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Where Have All The Flowers Gone?
With stalled development undermining its public/private funding model, the Hudson River Park does not generate enough income to pay for maintenance and infrastructural problems.
Courtesy Hudson River Park Trust

Greening the city has meant a glorious and historical expansion of its parks and waterfront amenities. But building new parks is far more complicated than planting bulbs and bushes. And even as the city has demonstrated great initiative in creating new parks, how it plans to maintain them—physically as well as financially—is far more uncertain. Caitlin Blanchfield takes a stroll through the variegated schemes for keeping up New York’s parks and esplanades.


New York City is currently in its greatest period of park expansion since the 1930s. With 29,000 acres of land already in the stewardship of the Parks Department, tracts flanking the Hudson and East Rivers are being turned over to green space, restored wetlands, and recreational use. Where once there were rotting piers and toxic sludge, New Yorkers kayak in the Hudson and schoolchildren catch (and release) sea horses under the Manhattan Bridge. As Nancy Webster, executive director of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, put it, New York’s new parks “redefine an understanding of local geography and provide a unique sense of place for New Yorkers” by recapturing its identity as a port city.

Cutting the ribbon is one thing. Keeping a park usable, healthy, and engaging for decades to come, quite another. Capital projects far outstrip park maintenance in the City’s budget. According to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, the budget for capital projects, which includes opening new parks and restoration projects that require heavy construction, is around $1.6 billion annually. The maintenance budget, which is dedicated to horticultural care and facility upkeep, is around $300 million.

“Maintenance and operations have a separate and vastly smaller stream than capital projects, yet capital design has no knowledge of maintenance and operations funding, which should dictate design strategies,” said Deborah Marton of the New York Restoration Project, an organization that functions as a wealth reallocator, distributing funding from private donors, city, and state across the boroughs, particularly in the Bronx, Harlem, and Central Park. “Parks are often allowed to fall into disrepair because they will then get capital dollars. We’ve inherited 19th-century ideas about how cities and budget are structured. Much of the city’s public spaces are in the jurisdiction of different organizations: the Housing and Preservation Authority, the MTA, Port Authority, and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. This division is anathema to how we currently think about public spaces.”

Hampered by non-starter RFPs, Pier 40 still needs $100 million in repairs (left). Hudosn River Park’s popularlity has influenced waterfronts in cities as far away as Paris and Sydney (right).
Courtesy Hudson River Park Trust

With city and state funding providing just under 65 percent of current maintenance and operation budgets, ensuring that parks are properly maintained has fallen to strategic alliances of privately interested citizens and varying models of public/private partnerships committed to overseeing long-term sustainability and funding. While some, such as the Hudson River Park Trust and the Brooklyn Bridge Corporation are legislated entities, many other organizations, like friends groups working in small community parks, are entirely voluntary, leaving the places they steward at the whim of charitable resources.

“Maintenance and operations have a separate and vastly smaller stream than capital projects, yet capital design has no knowledge of maintenance and operations funding, which should dictate design strategies, ” said Deborah Marton, senior vice president of the New York Restoration Project.

Approaching its 35-year anniversary, the Central Park Conservancy is a paragon of success for public/private partnerships. In the late 1970s, slashed budgets and municipal neglect had rendered the park both dangerous and in catastrophic disrepair, at which point concerned citizens banded together and formed the conservancy. Since then it has raised $650 million and developed a sophisticated system for managing its 843 acres.

The key, said Conservancy president Douglas Blonsky, “is total vigilance.” Central Park is lucky. As Blonsky readily admits, it is the backyard of New York’s wealthiest residents and has a profile higher than any other park. Of a more than $42 million operating budget, 85 percent comes from the prosperous patrons who are stacked in the high-rises framing its perimeter. Such a model is simply not plausible in places without the density and affluence of Central Park’s constituency.

“There is no one model that works; it’s not one size fits all. There can only be one Central Park Conservancy,” said Benepe. The parks commissioner advocates for entrepreneurship, saying that funding alliances arise organically to creatively meet the needs and conditions of each park. In the city’s recent park projects, that spirit has had a decidedly development-friendly bent. Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hudson River Park, both waterfront sites with complex programs incorporating recreation, leisure, and environmental remediation, have gone the way of rents, not altruism.

Hudson River Park includes a popular cycletrack that serves as an artery for the city's cyclists.
Courtesy Hudson River Park Trust

In the late 1980s, after Brooklyn’s waterfront had ceased to be the shipping hub of decades past and had deteriorated to house a dwindling number of warehouses, a group of concerned citizens rallied to turn the narrow space between Piers 1 and 5 into park lands, rather than the housing, retail, and parking development it had been slated to become. Advocates raised grants and secured capital funding for a build out, but because the cost of operating and maintaining a park on the waterfront is so high, Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki decided that a different funding stream, separate from the Parks Department budget, should be created to ensure the long-term sustainability of the park. They established the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation to operate commercial development on just under 10 percent of the 1.3-mile-long park. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy was subsequently created to manage programming. Based on financial models like Battery Park and Hudson River Park, the ground rent and taxes are intended to cover park maintenance and operations. On the city’s side it’s sacrificing ground rent and taxes, while the park allocates what could be public space to private use, which has incited some to lambast the park as a front lawn for high-end real estate, or as Project for Public Spaces’s Fred Kent put it, a “dead waterfront.”

Freshkills park as a landfill in the 1990s.
Courtesy DEP

At the southern tip, One Brooklyn Bridge Park is a luxury condominium complex with waterfront views and ground-floor retail (first store to move in: a dog spa). Since its completion in 2008, it has netted $14.8 million dollars, which has funded all park security, maintenance, and waterfront infrastructure costs. As the park continues construction, a hotel and residence will go up on Pier 1; two residential buildings are slated for Pier 6. Retail development on Water Street and John Street in Dumbo will also augment commercial revenue.

In part, this blend of private development and public space arose to meet the unique needs of the site: the pilings on which the park is built are subject to deterioration from salt water and aquatic microbes and must be checked every three years. As the river regains its vitality—the result of industry decline and waterfront greening— and teems with healthy, hungry critters, these pilings will need more frequent assessment and replacing. Reinforcing pilings on Pier 5 in concrete totaled $11 million. According to Nancy Webster, revenue from commercial development has been a successful stream of income, capable of footing the self-sustaining maintenance and operations bill so far. With the first review since 2008 on the horizon, she predicts the model will continue to function, so long as the hotel and apartments bring in projected profits. Currently, negotiations are underway with developers for hotel and residential development on Pier 1. Retail locations on John Street in Dumbo and Pier 6 are still undeveloped, and the development corporation is looking into alternative revenue sources from the sale of properties near the park now owned by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., which would have to take place by the end of 2013. At the same time, portions of Piers 3, 4, and 6 remain unfunded, their future uncertain.

“One advantage to our model is that we will have capital reserve for unseen maintenance emergencies. We will have funds to react as things come up. In other parks when emergencies arise, the city cannot fix them in a timely fashion,” said Regina Myer, president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation.

From shipping hub to hip adress, Brooklyn Bridge Park supports commercial development on ten percent of its 1.3-mile length (left). picturesque wood piers in Brooklyn Bridge Park need to be replaced as aquatic borers increase with healthier waters (right).
Courtesy Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation

Across the river and on the west side of Manhattan, Hudson River Park faces such a predicament. The legislation that enacted Hudson River Park as a city- and state-owned entity in 1998 has proved too limited to allow for the kinds of development that would net the necessary funding. The issue at Hudson River Park is twofold, explains Madelyn Wils, the Hudson River Park Trust’s executive director. With two piers still undeveloped, the Trust does not have the income it anticipated when the act was first created. Unforeseen infrastructural problems are also proving a drain on the budget. For instance, the bulkheads on top of which the park is built and that hold up Route 9A (the Westside Highway) are costly to shore up; many of them failed to withstand Hurricane Irene last summer. Moreover, wooden Pier 40 is fast decaying after plans for its development were halted in 2006, when the Trust was unable to find a developer or development plan that met the stipulations of the Hudson River Park Act.

Compared to the uses at Brooklyn Bridge Park, the act is narrow, excluding housing, commercial office space, hotels, and manufacturing. What was likely intended to protect the waterfront from overly privatized development has left the Trust in a quagmire of dead-end Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Currently the park, which stretches from Midtown to Battery Park, allows commercial maritime and ferry ports, entertainment, retail, and commercial recreation. But, according to Wils, respondents to RFPs have rejected those uses, leaving the trust in search of viable commercial development in the park, and looking to make marinas or generate commercial activity in the water itself. Exacerbating these financial strains, Chelsea Piers, tenants on three piers from 17th to 23rd streets, are suing the Trust to repair damages caused by marine borers over the past 20 years.

On Staten Island, Freshkills aims to be the next generation of parks offering passive and active recreation, native species, and innovative funding, such as harvesting methane for sale from the landfill beneath the meadows.
Courtesy James Corner Field Operations

According to the Pier 40 Development Feasibility Study by HR&A Advisors and Tishman/AECOM, released privately in May, Pier 40 needs about $100 million in repairs. The report found that the best source of ongoing income—adding the least traffic impact—would be 600 high-end rentals (as the Trust cannot sell its property) and a 150-room hotel. Other revenue-producing ideas under exploration include tax-exempt bonds and the more controversial Park Improvement District.

When created, the Trust was envisioned as an exemplar for in-water parks—influencing waterfronts in cities as far away as Paris and Sydney—but that has also exposed the park to unforeseen costs, such as retrofitting the decaying piers that are fodder for marine borers and battered by wind and brackish water. “Twenty years ago no one knew healthier water would mean more voracious aquatic borers, so you can’t build with wood. We’ve learned, for example, you have to use certain pavers to withstand water pressure from the currents,” Wils explained. Renting out berths for ferries and commercial cruise ships have racked in rent, but not enough to assuage these unpredicted high costs.

On Staten Island, Freshkills, the Parks Department most recent and expansive project, opening to the public later this year, must navigate not only an aquatic site, but also one atop a former landfill. Unlike Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hudson River Park, Freshkills— at 2,200 acres, three times the size of Central Park—does not have any trust, corporation, or conservancy in place to fund its annual operations. Not easily accessible by foot or subway, Freshkills is no magnet for the types of public/private partnerships that make other waterfront parks financially self-sustaining. According to Tara Kiernan of the New York City Parks Department, Parks is establishing a nonprofit Freshkills Park Alliance to fundraise for the park.

At 2,200 acres, Freshkills, here in a rendering by James Corner Field Operations, is three times the size of Central Park (left). Urban kayaking is a popular in-water activity at all New York’s waterfront parks (right).
Courtesy James Corner Field Operations (left); William T. Davis (right)

To be built out over the next 30 years, Freshkills represents the next generation in experimental models for how a park can coordinate a complex program of restoration, recreation, concessions, and passive enjoyment, almost all within the city’s budget. Using active landscape design guidelines and the insights of 21st-century landscape architecture and responding to community input, Freshkills has been designed by James Corner Field Operations as a sustainable landscape using native plants and restoring natural habitats that, as long as healthy, will maintain themselves—and hopefully prevent it from meeting the same fate of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where a pastoral park with shade trees and lawn grass built in the low-lying lands near Flushing Bay was overtaken by salt grasses and invasive species.

Capitalizing on less-than-idyllic site conditions, the sanitation department is already harvesting methane gas from the landfill below Freshkills, which it is selling back to National Grid, generating $12 million in revenue for the city. The park is also partnering with research institutions and local universities to investigate water quality, soil restoration, habitat restoration, and reforestation, among other environmental issues, opening up opportunities for grant funding. New York Department of State, Division of Coastal Resources, and the Federal Highway Administration have thus far contributed $12 million to the project.

While such initiatives dynamically wed stewardship and financial sustainability, they are but a drop in the bucket considering that Freshkills master plan has a $100 million price tag—in part so high because of the cost of remediating landfill seepage. As construction is still so heavily underway, the park has yet to determine its future maintenance budget.

As landscape architect and Columbia University professor of landscape architecture Kate Orff points out, “Maintenance is a park.” And parks that go unmaintained have the potential to do more than just becoming unkempt; they can be dangerous. Parks budgets have been downsized 30 percent, according to Wils of the Hudson River Park Trust. Parks Commissioner Benepe voices concern about how parks will be able to retain funding in the future. As great parks projects continue to roll out, it’s essential to pair a zeal for creating public space with an even greater dedication to keeping them safe, accessible, and vital for the long run.

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Sweeter Dreams
Concept plan by Williamsburg Independent People includes gallery space and an art park accessible from the waterfront.
Courtesy WIP / By-Encore

The controversial residential development proposed for the site of the Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg has cleared every planning and landmarks hurdle. But despite the green light from the city, the site sits dormant. The developer, Community Preservation Corporation Resources (CPCR), declined to comment on the status of the project, but in September, Architectural Record reported that the company was seeking additional investors to move the project forward. The Rafael Viñoly-designed New Domino complex of five towers is slated for 2,200 units, 660 of which the developer says will be affordable housing.

While CPCR may be on the hunt for cash, a community group is seizing the hiatus to revive interest in an alternative plan that envisions the site as a mixed-use “cultural hub” that includes galleries, event spaces, a hotel, and a marina, as well as 200 affordable housing units. The group, which calls itself Williamsburg Independent People (WIP), compares its proposal to the repositioning of the Bankside Power Station in Central London to become the Tate Modern, one of the top attractions in the UK, with almost 5 million visitors per year. In fact, WIP has consulted Tate deputy director Alex Beard about their efforts. “I know the site, and it’s a wonderful one, a piece of architectural heritage” said Beard of the Domino refinery and its riverfront industrial site, similar to the Tate. “The Tate Modern was a dramatic piece of architecture in a central location but unknown within the city until the opening of the South Bank,” said Beard, referring to the Thames waterfront development.

An opposition poster.

WIP’s financing model would differ significantly from the Tate, which receives substantial support from the British government. But WIP plan supporters say that their project would sustain itself with income generated in several ways: from the sale of gallery space, marina boatslips, and parking spaces to be located underneath the affordable housing; from the rental of event space; and from tickets sales for admission to the art exhibits and other events inside the historic Domino factory building. Stephanie Eisenberg, a local resident involved in the alternative plan, argues that CPCR’s New Domino plan will cost the city more in the long run due to the infrastructure upgrades, including expanded transportation and sewer systems, that will be required to support the influx of new residents. “Our [WIP] plan won’t be a burden to the government but will pay its own way,” she said, adding that any development at the Domino site should benefit all parts of the surrounding community. “We’re proposing a cultural center that will be an economic engine for the neighborhood and provide living wage jobs.”

One unusual aspect of the WIP plan is a proposed gallery-condo model. Based on a statistic that over 90 percent of private art collections sit in storage, WIP is banking on art collectors’ desire to go public with their acquisitions, purchasing gallery space where they can curate their own exhibitions and art-related events on the waterfront site, which would be accessible by boat. Eisenberg said art collectors approached by WIP have already expressed interest in buying gallery space, and, with regard to the bigger picture, several potential but unconfirmed backers are interested in buying the entire site from CPCR.

With the city’s efforts to revitalize the Brooklyn waterfront, if the WIP plan can secure funding, it may be able to rally political support. Steve Levin, the city councilman representing Brooklyn’s 33rd district which includes the Domino site, dropped opposition to CPCR’s plan in 2010, but in a recent interview he expressed concern that the plan was still too big to be supported by existing neighborhood infrastructure. When asked about the alternative plan of the cultural hub, Levin said, “If another group has another idea, it’s worth hearing about it. There are a lot of potential development scenarios at the site.”

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An Urban Design Week Round-Up
Following Thursday evening's Urban Design Week (UDW) launch party hosted by the Institute for Urban Design (IfUD) at the breezy BMW Guggenheim Lab, the AN team dispersed to check out various events on the jam-packed UDW roster. We compiled our notes, and here's a quick sampling of what we saw and heard: Saturday, September 17: A small contingent of planners, landscape architects, and artists met up at Montefiore Park, a tiny triangle of a plaza at 137th Street where Broadway slices through Manhattan's orderly grid. The group was invited to offer feedback on an installation at the site entitled Broadway: 1000 Steps. The interactive piece by Mary Miss (and CaLL) is an experiment in educating the public on environmental issues through artwork. A collection of periscope-like tubes and mirrors confront passersby with stats on sustainability initiatives in the city. Keep your eyes peeled—the piece will work its way down Broadway over the course of the next few months. Later Saturday evening, the Beaux Arts Ball sponsored by the Architectural League of New York was held at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Les beaux et belles were transported to the site by ferry (or, if they lived in Brooklyn, via the R train). The Cass Gilbert-designed concrete industrial building was bathed in light and shown to great effect with projections and custom furniture designed by Leong Leong as revelers danced the night away. Sunday, September 18: Sunday's City Sessions event at Parson's The New School was a lively debate marking the culmination of a month of online conversations sponsored by IfUD and Leagues and Legions—a group defining itself as "a think tank at the intersection of architecture and publishing." The audience, many of whom were architects and urban planners, was invited to participate in the moderated discussion organized around questions derived from four themes related to "the practice of tactical urbanism and socially active design": Public, Evaluation, Tactics and the Design Profession, and Failure. The provocative questions around each theme ("Is it possible to design for productive failure?") engendered more questions than answers--and one cultural programmer reminded the group that "not everything that happens in the city is urban design"--but the engaged audience armed with examples and beer kept on talking even after the two-hour event had officially ended. Quilian Riano, one of the event's organizers, says he hopes the conversations will continue online and in other media, and hopefully find applications. Check out the City Sessions tumblr. Monday, September 19: As part of Urban Design Week, the recently restored Museum at Eldridge Street in lower Manhattan hosted Good Design New York City, an energetic quick-fire series of presentations by designers with a brief to improve aspects of the city and match designer-makers with pragmatic doers. Taken from 600 issues raised at By The City/For The City competition, the magazine and design initiative, GOOD, asked New York architects and designers including SCAPE, Marpillero Pollak Architects, and Behavior Design, to propose solutions to questions based on the premise: “wouldn't it be great if... ?” Local designers Original Champions of Design (OCD) offered their ideas about how to make New York's subway easier to navigate for regular users and tourists, which included making public station lay-outs; graphic interventions, and a First Car concept to create a souvenir-filled tourist-trap carriage that would get the confused out-of-town passengers “out of the way.”After each presentation, Alissa Walker of GOOD mediated a discussion between city officials or related representatives about the viability of the designers' proposals. Tuesday, September 20: Tucked away on a little-known public plaza on Gouveneur Lane in Manhattan's Financial District, a stealthy group of urbanists chatted with merchants from the Street Vendors Project, a membership-based group of more than 1,300 vendors "who are working together to create a vendors’ movement for permanent change," while snacking on delicious tamales sold on site. We spoke with Mustafa, a clothing vendor in Midtown, who told us about the difficulties of street commerce in New York. Representatives from the Design Trust for Public Space and Columbia University's Street Vendor Planning Studio were on hand to discuss what sidewalk vending means to New York and the sense of city. The crowning event of the night, of course, was the U.S. premiere of Urbanized and the associated soiree at the Phaidon book store in Soho. A capacity crowd of young design-types filled the Sunshine Cinema for two showings of the city-themed final segment of Director Gary Hustwit's design trilogy. After two rigorous rounds of applause, Hustwit accepted questions from the crowd ranging from what would Janette Sadik-Khan do? (she was in attendance) to strategies for grassroots activism. Hustwit was feted by the usual suspects over vodka cocktails and a backdrop of iconic books on architecture and design. (Check out the  Urbanized trailer and our Q&A with director Gary Hustwit). Even if you missed all the events of the last week, you can still settle down with the IFUD's new tome The Atlas of Possibility, a 352-page compendium of "all the schemes & dreams that hundreds of New Yorkers and designers around the world shared through the By the City / For the City process," a crowd-sourced competition for urban design interventions (winning entries here.)  
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Curtains Up
BAM's new theater and arts plaza at Ashland Place.
Courtesy H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture

The Brooklyn Academy of Music Cultural District, or “the Lincoln Center of Brooklyn” in Fort Greene, has been in the planning for over ten years, but construction has finally begun on one of its anchors, the new home of the Theatre For a New Audience (TFANA).

TFANA’s new stage will be the first theatre built for classic drama since the construction of the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center in 1965, and the first permanent space for TFANA, which has specialized in performing work by Shakespeare and other classical playwrights in assorted less-than-ideal venues since 1979.

The new theatre will occupy a small 27,500-square-foot building but “has a theatrical presence,” according to its architect Hugh Hardy of H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture. TFANA will take the form of a glass box covered with reflective gun-metal grey tiles, cantilevered over a public plaza designed by landscape architect Ken Smith. The stage and lobby are on the second floor in a four-story space with a large glass-plate window offering an expansive view of the street.

Left to right: Inside the theater; front elevation at night features expanses of glass; reflective grey tiles cover the building's exterior.

Since the original design was unveiled in 2005, the project has seen several changes, including the departure of Frank Gehry from the team in 2008 and three moves to its final site on a parking lot at Ashland Place between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue. The glass box concept has remained the same, only “cleaner,” Hardy said.

The interior’s rectangular configuration, fully trapped stage, and adjustable floor space were modeled after the Cottesloe Theatre of Britain’s Royal National. “The degree to which all aspects of the room come apart is really remarkable,” said Hardy. Stage levels and the auditorium floor can all be shifted, and the capacity can be adjusted from 180 to 299 seats, while the space behind the stage can be opened to increase stage depth or closed to allow rehearsal space.

The city contributed $34 million of the theater’s $48 million price tag to promote the development of the BAM Cultural District. The new theatre will be adjacent to the Morris Dance Center and the BAM Opera House, and near 40 arts and cultural organizations already in Fort Greene. The project, with an anticipated completion in spring 2013, marks one of the first major elements of the plan to break ground.

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Competition Winners Imagine Life at the Speed of Rail
Sooner or later, aerodynamic trains will be zipping across the farm fields of the heartland and the Van Alen Institute wondered what cultural, environmental, and economic implications such a novel technology would bring. After revealing ten winners of its Life at the Speed of Rail ideas competition, it appears that high speed rail could one day mean larger-than-life mechanical farm animals roaming around the countryside. At least that's the vision of Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer of Urbana, IL whose project, Animal Farmatures, reimagines farm implements as entertainment for passing riders. Winners were announced today at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. and soon, the Van Alen will be taking Life at the Speed of Rail on the road (although unfortunately not yet by train). Stops include St. Louis' Museum of Contemporary Art at 7:00p.m. on June 28, Houston's James Baker III Institute at Rice University at 6:00p.m. on July 7, and Los Angeles' Caltrans District 7 Headquarters at 4:00p.m. on July 12. Animal Farmatures Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer (Design With Company) / Urbana, IL From the project statement:
As a human/machine/animal hybrid, the “iron horse” locomotive captured the imagination of Americans during the middle of the 19th century by subjugating the pastoral landscape to the ingenuity of human invention. In addition to “conquering space and time,” the train was a new viewing mechanism that transformed the environment into a moving picture show through isolation, speed and framing. Today we have come full circle. Threading high-speed rail through the fabric of the American Midwest stands to recover the demand for mixing humans, commerce, technology and the rural landscape in new spectacular combinations. Which poses the question: what are the techno-natural hybrids that will capture the imagination of today’s rail riders?
What Will You Do? Rael San Fratello Architects / Oakland, CA From the project statement:
LA to San Francisco in 160 minutes—GREAT! But ironically, as the size of cities and the speed in which we are able to travel great distances increases, we are increasingly more sedentary. In fact, we are sitting down more than ever before—9.3 hours per day, which is more time than we spend sleeping. And the amount of time we spend sitting today increases the risks of death up to 40 percent. Instead of sitting for 160 minutes, why not create a high-speed rail that allows us to choreograph a set of experiences that make us productive, healthy and social individuals. Exercise, dance, shop, tan, eat, do laundry, play, take art classes and even sleep (ok, sometimes we need a break too!).
parallelogrammic HOU(S)TATION SEUNGTEAK + MIJUNG / Brooklyn, NY From the project statement:
HOU(S)TATION confronts the negative impact of 20th-century suburbia issues driven by automobile, such as heavy highway interchanges, traffic, parking spaces and sharply increasing CO2 emission. This project looks for a new housing or town type driven by high-speed rail as an alternative which addresses these issues as well as combines benefits from city life and suburbia. HOU(S)TATION is located in the middle of two major cities within one-hour distance by high-speed rail. Thus residences have opportunities to commute and experience both cities.
The Beacon MANIFESTO Architecture P.C. / New York, NY From the project statement:
Compared to 20th-century infrastructure, the new high-speed rail network will allow people to travel far greater distances in a greatly reduced amount of time. This phenomenon can be described as an expansion of the realm of daily life, or rather, a shrinkage of the perceived scale of the entire Midwest region. In effect, through the new rail networks urban nodes will be pulled closer together, and industries, commerce, and most importantly, people will be connected more intimately than ever before. The Beacon, a proposal for a renovation of Chicago’s Union Station will be at the center of this new age, and our design proposal symbolically represents this new paradigm.
Permeable Response Annie Kurtin and Laura Stedman / Tucson, AZ and San Francisco, CA From the project statement:
The Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta located east of the San Francisco Bay in Northern California, has long been an important resource providing agricultural and recreational uses, wildlife habitat, infrastructure pathways, and water supply services throughout the state. This delta region is currently in crisis, with weakening levee structures and a deteriorating ecosystem due to rapidly increasing pollution levels. Our proposal for a high-speed rail network in the region will rethink how architecture can become better integrated with large-scale infrastructure to improve the environment and people’s lives.
Check out the other five projects as well at Life at the Speed of Rail's web site: ChiLand Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative / Cleveland, OH The Effect of High-Speed Rail on Six Lives Drew Bly, Brandon Souba, and Steven Vance / Chicago, IL The Expanded Civic Center Rebecca Sibley / Houston, TX Switch Space Karen Lewis / Columbus, OH VPL Rustam Mehta and Thom Moran / New Haven, CT and Ann Arbor, MI
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Nation Building
The KPF-designed Northeast Asia Trade Tower will be Songdo's landmark on the skyline.
Courtesy Respective Firms

Songdo, a new large-scale, airport-proximate city masterplanned by KPF exemplifies an "aerotropolis."

Buzz and hype have surrounded China’s recent building boom, but to the east, South Korea is becoming the next hot spot for international architecture.

Far from deferring to China’s hectic development, South Korea is positioning itself to be the East Asian country that grows not only faster but also smarter. In 2010, Engineering News Record ranked Seoul as home to six of the 75 top international contractors—a significant number for a nation so small. The juxtaposition of major construction corporations side-by-side with government support and a growing national interest in architectural design is producing opportunities inevitably attractive to international players.

From big corporate firms from the United States to young, internationally-trained Koreans, architects are capitalizing on opportunities in the East Asian nation and particularly Seoul as it rises to compete with China and assert itself as a business hub for northeastern Asia.


The cultural center at the base of KPF's Lotte Seoul Tower.

After generations of political turmoil, South Korea can now guarantee a degree of economic stability. As a result and on a grand scale, Korean companies that went abroad to build some of the tallest buildings around the world (Samsung led construction on the Burj Khalifa) are now looking to field monuments on their own native soil. Even at the grass-roots level, there is a growing interest in avant-garde architecture and design—home-brewed as well as imported—providing opportunities for small firms and young designers to have an impact on the street by designing art galleries and small homes.

Off the coast of South Korea and not far from Seoul, Songdo represents a new kind of large-scale planned city. A joint venture between Cisco Systems, Gale International, and the New York City office of Kohn Pederson Fox, New Songdo City could be the prototypical aerotropolis—a city defined as much by its proximity to an airport as by its livability—as described by authors John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay in their new book Aerotropolis: How We’ll Live Next.

Since 2001, when Gale International signed a $35 billion dollar loan from Korean banks to develop a city right by Incheon International Airport, Songdo has grown rapidly on landfill in the Yellow Sea. Today, it’s home to the tallest building in the country —KPF’s 68-story Northeast Asia Trade Tower—and it’s still growing. Construction on KPF’s masterplan will be completed in 2015. Fitting to the city’s mission to attract foreign business, its architecture includes work by multiple American firms: KPF’s own nine buildings in the central business district include a convention center and an international school, and there are also six residential towers and a hotel by HOK.

Songdo is intrinsic to the South Korean government’s vision of the future, according to Richard Nemeth, a KPF principal: “[They] realized that to compete with China, they needed a platform to work internationally. [Songdo] is connected to the new airport, one of the busiest in the world.”

If its proximity to an international airport gives Songdo the futuristic moniker “aerotropolis,” its vast scale represents a first in international sustainability. Under the USGBC’s LEED for Neighborhood Development Pilot Program (KPF engaged with USGBC to certify the masterplan and develop a new LEED category), Songdo boasts a central non-potable water canal, electric vehicle charging stations, and a city-scale co-generation plant—elements that operate on a larger scale than traditional single-building LEED certification. The city also takes some of its literally green inspiration from American roots: a large public park in the middle of Songdo is named Central Park. The city also attempts to offset the effects of massive new construction by recycling 75% of construction waste and using local materials to minimize transportation costs.

KPF's ConvensiA Convention Center, with its folded roof planes, creates a "landscape" connecting the adjoining "Central Park" with the city.

Elsewhere on the western edge of Seoul and in the coastal city of Busan, another American firm is hard at work: Skidmore, Owings and Merrill is constructing what will be two of the tallest buildings in Asia. To be completed in 2013, the Busan Lotte Tower will stand 126 stories high and the Seoul Digital Media City Landmark Tower—renamed Seoul Light Tower—will rise over the capital at 133 stories as the tallest building in East Asia when completed. While the two high-rises began differently—the developer Lotte Group directly offered SOM the Busan tower, while the Seoul Light Tower was won in an international competition (with Gensler plus the local Samwoo Architects on the team)—both towers respond to the demand from public and private sectors in Korea for skyscrapers to represent a new Korean identity.

“We have seen a larger demand for super high-rise buildings out of Korea than from most other countries,” said Mustafa Abadan, an SOM design partner. “This has been driven by the fact that Korean contractors have been involved in the construction in the world’s tallest buildings. Part of this desire to build a homegrown super-tall tower is for the contractors to establish themselves as the contractors who will be building the super-tall buildings of the future.” Several such towers from Korea will be featured in the upcoming exhibition “Supertall!” this July at the Skyscraper Museum.

Busan, like Seoul, is becoming the launching pad for something of a skyscraper arms-race: another New York City firm, Asymptote Architecture, was commissioned in 2007 to build the World Business Center Solomon Tower, a set of three jagged spires, now under construction, designed to culminate 131 feet higher than SOM’s Busan Lotte.

Left to right: SOM's Seoul Light Tower; SOM's Busan Lotte Tower; and Asymptote's World Business Tower are competing for "highest tower in Korea" status. Below: An evening view of Asymptote's World Business Tower.


Because Seoul and Busan are mostly horizontal metropolises, sprawling laterally rather than vertically, permits for these high-rises were individually negotiated as anomalies to existing zoning laws. When issuing permits for such major projects, local Korean public authorities require that a certain amount of square footage be dedicated to public amenities. For example, KPF’s 110-story Hyundai Tower in Seoul will house a museum, an orchestra hall, and a cineplex. These policies exemplify a growing public demand for cultural centers and high-end public spaces.

LOT-EK's APAP Openschool in Anyang.

Public interest in art and design is also creating opportunities for architects at smaller scales, including institutional and residential projects. The APAP Openschool, an art school built of eight bright yellow shipping containers, was recently completed by New York-based architects LOT-EK in the city of Anyang. Joel Sanders’ New York office in collaboration with the Korean firm Haeahn Architecture designed the Seongbuk Gate Hills, a complex of 12 private homes in Seoul’s chic Seongbuk-dong neighborhood. Also working in Seongbuk-dong is the Brooklyn-based firm SO-IL, whose design for the new Kukje Art Center is currently in construction.

Far from the corporate glitz of the super-tall towers, Sogyeok-dong is filling up with independent coffee shops, boutiques, and galleries that are a hub for young creative professionals. SO-IL’s “campus plan” for the Kukje Gallery infiltrates the low-rise neighborhood by occupying different sites within walking distance of one another. The main gallery is designed to house live performances and large-scale installations in the open-plan first floor.

Comparing Korea to Japan over a decade ago when architects from Aldo Rossi to Steven Holl were working there, SO-IL principal Florian Idenburg said, “I think the same thing is happening in Korea, there is a growing appreciation for design and also for being Korean.”

SO-IL's gallery for the Kukje art campus in Seoul.

SO-IL has two Korean staff on the Kukje Gallery team, part of a growing trend wherein local designers who studied abroad then practice in Korea with local or international firms.

Jae K. Kim, the young founder of Counterdesign, recently completed his own first project in Seoul. Kim studied architectural engineering in Seoul before attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he currently studies. Kim’s approach to the Bikyoshoki House was born of his work experience at a local construction company and his education at MIT. “People [in Korea] are now starting to be interested in design itself,” said Kim. “Before, it was really profit-oriented. Now things are changing, and I’m not talking just about developers, I’m talking about people. They’re more interested in environments between architecture and people.”

Counterdesign's Bikyoshoki House represents a growing trend in single-family housing in place of high-rise condominiums.

The concrete and steel Bikyoshoki House defies both conventional traditional Korean and American housing typologies: it is a single-family dwelling in a place where most city-dwellers prefer high-rise condominiums, and its spatial organization is provocative. With angular concrete forms paired with glass railings and glazing, the design seems to herald a new Korean architectural identity free of overt historical iconography. While in the past few years, there were few opportunities for small firms to work on single-family residential projects—in the way young architects do in the States—such projects are becoming a common testing ground for young talent.

“There is a new trend in Seoul to have a house as primary residence,” said architect Francisco Sanin, chair of graduate programs at Syracuse University’s architecture school. “Before that, the trend was for apartment buildings, and an incredible number were built, but in more recent times there is a feeling that you can have a private house.”

Joel Sanders' Seongbuk Gate Hills residential project in Seoul.

Sanin is currently working on the construction of ten such private houses in Jisan Waldhaus, a townhouse development of 50 houses built by five architects, all Koreans apart from Sanin. The homes at Jisan Waldhaus—which uses contemporary materials like steel and cast concrete—show off the growing collaborative relationships between international and Korean architects resulting in a new modern suburban typology.

“I think there is a new sense of critical and intellectual discussion about what is best for Korea,” said Sanin, adding that there is increasing confidence, especially among architects, in engaging with their own history objectively and creatively.

Brant Coletta, an SOM managing director working on the Seoul Light Tower, noted that rather than building a Korean cultural identity drawn from well known historical icons or philosophy, there is a desire to look forward and build toward a vision of what Korea could be in the future. And that, not surprisingly, is of considerable interest to architects both inside and beyond South East Asia.

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Munich Olympic Village
Courtesy Studio MDA

Markus Dochantschi’s interest in architecture began at the age of 14 with a passion for photography. But if line, shadow, and composition whetted the young aspirant’s zeal for designing buildings, his involvement in the discipline did not stop at pure aesthetics. Since founding studioMDA in New York City in 2002, Dochantschi has produced a body of work—both built and theoretical—that shows a deep dedication to a holistic approach to architecture, one in which formal considerations find their impetus in environmental factors, social forces, and user needs.

In attaining this mature perspective Dochantschi had some first-class guidance. Trained in his native Germany, he got a taste of international architecture while doing internships in the offices of Arata Isozaki and Fumihiko Maki in Japan. After graduating in 1995, he moved to London, where he began working for the then up-and-coming Zaha Hadid, who had a staff of seven employees at the time. As Zaha grew, so did Dochantschi. By 1998 he was a director overseeing The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. It was that project that brought Dochantschi to the United States.

Working from his apartment in New York City’s financial district, studioMDA’s first project was renovating a West Village townhouse. “I went from working on a complex cultural project to picking door handles,” said Dochantschi. “I always believed that no project was too small.” By continuing to take on small residential projects, while simultaneously submitting to competitions and teaching—Dochantschi has taught at the Advanced Studio at Yale University with Zaha Hadid, Stefan Behnisch, and Gerald Hines, and the Advanced Studio at Columbia University, GSAPP—the studio slowly grew. Today, located in Tribeca, it numbers 12 full-time employees and is engaged in projects around the globe ranging in scale from small interiors to state-of-the-art educational laboratories.

Aaron Seward

Center for Advanced Mobility

Aachen, Germany


This educational project typifies studioMDA’s holistic, from-the-outside-in approach to design. The firm conducted wind studies to develop the form of the building so as not to disrupt the flow of air through Aachen’s city center. The 36,000-square-foot structure contains laboratories, classrooms, and offices for the University of Applied Science’s electrical and information engineering, mechanical engineering, and aerospace engineering departments. The interior was kept as open as possible to facilitate visual communication, while the facade’s transparency was carefully calibrated to deliver only the amount of natural light necessary for each interior space.

BAM Brooklyn Arts Tower

Brooklyn, New York

[+ Click to enlarge.]

Designed and developed by studioMDA in collaboration with Stefan Behnisch and Gerald Hines, this 280,000-square-foot project near downtown Brooklyn provides space for a dance center, retail, and 200 apartments. While the entire project is pursuing the highest degree of environmental sustainability, the residential tower seeks to promote ideal communities floor-per-floor. Rather than one monolithic elevation, the designers broke the mass into five clusters, each topped by sky gardens. There are no more than six units per floor, and the plan is skewed to allow cross ventilation.

Conference Center Malojer

Innsbruck, Austria


This 30,000-square-foot corporate headquarters forges a formal relationship to the mountains outside Innsbruck by referencing a melting block of ice. It also maintains a visual connection to those majestic peaks through a high-degree of transparency. StudioMDA conducted a careful study of the client firm’s working methodologies in laying out the floors, keeping lines of visual communication open all the way down the chain of command.

Munich Olympic Village

Munich, Germany


Athleticism and a connection to nature were the guiding forces of this competition entry for the Munich Olympic Village. StudioMDA surrounded the building with parks in the form of green courtyards and green roofs, areas of both private and public orientation that promote community. The relatively low building height (five floors) encourages the use of the stairs and ramps as opposed to elevators. The energy plan calls for a mix of alternative energy-generating features, such as solar panels that also act as shading devices.

Nolan Art Gallery

New York City

[+ Click to enlarge.]

StudioMDA teamed with sculptor Richard Artschwager for the design of this art gallery’s facade, which couples symmetry with reflectivity to create a solid-void dichotomy. Inside, a hanging metal grid ceiling—whose gray color echoes the polished concrete floor—emphasizes the white gallery walls. In the back, the designers took care to maintain a visual connection between the gallerist’s office and the exhibition space.

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Emerging Voices 2011: Interboro
Lent Space, New York
Courtesy Interboro


New York

The urban design and planning firm Interboro operates across many channels. Run by three Harvard GSD-graduates—urban designers Georgeen Theodore and Tobias Armborst, and planner Dan D’Oca—the Brooklyn-based firm straddles the worlds of architecture, planning, landscape, sociology, and urban theory, proudly flouting disciplinary boundaries. “We try to harness various disciplines and approaches to garner desirable outcomes,” Theodore said.

While their most visible project to date, a temporary park on Canal Street called Lent Space, is built, the practice currently focuses largely on community-based studies, teaching, exhibitions, and books. They recently completed a neighborhood development plan in Newark, the first in decades. Aware of the limits of traditional community meetings—which tend to attract those who are already involved in civic matters—the firm created a tabletop game to interact with people on the street. “We wanted the process to be truly participatory,” Theodore said. They also distributed leaflets and postcards advertizing the neighborhood, its assets, and an accessible description of the planning process. Their efforts resulted in a number of recommended zoning changes as well as design proposals to facilitate development for specific sites.

West Market Redevelopment Plan, Newark, New Jersey (top) and Graphic for Community, The American Way Exhibition, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

At Lent Space, they also thought about how the temporary park could live on even after being dismantled. Built on a half-acre development site at Canal and Varick streets, which the developer decided to mothball during the economic downturn, the park includes trees planted in movable planters and a moveable fence with benches. Developed for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Lent Space also incorporates temporary art installations to activate the space, which was built with materials typically associated with construction sites, such as plywood and chain link fencing. Development plans for the site were announced recently, so the trees will be carted off and placed elsewhere to spruce up the Hudson Square business improvement district.

Lent Space, New York
[Click to enlarge.]

Their recent studies for books and exhibitions examine the way space is made or controlled. The Arsenal of Inclusion/Exclusion, an exhibition and forthcoming book, is a dictionary of 101 “weapons” that developers, real estate agents, architects, and planners use to control access to spaces and communities. These weapons range from physical objects, like highways, to zoning codes and racial covenants. For the study “The Dream of a Lifestyle: Marketing Master Planned Communities in America,” the firm requested marketing materials from every master planned community built or planned between 2006 and 2008. The hundreds of brochures and other materials offer a compelling survey of current exclusionary practices that the firm suspects have been disrupted by the ever-widening foreclosure crisis. “We have a very broad definition of what architecture is,” D’Oca commented.

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Bloomberg Makes Space in New York
Bloomberg's New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City by Julian Brash

Bloomberg's New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City
Julian Brash
University of Georgia Press
$69.95, cloth; $24.95, paper

It’s always bracing to read urban studies not written by architects. Bloomberg’s New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City is an exhumation of the three (and counting) terms of Mayor Mike, written by Julian Brash, who is an anthropologist and therefore refreshingly uninterested in arguments based on aesthetics.  Brash is primarily concerned with issues of class—always a tricky and elusive subject—and the commodified “place-making” promoted by Bloomberg stalwart and former deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff, described here as a “youthful man blessed with a preternatural ability to maintain both a set jaw and an ingratiating grin.”

Brash makes it clear that his allegations of class warfare are tied to “the production of space,” and it is that focus that makes Bloomberg’s New York worthwhile reading for architects and planners.  He examines the Bloomberg administration’s various over-scaled proposals for Hell’s Kitchen (“Hudson Yards”), a key puzzle piece in Doctoroff’s unsuccessful attempts to bring the 2012 Olympics to New York. Brash reveals that the plan’s ultimate defeat was due in large part to the ability of neighborhood groups, including the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association and Community Board Four, to co-opt the Bloomberg administration’s use of rhetoric and renderings that promoted an idealized, “elite” city.

Hudson Yards.

Aerial view of Hudson Yards in Manhattan.
Julian Brash

Beyond issues of who’s part of “the elite” and who’s not (and Brash applies the term too often and too vaguely) the “luxury city” has, in fact, become a reality, and Brash smartly ties class politics to place-making. By examining Hudson Yards in detail, Brash shows how a supposedly “placeless” group he calls the “Transnational Capitalist Class”—bankers, investors, and developers with global aspirations—don’t “transcend space,” but in fact inhabit and change the city on a very local scale. Brash’s insights here are thoughtful and intricate, offering a more vivid, not to mention more accurate, explanation than the tired and simplistic label “gentrification.”

In fact, I would go a step further than Brash and say that while “transnationals” do indeed occupy and transform physical space in the city, they often do so in a deliberately non-contextual way that is the very definition of placelessness. Many of the startlingly daring condominiums, for example, built during Bloomberg’s first two terms from 2002 to 2009, were promoted more often as good investments than nice places to live.  Some of the flashier projects seem completely shrink-wrapped and divided from the city, marketed as opulent interior worlds uncorrupted by the neighborhood lurking outside. Tsao & McKown’s William Beaver House in the Financial District has an indoor dog run, a movie theater, and an on-site auto mechanic. Annabelle Selldorf’s 200 Eleventh Avenue in West Chelsea has an elevator that lifts your car directly into your apartment.  Meanwhile, Trinity Real Estate president Jason Pizer, who manages Trinity Church’s six million square feet of space in a neighborhood north of the church that he insists we call “Hudson Square” (in honor of the previous Hudson Square neighborhood that Trinity helped to destroy between 1867 and 1918), refers to the church’s vast parcels of land as “the portfolio.” Under Bloomberg, much of the physical space of New York became a kind of three-dimensional futures market.

A rally in support of a new Jets stadium.

A 2004 rally supporting a New York Jets stadium in Manhattan.
Julian Brash

There is much to enjoy in New York City under Mayor Bloomberg, notably new public spaces like Hudson River Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High Line.  And I certainly don’t feel nostalgia for the “good old days,” 20 or so years ago, when there were 2,605 murders in a single year (1990) and New Yorkers regularly carried “hold-up money” (usually a crisp $100 bill) in order to have something to offer the inevitable mugger.  But over the last decade, things have definitely swung towards a monocultural, less sustainable city. Brash points to New York’s lack of economic diversification as a disturbing trend, and this is where his argument against the “Bloomberg Way” is most convincing. A city overbuilt with offices, condominiums, and chic restaurants for the “creative class” isn’t actually very creative urban planning. When I first moved to Cobble Hill in Brooklyn 15 years ago, there was still an active furniture factory at the corner of Smith and Warren Streets. Now it’s a condo. It’s impossible to imagine light manufacturing in my neighborhood today; industrial spaces have universally transformed into boutiques and bars.

Pizer, in a recent interview in Trinity News, practically crowed about the death of industry in Hudson Square: “[In] 1999 we were still primarily a printing area, and to see the portfolio morph from light industrial into the creative office tenants we have now is very exciting.” Exciting? I find the over-reliance on “creative office tenants” a precarious gamble. A city built only for the “elites” means that if they go down, we all go down.

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Check It Out
The Queens Central Library and Children's Library Discovery Center, now in progress, by 1100 Architect.
Courtesy 1100 Architect

A few years ago, Peter Cook of Davis Brody Bond Aedas was charged with designing, together with the late Max Bond, two new public libraries in Washington, D.C. In a session that sought input from the community, he showed an image of a stalwartly familiar and classical Carnegie library, and most people in the audience thought it was a bank. As for the library to be replaced, a windowless 1960s brick block, the audience made it clear that whatever was built should be its opposite.

The process of recasting the modern library in a new mold, making it accessible where once it was formal and aspirational, transparent instead of defensive and protective, is gaining momentum in even the most budget-conscious municipalities. In 2004, the Seattle Main Library by OMA/Rem Koolhaas exploded the idea of the library as a quiet-time haven, turning the main reading room into a fully fledged social space. As Joshua Prince-Ramus, then a partner at OMA, commented, this open area became an unprogrammed space to “eat, yell, or play chess.” Nor were books hidden in stacks, but put on open shelves to invite heavy use.

  Watha T. Daniel / Shaw Library in Washington, D.C. by Davis Brody Bond Aedas
The Watha T. Daniel / Shaw Library in Washington, D.C. was designed by Davis Brody Bond Aedas to be radically different from traditional libraries.
Paúl Rivera
Chrisp Street Idea Store by David Adjaye in London
In London, architect David Adjaye did the same on Chrisp Street with a new library concept, the Idea Store.
Courtesy Adjaye & Associates

“Seattle triggered a sea change,” said Juergen Riehm of 1100 Architect, currently working on a new concept for a children’s library as part of the Central Main Library in Queens. “The whole idea of highly flexible space, allowing for a variety of changing uses—civil, commercial, cultural—started there.”

At the same time and with even more radical intentions, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the city agency responsible for branch libraries, invited David Adjaye to develop their concept for replacing branch libraries with “Idea Stores.” To be located near shopping centers and in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations, the Idea Store eschewed monumentality and the privileging of books in favor of communal, educational, and media-related activities. The new model would house retail, library, community, and educational uses all under one roof, and its design would be inspired by outdoor market vernacular. With an emphasis on transparency and ease of access, Adjaye wrapped a basic rectangular form entirely in glass, with retail in the base and other services above, adding an exterior escalator to sweep visitors straight up from street to library level. Adjaye has designed two Idea Stores, in Chrisp Street and in Whitechapel, the latter awarded the Stirling Prize for best new building in 2006.

The success of the Idea Stores inspired the District of Columbia Public Library to hire Adjaye in 2008 to design two branch libraries in underserved neighborhoods in the capital. The design of the $9.5 million Washington Highlands Branch, now under construction, may not be as radical as an Idea Store, but it goes well beyond the bunker style of many other D.C. libraries built in the 1960s. Washington Highlands includes a garden, balconies, an outdoor amphitheater, and a conference and meeting room for as many as 100 people. Both the Washington Highlands and Adjaye’s second library, the Francis Gregory, are due for completion in 2011.

Davis Brody Bond Aedas has just completed two libraries in the District. The Watha T. Daniel-Shaw in Northwest D.C. opened in August, and the Benning in the Northeast sector, in April. With an ease of accessibility and transparency largely unknown in the city, the Shaw Library presents a vigorously jutting glass prow that stacks three floors onto a smallish triangular site with a soaring 20-foot open space at its center “to celebrate the reading room,” according to Peter Cook. A new green roof was funded by $330,000 in stimulus funds, and the Shaw’s LEED Silver status sets the bar high for all new D.C. public libraries. The Shaw is quite literally a beacon for its community, another role that older libraries may have implicitly suggested with their “lamp of learning” solemnity, but rarely made visible.

Inside the Children's Library Discovery Center  by 1100 Architect
Inside the Children's Library Discovery Center at The Queens Central Library by 1100 Architect.
Courtesy 1100 Architect
The Kingsbridge Library in the Bronx by Prendergast Laurel Architects
The Kingsbridge Library in the Bronx by Prendergast Laurel Architects features 25-foot glass window walls and a garden roof.
Courtesy Prendergast Laurel Architects
Mariners Harbor Branch Library on Staten Island by Atelier Pagnamenta Torriani
The Mariners Harbor Branch Library on Staten Island by Atelier Pagnamenta Torriana is entirely on one level with a glazed circulation spine.
Courtesy DDC
Addition to the Stapleton Carnegie Library by Andrew Berman
Andrew Berman is adding 8,000 square feet to a 1907 Carrère & Hastings Carnegie Library in Stapleton, Staten Island.
Courtesy DDC

New York City is no less eager a student of the new model, with some 18 new branches in the works across the three official library zones of Brooklyn, Queens, and New York (which includes the Bronx and Staten Island). Most are part of the Excellence in Design program sponsored by the Department of Design and Construction (DDC). David Resnick, deputy commissioner, notes that libraries are “one of the very few free public interior spaces that are truly democratic rather than commercially coercive. They truly want what the customer wants.” The current effort to create buildings that draw in more visitors, especially youth and seniors, was inspired, Resnick said, in part by the bookstore Barnes & Noble and its success at turning itself into a kind of public living room.

The old New York model had to be tweaked: Rules about silence were relaxed; there were no longer command center desks; librarians had to be more forthcoming and engaged; there had to be lots of windows. Above all, books would no longer be the primary attraction, according to Resnick, but just one of numerous media and activities on offer. Multipurpose rooms can be booked even when a library itself is closed.

Commissioned by the DDC, Andrew Berman has designed an addition to a Carnegie library in Stapleton, Staten Island, designed by Carrère & Hastings in 1907. The small village-green facing edifice will more than double in size. Berman conceived the new space not only as a community library but “as a destination where reading is just one offering,” along with sitting, searching the web, or joining a social group. The aim was to welcome rather than intimidate users who might be unable to read, do not often speak with English, or feel threatened by the bastion-of-learning approach favored by older libraries. Berman moved the primary entrance to the long facade of the new addition, where ample glass plays up the idea of transparency, and books, videos, and recordings are temptingly visible from the street. A grade-level entrance makes it easier to drop in. There are no visible blank walls or sheetrock, while the interior is almost completely day-lighted. At night and after hours, with ongoing meetings in various multipurpose rooms, Berman said, the Stapleton library has become a “nightlight for the community.”

Scott Marble of Marble Fairbanks faced a brick bunker-style library from the 1960s in Glen Oaks, Queens. “It was prominently sited with not one window on the public front, a real eyesore,” said Marble. “It’s shocking that people thought that way.” Low maintenance and a different mindset about public experience shaped the design, along with scant commitment of public funds. “It was all about focusing inward and avoiding distractions—like looking out at a tree,” he said.

Glen Oaks Branch Library designed by Marble Fairbanks

Marble Fairbanks designed the Glen Oaks Branch Library to replace a bunker-style library and provide a welcome beacon for this suburban Queens neighborhood.
Courtesy Marble Fairbanks

Marble wanted to reverse that and make a library that would be “a visually open icon for people.” Budget constraints are still a factor, but Marble created a design that reaches out to the neighborhood with multiple entrances, and a garden with bluestone pavers that he hopes locals will feel free to replant (Kate Orff of SCAPE helped with the planting scheme). Since older sites for libraries are often smaller than current programs require, Marble located the main reading room below grade, with skylights and a green roof at ground level.

Washington Highlands Public Library by Adjaye & Associates

David Adjaye's Washington Highlands Public Library in Washington, D.C. is due for completion in 2011.
Courtesy Adjaye & Associates

Turning libraries from resource-guzzling to self-sustaining is another priority, as libraries everywhere experience staff cuts and heightened electricity needs for computers. A large interior atrium connecting all three levels of the library combined with substantial glazing on two sides allows the interiors to be primarily illuminated by daylight.

On the roof, a parapet concealing mechanicals is sheathed in glass that is etched with the word “SEARCH,” whose letters track across the facade as the sun moves. It’s a fitting term for the active approach to a new generation of public libraries determined to find and keep their communities engaged.

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City Council Passes the Sugar
The two tallest towers, at the center of the New Domino development, will be shortened from 40 stories to 34.
Courtesy CPC Resources

How do you make a building smaller without actually making it smaller? That was essentially what negotiations came down to for the redevelopment of the old Domino Sugar refinery on the Williamsburg waterfront, which was unanimously approved by the City Council today.

Affordable housing developer CPC Resources wants to turn the six blocks around the refinery into the New Domino, a $1.4 billion mixed-income community of 2,200 apartments in 5 towers designed by Rafael Viñoly. The project would include the refinery itself, now being retrofitted by Beyer Blinder Belle for an as-yet undetermined set of uses. Of the 2,200 units, 30 percent will be set aside for affordable housing, well in excess of the 20 percent typically mandated for such large-scale projects.

Steve Levin, the local councilmember, has been fighting the project since even before he took office in January, when he was chief of staff to Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Both have been calling for a smaller project with fewer units, though more affordable ones, and lower towers, which range in height from 14 to 40 stories. Levin, as well as two-thirds of the community board, which voted against the project in March, argue that all those new residents will overwhelm local infrastructure and overshadow the waterfront.

While Levin fell short on a number of his goals today, he did strike a deal to reduce the height of the two tallest towers to 34 stories from 40. In exchange, a previous agreement made at the City Planning Commission to reduce the height of a commercial building on the northernmost lot to 25 stories has been reversed, and it will rise once again to 30 stories. “We don’t want to see a gold coast,” Levin said in an interview. “We weren’t happy about seeing these supertall luxury towers on the waterfront.”

The project covers five blocks surrounding the refinery next to the Williamsburg Bridge. The towers next to the refinery will be shrinking while the one at far right will remain at 30 stories.

Levin said that given zoning constraints, it was still possible that the number of units in the project could be reduced, but Susan Pollock, the project manager for CPC Resources, said a design similar to the current one, with the full complement of units, could be expected from the architects soon. “The zoning envelope remains the zoning envelope, so the project will continue to look much the way it is,” Pollock said. “Obviously it will have to change some with the heights coming down, but not much from our current plan.”

Pollock would not say whether the densities would be achieved through bulkier, wider buildings or smaller apartments. “There’s enough room to make that possible,” she said. The developer has held firm to its numbers throughout negotiations, arguing that it could not afford the project with anything less. “As we’ve always said, we need to keep those numbers to bring the community all of the benefits we promised,” Pollock said.

The developer also agreed to provide shuttle bus service to a nearby JMZ subway station to alleviate congestion on the L train (a much better option, now that the M runs to Midtown instead of downtown), as well as a possible extension into Manhattan. There was also a requirement that any changes of use to the 140,000 square feet of community facilities in the refinery go through the public review process, which could prevent the construction of a hotel, among some of the uses the community has raised concerns about.

The Bloomberg administration, which has been a firm supporter of the project, made a number of concessions to Levin on behalf of Williamsburg. There will be a Community Advisory Council overseeing Domino’s impacts on the community; upgrades to sewers and other infrastructure; additional funding for open space, tenant anti-harassment efforts, and a cultural center; and a comprehensive transportation study to address crowding on the streets and subways.

These may have been the biggest windfall from today’s vote. “As we do these very big developments, it’s important the infrastructure in the neighborhood keep pace,” Levin said, adding, “We’re going to constantly need to address these issues, address them and continue to address them.”

Four new streets will lead down to the waterfront, where a promenade is part of four acres of new open space, one of the project's hallmarks.

Levin was applauded for his efforts by his colleagues in the council, even if the concessions were not commensurate with his previous victories. Councilwoman Diana Reyna, who represents the district adjacent to Levin’s, had been a strong supporter of the project despite her colleague’s opposition, an unusual move at the council, where deference is generally paid. She argued that the affordable housing it provides was worth the density. “I’m happy to say this land will be reinvigorated and happy this project has reached a level of satisfaction for all parties,” Reyna said.

Even Councilman Charles Barron, a development skeptic and frequent no-vote, voted in favor of the project, saying it would be a boon for the community, though he also used the opportunity to rail against the state of affordable housing in the city. “We’re talking about 70 percent luxury housing and that can change the complexion of a neighborhood,” Barron said. “We need to be careful when we think about affordability. I don’t see why we have to be on the short end every time.”

The community was less enthusiastic about the results. "We were clearly hoping for more—or less, as the case may be," Ward Dennis, co-chair of advocacy group Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, said in email. "NAG's position was never to stop the Domino project, just to make it better. We look forward to the affordable housing, new open space, and supermarkets that this project will bring to our community. But we also need a sustainable model for growth going forward, and that is what we feel is still missing from the project."

And yet few hold Levin to blame for the final results. "Steve worked really hard on this," one local activist said. "The Bloomberg administration and the [council] speaker just didn't give him any room to negotiate. There was little that could be done."

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Arts on the Rise
The boarded-up (or, rather, concreted-up) P.S. 109, future home of the city's first Artspace.
Courtesy Artspace

Artists have long pioneered the rebirth of hard-hit urban districts, but rarely as part of a larger vision for social welfare. Last month, the Ford Foundation announced a bold effort aimed at offering just that kind of neighborhood-based support: a $100 million program to help fund new and rehabilitated theaters, museums, galleries, and live/work spaces that enhance creative communities and social equity—with one Manhattan project already in the pipeline.

Known as Supporting Diverse Arts Spaces, the ten-year, nationwide effort dovetails with the foundation’s longtime mission to advance social justice. “We really looked at the way that the arts would integrate more meaningfully with the rest of the work that Ford does to improve people’s livelihoods and aspirations,” said Roberta Uno, program officer for the foundation.

The current initiative builds on a recent package of grants made to New York City arts spaces such as Chinatown’s Chen Dance Center, an expanded Pregones Theater in the South Bronx, and the recently renovated El Museo del Barrio. As part of the new program, competitive planning and predevelopment grants of up to $100,000 each are targeted at groups aiming to buy, build, renovate, or partner in the development of arts spaces that can serve as engines of social change. The grants are administered through the group Leveraging Investments In Creativity (LINC), with applications for the spring 2010 cycle due by May 28.

A rendering of the renovated East Harlem school, which will house 72 artist's residences when it reopens.

Helping to signal its emphasis on creative communities, Ford has awarded a $1 million predevelopment fund to Artspace Projects, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that creates affordable housing for artists. The group, which owns and operates 24 projects across the country, has two New York projects underway: a 45-unit building under construction in the Long Island village of Patchogue, and a plan to transform the abandoned P.S. 109 in East Harlem into 72 units of housing for artists.

The latter project, expected to break ground late this year with a budget of approximately $60 million, is a prime example of the group’s multi-layered approach. “We tend to have multiple agendas in each one of our specific projects, such as affordable housing, economic development, and cultural infrastructure, as well as historic rehabilitation and green, sustainable design,” said Shawn McLearen, project manager for Artspace. “It’s kind of a win-win when somebody can create a project that does all of those.”

Artspace is working with El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, a community-based housing group, as co-developer for the project. Buffalo-based Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects will lead the restoration of the Charles B.J. Snyder– designed school, along with Brooklyn architect Victor Morales. As with many of the group’s developments, it is tapping a diverse array of funding sources, including low-income housing tax credits and New York State historic preservation tax credits, along with philanthropic and other funds.

Mindful of the gentrification that accompanies economic development efforts, Ford has worked to nurture neighborhood social fabric rather than destroy it. For example, the East Harlem project will encourage occupancy not just by solo artists but by families. “We really pushed Artspace on this particular building to make it address families, with one- to three-bedroom units,” Uno said. “Artists are not just individuals. They’re part of their communities, and that means they have families.” The project will also offer permanent affordable housing, with 60 percent dedicated to neighborhood residents. “That preserves the historic character of El Barrio,” Uno said.