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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



Concrete Poetry 

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

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


Villa Navarra
Philippe Ruault
 

Pont du Diable
Courtesy Agence Rudy Ricciotti

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

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

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

 



 

Dean Bierwagen

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

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

 


 


Peter Mauss/Esto

Natatorium
College of New Rochelle, New York
Ikon.5 Architects 

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

 


 


Luxigon

One Madison Park
New York
Office of Metropolitan Architecture

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

 


 


Courtesy Reiser + Umemoto

O-14
Dubai
Reiser + Umemoto

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

 


 


Courtesy Steven Holl Architects

Vanke Center
Shenzhen, China
Steven Holl Architects 

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

 


 


Courtesy Allied Works Architecture 

Clyfford Still Museum
Denver, Colorado
Allied Works Architecture 

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

 


 


Courtesy Toshiko Mori Architect

Darwin Martin Visitor Center
Buffalo, New York
Toshiko Mori Architect 

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

 


 


Rien Van Rijthoven

Congregation Beth Sholom Synagogue
San Francisco
Stanley Saitowitz | Natoma Architects 

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

 


 


Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing

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

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

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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!

Decommissioned

The City Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee unanimously passed legislation earlier today that will remove the requirement that the commissioner of the Department of Buildings be a licensed architect or engineer. Though the new legislation still mandates that either the commissioner or the first deputy commissioner be a licensed professional, a number of industry groups opposed the move, which is expected to pass the full council at today’s meeting.

At a press conference, Speaker Christine Quinn said the legislation would provide needed flexibility in the selection of future commissioners. “We all know the most important thing is to have someone who knows the issues of the agency but also someone who is a good manager,” Quinn said. “This allows the most latitude in finding the best manager to run, as we see every day, a very, very important department while still maintaining a level of technical expertise.”

The bill was part of a major package of reforms proposed in the wake of the recent crane collapses that led to the resignation of the former commissioner, Patricia Lancaster. Because Lancaster was herself a licensed architect, a number of professional organizations, including the local chapter of the AIA, said architects and engineers were being blamed for the shortcomings of other professionals and the department itself.

In response to the committee vote, which passed 7-0, the AIA released a statement that said, “There are some who have insisted that any department can be run with good management skills, and that those skills are more important than mere credentials. However, this is not about tradition. This is all about professionalism, and the fact that the person heading the Buildings Department must be able to make the tough decisions as the final authority on matters of zoning, site safety, and building construction. Having a deputy who is a licensed professional is simply not the same thing.”

Executive Director Ric Bell, who recently wrote about this issue in AN, is in Richmond, Virginia, attending the annual AIA CACE meeting, but he did send an email to express his frustration. “Having an architectural or engineering license demonstrates that the commissioner knows how buildings are built and reassures those walking past construction sites that an important knowledge base is there at the highest level of authority with the department," Bell wrote.

Quinn told AN that by ensuring that one of the top two administrators at the department was licensed, the council had actually reaffirmed the importance of professionals within the organization, especially since some people had urged their removal altogether. “I don’t think there is any attempt by this legislation to scapegoat architects or engineers or any professionals,” she said. “We don’t think architects and engineers are bad managers. We just think there are other places to also look for good managers.”

Asked whether Robert LiMandri, the acting commissioner who has been with the department since 2002 but is not a registered architect, would now be named full commissioner, Department of Buildings spokesperson Kate Lindquist directed comments to the mayor’s office, which did not immediately respond. Should the bill pass the council, it will require Mayor Bloomberg’s signature, but considering he proposed the stauncher bill that eliminated any requirements, his approval is expected.

The council was also due to pass two bills related to construction site safety, one that would require contractors pouring 2,000 cubic yards of concrete or more to hire on-site safety inspectors—in order to prevent accidents like the one earlier this year at the Trump Soho—and another that requires detailed site safety plans for any “major” project, which Quinn described as “essentially larger than ten or twelve stories.” This would include a specific safety training regimen for workers.

There were two other bills of note, the first of which will penalize stores that run air conditioners while leaving their front doors open. The cold air spilling onto the street may lure in customers, but it also wastes energy and taxes the grid, according to council members, leading to power failures.

The other bill mandates the creation of a decennial waterfront plan. “We are basically a city of islands,” Quinn said. “For a long time, we have turned our back on them. Now that we are returning to the water, we must balance our use between recreation, transportation, economic development, and residential property, where appropriate."

Update: The final vote on the commissioner bill was 41-8.

Update: As predicted, Mayor Michael Bloomberg just announced his plans to permanently promote LiMandri to commissioner of the Department of Buildings. In the city's release, LiMandri thanked the mayor and the council for their continued support, adding, "The Department's mission of public safety requires a commitment from every one of us, including property owners, builders, construction workers and the members of my dedicated staff, and we must combine our efforts to ensure millions of New Yorkers are better protected than ever before. Short-cutting safety in the name of development is not an option, and anyone who puts people at risk will not be tolerated. Now let's get to work."

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Profile: Vishaan Chakrabarti

Yoko Inoue
 

Vishaan Chakrabarti
Executive Vice President of Design and Planning
The Related Companies

From his office on the 26th floor of the Hearst Building, Vishaan Chakrabarti points towards his floor-to-ceiling windows, intent that his guests look out on Clinton, the West Side neighborhood below. “Right out that window is the most protected neighborhood in all of America in terms of zoning and low-income housing standards.” Chakrabarti, who last week was named Executive Vice President of Design and Planning for Related Companies, has been thinking a lot about Clinton—and other neighborhoods that could be keys to preparing New York for tremendous growth in the coming years—as he tries to turn the long-talked-about Moynihan Station into reality. The most important question, he believes, is how to build necessary infrastructure. To stop thinking big “is a wild mistake… Are we going to build the infrastructure that keeps up with all that development? That’s where the challenge lies. We’ve got competitors who are doing that much better—and not just London. It’s Shanghai, it’s Hong Kong, it’s Mumbai.”

While much of the Moynihan Station project has focused on the use of the Farley Post Office as the new Beaux Arts home for Penn Station—a nod to the original torn down between 1962 and 1964—Chakrabarti said that anyone who has thought of the bigger picture realizes that more than the station needs to be rehabbed: “There are really interesting questions about why the area around Penn Station never grew the way the area around Grand Central did.” But whatever the causes, he believes the area needs office buildings, hotels, and residential space in addition to the new station. He hopes the Amtrak bill that recently passed in Congress will help people see the need for a vastly overhauled transportation hub on the West Side. Although trained as an architect, he said that design comes lower on the list of priorities when brokering a deal as huge and intricate as the Moynihan Station.

As head of the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning from 2002 to 2004, Chakrabarti, 42, advocated for the development of the Hudson Yards, a plan that’s still very much a part of his vision of the future city, with high-density housing close to transportation. But a project like that, he said, can only be accomplished through public-private partnerships: “The private sector built Grand Central terminal and the original Penn Station, right? So it always amazes me when I read some of this stuff [disparaging the involvement of the private sector]. I don’t understand people’s lack of historical understanding about how much of New York City is actually built that way.” There’s no reason why Moynihan Station and the Hudson Yards, he said, should be an exception.

The nattily dressed Chakrabarti, development’s answer to Gay Talese, talks and writes a lot about what he sees as misguided ideas about city planning, particularly the notion that big is automatically bad. Call it the Jane Jacobs effect, but a lot of people get nervous when developers arrive on the scene. Chakrabarti understands the instinct to protect a neighborhood’s scale, but he believes that in a world with gas prices heading towards $5 a gallon, we can’t afford to think low-rise anymore. “The idea that you would keep the largest transportation hub in the Western hemisphere— Penn Station, which is busier than all three airports combined —low density is environmentally irresponsible.”

The public is a lot more savvy about planning than even ten years ago, he contends, in part because the doings at the World Trade Center site became tabloid fodder. But he is still frustrated by the small vision of some of his fellow New Yorkers: He cites a woman at a planning meeting who asked him why he kept talking about the growth of New York. “Isn’t New York grown up?” she wondered. That kind of thinking astounds Chakrabarti, who argues that staying still is functionally the same as regressing. “I believe New York is fundamentally much more an Asian city than it is a European one—in its context, in its culture, in the way it builds things… A lot of people don’t want to hear that.”

Still, on recent trips to China, he has been horrified by the amount of demolition: “It is astonishing how much urban fabric has been torn down in inner city Shanghai and inner city Beijing.... They’ve lost their Sohos and Tribecas, while pieces of their West Village are hanging on for dear life.”

But New York, Chakrabarti worries, currently suffers the opposite tendency, with preservation being used as a tool to stop development. At the same time, the criteria for saving buildings have proven inconsistent: Why aren’t more modern buildings being saved, too? And if they are, where is the line drawn between what’s worth preserving and what isn’t? “I think preservation has a place. I think the bigger problem with preservation is that it’s fundamentally an asymptote.” He points to the Meatpacking District as a case in point: What started as an effort to keep the low-scale character of the neighborhood led to zoning that bred a local “Hotlanta.”

Chakrabarti feels that great cities depend upon a balance of infrastructure, density, and preservation. When one of these veers off kilter, its future is in danger. He sees the High Line—he’s on the board of Friends of the High Line—as a good model: “One of my favorite notions about the High Line is that it’s a structure that Robert Moses built and Jane Jacobs would love. I will argue to my death that it’s going to result in the most architecturally ambitious neighborhood in this city and it’s going to do everything she talked about.” Not all of Moses’ legacy is worthy of derision, he said. “It’s just balance.”

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Spin City
Bicycles awaited takers outside the Storefront for Art and Architecture.
Ian Volner

After a quiet start last year, the second annual New York Bike-Share Project kicked off an expanded program on July 10 that included depots at four sites downtown with 30 bikes in all, available at no charge for a half-hour spin from rack to rack. The stations were located outside City Bakery near Union Square, at Birdbath Bakery’s two branches in the East and West Villages, and at Storefront for Art and Architecture on Kenmare Street, and attracted steady traffic, according to volunteer staff from the Forum for Urban Design, which co-produced the project with the participating locations.

The five-day pilot program was the latest development in the ongoing campaign to increase bike ridership in New York. Successful municipal bike-shares abroad have paved the way for a bike-friendly city, one where thousands of bicycles stationed at hundreds of racks would offer residents a practical alternative to the automobile—a vision long shared by local groups like NYC Bikes and Transportation Alternatives, both sponsors of this year’s trial.

Some of the challenges inherent to that vision have already arrived stateside. This month’s bike-share follows the announcement last spring that Washington, D.C. would introduce a European-style SmartBike of its own. That rollout, however, is behind schedule: There’s been difficulty integrating the new electronic kiosks with existing infrastructure. “I’d like to say we’ll be up and going in two weeks,” said District Department of Transportation’s Jim Sebastian, “but I’ve been saying that since May.”

In a shift away from Mayor Bloomberg's public skepticism about the feasiblity of bike-sharing in New York, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has recently signaled a greater commitment to exploring the idea. On July 7, NYC DOT issued a Request for Expressions of Interest for companies or organizations that could initiate and run a large scale program.

Forum for Urban Design executive director Lisa Chamberlain hopes the current experiment can prove the practical value of bike-sharing for New York. And it might do just that. The program attracted a daily record of more than 60 riders on Saturday, July 12. And Chamberlain reports that one man stopped to inquire about the rack on First Avenue, telling volunteers he was late to a meeting on the West Side. He grabbed a bike, sped westward, and deposited it at the Seventh Avenue Birdbath, arriving at the office with minutes to spare.

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Walk This Way
A new light installation in Dumbo seeks to illuminate the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge
Seth Ely/Courtesy Tillett Lighting Design

Last night, the New York City Department of Transportation turned on This Way, a permanent light art installation that illuminates and points the way to the Dumbo entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge’s pedestrian walkway. Designed by Linnaea Tillett, principal of Tillett Lighting Design, in collaboration with architect Karin Tehve of KT3D, the project was commissioned by the city’s Percent for Art program and the Dumbo Business Improvement District to commemorate the bridge’s 125th Anniversary.

According to Tillett, the installation seeks to achieve two goals: point the way to the difficult-to-find entrance and transform the dark, somewhat scary underpass into a comfortable, inviting urban environment. “You have this sublime bridge, then this back of house space,” said Tillett, who has a background as an environmental psychologist. “It looked ugly, but felt awful.”

To indicate the location of the entrance without falling back on straightforward signage, the designers looked to the structure of the bridge for inspiration, specifically to the span’s twisting steel suspender cables. This led them to a fiber optic product that consists of many tiny fibers twisted together to form individual lines. Tehve arranged the lines into several tentacular arrow forms that attach to the underside of the overpass and together, in a playful flowing trail, point the way to the entrance. Each arrow is lit by 150-watt metal halide lamps.

The installation also had to light the roadway, and, as with the wayfinding, the designers wanted to do so in a new way. Tillett decided on an LED fixture from Wisconsin-based manufacturer Beta LED that achieves significant coverage at relatively low wattage. In fact, during the year or so that the project was under development, Beta LED kept increasing the fixture’s efficiency so that the team was able to continue to tighten the overall wattage.

The fixtures in use now range from 79 watts to 128 watts, each one containing an equivalent amount of 1-watt LED lamps. To soften the LED’s somewhat harsh light, Tillett covered each fixture with a soft blue filter. The blue light also aids wayfinding from a distance, as residents can now show the way to visitors by simply pointing them toward the blue light.

“For us what makes a piece like this work is that it’s not only beautiful, but it has a civic function,” Tillett said. “The kind of work I’m interested in increases the quality of civic life at night.”

Unlike the Empire State Building and other light installations throughout the city, This Way will be on all night, from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Call it Dumbo’s night light.

Aaron Seward

The installation, by Tillett Lighting Design and KT3D, provides light and protection in the darkness of the overpass.
All photos by Seth ely/Courtesy Tillet Lighting Design
 
To help with wayfinding, the lights resemble abstract arrows.
 
The installation is meant to serve as a marker even from afar.
 
As one of the most popular attractions in brooklyn, it was important that the brooklyn bridge be both safe and accessible.
 
It also adds a touch of dynamism to the stolid architecture of the Brooklyn and manhattan bridges. The latter stands guard in the background.
 
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The Wheel Deal
A typical D.C. bike-sharing dock.
Courtesy Clear Channel

Starting in June, residents and visitors to Washington, D.C. will be able to run errands or see the sites on a borrowed bike. This high-tech bike-sharing program, a miniature version of the highly successful Velib program in Paris, where users rent bikes for a nominal annual fee, will be the first of its kind in the United States.

Underwritten by Clear Channel, which holds the city’s outdoor advertising contract, the program has been in the works for three years. With ten stations and 120 bikes, Washington’s program is modest in scale, conceived as it was before the rollout of the much larger Paris program, which involves thousands of bikes and hundreds of stations­­—and many happy customers. A recently released study found 94 percent of Parisian users were highly satisfied with the service.

“It’s good to start small in the U.S.,” said Jim Sebastian, pedestrian and bicycle program manager for the District Department of Transportation. Sebastian hopes to expand the program to include a thousand bikes and many additional stations, after some fine-tuning following the launch.

While praising Washington’s initiative, Wiley Norvell, communications director for the New York–based Transportation Alternatives, thinks the program’s tiny roll-out may be a handicap. “The ubiquity is part of what makes the Velib program work,” he said. “The perception of availability is important. In New York, you’d need thousands of bikes and hundreds of stations.” Still, he argues, bike sharing is an essential component in the development of bicycling as a large-scale mode of transportation. “New York needs to do more.”

Other American cities are getting in gear. On April 29, the Philadelphia city council endorsed the development of a similar plan. They are exploring two funding methods: one using an outdoor advertising contract similar to D.C. and Paris; and another that would manage the program through a non-profit organization, similar to Philadelphia’s car-sharing program, the largest regional car-sharing service in the world.

 

Dead End

It has been a long, winding road this last year for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan. After passing numerous speed bumps on its way to Albany, the plan has been halted yet again by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

With a midnight deadline set by the Department of Transportation to pass the plan or forgo $354 million in federal funds, Silver announced this afternoon that there would be no vote on the mayor’s proposal. Congestion pricing, at least for the time being, has reached a dead end. 

After the City Council supported the mayor’s plan on March 31 by an unusually close vote of 30 to 20, the question all week was whether it would gain the necessary support from Silver and Assembly Democrats, who put a hold on it last summer. That reluctance never broke. 

"The conference has decided that they are not prepared to do congestion pricing," Silver told reporters in Albany, according to The Associated Press. "Many members just don't believe in the concept. Many think this proposal is flawed. It will not be on the floor of the Assembly.” 

This leaves the proposal’s many supporters, and even some of its critics, preparing for the next step. Though many did not support one or another aspect of the plan to charge cars $8 and trucks $21 to enter Manhattan south of 60th Street during the weekday, those critics insisted throughout that they were not opposed to ending congestion or improving the environment. 

“The people that opposed this plan can’t go off and gloat and the people that supported it can’t go off and sulk,” Councilmember Lew Fidler, who falls into the former group, said. “We can’t turn our backs on each other. We have to find a fair and equitable solution.” 

Those who supported the plan sounded a solemn note but promised to persevere. “I don’t think anything will be as immediate or effective as congestion pricing, but I have a laundry list of ideas,” Straphanger’s Campaign attorney Gene Russianoff said. 

Kathryn Wilde, president of the Partnership for New York City, which released a report saying congestion cost the city $15 billion a year, said there was no better alternative for reducing congestion and funding public transportation. “It may not be today,” she said, “but congestion pricing is the ultimate answer to both problems and that will become clear eventually, as it has in other world cities.” 

The mayor’s plan had gained the support of Governor David Paterson and the leader of the Republican-led Senate, Joseph Bruno, though there were rumors that the plan was also due to fail in that house if it came to a vote. Still, it was ultimately Silver who brought down Bloomberg, much as he had with plans for a West Side stadium for the Olympics and the Jets. 

“The city never responded to our requests for meetings or information or anything,” Assemblymember Richard Brodsky said. Brodsky, a member of the state’s Congestion Mitigation Commission, said 80 percent of his democratic colleagues did not support the plan. The mayor has yet to respond to the Assembly’s decision. 

Russianoff said that despite the defeat of the proposal and the loss of the federal money, a new plan must be taken up, as on the West Side. “Too much work, and too much good work, has been done,” he said. “Traffic is often treated by New Yorkers like the weather. We have to change that. They have a future, and that future is without congestion.” 

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From Rusty to Renewable
Courtesy Department of Transportation

City planners have worried about maintaining New York’s web of roads, sewers, bridges, and public transit since commissioners drew up a blueprint for growth in 1811. Now, though, consensus is emerging that agencies must coordinate their upkeep if the city is to survive climate change and enormous population increases. Worries that our sewers are filling up and spewing wastewater into rivers are as old as city planning itself, but a coordinated response to those worries is new. Public officials from San Diego to Stockholm are addressing their cities’ ecological future, and they are less focused on technological fixes than on coordinating the way parks, transit, and economic development agencies share the land.

“We must think more holistically to achieve true, sustainable growth,” Empire State Development Corporation downstate chairman Patrick Foye told attendees at a New York Building Congress lunch on September 20. He’s got company. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s ambitious 127-point sustainability program PlaNYC 2030 asks Parks Department officials to work with transportation planners to develop standards that will make new parking lots into grassy sponges for stormwater. And the chief of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is responding to the aftermath of the storm that shut down subways on August 8 by surveying for sites where it can tap porous pavement or new vegetative landscaping to soak up water.

While the MTA consults landscape architects to make its far-flung properties more efficient, Foye’s agency is shelving its traditional emphasis on megaprojects like the Atlantic Yards development in favor of a measured approach. “The state’s historic focus on large-scale projects has actually short-changed our region,” Foye told the September 21 meeting. In the speech, Foye proposed a rezoning around the new Moynihan Station that would sprinkle air rights along the 34th Street corridor: This, he said, would “mean less disruption to commuters and tie development to the market.” In other words, it would temper demands on subways, sewers, and roads, lessening the odds of a catastrophe. That same incremental focus will guide Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 agenda, now six months old, through its implementation.

At the Hudson Yards site, which the MTA is selling to developers who want to link new buildings to the new station, PlaNYC has proposed a test site for a new system, called HLSS for “high-level storm sewer.” Such a sewer can sweep rain and snow into the river, reducing the risk that nearby older sewers will fill with combined stormwater and wastewater and shut down. “We emphasize backup systems for water supply, upgrading the energy grid,” said Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff in an interview with AN. “If we don’t upgrade our infrastructure, the risk to life and property and costs going forward are only going to magnify.”

These may seem like harsh words even from Doctoroff, a man who is known for his steely style. But he doesn’t come off like a Cassandra—his thinking is in line with his counterparts in London, Chicago, and other cities trying to increase housing densities and upgrade mass transit. Mayors in Sacramento and Boston are striking deals with big employers and adopting sustainability plans that will guide their public investment for the next generation. “Anybody who has eyes and ears and a brain,” he says of the city’s physical condition, “will be reminded that we are in a perilous state.”

That state demands clever collaboration across agencies. The crammed acreage that makes the city so logical for high density and mass transit also means that any effort to repair pipes and plumbing leads, logically and politically, to new patches of literal green. When the city wants to put a new water node or sewer line underground somewhere, explains assistant Parks commissioner Joshua Laird, it wants to make sure no developer builds anything on the site that would make it inaccessible for tests and repairs. So it creates new parks. “The land will have a park on it that we will manage with the caveat that if DEP needs to get back in there they will be able to,” says Laird. “There’s a new shaft site on Bowery adjacent to one of our houses. They had acquired an old Edison site, and when it is done, will be required to put a park on top.”

The MTA is also trying to keep development within its control by developing mixed-use hubs at some of its commuter rail stations, beginning with Beacon in Putnam County. Moreover, executive director Sander has convened a panel of green advisors. He promises the outlines of a masterplan for improving the MTA’s stormwater management, track upkeep, and energy efficiency by April 22, the first anniversary of Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 kick-off speech. This would go beyond the MTA’s longstanding use of new energy-efficient technology to make existing tracks carry more trains and existing bus routes carry more customers. Sander hopes to cover some of the involved expenses with revenue from the mayor’s much-discussed congestion charge.

Congestion pricing has emerged as a point of solidarity among Sander, Doctoroff, and EDC chief Robert Lieber, who all have been known to approach isolated economic-development issues focusing on the priorities of their respective agencies. Lieber is using his influence to urge executives whose companies might generate jobs to urge legislators to stop bickering over congestion pricing. Lieber, whose agency coordinates all waterfront conversions around town and accordingly must clear a host of rotting piers and suspect industrial sites, told audiences at an Economist-sponsored powwow and a New York Building Congress breakfast that he plans to use his pulpit to fight for new sources of infrastructure funding from all levels of government.

That call will expose discord between the no-nonsense city government and the more theatrical lawmakers in Albany. After a Con Edison steam pipe exploded in July and forced Midtown traffic to grind to a halt, Doctoroff described the new authority as inevitable. “Con Edison has got to invest more money, but you also have to change the way you think about energy,” said Doctoroff at the time. “Demand for energy by 2030 is projected to grow about 45 percent, and our plan holds it constant. We want to take stress off the system, and that means distributed generation.” PlaNYC calls for a city-created Energy Efficiency Authority to help finance building retrofits and create scattered small power plants, but Albany must approve the authority’s creation.

Finally, leaders are trying to persuade the private sector to invest in unglamorous upkeep. The administration disclosed plans in October to connect private landlords with the Clinton Climate Initiative, which has amassed $5 billion in loans to finance building retrofits. And PlaNYC’s implementation will require owners of parking lots over 6,000 square feet to plant trees along their edges and will promise a property tax break to offset 35 percent of the cost of new green roofs.

This kind of broad-based, small-bore work will define planners’ mandates and architects’ work for the next several years, but even if it is entirely successful, its achievement will hardly make the city an oasis of efficiency. Sander exposed the city’s fragile bones at a planners’ conference in mid-October when he confidently answered a question about how congestion pricing fees would help the MTA improve service. “You’ll see a 19th-century transit system moving into the 20th century.”

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A Lane of One's Own
Aaron Seward

Cyclists on Ninth Avenue will soon have a lane of their own. Currently under construction, the separated bike lane is adjacent to the sidewalk and buffered by a parking lane, and is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. Modeled on a similar program in Copenhagen, it also includes planted medians at intersections that shorten the pedestrian crossing distance by 25 feet. This so-called “complete street” design is being tested from 16th to 23rd streets where they then connect to more conventional bike lanes in the Meatpacking District and the West Village. “We’re really trying to get quality over quantity, not just more bike lanes, but the best bike lanes in any given situation,” Joshua Benson, bicycle program coordinator for the Department of Transportation (DOT), said.

While the goal of the program is to improve bicycle safety and to increase bike ridership as a part of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, the design should provide benefits for drivers as well, chiefly through easier turns at left lanes at 16th, 18th, and 22nd streets. The turning lanes should relieve what DOT calls “back pressure,” a situation in which drivers, for fear of being rear-ended, make hasty turns that imperil pedestrians. In addition to the left turn lanes, which cross the bike lane, intersections will be equipped with special signals for both the turn lane and the bike lane. “There are a lot of pieces to it, but people are adjusting smoothly,” he said. “The key for this project is to study it and learn how it functions.”

Cycling enthusiasts are effusive about the design. “The design was unveiled and it was under construction a month later. In New York, that’s nothing short of revolutionary,” said Wiley Norvell, communications director for the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. “I know a lot of planners around the country who are jealous.”
 

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Grate Expectations
Courtesy Rogers Marvel Architects

The August 8 flooding and closure of the subway system left a lot of people wondering about the vulnerability of New York’s infrastructure. If a few hours of rain could bring the city to a halt, is its transportation network prepared for larger-scale natural or manmade disasters? While the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and other agencies wrestle with the long-term answers to this question, a group of designers has been asked to figure out how to keep sheets of water from pouring into sidewalk subway gratings during heavy rains.

On September 11, the MTA’s Arts for Transit convened Grimshaw Architects, Rogers Marvel Architects, and Antenna Design to investigate ways to remake the subway grating at stations that are prone to flooding. “This is an emergency situation,” said Sandra Bloodworth, director of Arts for Transit, “so we called some minds together who have worked on these issues.” All three firms have worked on public space infrastructure, including Grimshaw’s street furniture (“Newsworthy Newsstands,” AN 16_10.03.2007), Rogers Marvel’s security bench/bollard combos in the Financial District, and Antenna’s new subway cars.

Subway grates provide fresh air as well as ventilation in case of fire, so the goal of the redesign is to keep the airflow open while raising the grates above the sidewalk’s surface. Grimshaw’s proposal is based on a standard kit of parts and forms a bench. Rogers Marvel’s is blockier but has an undulating seating surface that makes it difficult to use for skateboarding tricks. Antenna’s combines benches with planters, which help to absorb rainwater. All three are designed to plug into existing grate openings and require minimal work on the sidewalks.

“We are so excited to be working on another project for the city,” said Jennifer Carpenter, partner in TRUCK Product Architecture, Rogers Marvel’s industrial design department. “I think we all want this piece of infrastructure to be a public amenity.”

“The MTA’s director, Eliot Sanders, likes to talk about how his mother had to go pick up his father after the Queens Boulevard lines flooded 40 years ago,” said Jeremy Soffin, press secretary for the MTA. “So this problem has been around, but we’re trying to come up with innovative solutions.” Longer-term plans include modified streetscapes, with greater permeability and more greenery, and more powerful pumping systems.

Midtown's Dream Team

 

Several weeks ago, in one of the most unique planning exercises in recent city history, six leading design professionals donated their time to collaborate on a day-long charrette in a vacant storefront at United Nations Plaza. They produced a bold new vision for the redevelopment of Midtown Manhattan’s forlorn-looking East River waterfront.

 

Most of the area that the designers focused on, between East 38th and East 42nd streets, is currently a no-man’s land that bears the imprint of a period in planning when cars were given priority over pedestrians. The dominant feature is a nine-acre development site where a Con Edison plant was once located in front of a massive elevated off-ramp from the FDR Drive.

 

The charrette, which was held under the auspices of the Municipal Art Society (MAS), was an effort to harmonize the development agendas for four proposed projects: the United Nations expansion, the renovation of the FDR Drive, the extension of Manhattan’s greenway up the East Side, and the redevelopment of the Con Ed site. “We wanted to bring all the players together,” says Kent Barwick, president of the MAS.

 

On the morning of the charrette, Midtown East stakeholders—including representatives from Manhattan CB6, the New York State Department of Transportation, the New York City Parks Department, and East Side Realty Company, which is redeveloping the Con Ed site with a master plan by Richard Meier and David Childs—made a presentation to the participating designers: Ricardo Scofidio of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Kate Orff of Scape Studio, Margie Ruddick of WRT, Ken Smith of Ken Smith Landscape Architect, Brian Jencek of Hargreaves Associates, and Matthew Urbanski of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. This was actually the first time that their representatives, with the exception of the UN, discussed their objectives in the same room.

 

In many ways the different visions presented appeared to be irreconcilable. For example, some of the stakeholders presented plans showing options for decking over FDR Drive to provide access to the East River. But for the DOT, there are major constraints against building a deck that slopes down to the river, most notably the FDR’s elevated 42nd Street exit ramp.

 

However, the design that was unveiled the following Sunday addressed the various objectives of the different stakeholders. It links together the proposed projects with a 33- to 36-foot-high terrace running from East 38th Street to East 42nd Street, which cantilevers over FDR Drive. A forested hill on the terrace conceals infrastructure, by surrounding a ventilator shaft and covering over the FDR's 42nd Street exit ramp. Access to the waterfront is provided by a pedestrian/ bicycle ramp descending from the terrace across the FDR and another extending across the highway. A six story glass pylon at the river’s edge would house a restaurant and a ferry terminal. “We realized that if this was going to be viable,” said Scofidio, “we would have to please the DOT.”