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New Jersey Governor Christopher J. Christie’s dumbfounding decision to cancel what is widely seen as the most important public works project in America should be a wake-up call for planners, politicians, and architects who care about salvaging the region’s future amid a climate of professed fiscal prudence and steadily shrinking public enterprise.
Christie’s October 7 move to halt construction of the ARC project—the $8.7 billion transit link between the New Jersey Meadowlands and Penn Station through two new single-track tunnels—shows how short-sighted political tactics threaten to sabotage decades of planning for the public good. While, at press time, the governor had given ARC a two-week reprieve, pending conversations with furious federal transportation officials, this month’s mind-bending scenario offers an urgent lesson for large-scale investments in the region’s fraying transit, energy, and ecological networks.
As we’ve noted here before, the future of architecture and planning in America lies in infrastructure—the sprawling, region-spanning systems that underpin sound design for a densifying planet. The ARC project, with funding from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the federal government, and the state of New Jersey, can be seen as a model of collaborative decision-making and shared vision for the existing 100-year-old trans-Hudson tunnel. Begun in 1995 with the study of 137 different alternatives, the project has involved input from across the spectrum of public leaders, transportation and environmental agencies, and community, business, and labor groups.
But that collaborative vision has been jeopardized by blinkered officials like Governor Christie, who claims that New Jersey can no longer afford its share of ARC costs. Instead, the governor has devised a plan to funnel New Jersey’s $2.7 billion tunnel contribution into the state’s debt-plagued Transportation Trust Fund, where it would presumably be available for road projects and repairs to existing rail lines—precisely the kind of small-bore infrastructural thinking that has kept New York and New Jersey public transit systems in a state of perpetual panic.
One key to reform lies in the way large-scale projects like ARC are administered. Darius Sollohub, director of the New Jersey School of Architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, notes in an op-ed how one hotheaded politician can pull the plug on a multi-agency effort with $600 million already spent and construction under way for more than a year. “The overriding question that future infrastructure planners will ask is how any projects of significant scope can be executed in America today if one individual can stop decades of carefully laid plans,” Sollohub writes. “Whatever the outcome, future planners and legislators will consider whether a governor with the least money on the table should have so much unilateral power.”
That question is particularly acute for the architects, planners, and engineers who are perhaps the only ones with their shirts truly on the line in the ARC project—among them Parsons Brinckerhoff, STV, and DMJM Harris/AECOM, not to mention the construction management team of Tishman, Parsons, and Arup—who bear the brunt of capricious maneuvers like Christie’s, which trade our collective future for a bogus agenda of tough-love retrenchment.
The value engineering continues.
That was the message out of today’s MTA finance committee hearing, at which a new agreement for the purchase of the Vanderbilt rail yards was announced. With the Nets arena cut down to size, the rail yards beneath Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project will also shrink from nine tracks to seven. Also, as previously expected, the developer will pay only $20 million upfront for the rights to build the arena, with the remaining portion of the $100 million deal being paid out over the next 22 years.
The committee took no action on the new arrangement, which critics are already calling another sweetheart deal for Forest City Ratner, waiting instead for a new General Project Plan from the Empire State Development Corporation, which is due out tomorrow. The committee and full board is then expected to vote on the new agreement on Wednesday, though given the tough questions asked by committee members at today’s hearing, it could be a close call. Still, in a staff report prepared for the committee, a favorable vote was recommended.
Following testimony from 18 speakers, split roughly between opponents from the neighborhood and advocacy groups and supporters from the Carpenters trade union and BUILD, MTA chief financial officer Gary Dellaverson outlined the new deal as revised from one initially approved in 2005. “We did not complete these discussions until yesterday,” he noted, as a means of apologizing for the lack of a prior briefing to the committee. “Today there will be no vote. Everything we’re having right now is a conversation.”
In addition to the upfront payment, the new deal for the remaining six development plots to the east of the arena includes four annual payments of $2 million beginning on June 1, 2012, followed by 15 $11 million payments. The total cost for the remaining parcels thus reaches $173 million, but that accounts for inflation, with the “net present value” remaining $80 million. Originally there was to be an upfront payment of $100 million.
As for the new rail yards, they are expected to cost $147 million, down from an expected $240 million. (Some accounts put the ultimate amount at closer to $340 million in infrastructural and environmental work, much of which is now out of the deal.) The scaled-down seven-track yards will have a capacity of 56 cars, down from the 76 cars allowed by nine tracks. While questions had been raised as recently as a month ago about whether a reduction in tracks would jeopardize the planned East Access megaproject, MTA officials said this was no longer the case.
“Helena is satisfied her usage will not be impacted,” H. Dale Hemmerdinger, the board chair said, referring to Helena Williams, president of the Long Island Railroad, which operates the yards. A number of committee members struggled to grasp how this was possible, repeatedly asking question about it, without ever getting a clear answer. It was also revealed that the developer approached the MTA about value engineering the site toward the end of last year, and worked with Parsons Brinckerhoff on “value engineering” the design of the station.
Part of the reason the quality of the station is so important, beyond it being one of the oft-trumpeted public benefits behind Ratner’s development package, is that the inclusion of new “state-of-the-art” rail yards was one of the reasons given for dismissing a competing bid offered by Extell development.
“They’re delivering what the railroad needed,” Dellaverson said in defense of the changes. “It’s a step up from the default position we have now. But it’s not quite what was first proposed.”
To ensure Ratner begins construction on those compromised yards by June 30, 2012 and completes them by September 1, 2016, the developer must secure a letter of credit for $86 million, which would then be forfeit to the MTA and used to complete the project. That number was arrived at as the bare minimum the agency would need to upgrade the yards. Ratner is also obligated to complete the temporary yards before the arena opens, though those completion on those facilities is expected by year’s end.
Asked why the MTA continued to support Ratner’s bid for the yards, and whether he could continue to be counted on, given repeated renegotiations, reversals, and revisions to the proposed development, an agency spokesperson declined to comment, though the possibility of a meager payment during these cash-strapped times is a factor.
During the meeting, Dellaverson said the deal was a winning one for the agency. “Our intent, if we were to prioritize, is transportation first and financial second, and this satisfies those needs,” he said.
In a statement, Ratner insists it is forces beyond his control that have hobbled the project thus far, but those obstacles will be overcome. “While the world has changed significantly since Atlantic Yards won public approval in December 2006, and we are trying to adapt to those changes, the project and the project benefits, including the arena, the jobs and the affordable housing will remain the same,” Ratner said.
Should Ratner fail to find financing for the project, he has until next March to cancel the deal. Ditto, should no significant construction take place by April 2011. Goldstein is already considering additional litigation to push Ratner over that threshold, though he continues to hope it will not come to that. “They’re propping up FCR and that’s not their job,” he said of the MTA. “Their job is to get the best deal for their riders.”
HOK’s Los Angeles office, with Parsons Brinckerhoff, has defeated some of the world’s top architectural talent to win the commission for a major new transit center in downtown Anaheim that’s envisioned as a hub for California’s future high-speed rail network, as well as for Amtrak, commuter rail, and other regional transit lines.
Other teams shortlisted for the project, known as ARTIC (Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center), had included RMJM with Gehry Partners and AECOM; Santiago Calatrava with Jacobs; Pelli Clarke Pelli with AAI; SOM with Parsons; and Foster + Partners with Gruen Associates. Firms who originally applied for the RFQ in February included Arup, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, and Morphosis.
The $180 million, 16-acre project, commissioned by the city of Anaheim and the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), will include a 66,000-square-foot station and the masterplan for a mixed-used area around it, set to not only consolidate and dramatically improve the region’s public transportation offerings, but to help spur development in Anaheim itself.
In its first phase, the project will be designed to host Amtrak and Metrolink commuter lines, local and regional bus lines, airport shuttles, taxis, and tour buses. In later phases the center will be equipped to host California high-speed rail from the north and south, and possibly another line from Las Vegas, as well as connections from Disnleyland’s Monorail system. Anaheim Director of Public Works Natalie Meeks said that if anticipated federal high-speed rail funding comes through next fall, she expects that HOK would be the architect for the high-speed rail portion of the station as well.
The complex is set to complete its EIR process in 2010, begin construction in 2011, and open in 2013.
ARTIC will be located in the middle of what is known as Anaheim’s Platinum Triangle, a developing cluster of civic, entertainment, retail, and residential zones near the 57 Freeway that includes Angel Stadium, the Honda Center, and the Grove of Anaheim.
The new station’s vaulted design, said Ernest Cirangle, HOK Design Director, was inspired in part by grand, open rail stations like Grand Central in New York, and from the monumental—and breathtaking— hangars in nearby Tustin, designed to house Navy blimps during World War II. The column-free station will be supported with long span triangulated steel members inset with a pillow-like ETFE membrane. A lofty, wide open hall—with a ceiling measuring over 150 feet—will be surrounded by shops and ticket booths, and bordered on its southern end by train platforms and tracks.
“We wanted to celebrate the new interest our country has in improving its rail transportation,” said Cirangle. “So we wanted the building to be noticeable from a long distance,” not to mention from inside, where visitors' eyes will be drawn up to the ceiling.
The project is aiming for a LEED Platinum rating, with green elements integrated into the structure itself. For instance, as planned, the ETFE surface will expand and compress to control natural light, and it will also be fitted with photovoltaics and solar hot-water heating cells.
The remainder of the site around the station will be masterplanned for office, retail, and high-density housing. That portion of the project does not yet have a completion date, and will depend on market recovery, said Meeks. In its proposal HOK outlined plans for what Cirangle called a “pedestrian oriented, vibrant place” set around a large public plaza, a sweeping promenade, and a riverfront park.
California’s state-run, high-speed rail project—which when completed should run from Sacramento down to San Diego (but first from San Francisco to Anaheim)—is still in its infancy, but Anaheim is eager to begin, despite the fact that federal funding is still pending. Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, who has been working to get a transit hub in the area since taking office six years ago, said that Orange County has already done more preliminary engineering on its segment of the project than any other location in the state.
California voters passed almost $10 billion in funding for high-speed rail last November, but that is contingent on matching federal stimulus funds that will be doled out this fall. Architects in California will be watching eagerly as commissions for more transit centers become available. But even if high-speed rail doesn’t happen, the ARTIC is already set to transform the region, said Pringle.
Funding for ARTIC is coming from $82 million in county Renewed Measure M funds (a half-cent sales tax extension passed in 2007), $58.8 million from Proposition 116 (a state bond), and about $29 million from the State Transportation Improvement Program.
Meeks noted that public support for the project is high, despite present economic conditions.
“It’s a fully funded project with money that’s restricted to transit uses,” she said.
“We’re getting the critical infrastructure in place where you can actually envison a day in the future where you can reliably get around without a car," added Todd Osborne, vice-president at HOK. "I don’t think we’re talking about replacing the automobile, but maybe it’s not every trip.”