Park filtration plant—if these can be taken together as signal projects, what sort of design preferences emerge? A clarity of visual language; a clean, muscular sense of materiality; an emphasis on environmental sensitivity. Struggling to sum it up, Nielsen simply said, “I could say it in fancy archi-speak, but it boils down to this: Will I still want to look at it in 20 years?”

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Sedum City
Researchers at Columbia's Earth Institute used a thermal map developed by NASA to determine hot spots in New York's urban heat island. Areas of high temperature appear red, and cool zones, mostly parks, appear white and blue.
NASA Landsat

A roof fitted with solar panels signals that a building is equipped with technology at the leading edge of sustainable thinking, a hard-edged surface with easily quantifiable energy and financial dividends. Green roofs elicit a different response, more emotional and somewhat ambiguous. Their benefits, though diverse, are not so easily tallied. Green roofs provide numerous payoffs for individual buildings, but their impact at the scale of the city is only beginning to be studied. While some cities and states are developing requirements or incentive packages to promote vegetated roofs, more precise tools need to be developed to address urban-scale issues like the heat island effect or storm water runoff, a major contributor to water pollution. These issues take on greater urgency as architects and planners turn to sustainable design as a means to mitigate climate change and resource scarcity.

As most architects know, green roofs consist of a watertight barrier, a growing medium, and a layer of plants, typically sedum or other drought-resistant plants (referred to as extensive green roofs), though more elaborate designs can include grasses, food crops, or even trees (called intensive green roofs). Vegetated roofs lower energy costs by reducing surface temperature in the summer and providing insulation in the winter. They also last longer than conventional roofs by blocking ultraviolet rays and rapid temperature increases from degrading roofing materials. They reduce runoff during storms, which can reduce water pollution, though it would take very significant acreage concentrated in a single area in order to have an impact. In addition, advocates argue that widespread use of the technology could reduce urban heat islands, which would have broad-based implications for energy use and air quality, such as asthma rates.

According to a 2007 report by the Toronto-based trade group Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, the industry grew by 30 percent over 2006. Chicago led the way with 517,000 square feet constructed in 2007, more than double that of its nearest competitor, tiny Wilmington, Delaware, which planted an impressive 195,600 square feet. New York placed a meager third with 123,074 square feet. “New York is very far behind Chicago. Installation costs here are much higher,” said Sarah Wayland-Smith, a landscape designer at Balmori Associates who specializes in green roofs. Wayland-Smith cites high up-front costs and an underdeveloped network of suppliers and installers, as well as, until recently, a lack of government incentives as barriers to construction in New York.


An extensive green roof in Long Island City, designed by Balmori Associates, at one of the hot spots in the region. 
Courtesy Balmori Associates

 

Students at the Art Institute of Chicago’s architecture program mapped the dozens of green roofs dispersed across that city.
Art Institute of Chicago
 

New York City government has adopted a cautious approach to green roofs, according to Rohit T. Aggarwala, director of the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability. Working with the state legislature, the mayor and the governor recently pushed through a $4.50-per-square-foot tax credit to encourage green roof construction. The mayor’s sustainability blueprint, PlaNYC, encourages green roofs but does not require them. Aggarwala, too, cites high up-front costs. “New York is already the greenest city in the United States,” he said. “We should not jeopardize the economic sustainability of the city with financially onerous requirements.” Aggarwala argues that reflective roofs can reduce cooling costs, and “blue roofs,” or simple gutter lips that slow runoff, can reduce sewage overflows, both at a fraction of the cost of green roofs. Still, he hopes the tax credits will encourage development and bring down costs. “We’ve got to get more experience. As they become better known, they become less threatening to landlords,” he said.

Since Chicago Mayor Richard Daly famously planted sedum and native grasses on City Hall in 2000, more than approximately two million square feet of green roofs on dozens of buildings have sprouted across that city. Following a brutal 1995 heat wave that killed hundreds during a blackout, the City Hall roof was conceived as a pilot project for mitigating Chicago’s urban heat island. This proliferation has been fostered by a number of incentives and requirements. Chicago’s program has also helped to bring construction costs down and increase the number of growers, suppliers, and installers in that region. While the surface temperature of City Hall and several other projects has been monitored, little research has been done on the effectiveness of green roofs at the urban scale in Chicago, according to Larry Meredith, spokesman for Chicago’s Department of Environment. Even with the impressive number of square feet planted, there may be limits to the effectiveness of the rollout, at least thus far. A map developed by architect Linda Keane and her students at the Art Institute of Chicago shows how the roofs are scattered across the city, and how modest the area of green roof coverage is at the urban scale.

The most extensive modeling of the urban-scale benefits of green roofs in the United States has been done in New York. A study by the Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute estimates that in New York, fully 50 percent of all roof space would need to be greened in order to have a significant impact on the city’s heat island. The multidisciplinary study group, which relied on data and expertise from Pennsylvania State, Michigan State, and Columbia University, settled on the 50 percent baseline after deciding that 75 percent coverage was an overly ambitious figure. Their modeling indicates that 50 percent coverage would shave 1.4 degrees off the city’s heat island, which ranges from 5 to 7 degrees. What accounts for the relatively small impact even at half coverage? Remarkably, in a city as densely built as New York, roof space accounts for only 19 percent of the city’s total area (when seen from above as a single plane). While the difference between a 93- and a 94-degree day may not feel significant, it can have a massive impact on energy use. According to estimates by CCSR for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, every degree of temperature increase outdoors triggers demand for an additional 60 gigawatt hours of energy per day.

CCSR relied on a thermal map of the city produced by NASA, an aerial satellite image that shows hotspots in the city. Vivid in its coloring, the map includes some surprises. Midtown and Lower Manhattan, the most densely built areas of the city, are cooler than lower-scale parts of Queens and Brooklyn. “The tall buildings of Midtown and Lower Manhattan prevent solar penetration at street level,” said Stuart Gaffin, an associate research scientist for CCSR and one of the authors of the report. “They act like trees, at least in terms of shading. Parking lots, low-scale buildings, large expanses of roof space and roadways create hotspots.” Massive hotspots occur in industrial areas and at the airports, and cool spots are clearly legible in Central and Prospect parks. The map suggests that targeting certain hotspots for green roof development might be a faster way of tackling heat islands, rather than an ad hoc approach of scattering green across the city. “I believe targeting could be very effective, though I’m not sure how it could be implemented,” Gaffin said. Balmori Associates has for some years advocated such an approach for Long Island City, one of the hotspots on the NASA map, which they estimate has a roof space area equal to half the size of Central Park.Working with business owners, they have completed two extensive green roof projects on industrial buildings in the neighborhood. “There are private benefits for building owners, as well as public benefits, but the public benefits are more difficult to quantify,” Gaffin said.

PlaNYC’s Aggarwala said that the city is aware of heat island hotspots. “We’ve thought about it and talked about targeting those areas, but we haven’t identified hotspots as an urgent public concern.” He argues that the city’s MillionTreesNYC program, which calls for intensive tree planting, addresses many of the same issues and will be easier and more cost effective to implement.

Green roofs appear to be more immediately effective in controlling storm water runoff. The CCSR study found that individual green roofs retain 80 percent of storm water, and slow the release of the remaining 20 percent. During rainstorms, runoff can overwhelm the sewer system, causing raw sewage to be discharged directly into waterways, a major source of water pollution. Using the same 50-percent-coverage model, CCSR estimated that ten percent of runoff would be cut, greatly reducing the number of sewage spills. “The benefits in terms of runoff are indisputable,” Gaffin said. “They are like rooftop holding tanks.”

Assuming CCSR’s goal is a desirable one, how does New York, so far behind Chicago, even inch toward 50 percent coverage? “I don’t think it’s an impossible goal if we keep hammering away at it,” Gaffin said. “Traditional roofs provide no additional benefits.” Given New York State’s recent passage of a tax rebate for green roof construction, and pending a recovery of the building industry, there is likely to be an increase in green roof construction in the region. Gaffin points out that roofs are replaced every 20 years or so. “Of all urban infrastructure, roofs are changed most frequently,” he said.

The data suggest that green roofs are an important and effective tool in addressing urban heat islands and storm water runoff, but alone, even in great numbers, they are not likely to fix these problems using a scattershot, incremental approach. Chicago’s example shows that incentives can dramatically increase square footage of green roofs built. Columbia’s modeling shows, however, that the living system of a green roof has a fine-grained impact in the urban landscape. Precise incentive packages and deeper study could increase their effectiveness within the greater organism of the city.

Beyond plop-art parks
When I first received Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe’s 2007 greeting announcing PlaNYC, I felt a great wave of exhilaration—probably the same one experienced by all architects, landscape architects, and planners who have fantasized about a nascent era of great design sponsored by visionary leadership in City Hall. Office interiors were spruced up, websites revised, and principals’ sartorial splendor amplified in anticipation of knocks at the door from beneficent developers and eco-conscious politicians who would beseech us to create the New York City of tomorrow. As my fantasy faded to something resembling reality, I tried to grasp the magnitude of the gauntlet thrown down by the mayor. With selfish concern for my own studio’s chances of participation in this metropolitan dream, I also wondered whether there would ever be a significant opening up of the job market for small design firms—or would all the request for qualifications (RFQ) documents arrive with their onerous requirements for mega-building experience, multimillion-dollar liability protection, hundreds of consultants under one roof, and the thinly veiled implication that success depended on the invitee’s ability to invest in competitive bidding (with free design services tossed in to sweeten the deal)? By the time Adrian’s call for designer involvement in an expanded parks program arrived, my enthusiasm for PlaNYC had been diminished by memories of futile efforts to break into New York’s public space job market. Since my firm, SITE, is an architectural practice that focuses on parks and plazas (but mostly works abroad, where there is less resistance to innovative solutions and green principles), I could see the handwriting on the wall: The future would be sponsored, controlled, designed, and built by the same cast of characters that has dominated the city’s architecture and planning markets for the past 30 years. Clearly, the tasks outlined in PlaNYC—repairing infrastructure, constructing affordable housing, reducing traffic, improving mass transit, and saving energy—are top priorities. But by focusing on these imperatives, an investment in imaginative ideas for the social, psychological, and aesthetic resolution of parks, streets, and gardens should not be assigned to the back burners. (Just look at Detroit and Cleveland!) The usual tactic of favoring operational efficiency and restorative technology, at the expense of social interaction and access to nature, has demonstrated how such legislative abandonment can destroy the very “quality of life” that a massive investment in infrastructure is meant to preserve. My fear that New York’s grand park plans may become another blueprint for business as usual was confirmed by news accounts early in the game. When the mayor’s original challenge was issued in December 2007, it proposed to open 90 percent of the city’s waterways for recreation by limiting water pollution and preserving our natural areas. But earlier that year, the Regional Plan Association was already complaining that the city had planned for more park expansions than it could afford. This suggests that public space may become PlaNYC’s first casualty, and I suspect that similar economic and political inertia will thwart the mayor’s water, transportation, energy, and air improvement agendas. Still, in the hope that such initiatives may succeed, I want to emphasize a few issues that have enormous impact on the way our city’s parks and gardens have been shaped until now, and on how they will be designed in the future. It is no secret that most public spaces constructed in New York over the past two decades have been based on Modernist traditions. The ingredients invariably include a massive slab of concrete, donut fountains, “plop art” sculptures, and a scattering of park benches. The reasons for this formulaic consistency can be found in the politics of architectural employment and the entrenchment of a Robert Moses–era planning legacy. Clearly, we can do better. But for a flexible climate of creativity to succeed, city agencies must first provide a less labyrinthine and preferential RFQ process. It should certainly encourage smaller architecture and landscape offices to compete for city commissions by placing more value on the applicant’s track record of creativity. Since the criteria for what constitutes “creativity” can vary according to taste and time, the Parks Department might do well to sponsor a monthly series of public-space design symposia, where new talents would have a chance to showcase their visions and learn more about RFQ procedures. City Hall and the Parks Department can improve the RFQ process, but they obviously can’t legislate better design. For this reason, I have a few items of cautionary advisement to offer. First, there should be enough memorable features in a park or plaza to encourage people to travel out of their way to see the space and, after leaving, tell their friends about it. Second, public space is successful to the degree that people look attractive to each other and are encouraged to interact in new ways. Designers should be sensitized to “prosthetic engagement,” where body movement and pedestrian interaction become as much a part of the raw material of design as paving, steel, and vegetation. Third, parks, plazas, and gardens should involve all of the senses in equal measure. And fourth, the design of public space today includes an awareness of “integrated systems.” This suggests a design philosophy based on understanding the parallels between the components of electronic communications and their symbiotic equivalents in nature. If Mayor Bloomberg expects his plea for new ideas to reach high fertility, his passion for change must reflect a more psychologically engaging and aesthetically innovative brand of street and park life for New York City. There must also be support for a truly civic-minded “mandate for change.” Today, this means green and sustainable. By Manhattan standards, being green is a rather restrained and puritanical notion—the antithesis of Big Apple optimism. If the green movement ever expects to conquer New York, it must reverse its scold tactics and provide the same kind of inspiring catalyst for change that the industrial revolution offered our flamboyantly receptive island over a hundred years ago. This means shaping and selling a persuasive new “philosophy of the environment.” Come on Mayor Bloomberg, let’s go for it!
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Comment: James Wines
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's 140 Broadway, completed in 1967, with Isamu Noguchi's Red Cube.
Ezra Stoller/Esto

When I first received Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe’s 2007 greeting announcing PlaNYC, I felt a great wave of exhilaration—probably the same one experienced by all architects, landscape architects, and planners who have fantasized about a nascent era of great design sponsored by visionary leadership in City Hall. Office interiors were spruced up, websites revised, and principals’ sartorial splendor amplified in anticipation of knocks at the door from beneficent developers and eco-conscious politicians who would beseech us to create the New York City of tomorrow.

As my fantasy faded to something resembling reality, I tried to grasp the magnitude of the gauntlet thrown down by the mayor. With selfish concern for my own studio’s chances of participation in this metropolitan dream, I also wondered whether there would ever be a significant opening up of the job market for small design firms—or would all the request for qualifications (RFQ) documents arrive with their onerous requirements for mega-building experience, multi-million-dollar liability protection, hundreds of consultants under one roof, and the thinly veiled implication that success depended on the invitee’s ability to invest in competitive bidding (with free design services tossed in to sweeten the deal)?

By the time Adrian’s call for designer involvement in an expanded parks program arrived, my enthusiasm for PlaNYC had been diminished by memories of futile efforts to break into New York’s public space job market. Since my firm, SITE, is an architectural practice that focuses on parks and plazas (but mostly works abroad, where there is less resistance to innovative solutions and green principles), I could see the handwriting on the wall: The future would be sponsored, controlled, designed, and built by the same cast of characters that has dominated the city’s architecture and planning markets for the past 30 years.

Clearly, the tasks outlined in PlaNYC—repairing infrastructure, constructing affordable housing, reducing traffic, improving mass transit, and saving energy—are top priorities. But by focusing on these imperatives, an investment in imaginative ideas for the social, psychological, and aesthetic resolution of parks, streets, and gardens should not be assigned to the back burners. (Just look at Detroit and Cleveland!) The usual tactic of favoring operational efficiency and restorative technology, at the expense of social interaction and access to nature, has demonstrated how such legislative abandonment can destroy the very “quality of life” that a massive investment in infrastructure is meant to preserve.

My fear that New York’s grand park plans may become another blueprint for business as usual was confirmed by news accounts early in the game. When the mayor’s original challenge was issued in December 2007, it proposed to open 90 percent of the city’s waterways for recreation by limiting water pollution and preserving our natural areas. But earlier that year, the Regional Plan Association was already complaining that the city had planned for more park expansions than it could afford. This suggests that public space may become PlaNYC’s first casualty, and I suspect that similar economic and political inertia will thwart the mayor’s water, transportation, energy, and air improvement agendas.

Still, in the hope that such initiatives may succeed, I want to emphasize a few issues that have enormous impact on the way our city’s parks and gardens have been shaped until now, and on how they will be designed in the future. It is no secret that most public spaces constructed in New York over the past two decades have been based on Modernist traditions. The ingredients invariably include a massive slab of concrete, donut fountains, “plop-art” sculptures, and a scattering of park benches. The reasons for this formulaic consistency can be found in the politics of architectural employment and the entrenchment of a Robert Moses–era planning legacy.

Clearly, we can do better. But for a flexible climate of creativity to succeed, city agencies must first provide a less labyrinthine and preferential RFQ process. It should certainly encourage smaller architecture and landscape offices to compete for city commissions by placing more value on the applicant’s track record of creativity. Since the criteria for what constitutes “creativity” can vary according to taste and time, the Parks Department might do well to sponsor a monthly series of public-space design symposia, where new talents would have a chance to showcase their visions and learn more about RFQ procedures.

City Hall and the Parks Department can improve the RFQ process, but they obviously can’t legislate better design. For this reason, I have a few items of cautionary advisement to offer. First, there should be enough memorable features in a park or plaza to encourage people to travel out of their way to see the space and, after leaving, tell their friends about it. Second, public space is successful to the degree that people look attractive to each other and are encouraged to interact in new ways. Designers should be sensitized to “prosthetic engagement,” where body movement and pedestrian interaction become as much a part of the raw material of design as paving, steel, and vegetation. Third, parks, plazas, and gardens should involve all of the senses in equal measure. And fourth, the design of public space today includes an awareness of “integrated systems.” This suggests a design philosophy based on understanding the parallels between the components of electronic communications and their symbiotic equivalents in nature.

If Mayor Bloomberg expects his plea for new ideas to reach high fertility, his passion for change must reflect a more psychologically engaging and aesthetically innovative brand of street and park life for New York City. There must also be support for a truly civic-minded “mandate for change.” Today, this means green and sustainable. By Manhattan standards, being green is a rather restrained and puritanical notion—the antithesis of Big Apple optimism. If the green movement ever expects to conquer New York, it must reverse its scold tactics and provide the same kind of inspiring catalyst for change that the industrial revolution offered our flamboyantly receptive island over a hundred years ago. This means shaping and selling a persuasive new “philosophy of the environment.” Come on Mayor Bloomberg, let’s go for it!

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Will's Wild Ride
What was and what shall be.
Irving Underhill/Courtesy Brooklyn Museum/via Flickr

For a redesign of Coney Island—if not the world’s most famous amusement park, certainly its most iconoclastic—who would be the ideal architect? How about Frank Gehry? Too mainstream. Asymptote? Too polished. Lebbeus Woods? Too theoretical. Well what about Will Alsop? Now there is a carnival architect if there ever was one.

Such is the conclusion the Municipal Art Society came to while organizing a community design charrette for next month aimed at re-imagining the moribund amusement park. In addition to Alsop, the team of top-flight design and amusement professionals includes, among others, planners from WRT and Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, event architects Cloud 9, and two Disney ex-pats. MAS hopes the charrette will influence the city’s rezoning proposal for the area that is due to enter public review in January.

“We’re hoping to use these imaginative minds to create a vision for the future of Coney Island,” Kent Barwick, MAS president, told AN at Borough Hall yesterday, where the team convened for briefings from over a dozen stakeholders. These included everyone from barkers—the Parks Department, the Department of City Planning, local Council member Domenic Reccia—to sideshow freaks—Dick Zigun of Coney Island USA, author and historian Charles Denson, and Creative Time.

While Alsop and his comrades all promised an impressive showing at the charrette scheduled for November 13 and 14, Barwick insisted community input would be the lynchpin of any successful plan. “Coney Island is something everyone loves,” he said. “A good idea, we don’t care who has it, can benefit and influence what the city and private developers want to do.”

To help expand public participation, the group will soon launch www.imagineconey.com to gather suggestions. Combining the online and charrette ideas, as well as those from today’s event, the team will present a final design on November 17. “The Coney Island of the 21st Century is out there,” Borough President Marty Markowitz said during the event. “I am convinced that with the ideas from this team and the community, we can make it a reality.”

The charrette team is:

•    Will Alsop, architect, SMC Alsop
•    Margie Ruddick, landscape architect, John Beckman, planner, WRT
•    Nicholas Goldsmith, engineer and tent designer, FTL Studio
•    Enric Ruiz-Geli, architect and interactive designer, Cloud 9
•    Henry Bardsley, engineer, RFR Engineering
•    George Tsypin, stage designer
•    Soren Lund, architect, Tivoli Gardens
•    Anne Hamburger, creative producer, formerly of Disney
•    David Malmuth, economist, RCLCo, formerly of Disney
•    Jules Coche, renderer, Squint/Opera