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Dense and Unaffordable
High-end housing along New York's High Line.
Jorge Brazil / Flickr

For this year’s developer’s feature, we selected a topic that is very close to the hearts of AN’s editors: affordability. The price of housing—the focus of our inquiry—has become so ridiculously high in New York City where we live that many of us are wondering how much longer we’ll be able to make ends meet, and some of us (this editor specifically) have decided to pick up and leave for more comfortably arranged and financially feasible pastures (a.k.a. Texas).

As an illustration, here’s a nutshell history of the rent I’ve paid during my time in The Big Apple: In 1998, when I first moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, my rent was $300 per month. I continue to live in that neighborhood, and while I now am able to enjoy good restaurants and not fear racially motivated violence, I pay $1,700 per month for a 400-square-foot apartment with sagging floors and ceilings, leaky plumbing, mold, limited closet space, periodic roach and rat infestations, and loud/nosy neighbors—and I consider myself lucky. When I departed in August, my landlord, after gussying the place up with a coat of paint, will raise the rent to $2,500 per month, which, believe it or not, is still below market for the area.

Meanwhile, the development of so-called “luxury” housing in Williamsburg continues with gleeful abandon. It’s hard to find a street in the vicinity without a construction site. And unlike the super luxury housing going up all over Manhattan—which is reportedly being bought up as investment property by billionaires who won’t be living there—folks are actually moving in: startup entrepreneurs, financial advisors, sales reps, advertising “creatives,” the children of the rich; in short, people who make or have more money than architectural editors.

It’s getting more and more crowded and the already overburdened subway lines are becoming more and more sardine-esque. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to allow Two Trees to build even higher towers on its Domino Sugar Factory mega-development in exchange for more affordable units isn’t going to help the transit situation (neither will the mayor’s plan to subsidize increased ferry service, except perhaps for those who live and work by the water). Nor is it going to make an appreciable difference in the lack of reasonably priced apartments. As Alex Ulam reported in his article for this issue on the South Bronx, a 2014 tenant lottery for 2,500 subsidized apartments in New York City drew 1.5 million applications. This disparity between supply and demand is providing the bottom pressure to keep rents climbing, and the government’s subsidization of housing and incentivizing to encourage private developers to build below-market units isn’t closing the gap.

So what’s the solution? Well, my answer is leave, or don’t move here. But that’s hardly constructive. And, in any case, the market is teaching us all right now that there’s seemingly no end to the amount of people who want to live in the city and can afford to do so at the going rate. Consequently, there appears to be no limit to the quantity of new housing that the market will support, meaning that building more, even with a quotient of subsidized affordable units, won’t necessarily bring prices down. What it will do is increase density, overwhelm existing transportation options, crowd-out precious public amenity space, and ensure that each and every person who pays more gets less.

As Michael Sorkin said in our “Voices of Architecture” feature, “We must also question the idea of density as unmitigated good.” I’m inclined to agree with him. In this instance, while density does not necessarily result in unaffordability—Pruitt-Igoe, whose demolition pictures open our feature on affordable housing, illustrates another kind of problematic density—in the current mode of urbanization they tend to go hand-in-hand. At Pruitt-Igoe the highly concentrated poverty of HUD’s scheme created unbearable living conditions. We are now creating ever more densely packed concentrations of wealth, a trend that could turn out to be no less enervating to the vitality of our cities.

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Don't Get Comfortable
BKL / Flickr

When I first arrived in Los Angeles eight and a half years ago I must admit I didn’t really get it. The city seemed to poke its finger at everything I had grown to love about my former home, New York. What do you mean I couldn’t walk everywhere? Why was nothing seemingly more than 50 years old? And where was the grid? The order? The organization?

But over these years I’ve come to love and respect Los Angeles and the whole West Coast to an extent that I never thought I could. Sure, LA is not as walkable as New York. But its sweeping geographic scale is less restricted, open to cultural and economic diversity, and varied types of buildings and neighborhoods. It leaves room for strange and fascinating happenings in the margins. Yes, it doesn’t have the history of the East Coast (although it has more history than most understand). But it’s also historically unburdened by eastern rules and expectations, making it a fertile place for innovators. And yes, it’s chaotic and ad hoc urbanistically, but it’s the collision of people, culture, and buildings that makes it endlessly fascinating.

But even though LA has all of this, and one of the best climates in the world, the city should not get comfortable. Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that we’ve barely begun to tap the potential of not only Los Angeles, but also the entire West Coast.

For one, the West has one of the most talented design communities in the world. But very few build in the public realm here. Much comes down to an antiquated procurement system favoring the big and well-connected; developers that are often isolated from architectural innovation; a dizzying political bureaucracy that is frequently fractured, self-interested, and not as progressive as it thinks; and a population that spends more time fighting new development than distinguishing between the good and the bad. Meanwhile academic-focused research practices have neither the initiative to connect with the powers-that-be nor the knowhow to make a major impact outside of residential design and the ivory tower.

In LA, while preservation of landmark buildings has improved, the city’s hidden gems are often masked in ugly signage and other horribleness. Further unearthing this legacy will usher amazing dividends, as it did with the incredible movie palaces of Downtown LA’s Broadway. In San Francisco, on the other hand, we have one of the most advanced architecture communities in the country weighed down by a culture that wants to keep the city a museum.

Along much of the coast we have a lot of sunshine, yet relatively few buildings have solar panels. While in California it has virtually stopped raining, water-related innovations are almost nonexistent. Our public incentives are a good start, and the West Coast has some of the most stringent environmental standards in the country, but we need to go further to force the adoption of more sustainable practices.

One of my goals as West Coast editor has been to help us enliven our potential, pointing out systemic flaws that hold us back and bursting the bubbles that stifle innovation. I’ve witnessed improvement in all realms, and seen public officials and citizens begin to embrace a progressive design agenda. Major steps include more inclusive public competitions, walkable streets, new transit lines and parks, more effective preservation measures, improved affordable and multi-family design, developments in technologies, and the rebirth of neighborhoods like Downtown LA, Hollywood, and San Francisco’s Transbay.

And I have unending faith that the architecture and planning communities here will continue to make astonishing progress. As I move forward in New York and Los Angeles I’ll be doing my best to get these issues—and the talented architecture firms here—onto a larger stage; to sidestep the bubble of architecture through books, exhibits, videos, and print publications.

Taking my place will be Mimi Zeiger, who is more qualified than anyone I can think of to continue advocating for innovation and excellence. Mimi’s background in architecture, journalism, and criticism is second to none. Her judgment is superb, and she’s not afraid to tackle tough issues and to speak out when necessary. She’ll bring a fresh new angle to the paper in news coverage and critical content.

I’m honored to have served what I believe is the most talented group of architects in the world. I’ll still be serving you, even if I’m straddling both coasts in the process, and I’m thrilled to see where the road takes us next.

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False Starts Faithful
Steven Holl's Queens Library.
Courtesy Steven Holl Architects

Longtime readers of The Architect’s Newspaper, or anybody who follows architecture and real estate development in New York City, may have experienced an acute case of déjà vu when perusing the cover of this issue. Three of the four front-page stories are about high-profile projects, the designs of which were released to the public years ago only to be put on hold for a variety of reasons that have, to varying extents, now been resolved.

The Steven Holl–designed Queens Library at Hunters Point, which was first unveiled in 2010, broke ground in mid-May. The project originally hit the rocks due to a lack of monetary resources. Even a cost-cutting redesign that swapped the initially proposed aluminum paneled facade for “aluminum painted” concrete, setting the estimated overall price at around $39 million, didn’t bring the building within the budget. In spite of a $7 million shortfall, the Queens Library leadership decided to start construction anyway, figuring that somebody—namely Mayor Bill de Blasio—won’t let the much-needed public amenity (not to mention aesthetic relief from the glass high-rise monotony of the Long Island City waterfront) stall out once the cranes and union labor are busy on site.

The Queens Library’s confidence in a deus ex machina ending, with the mayor swooping in to the rescue with a fist full of emergency allocations, isn’t without precedent. De Blasio just peeled off $74 million in city funds, payable over several years, to restart the Fashion Institute of Technology’s SHoP-designed C2 building. The allotment, which matched a 2009 appropriation by New York State, has put SHoP back to work finalizing the designs. We’ll see if the high-tech, vertical circulation–animated facade comes out as advertised in the glistening renderings the architects originally released. By SHoP’s reluctance to re-release those images to AN for this story, however, chances are we’ll see something a little more down to earth, a little more brutal in detail, a little more akin to the state school’s existing facilities.

These cash-strapped, publicly funded projects aren’t the only buildings where we’re seeing a dampening of design aspirations. Even in the supposedly no-limit world of super-luxury Manhattan condominiums, boasting Pritzker Prize–winning architects no less, dreams have been blunted. Such is the case with Jean Nouvel’s 53 W 53. First unveiled in 2006, it was brought to heal in 2009 during the depths of the recession by the NYC Planning Commission, which demanded that the tower be shortened 200 feet, from 1,250 to 1,050. As then-planning director Amanda Burden told The New York Times, “The development team had to show us that they were creating something as great or even greater than the Empire State Building and the design they showed us was unresolved.” How quickly things change. A few years after dealing this blow, the commission went on to approve a slew of supertall, super skinny residential towers on 57th Street, whose designs are certainly no more resolved to the standard of the Empire State than Nouvel’s. But that’s what you get for showing up early to the party.

Hines, 53 W 53’s developer, is taking it in stride. Now with $1 billion in financing in hand from Asian sources, and no doubt eager to cash in on the seemingly endless font of real estate investment money coming from foreign billionaires before the next recession begins, it has called out the construction crews and work is underway on the shortened tower. (It’s worth noting that the project’s duplex penthouse is on the market for $70 million, almost the cost of two Steven Holl–designed Hunters Point libraries, but by no means high in the context of today’s Manhattan luxury market. There is reportedly a 21,504-square-foot penthouse in the Sony Building that is going for a flabbergasting $150 million.)

In the unbridled thrust of today’s New York City real estate market there are important lessons to be learned from these false starts that made good, more or less. One, you should never say never. The winds of change are ever blowing and even apparently dead dogs can claw their way to new life. Two, if anything, the fondest hopes of designers will suffer the most in these Lazarus-like tales of development—“aluminum painted” for aluminum, a diminished place in the pantheon of the skyline. For the oligarchs and tycoons who buy into 53 W 53 it’s no big deal. At least they won’t be living there. As for the students who will animate C2’s facade and the youngsters who may get their first taste of the effects of explorative architecture in Hunters Point, will they ever know the dreams that became compromises for them to be there?

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Steel Away
Chicago's A. Finkl & Sons Co.
Ian Freimuth / Flickr

Demolition is underway at A. Finkl & Sons Co., the Chicago steel manufacturer that in 2008 vacated the riverfront site on the city’s Near North Side that it had occupied for more than a century. After the German steel mill Schmolz + Bickenbach bought out Finkl in 2007, it relocated the company’s operations to the Burnside Industrial Corridor on Chicago’s South Side. That left 28 acres of prime urban property up for grabs in an area with plenty of competing development interests. Now, with local real estate on the rebound, all of them are looking to strike while the iron is hot.

A number of groups have lobbied Alderman Brian Hopkins, a freshman member of City Council representing a tortuously redistricted ward, about what to do with the site, which makes up much of the Clybourn Corridor Planned Manufacturing District (PMD). Some want to maintain the industrial legacy of the area, arguing new manufacturers could offer middle-class jobs with considerably less environmental hazard than in the past. Others want to open up the Finkl site to the kind of commercial and residential development that has gentrified the surrounding neighborhoods since the Clybourn Corridor became the city’s first protected industrial area in 1988. Crain’s Chicago Business last year quoted “real estate experts” saying the property could fetch at least $100 million at market if it were rezoned out of the PMD.

Residents have organized under the RANCH Triangle Community Conservation Association and, along with some developers, are pushing Hopkins to abolish the site’s PMD protection, noting that other industrial tenants like the Gutmann Tannery have also left the area as evidence that Chicago’s industrial days are long gone. It would be the first time any of the city’s 15 such districts were eliminated—ironic considering the Finkl plant was among the Clybourn businesses that motivated city planners to create the zoning tool in the first place. Hopkins appears open to the idea, telling WBEZ: “A planned manufacturing district is almost like a set of handcuffs. You know, it really limits you can do. We don’t need limits right now.”

Others hope the PMD could attract a new kind of industrial tenant, along the lines of the green cleaning products factory built by Method in the city’s Pullman neighborhood, or the digital manufacturing hub UI Labs that set up shop in the Goose Island PMD just to the south. Mike Holzer, executive director of North Branch Works, told Belt Magazine he wants to see that kind of development, because manufacturers “create head-of-household jobs, and they help create a broadly diversified economy for the city.” There’s also the concern that left to the whims of the market, the site’s unique historic character would get squeezed out by generic big box development and schlocky, high-rent condos.

Time is running out to reconcile those competing interests—cranes are already ripping up many of the buildings on the sprawling site, which in March landed on Preservation Chicago’s annual list of the city’s most threatened architecture. And any redevelopment will have to deal with the likely steep cost of environmental remediation (a 2008 investigation by the Chicago Tribune found Finkl was the city’s single biggest polluter), or slough off that burden onto taxpayers.

An interesting sign of the times: Both sides, which might reductively be described as pro- and anti-industry, want to overhaul the area’s urban infrastructure in similar ways. North Branch Works has proposed improving public transit and access to the riverfront, along with inviting “artisanal” manufacturers like craft distilleries into the area. It’s telling of the overall urbanist sentiment of the day that those cheerleading industrial use are doing so ostensibly for the sake of getting a friendlier neighborhood. Retail and service jobs have grown faster than manufacturing jobs, even in the PMDs, though. And it’s likely market pressures will edge out new industrial uses for the site without the PMD intact. But it may set a troubling precedent to allow developers to essentially rezone an area carefully tended to until now by urban planners.

Perhaps there is a middle path, with light industrial businesses keeping up the spirit of the Clybourn Corridor while other uses compete to develop parcels of the site. The aldermen overseeing the site—primarily Hopkins, but also Scott Waguespack and Michele Smith—should make sure ever succeeds the steel mill serves more than its developers’ short-term interests. Do not squander this chance to forge a distinct Chicago neighborhood from the ashes of an historic industrial campus.

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Prairie Progressive Past & Present
Dogtrot is a house designed by Designtrait for the Tiny Victories competition in Austin.
Designtrait

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.

Michael Reese is Ready

More than three years after the city laid out a request for proposals to redevelop it (and more than five years after the close of a bitter preservation battle to save it), city officials are almost ready to start a bidding process for developers interested in the vacant Michael Reese Hospital site.

The city bought the 49-acre site for $91 million in 2009. Located on Chicago’s near South Side about 4 miles from The Loop, the lakefront property was supposed to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley lost that bid to Rio de Janeiro, however, and the public was left with a large debt on the property just as the local real estate market shriveled up.

That expensive irony was all the more tart for local preservationists who had fought hard to save many of the midcentury complex’s historic structures. In 2010, city officials ended years of back-and-forth with preservationists, demolishing a slew of buildings designed by famed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and marring a landscape by Hideo Sasaki. A handsome and architecturally significant array of modernist and Prairie-style buildings were razed in a hurry only to have the city sit on the vacant land for another five years.

With the ill-fated (and, to many, ill-advised) Olympic bid in the rearview, the Michael Reese site has been a popular target for local developers and hopeful urbanists. A city-sponsored planning program started in 2012, led by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, recommended the site for a city-owned casino or Barack Obama’s presidential library as the anchor for a cluster of retail, hotels, and other private development projects.

Illinois’ state legislature has so far balked on permitting a casino in Chicago city limits, despite vocal lobbying by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The foundation leading the process to select a site for the Obama Library shortlisted proposals further west (from the University of Illinois at Chicago) and south (from the University of Chicago). That’s not without its own controversy (see last month’s editorial page)—community development advocates in the surrounding neighborhood of Bronzeville long lobbied for the Obama Library on the Michael Reese site, hoping it would catalyze investment in the area.

Now that a new stop on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Green Line is open nearby, the 49 lakefront acres are more accessible than ever. The economy and real estate market have mostly recovered. It’s possible the city’s reluctance to aggressively market the site for the Obama Library or the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art—whose proposal for a lakefront parcel a bit further north has provoked a lawsuit—could have something to do with the innate desirability of the site. The thinking may be, why use up this fine bit of real estate on an outside investment that’s happy elsewhere? That has not sat well with neighborhood advocates who see the site’s redevelopment as an essential step in revitalizing the local economy.

But by dragging its feet the city has left taxpayers on the hook for potentially far more than their initial $91 million investment. Unless a private developer steps in to shoulder the costs, Chicago taxpayers could accrue an additional $43 million in interest and development costs over the next decade, as well as $21 million the city borrowed to make the initial payments on its original loan.

With all that sunk cost, it would be a shame for Chicagoans to get merely a stand of condo towers or more hotels and parking garages geared toward conventioneers. The South Side Obama Library proposal calls for carving off a piece of historic Washington Park—if it must be done, that park space (and more) could be offset along Lake Michigan by a smart developer who sees public green space as an asset to private development. The site could host a civic institution to showcase Bronzeville’s history as the region’s “black metropolis.” Perhaps no site in the city is so ripe with possibilities, and few if any redevelopments are so hotly anticipated. After years of hurry-up-and-wait decisions, we must not rush again into a shortsighted plan.

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The Implementation Game
Jim Simmons / Courtesy LADOT

The Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Hawthorne and Occidental College are wrapping up the Third Los Angeles Project, a series of topical conversations “examining a city moving into a dramatically new phase in its civic development,” including long-overdue updates to public transit, the public realm, cultural facilities, and housing.

These domains haven’t been completely ignored in Los Angeles, and it’s impossible to accurately break down a city’s progression into easily digestible eras. But Hawthorne is right that the city is transforming, radically renewing its emphasis on design and the public sphere. The question arises, then: Where do we go from here? How do we take this knowledge, and these debates, and use them to help implement a coherent, coordinated, efficient, and effective plan for this new phase for the city? For all the well-intentioned concepts that have been discussed over the years, implementation is where we continually slip in LA.

Los Angeles is not a city that lends itself well to unified thinking and execution. Its huge size compromises ideas, which are difficult to apply to an astonishing diversity of neighborhoods and regions, not to mention the more than 70 independent cities that make up its surrounding county. Another issue is LA’s balkanized political structure, in which individual city council people, mysterious supervisors, and scattered departments have more power than the mayor or any other centralized authority.

In planning, the city is making progress as it moves to add transit, improve its streets and street life, install parks, and focus denser development around transit and commercial zones. But it still has a long way to go. It needs a push. For one, its long-outdated zoning code, first passed in 1946 and subsequently added to in a piecemeal fashion, desperately needs updating. City planning is undertaking the first comprehensive revision of that code, called re:code LA, but the effort, years in the making, won’t be done until 2017 at the earliest. The city’s community plans, which will finally help guide land use in its widely varied neighborhoods, have been in the works for years (they are part of the city’s general plan, which began in the 1990s), but thus far not one has been passed. The closest—Hollywood’s—has been held up in lawsuits, and its status is still questionable.

For architecture and design, the city badly needs direction to guide it into a new era. Many have called for a “design czar,” overseeing design in all of the city’s departments. Perhaps a more realistic step, at least for now, is a regular meeting of all departments—planning, engineering, water, and power, etc.—to get on the same page and reconfirm (and demand) their design commitments. In the private realm, developers need a way to take design risks without sacrificing their bottom line and getting mired in bureaucracy. They need more incentives to follow City Planning’s Urban Design Principles, which are common sense guidelines to improve architectural quality (without dictating style) and enhance connections between buildings and the spaces around them. Finally the procurement process needs to be reformed, streamlining RFPs, encouraging competitions, and opening up on-call lists to include more talented firms, regardless of their ability to check off the usual boxes.

Until a unified plan for enacting the ideas discussed in the Third Los Angeles series emerges, it will continue to be an interesting discussion hub, following the development of the city in its many iterations. But it has the potential to become much more than that. Coupled with strategic and practical implementation, it could lead the way for such development, setting the stage for a renewed LA.

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Design Orgs Need to Meet the Street
The AIANY's Center for Architecture in Manhattan.
Courtesy Andrew Berman Architect

The AIA New York’s Center for Architecture storefront on LaGuardia Place has helped transform the chapter into perhaps the most dynamic in the country. It was once—in pre-LaGuardia days—a sleepy, under the radar professional organization that had little presence in the city. But the 2003 Andrew Berman–designed space gave the AIA a visible and much used lecture hall, light filled gallery, and meeting rooms that are booked every day and sometimes simultanesly with AIA and non-AIA events.

The AIA Storefront concept was first created in Pacific Northwest cities but the success of New York’s space has not been lost on other local chapters. There are now many with glass-fronted facilities and a sidewalk presence. One of the latest is in Washington D.C. and it is quickly becoming the hub for all design related events in the District.

However, the success of the LaGuardia storefront is apparently being lost on many of the architecture and design non-profits in New York City. Though many of these organizations are being caught up in the rapidly gentrifying and expensive real estate environment of Manhattan, several seem to be willing to give up their public spaces and move into traditional back offices.

Those who have been in New York since the 1980s will remember the Urban Center in the McKim, Mead & White–designed Villard Houses on Madison Avenue. From 1980 until 2009 a single building housed the offices of the Architectural League, the New York chapter of the AIA, the Parks Council, and the Municipal Arts Society. This one-stop architecture and design shop also had a great bookstore and a gallery that constantly had design, city planning, and architecture exhibitions. It was a real New York center where one could go for an event and likely run into colleagues sometimes at other events.

In 2009 these organizations were forced to move out of the Villard House and they scattered all over the city. Sadly, the League and the MAS no longer have access to exhibition spaces for public lectures and symposiums spaces. These organizations—even with their professional and highly qualified staffs—have lost some of their presence in the city. They had to relocate when their subsidized rents at The Urban Center ran out. But now, inexplicably, organizations are voluntarily moving out of their spaces with public galleries and seminar rooms. The Van Alen Institute, for example, recently gave up its large upper-floor gallery and library space for a reconfigured ground-floor office that has seating for future staff and can accommodate up to 250 standing guests in the back in addition to a small study and research library. Its argument is that while costs have gone up dramatically, its income has not kept pace and it needs to rent out the larger top floor space and move to save money. Now the AIGA National is giving up its 5th Avenue headquarters, which has a gallery, to move into an upper floor of the Woolworth building.

These public exhibition spaces give New York its street-side excitement, and every time one of these organizations moves into an office floor the city becomes less exciting on the curb. There are very real financial considerations for boards and staff running non-profits, but as architects and designers they should also realize the value and need for space, especially public space, in the city.

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Houston at a Crossroads
Almond Butterscotch / Flickr

In September, Houston Mayor Annise Parker ordered the city’s planning department to create its first General Plan, an effort that represents more than a decade of advocacy, research, and community outreach on the part of non-profit Houston Blueprint. If city council adopts the plan, which it will consider doing in late summer/early fall 2015, it will challenge Houston’s reputation among planning circles as a developer’s wild west where automobile enabled sprawl reigns supreme, and position the city to grow in closer accord with 21st century national trends. While the outcome of the plan may be guidelines for more transit options and more urban modes of development, it is not likely to result in zoning per se, though zoning it may be by a different name. Whatever it’s called, Houstonians will get their first comprehensive vision statement, a plan that will presumably represent the sum of their stated wants and needs. But without spirited leadership to see its provisions through, and a little watchdogging, it will just be a piece of paper, or web page rather, a declaration of aspirations.

On that note, Houston is set to get a new mayor in 2016. Parker is about to reach the three-term limit set on the office. Her successor will inherit the General Plan, should it be adopted. No clear frontrunners have yet emerged in the race. There are currently about a dozen men who have announced their desire to run. While, to my knowledge, none of them have detailed their position on the General Plan, it should be a key issue in the election. The Houston Mayor’s Office is one of the most powerful in the country—there is no city manager—and whomever the people elect to take the reigns of the city will have direct influence on how the plan is implemented.

Meanwhile, the price of oil has dropped below $50 per barrel, from a height in July 2014 of $120 per barrel. Houston, it has been said many times, is the only city in the U.S. where cheap gas at the pump is greeted with ambivalence. And no wonder. While falling oil prices haven’t turned the recent boom to a bust everywhere, yet, most of the big oil companies headquartered in Houston have been slashing thousands of jobs, shutting down domestic rigs, and delaying well completions until such a time as the price-per-barrel crawls back to where it needs to be for the boom to roll on. That could be as little as a year. Or it could be longer. Who’s to say? But the big companies, for the most part, have done what they needed to do to protect their shareholders. The oilfield workers will get by as they always have, on a wing and a prayer, feasting then tightening their belts. The Big Rich themselves, well, as you might expect many of them are just getting richer. Forbes reported that Richard Kinder, CEO of pipeline conglomerate Kinder Morgan, increased his worth by about $2.5 billion to $12 billion since September. Great. Hopefully he’ll funnel more money to his philanthropic organization, the Kinder Foundation, which has made significant donations to many public projects in the greater Houston area, including Buffalo Bayou Park, Bayou Greenways 2020, Discovery Green, Hermann Park, the expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and more.

Oil boom or oil bust, Houston is poised to leap ahead in its quest for world-class status. With the General Plan it will have a roadmap for smart growth. With good leadership in place and an engaged citizenry, its chances of following that roadmap to the end goal are good. Now if Houston would only put an end to its status as the largest city in America without an architecture critic at its paper of record, then we might really start to get somewhere.

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Looking at the Past and the Future
Astor Place, 2014.
Iwan Baan / Courtesy MCNY

In New York City, buildings that are 30 years old are eligible for consideration by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) for local landmark designation. In much of the country, 50 years is the minimum, signaling New York’s willingness to protect architecture of the recent past, including works of the modern and now postmodern periods. These demarcations of time have resonance with this issue, as we recognize the 2015 class of Emerging Voices. The program by the Architectural League of New York is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and over the course of its existence the prize and lecture series has proven to be a Who’s Who of American (now broadened to include all of North America) architectural talent. The League will publish a lush compendium book of three decades of Emerging Voices later this year, which will be a great refresher of many significant projects and ideas of the period. It may even help remind us of buildings worth considering for landmark protection.

This year is also the 50th Anniversary of New York’s Landmarks law. It wasn’t the first in the country, but given the size and complexity of the city, New York’s law has certainly proven to be one of the most significant pieces of legislation on the built environment nationwide. If you’ve never attended a Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) meeting, I recommend that you go. Preservation is both a philosophy and a practice with many players and stakeholders—activists, developers, consultants, and architects—and LPC meetings are one of the rare public events where architecture is reviewed, debated, and revised before a legislative body (the real degree of transparency and accountability is always a subject of speculation and debate.) It’s a fascinating, if imperfect, process. It’s also an evolving field as attitudes about what constitutes historical significance change, building materials advance, and new technologies become available. Preservation is a reflection of the achievements of our past, but it is also an expression of the values and priorities of the present.

Amid numerous events to mark the anniversary, two upcoming exhibitions stand out. A comprehensive show at the Museum of the History of New York, Saving Place: Fifty Years of New York City Landmarks, will explore how the 1965 law came to be written as well as its ongoing impact on the city. The exhibition will argue that the law was critical in laying the groundwork for New York’s resurgence in the decades that followed (it opens on April 21). A smaller show at the New York School of Interior Design will examine the rarest group of designees, interior landmarks (New York’s Landmark Interiors: Rescued, Restored, Reimagined opened March 5).

These and other events are an opportunity to recognize the victories and losses of the preservation movement of the last half-century, but they are also a chance to renew debates about the role of landmarks and the powers and limitations of designations (historic preservation is not and cannot be a substitute for effective planning and zoning regulations).

Though they design with bold contemporary forms, many of the firms selected in this year’s Emerging Voices group engage with history and explore found sites in deep ways. From rethinking the Philadelphia row house typology, to riffing on Miami’s art deco heritage, to looking to evolutionary and biological systems for formal and technological innovation, these firms show that today’s young architects see contemporary practice not as a break from the past, but as part of a dynamic and ever-changing continuum.

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Parks for Presidents?
Chicago's Washington Park.
Connie Ma / Flickr

March was supposed to be the month Chicagoans could stop debating whether or not they would get the Barack Obama Presidential Library and its accompanying prestige, economic development potential, and validation from the local political hero made good. Well, local politics have complicated that (arbitrary) timeline: With Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, locked in a runoff election against Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, the president’s foundation will delay its decision “in a bid to avoid politicizing his legacy project,” according to unnamed sources cited by the Associated Press.

To local observers, however, the library is already drenched in politics. Compounding the larger “Second City” anxieties of netting the project in the first place (New York City’s Columbia University is vying to host the Obamas, as is the President’s birth state of Hawaii), Mayor Emanuel may have delivered too literally on his promise to “move heaven and earth” in pursuit of the library. Rahm pushed a plan through City Council that would hand over more than 20 acres of Washington Park if the Barack Obama Foundation chooses a bid from the University of Chicago that would host Obama’s library on land including two historic parks that surround its South Side campus. To no one’s surprise, in March the plan sailed through the Chicago Park District board, the members of which are appointed by the mayor.

RENDERING OF SOUTH STONY ISLAND AVENUE, PART OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO’S PROPOSAL FOR THE BARACK OBAMA PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY.
Courtesy SOM, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO

 

The University of Chicago is offering sites, including 21 acres of Washington Park or 20 acres of Jackson Park, which together comprise the lakefront South Park System designed in 1871 by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. and his partner Calvert Vaux.

The mayor’s eagerness to sacrifice public parkland was not without its critics. Writing for Landscape Architecture Magazine, Brad McKee observed: “The opposition to the idea has been fierce but surprisingly isolated among die-hard parks advocates such as the Friends of the Parks group in Chicago and, nationally, the Cultural Landscape Foundation.” They worried, McKee continued, that “If any parkland, let alone Olmsted and Vaux territory, can be seized so easily for rank political reasons, then those of us who consider parks sacrosanct have far bigger worries than just these 20 or so acres.”

Concern on the South Side has taken a slightly different tack. Polls show a milder distaste—if that—for trading 19th century oak groves for a piece of 21st century history. Critics derided the polls as reinforcing a false choice between cannibalizing parkland for a library or getting no library at all. It’s hard to know if that’s the case. The public knows little of any behind-the-scenes discussions about siting the library, or even regarding the University of Chicago’s actual proposal. Details have come in whispers or not at all, exacerbating Emanuel’s perennial problem with optics (or process); as with the Lucas Museum, Old Prentice Women’s Hospital, and many other issues, controversial plans are railroaded through public procedures with an air of inevitability.

And so the discussion has turned in some circles to, “What can we get in return?” Paula Robinson, president of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, disapproves of the parkland proposal, but she said the time to fight it has passed. Instead she would rather see opposition coalesce around a demand for more park space elsewhere. “It’s a different party now,” she said. “Do you want to fight or do you want to win?” Instead of one-to-one replacement of green space, as the city has proposed, why not two to one? Or more? Parkland is not created equal, and historic public spaces are worth more than the tally of their acreage.

Chicago has ample vacant land to host the library without bleeding off green space from historic parks. But if the nation’s first truly urban presidential library still insists Chicago tarnish this gem of landscape architecture, one hopes the city makes a gift of new park space proportionate with the extraordinary circumstances it now claims necessitate this exceptional land transfer. It’s too late for the Obama Foundation to avoid politicizing the president’s library. But the project’s legacy for public space is still unwritten.

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Taking the Reins
Dion Crannitch / Flickr

Since The Architect’s Newspaper began publishing in November 2003, three people have helmed the executive editor position, each of them extraordinary in their own way. Cathy Lang Ho, our first executive editor, was, and is, an indomitable creative force who brought her energy and drive to bear on forging the paper from the seed of an idea. The format and editorial direction that she—along with editor-in-chief William Menking, publisher Diana Darling, art director Martin Perrin, and more—put in motion is still alive and evident in every issue we produce today.

 
Aaron Seward.
Whitney Cox
 

Julie Iovine succeeded Lang Ho in March 2007. Iovine brought a heightened level of professionalism and prestige to what has always been a scrappy, whether-you-like-us-or-not endeavor. Her critical eye and deep knowledge of architecture and design burnished the paper’s image and elevated its status from that of an alternative voice for the profession to a real contender in the same arena with the old-guard, corporate-backed architecture magazines.

With Iovine’s departure in August 2012, Alan G. Brake assumed control. Brake expanded the paper’s coverage of the important fields of landscape architecture and planning, engaging us more fully in the ripe and evolving discussion about the future of urban development in the 21st century. Brake’s intelligence, fairness, and composure permeated every issue he oversaw and went a long way toward cementing AN’s standing as the one architecture periodical everyone must read from cover to cover.

Now the leaf has turned again. On March 16, Aaron Seward (that’s me) accepted the job of the fourth executive editor of AN. I will leave it to my successor to characterize what I bring to the publication, but a few words on my background may be of interest to readers.

My involvement with AN began in 2005 when it was still being published out of the Tribeca loft apartment of the publisher and editor-in-chief. As such, I have had the sincere pleasure of working under all of the previous executive editors—as a freelance writer, a special projects editor, an associate editor, and finally as managing editor during Mr. Brake’s regime—and have been a part of the paper’s growth from its genesis as a New York–region insiders journal to a national media company that publishes print editions in four regions (more than 40 issues per year) as well as produces a daily website and blog, reaches out to the public via social media, hosts design competitions, and runs a popular conference series.

As big as AN has become, the core of our mission has not changed. In the very first issue (AN 01_11.10.2003), Menking and Lang Ho wrote in this very column that the paper “emerged in part out of frustration that so many important architecture and design stories never find a place in the news dailies, city weeklies, and design monthlies.” Well, the intervening decade-plus has seen an explosion in architecture and design coverage, mostly on the Internet. However, the majority of this new-media virulence is utter copy-paste pablum—content not stories—only good for the eyes-glazed ingestion of massive amounts of glossy renderings that have very little to do with what architecture is really all about. With AN you can be sure that what you are getting is a carefully selected collection of independently produced news, commentary, analysis, and cultural reporting, assembled and edited to be enlightening as well as enjoyable.