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BuildingcommunityWORKSHOP (bcWORKSHOP) is a non-profit, community-oriented design practice with offices in Dallas, Houston, and Brownsville, Texas. Helmed by founder Brent Brown, bcWORKSHOP seeks to improve the livability and viability of communities through the practice of thoughtful design. Working across scales and outside of the traditional boundaries of architecture, bcWORKSHOP is pushing the limits of what it means to be a contemporary architecture practice servicing a community. Their work goes beyond building to include elements of mapping, landscape and urban planning, filmography, community organizing, and marketing. Managing director Thor Erickson elucidated their approach, “We try to operate at multiple scales, from the entire city down to one neighborhood. Within that one neighborhood, we create a platform to go in and do some activating vacancy work, working with the residents to understand their needs and what they want from their community. That is how some of our housing projects and planning projects get started.” Each element of the practice has grown out of a certain need that was unaddressed or a problem that needed solving, lending the studio a degree of hands-on experience and unrivaled credibility within the communities where they operate. “I think community-oriented design is only going to grow,” said Brown. “Right now the questions are: Is it a specialty? Is it a credential subset like LEED, or is it a market segment? You do hospitals, you do schools, and you do public interest design. I completely reject that. I believe that every architect should ethically perform within the public interest.”
Cottages at Hickory Crossing
The Cottages at Hickory Crossing are representative of bcWORKSHOP’s ability to be sensitive to user and community needs while still delivering good design. Currently under construction, the project is intended to provide permanent housing for 50 chronically homeless residents. The houses are 430-square-foot one-bedroom homes oriented around a central green space and clustered into what Erickson described as “micro-neighborhoods.” “The plan was very thoughtfully crafted with many key partners here. This was a unique project because our client here was the homeless population who was brought into the community meetings early so that we could understand not only their immediate physical needs of housing, but what types of spaces would work in that situation.” Erickson said. The project not only addresses the immediate habitation needs of these homeless citizens, but provides a model for sustainable living by maximizing open space and incorporating sustainable technologies into the project while providing a viable return on investment.
One of bcWORKSHOP’s first projects and an ad-hoc prototype for much of the firm’s later work, Congo Street Initiative was completed over a period of five years. Like many of bcWORKSHOP’s projects, it grew into an extensive planning and engagement strategy for the neighborhood at large. The project originated as way for five families to rebuild their homes on a street that had been slated for removal without any of the residents being displaced during construction. bcWORKSHOP created a plan which would see each family move in-turn to a newly built “Holding House” that they could temporarily inhabit while their family home was rebuilt. This approach allowed each family to retain residency on their street while engaging with the design and construction of their new home. After this initial phase, the project grew into the first implementation in Dallas of a “Green Street” sustainable urban infrastructure. Congo Street was transformed by reducing street width to minimize impervious paving, providing integrated stormwater retention, bioremediation, shared landscaping, and design strategies to encourage community interaction.
Ark on Noah Street
The Ark on Noah Street is a powerful example of the synthesis between the different scales of practice at which bcWORKSHOP operates. Arising from the mapping, planning, and community organizing exercises, bcWORKSHOP performs under their POP (People, Organizing, Place) initiatives, the Ark provides a locus for community engagement and an idea exchange in order to activate a traditionally underserved area. The Ark is a physical manifestation of bcWORKSHOP’s collaboration with the Dallas CityDesign Studio on Activating Vacancy, an art and design initiative for the Tenth Street Historic District in Dallas. Composed of reclaimed and salvaged materials built around a shipping container, the Ark debuted as a temporary gallery of community art. The project will be stored and re-assembled for a yearly festival celebrating the neighborhood and its institutions.
Cameron County, TX
Rapido represents the most ambitious and far-reaching initiative the bcWORKSHOP has undertaken to date. A holistic approach to responding to natural disasters, Rapido presents a comprehensive framework integrating key components of rebuilding after a disaster. Starting with what Brown calls a ‘temp-to-perm’ model, the initiative seeks to enable temporary shelter to form the core of permanent housing. This core concept is buttressed by community outreach, case management, labor recruitment, and resource deployment, and works with federal and local agencies to facilitate resource allocation and recovery. This initiative is perhaps the most complete expression of what bcWORKSHOP seeks to accomplish through their work: Exhibiting a level of design thinking that goes beyond aesthetics and infrastructure to address human needs through superior problem solving.
As part of the AN developers feature, Matt Shaw interviewed representatives from four developers who are innovating in New York and elsewhere using alternative models for development. These perspectives offer new ways forward as the architecture and business communities work together to find new design, housing, and community-oriented solutions to our 21st century urban issues.
Sumaida + Khurana
Up-and-coming developer Sumaida + Khurana is bringing high-profile international architects to do its first buildings in New York, including NoLita condos by Tadao Ando and a forthcoming 400-foot midtown tower by Alvaro Siza. Amit Khurana has more than two decades of experience in the real estate industry, while Saif Sumaida holds an architecture degree from the Cooper Union. Together, they are changing how New York development is designed.
Matt Shaw: How did you end up working together as developers?
Saif Sumaida: I graduated from Cooper Union with a degree in architecture, and the education was very rich in discourse and concepts. Just by accident, I actually ended up in construction, and over the last 23 years, I’ve been building in New York. I like working as a developer because you have control of authorship both from a construction and architecture perspective, but also as the developer when you put the vision together.
Amit Khurana: Saif is tremendously experienced and when we met it was an interesting fit just because I love architecture and design. I have to give Saif such credit for this but when we are in a room with an architect and we sit down, his knowledge is so fantastic, to not only think of just construction but to think of how architecture relates to construction. And I think that it was a unique situation because there was a shared vision and very complementary sets of skills.
What do you feel these projects bring to New York as a city, not just for the residents of the buildings?
AK: We see ourselves as developer/custodians of the built environment and ultimately we have a responsibility because we play a very important role that really changes the city. Small or large—it doesn’t matter. It’s about uplifting people, and fulfilling the dream of the city too, right? I think if you ask anyone, at the end of the day people appreciate excellence. It’s not about the asset type, it’s not necessarily about who is going to live there or rent there or work there. It has something to do with a kind of purity of design and the impact it has on people.
SS: I think the problem is a lot of developers are really looking at buildings as commodities to monetize. But I think there is a legacy to be made in selecting the architect and making something that has meaning and has a place in the fabric of the city and that is something that you’ll ultimately be proud of. We want to create places. We feel that we have some sort of a social responsibility to do that.
Why bring in these architects?
AK: New York is a melting pot with a lot of influence from outside. We also came from different countries although we spent so much time here. We wanted to just focus on, in a very pure fashion, this idea of bringing master architects to New York to design their very first buildings here. Especially in New York where as-of-right sites are such a tremendous opportunity to work in a specific way and to push the envelope a little bit. looking at it and finding a site, we’re actually looking for a site for Ando or for Siza. This inverted process allows us to think about things a little bit differently.
SS: A lot of developers rely on marketing people to tell them what has worked. They’re following formulas because they believe that these are the formulas that will get them the profit. People find a proof of concept and just follow it. You don’t have to think too much. When you bring somebody else from abroad or somebody who hasn’t built anything in New York, they actually bring a certain amount of freshness. What’s amazing about New York is that it allows for this diversity. You can still be visionary and make it successful.
Do you think that your experience as an architect lets you work with these architects in a different way rather than other developers?
SS: I think the one thing is, I’m very respectful of the process. I’m always able to talk to architects in their language. Instead of looking at it, again, as a commodity, I can engage them in their concepts and be able to enter that dialogue and be able to discuss it with them as opposed to always looking for an end product. I can enter the process and into a discourse with them so that once I understand what they’re trying to do we can then figure how best to get there.
You mentioned affordable housing a little bit. Do you see that as a project that could be interesting to take on?
SS: Very much so. I think there’s a responsibility for developers to be able to bring to the city various projects. It can’t just be building for the wealthy, you have to be able to do it for all. Otherwise, you’re not really making an impact in the city as you think you are. To make an impact on the city you have to touch on the various fabrics.
AK: Well I think that it’s also responding to the realities of where you are in a market cycle. Currently we’re in a market where land is insanely expensive. So we have to respond to that. It’s always allowing yourself to be flexible with different opportunities. I mean, imagine bringing in a famous Spanish architect to New York to build a wonderful, affordable housing project or something like that. It isn’t about how many dollars per foot you spend on a construction; it’s about thoughtfulness. We have the ability and skillset that allows us to also control costs and control some of these variables that can get out of control.
Thorsten Kiefer, HFZ
Thorsten Kiefer is Director of Design and Development for HFZ Capital Group. In this role, he has helped initiate collaborations with architects such as David Chipperfield, BIG, Moshe Safdie, and Isay Weinfeld on projects at various scales in New York and Miami. He talked with AN about his background at OMA, SOM, and SHoP, and what someone in his position can bring to the firm and ultimately the city.
As an architect at OMA in Rotterdam, his job included working in collaboration with Diller Scofidio + Renfro on a master plan for Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2001. This experience at OMA also led to HFZ bringing in OMA to develop an entire empty city block in New York between Tenth and Washington streets along the High Line. However, OMA wasn’t able to continue because of previous contractual commitments, so HFZ turned to another OMA alumni, Bjarke Ingels of BIG, who had worked with Thorsten 15 years ago.
Matt Shaw: You have an interesting background. How did you end up in this role as an experienced architect working directly for a developer?
Thorsten Kiefer: My time at SHoP was truly formative. At SHoP I worked on competitions in London and New York as well as the redevelopment of the South Street Seaport, initially with General Growth and then followed by Howard Hughes. I formed a number of connections with the development side of the business and after a couple of years at SHoP I began looking for the next career challenge. This opportunity seemed interesting for myself.
What is your role at HFZ?
As Director of Design and Development, I work closely with the marketing team and our executives on the overall conceptual and programmatic framework. The team establishes a list of architects, which we believe would be a great fit for the project. In high-end residential development, the branding aspect of an interior designer or design architect can make a difference in sales.
The global desire for design is higher now than it was 20 years ago. There is money from many countries. Different cultures have different attitudes toward design, and the global market is reacting to that. A lot of global people invest in the city. HFZ tries to offer a high quality product. We do high-end residential, and without design, we wouldn’t get the margins. The value added from the architecture is necessary to get the numbers. 432 Park Avenue by Viñoly has a tremendous location, so people would buy there anyway. But 432 is getting astronomical numbers. Would you get the same price per square foot without the good design? Would the Russians, Chinese, Europeans, and South Americans still choose it?
This position is more common than maybe known in the architectural community. Large developers like Related or Extell have in house design teams. I do believe that this role is valuable. There are very different mindsets in design, construction, and development. The architect is best suited to mediate in between all of them. I also work with zoning lawyers to see if our massing is possible, and also with the construction team to make sure quality is good.
How do you see your role impacting the designs and ultimately the city?
Ziel Feldman, founder and chairman of HFZ as well as Nir Meir, Principal partner at HFZ are very keen on design and quality. Good design simply distinguishes our product within a very competitive market, and we understand this well. I’m also really interested in finding smart solutions to making the city a nice, vibrant place to be.
We are working with David Chipperfield on the last empty lot at Bryant Park and those units will come on the market in the next couple of months. I truly believe that it will not just be a beautiful piece of architecture completing an important urban space in New York, but also a very successful development.
What can this position bring to a company?
I believe an architect is best suited to communicate between all the different groups involved within the development process. We all know that the motivations of construction, marketing, development, or design are not always necessarily aligned, so the role we have with the position is to bring the different mindsets a little closer and hope that the end result is good design.
Do you ever push for different types of projects, like affordable housing?
I certainly have my personal opinion on “affordability” in New York and I do think that affordable housing will be a challenging component in any future residential development in this city.
Brenda Rosen, Common Ground
Common Ground is the largest supportive housing developer and operator in New York. The organization offers formerly homeless people quality environments and services to recover, and also works to develop more traditional affordable housing. Its non-profit status makes its work different from many other developers in the city. Brenda Rosen is the president and CEO, and she gave us some insight on how Common Ground supports its tenants and navigates the non-profit development process.
Courtesy Common Ground
Matt Shaw: What is the mission of Common Ground?
Brenda Rosen: Supportive housing is affordable housing with onsite services so that’s what is different from your cookie-cutter affordable or market rate operation. There is a percentage of the tenants that come through the lottery process like any other affordable low-income tenant. And the other part of the building is filled with formerly homeless people who oftentimes are suffering from mental illness or substance abuse issues or medical issues and often times all of the above.
So there’s 50 percent or 60 percent of the building that is set aside for people coming from those circumstances and that is why we have onsite support to make sure that all of our tenants—low-income, regular working people, and those who are formerly homeless and who are coming with a lot of challenges and a lot of issues—have the support that they need to do that and to be as successful in housing as anybody else. With the exception of a few projects, one in Rochester and two in Connecticut, we are the property managers for all of our projects so we never leave the project.
We are about to break ground on our first stand-alone conventional affordable project which will be 248 units of affordable housing and that will not have a supportive housing component at all. Because our buildings are tax-credit buildings, your income has to be at 60 percent or less of the Area Median Income. We do the same marketing, advertising, and lottery like any other developer in the city for the affordable housing.
What are some of the challenges of being a non-profit? What does it mean to be a non-profit developer?
What it means is that the financing of the projects can be incredibly complicated compared to for-profits. When we finance a project we have multiple streams of support coming in for capital and for operating. We’ll use bonds, we’ll use tax credits, we’ll use state and city subsidies. And sometimes borough presidents or city council funds will fill a gap that we might have on the capital side. We also have government contracts that are providing operating support so we have regulatory agreements and government contracts, which means we are under intense scrutiny at all times regarding the services that we’re providing and the quality of the housing.
Can you talk more about what it means to be non-profit and specifically do affordable housing?
Fortunately or unfortunately we are not in this business to make a ton of money as we develop. Any non-profit developer that builds housing—for whatever population—will be collecting a developer fee. I think that the thing that really sets a non-profit apart from a for-profit developer is that all of the development fees that we collect, all of the net proceeds of whatever we’re doing, goes right back into the services and the housing that we’re providing. At the end of the day, again, we’re here to have a sound investment for investors that will buy our tax credits and finance a building. But we aren’t here to come out with this monstrous surplus in our budget. I think that because we are a mission-driven organization, our goal is ultimately to develop and operate housing for vulnerable people in New York.
What role does design play in your mission and in your projects?
Design in all of our projects is a top priority for us. We believe that a pride in home and surroundings helps recovering people to gain stability and to really end up succeeding. Ennead [Architects] did Schermerhorn in downtown Brooklyn for us. It has a ton of green elements, is cantilevered over a subway, and it’s incredibly beautiful. We have worked with COOKFOX who designed a building for us in Brownsville and is designing our next two buildings up on Webster Avenue in the Bronx—both a supportive building and an affordable building. The apartments and hallways are really flooded with natural light.
COOKFOX and Robert A.M. Stern are normally known for high-end buildings and yet they come back and work with us again and again, and bring those same design elements into an affordable project. Not many non-profits get to say that Robert A.M. Stern is going to be doing their next project and build in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn. We also develop mini studios, where the average apartment is between 225 to 300 square feet. We have to be really thoughtful about the design of the interior of each apartment. I’ve joked that we were doing micro units long before micro units were popular.
What are some of the challenges that you face when choosing sites?
Years ago when we were looking for land, we would site projects in Manhattan and in Brooklyn and in other places. Over the last several years we’ve done new construction in downtown Brooklyn, Brownsville, the South Bronx, and the Lower East Side, in addition to our older Manhattan sites in Midtown. But now primarily the only affordable land for us at this point is in the Bronx.
Common Ground tends to build large. Our smallest building has 72 units and our largest has 640. We prefer to have a building with 200 or more units. So you need a lot of buildable square feet for that, because in addition to the apartments we have a lot of community space in our buildings for our tenants—so we can have computer labs, a multi-purpose room, a gym, outdoor spaces, and offices for the onsite support staff.
Lisa Kim, Two Trees
Two Trees Management Company was founded in 1968 and has developed over 3 billion dollars in real estate. It is most famous for its redevelopment of the industrial neighborhood of Dumbo, Brooklyn. The company has remained committed to fostering artistic and cultural activity in the area through subsidized spaces for arts community tenants, and more broadly, supporting art as an urban issue. Lisa Kim is the Cultural Affairs Director for Two Trees. She formerly served as Private Collection Manager and Director of Exhibitions and Operations at Gagosian Gallery.
Courtesy Two Trees
Matt Shaw: What initiatives does Two Trees have to support arts and culture?
Lisa Kim: Just having someone in my position is different. I am not a real estate person. My entire background comes from the art world. And so they brought me in to be the liaison to the art community and to think about this notion of organizing the company’s efforts of cultural philanthropy and making space for arts and artists in the neighborhood and how that integrates into our development. For Two Trees in Dumbo, it was really organic from the beginning. They own the majority of this neighborhood, and have seen it change.
It has become expensive for artists to work in Dumbo. The reason for the cultural space subsidy program is to find an organized way to create a level of support for the art community and open up space in our buildings for artists and non-profit groups. We thought an application process was the best way to do it. The space subsidy is rather dramatic. If you are granted a space subsidy here you’re given a lease of up to three years at basically a dollar a foot per month.
It’s tricky because there are a lot of people that certainly do want to bring artists in just to kind of spruce stuff up and then leave them when they don’t need them, but that’s not our case. We have 17 tenants—11 artists and six non-profit groups. With the cultural space subsidy tenants who’ve come in, we want to make sure that they’re also an active part of the community over there.
We want them to know who else is in the neighborhood. We had a little happy hour event last month where we brought in, not just the cultural space subsidy tenants, but our other artists and arts organizations tenants.
Who are some of the tenants?
We have New York’s first feminist cooperative gallery that was founded in 1972 and has been in Dumbo for eight years. On the 2nd floor of 20 Jay Street is a young theater group that goes to empower young women, to teach them how to write, direct, and perform plays about women’s issues. So here you have an A.I.R. gallery, a 40-year-old institution meeting Girl Be Heard, a six-year-institution with very-like minded initiatives talking about what they do.
We’ve been the go-to for arts groups that need a space once they’ve been booted from Tribeca, or Chelsea, or Soho. So we have arts support groups such as the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Marie Walsh Sharpe Faith Program. We also have the sculpture studio for the NY Studio School. Brooklyn Arts Council has their offices here. Arcadia is another arts funding organization that has its office here. We’ve been very supportive, for decades, to St. Ann’s Warehouse and to Smack Mellon. These are all tenants who had free to low rent. So it creates a very serious art community and a cluster in this neighborhood.
Do these cultural initiatives translate to added value for the developers? Or is this sort of a cultural, philanthropic project?
I think it’s cultural and philanthropic. A lot of people want to quantify what happens when you bring culture, but you can’t say when you put in X amount of dollars into arts support that you’re going to affect your bottom line by another number because you can raise property values or rents are higher or various other things. I mean I think it’s really anecdotal. I wish I could give you a metric. If you have cool shit for people to see they’re going to come see it. So who’s doing the cool shit, it’s the arts groups, right?
So how are these initiatives structured financially? Are they part of a separate non-profit? How does it relate to Two Trees?
Well, we’re a two-person part of the staff of Two Trees. The cultural space subsidy program is straight out of Two Trees. You get the same commercial space you would get if you were a market rate tenant. In Dumbo we have three commercial buildings—45 Main, 54 Washington, and 20 Jay Street—and our subsidy tenants are spread throughout all three buildings.
Then, separately, there is the non-profit Walentas Family Foundation with two programs as part of it. One is a neighborhood school program where grants are given for innovative school programs. The other half is the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program that offers 17 selected artists free studio space for one year in New York.
What does someone in your role bring to the development firm?
Because I’m naive to the world of development I can really be fresh about my approach in thinking about the art first. I go create it first and then there’s the reality check of is it possible to do this? On this site? Is it possible to do it in this budget? Does it make sense for this project or development?” And that’s when you start to put things together.
One of the buildings is a rather significant renovation and that’s the old Galapagos Art Space building at Water and Main streets. Four galleries will occupy that space. We spent the winter and spring months renovating that building from a cavernous, theater event space/bar to four beautiful sixteen-foot-ceiling white box gallery spaces.
On a New York City map, the seven-mile roadway that cuts through Queens is designated as Queens Boulevard. But to many New Yorkers, the notoriously dangerous street is known by another name: the Boulevard of Death. According to the city, 185 people (most of them pedestrians) have been killed on the boulevard since 1990; over that time, scores more have been seriously injured. For Mayor de Blasio—who wants to eliminate traffic deaths through a street safety campaign called Vision Zero—overhauling the Boulevard of Death was an obvious place to focus his attention.
In March, the Department of Transportation presented a $100 million plan to transform an especially hazardous 1.3-mile section of the street where 42 people were killed or seriously injured between 2009 and 2013. The plan would fundamentally change the geometry of the street by widening sidewalks, shortening crosswalks, reorganizing slip lanes, and creating pedestrian plazas and protected bike lanes.
“Work has begun to turn Queens Boulevard into a Boulevard of Life—literally remaking this street, rewriting its future, making it safe for all,” said the mayor at a press conference along the street as construction kicked off in July.
Transit advocates and numerous elected officials from Queens and around New York heralded the redesign of Queens Boulevard—especially its inclusion of protected bike lanes—as a “safe streets” homerun. But to these same stakeholders, the laudable transformation of Queens Boulevard is an exception in the DOT’s track record of creating safe streets for cyclists. In the Vision Zero era—after Michael Bloomberg waged, and largely won, the battle to make New York more bike-friendly—the so-called “bicycle lobby” and its allies are questioning the DOT’s commitment to protecting people pedaling around town.
As work was just beginning on Queens Boulevard, the DOT presented a $60 million plan to remake part of another notoriously dangerous roadway in New York: Atlantic Avenue. The redesign included traffic calming measures to protect pedestrians, but like many recent road diets proposed and implemented by the department, it lacked any bicycle infrastructure. To the added chagrin of cyclists, as these plans have been rolled out, existing bike lanes across the city have been worn into oblivion while others have failed to reappear following street resurfacings.
In July, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James wrote a public letter to DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg inquiring about these issues. After lauding the department’s commitment to Vision Zero, she asked why certain road diets were missing bicycle infrastructure and urged the department to make bike lanes the “default option when a street is up for a redesign.”
Paul Steely-White, executive director of the non-profit Transportation Alternatives, said the DOT must be bolder about implementing bicycle infrastructure if it is serious about eliminating traffic fatalities by 2024. With the rate of bicycling increasing, neighborhoods clamoring for bike lanes, Citi Bike now doubling in size, and the mandate of Vision Zero, he believes the department has all the political capital it needs to do so. “It’s no longer a political issue, it’s simply a DOT performance issue,” he said. “There is a residual shyness from a lot of DOT professionals who are perhaps gun shy from the bike lanes battles of the Bloomberg years,” he said. “But politically, socially, we’ve evolved beyond that and it’s time for the agency to catch up.”
DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo said the criticisms levied at the department are not reflective of the reality on the ground. “People should be impatient, they should want things to come quickly, but there has been a process,” he said.
Russo explained that while certain road diets may exclude bike lanes, they can be the first step in convincing skeptical communities that precarious streets can become complete streets. “We have to get people from A to C,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean every single street has to have a bike lane initially or when you do a project.” In the Vision Zero era, he continued, redesigning a dangerous intersection might initially get priority over a bike lane. The idea is that once a street is made safer for all users (cyclists included), the DOT can go back to a community board with a more substantial focus on cyclist safety.
To Ben Fried, the editor-in-chief of StreetsBlog, a popular pro-transit publication, this strategy amounts to unnecessary “self-censorship” on the part of the DOT. Since road diets often meet community resistance whether they include bike lanes or not, the DOT “might as well propose the bike lane anyway,” he said. To many advocates, the best way to create support for bike lanes is to implement bike lanes.
As for the condition of the existing bike network, Russo, who bikes to work from Brooklyn, understands cyclists’ frustration about faded markings and vanished paint. He said the winter was especially harsh on existing lanes, but that “under Vision Zero we have money we never had dedicated to upgrading our markings, and we’ve been growing that operation.”
Overall, the DOT is bullish on its bike lane record—especially outside of Manhattan. The department highlighted bike networks it has proposed or implemented in Long Island City, Ridgewood, Queens, Brownsville and East New York, and around the Harlem River. Each of these plans includes a mix of bike infrastructure from shared lanes to protected lanes to bike pathways. In August, Commissioner Trottenberg also announced that the DOT would be presenting plans for a bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue, a project cyclists and local officials have been requesting for years.
The DOT plans to install 50 miles of bike lanes per year, at least five of which will be protected.
Building on its success in developing research that led to the High Line and the first purpose-built NYC Taxi, the Design Trust for Public Space partnered with the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) on a two-year research project exploring in-depth the 700 plus miles of elevated infrastructure across New York City, and the spaces below. The results of this study have been published in a new book entitled Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities.
The book was developed by Design Trust fellows Neil Donnelly, Susannah Drake, Krisanne Johnson, Chat Travieso, and Douglas Woodward. Together, the team analyzed spaces under bridges, highways, subway tracks, and rail lines as a comprehensive network of underutilized urban space. They envisioned new strategies for developing these sites, as well as a criteria for choosing the most potentially useful ones.
Douglas Woodward, vice president of Design + Development at Edison Properties told AN that the project started in 2001 when the Design Trust recommended that the 33 urban spaces under the High Line should be considered equally important as those above it. Edison Properties wanted to figure out what to do with the plots they owned, so they approached the Design Trust, who put out a call for fellows. "Rather than having an urban designer or architect, we felt we should have a landscape architect," explained Woodward.
Drake approaches urban design with an ecological focus, having previously received EPA grants for pilot projects to improve stormwater management on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. However, this is only one part of the larger equation of Under the Elevated. "We always want to improve underused places, ecologically, culturally and socially," said Drake. "These are places where transit cuts through human scale things."
NYCDOT, a collaborator on the project, has been searching for and realizing innovative urban design strategies in recent years, illustrated by such work as the Plaza Program and the Green Infrastructure Unit. Its mission for Under The Elevated is to empower communities to improve those leftover, underused spaces, and reconnect them to the urban fabric.
What is next for the program? "We are talking to the DOT now, trying to find some sites to kick the program off," said Drake. "We are all committed to it, but until we have something on the street it won’t seem that real to me. We have the pop-ups, but we need something permanent." Without having to abide by the same stringent regulations as most long-term urban design projects, pop-ups have proved to be a good tool for experimentation. The pilot projects, while more permanent, are still recognized as tests which can push the envelope.
The program addresses a range of issues from policy and ownership to simple problems, including measures to reduce noise and increase light. Neil Gagliardi, director of urban design at NYCDOT, says that the information from the study is very useful, and the agency is committed to moving forward with the ideas proposed. (NYCDOT owns, or at least operates nearly all of the spaces.)
"This is the first comprehensive approach. It is good to look at [underused spaces under the elevated] as a system and how they can benefit the city,” explained Gagliardi. “We are testing some solutions over the next few months mainly around lighting, because it is the main complaint we get." NYCDOT has engaged Sam Schwartz Engineering to look at the spaces on Livonia Avenue in Brownsville, and has also sought the expertise of other designers whom the agency has worked with in the past. The goal is to establish a toolkit of tried-and-tested strategies to enhance spaces under the elevated.
NYCDOT has identified pilot sites to inform its larger framework called the EL Space Program. It will address sites in Sunset Park's Industry City at 36th Street and "Rampland" in Long Island City along Dutch Kills Street—with the hope to get funding for a more comprehensive program. The pilot program is funded through public and private sources and will depend partially on how the Department of City Planning (DCP) rezones these areas. NYCDOT is working with City Planning to incorporate elevated spaces into housing and zoning initiatives. For example, The Jerome Avenue area in the Bronx has been the focus of recent rezoning efforts, and the city has expressed interest in improving lighting in places under the elevated infrastructure as part of its economic development strategy.
The question is whether these improvements will come to fruition.
"I think it’s more real than the High Line," said Gagliardi. "We need comprehensiveness to help plan strategies and plan criteria. What places are best used for industrial operations? Which are best for the pedestrian?"
The ultimate success of this program will likely be the strategies born from this study. These forgotten, underused tracts, however, are not just found in New York City. They are ubiquitous in most cities in post-industrial America. The study has far-reaching potential, and could serve as a lesson in how to exploit and make good use of underutilized spaces.
Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities is available for $30.00 from the Design Trust.
In AN's last Southwest issue is a story by Editor-in-Chief William Menking, which is about a worker housing development built in the 1940s in Grand Prairie, Texas. Called Avion Village, it was part of a New Deal project to provide housing for military and civilian defense personnel during WWII. I won’t rehash the whole thing here. You should read the story. But a couple of aspects of it came as surprises to us editors. One was to learn that Richard Neutra was involved in the design of the project, along with Texas architects Roscoe P. DeWitt and David Williams. We were all familiar with Neutra’s George Kraigher House in Brownsville, which was restored last year by University of Texas at Brownsville, but had no idea that the Viennese architect had a hand in a progressive development in the state. The other is that Avion Village is still there, if in somewhat diminished condition, and is now owned and operated as a limited-equity cooperative.
Less surprising is that there aren’t more examples of this sort of housing development in the region. Once the top-down planning initiatives of the New Deal came to an end and the economic boom of the postwar years took over, suburban housing development in the region and in the U.S. as a whole took on a different cast, one fueled by a surging middle class (may it surge again!) and hungry developers bent on capitalizing on the market. Sometimes this resulted in modern designs and community spaces—California has many such examples—but more often than not, it meant retreading old styles from the Eastern Seaboard and Europe and maximizing private lot sizes to make the most of a sale. The idealistic communal garden space that was central to early suburb schemes like Radburn, New Jersey, was either parceled out and fenced off, or made into golf courses.
Which isn’t to say that progressive housing development is dead in the Southwest. It just comes from local sources rather than federal agencies, like faith-based charities and other not-for-profit organizations. Also in this issue is a story about AIA Austin’s Tiny Victories competition. Put together in collaboration with homeless care charity Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the competition selected four winning designs (from 55 entries) of small shelters for the homeless, 60-to-70 of which will be built at the Community First! Villages site in East Austin. The designs are modest but dignified. They sit lightly on the land and will be made available at a price that is affordable.
Of course, other than the fact that these two projects were intended for low-income or working-class people, there isn’t much that connects them. Neutra, European modernist that he was, designed the housing at Avion Village in a modern vein because he found this appropriate for workers who were building modern machines for the war effort. The Tiny Victories winners are decidedly more laid-back and eclectic, deeply involved in the local vernacular (lots of corrugated metal siding), not conceived as a grand scheme but as come-as-you-are individuals—in short, very Austin. Both, however, show us that architecture is about more than style, that it reveals much about the people who make it: the aspirations of the society and how it attempts to live up to its best intentions. So in these two projects we can see the fruits of the technocratic rationalism that propelled the nation through the mid-20th century and the grassroots organizing that in our own era defines the prime alternative to capital-driven development.
The sprawling Chicago offices of CannonDesign span two buildings just south of the Magnificent Mile, but its 60,000 square feet are a gateway to projects around the world.
The space occupies a single floor across two connected towers, 205 North and 225 North Michigan Avenue—the 11th floor views of downtown Chicago are left to the studio spaces, not corner offices. Cannon’s open plan is meant to promote collaboration, while sophisticated communication technology throughout helps the firm’s architects and design professionals keep in touch with colleagues in other time zones. Almost 100 years after Will Cannon, Sr. started the practice in Niagara Falls, New York, Cannon has more than 1,000 employees in 15 offices across four countries.
When AN dropped by in February, the social work environment was in full swing, with designers gathered around a marker board projection that grafts manual notes and comments onto digital files. No less busy were the board’s more old school counterparts—a wealth of white dry-erase panels covering nearly every free space, including the building’s structural columns.
The LEED Platinum office features real-time energy monitoring displays and recycled materials, including a large steel wall salvaged locally. Like most firms today, Cannon stresses sustainability in corporate literature. Being a large global firm, it has the opportunity to practice what it preaches, whether that be local work done in partnership with architecture students at Virginia Tech, or building new cities in Asia from the ground up.
Indiana University Health Neuroscience Center
Large photos of this 270,000-general-square-foot LEED Gold outpatient neuroscience center stick out on the walls of Cannon’s healthcare design studio, in part because the building’s facade features a jagged cut resembling the read-out of an electroencephalogram. The interiors also incorporate imagery from neuroscience research, with patterns taking after cellular forms and blocks of color inspired by the vibrancy of PET and fMRI brain scans that help visitors and staff find their way.
University of Minnesota Ambulatory Care Center
Another healthcare facility, this Minneapolis project was the first building of the newly formed Minnesota Health organization—a public/private partnership of health providers in the state. Three quarters of all occupied spaces are naturally
lit thanks to glass-clad lobbies and a flexible work model that orients collaboration areas across clinics toward daylight apertures. Where glass does not punctuate the facade, the exterior color palette draws on local geology with deep purple, rust, and earth tones.
Jaypee Sports City
Jaypee Sports City is a brand new city for 1 million people along the highway between New Delhi and Agra, India. Privately funded by a business magnate, Jaypee will be an industrial city “in harmony with nature,” according to Peter Ellis, who leads Cannon’s urban and city design practice. A continuous park system works with the Himalayan monsoon, managing floods during the wet season and saving moisture during the dry. Smart circuits of stormwater facilities and power plants maximize efficiencies where older cities, whose infrastructure evolved unevenly and in organizational silos, cannot. “Nature is actually the fundamental designer of this city,” said Ellis.
University of Texas Brownsville
In Brownsville, a border town at the southern tip of Texas, Cannon’s master plan for the local University of Texas campus calls for a contained water cycle and net-zero energy consumption. Last year the city allocated 76 acres of land to the push for an urban campus near downtown. If the plan goes through, the new campus could include integrated systems of waste and water recycling, local power generation, and extensive green infrastructure.
CRUDEM/Hôpital Sacré Coeur
Through Cannon’s pro bono Open Hand studio, designers are working to help resuscitate a battered hospital In Milot, near the northern coast of Haiti. Sacré Coeur was one of a few hospitals to survive the devastating 2010 earthquake, but its 100 beds were far too few for the demand that the disaster created. Since then another earthquake and subsequent challenges have made the problems worse. Using land provided by the government, Cannon’s design emphasizes community outreach and scalability, should the hospital expand again in the future.