Search results for "zoning"

No Nouvel in My Backyard

MoMA neighbors speak out against Hines’ tower at LPC
It has been suggested that Jean Nouvel’s design for a 74-story tower abutting the Museum of Modern Art helped the French architect win the Pritzker Prize a month ago. Whether there is truth to this or not, the building certainly earned the French architect little admiration or appreciation from dozens of the building’s future neighbors. Instead, they ridiculed the project for more than two hours during a hearing at the Landmarks Preservation Commission on April 8. Though Nouvel and Hines, developer of the newly christened Tour de Verre, made the most detailed presentation of their condo/ hotel/MoMA gallery yet, the designs were not actually under review. Instead, the commission was asked to determine the worthiness of a transfer of air rights from two landmarks down the block: St. Patrick’s Church (275,000 square feet) and the University Club (136,000 square feet). It is up to the Commission, as per the Zoning Resolution,to determine whether the transfer and its resulting development “contribute to a preservation purpose” and “relate harmoniously to the subject landmark.” The Hines team took a nuanced approach in their arguments for the transfer, suggesting it would move the development rights almost a block away from the two landmarks in question. This move would protect them from closer and therefore disharmonious developments, they explained. “The strategy here is to move the bulk into that higher density zone” along Sixth Avenue, said Michael Sillerman, Hines’ counsel. The idea is that at that remove,it would just be another Midtown skyscraper. “You’ll see a new building amidst a series of towers,” said Ward Dennis, the project’s preservation consultant. “Really, this is about an urban experience, not building side-by-side.” Nouvel argued that the design itself, while not stylistically analogous to the landmarks, would still have little effect on them. “The impact is less strong because the building is very narrow,” he said. “I wish to enrich this neighborhood, to open the sky, and also to create a kind of signal you can read in the skyline of the city and you can say, ‘The MoMA is here.’” Furthermore, to deny Nouvel would, as the architect put it, deny the city a wholly new building type, a departure from its boxes and cylinders. Then, following a series of renderings reinforcing the building’s slim profile, Nouvel concluded, “You understand we really can’t see a lot of the building. This vertical line, this élan is very important to convey this sense of lightness.” Despite Nouvel’s poetic performance and the near-breathless reviews in the architectural press that preceded it, almost every speaker lashed out against it, bringing a litany of complaints. The most persistent, and perhaps obvious, concerned the building’s size—at 11,150 feet, it is taller than the Chrysler building—and scale. The necessity and validity of the air-rights transfer also came into question. “These landmarks are already well taken care of,” said Veronica Conan, president of the West 54th-55th streets Block Association. Her group, which represents a block of anomalous residential buildings in the heart of Midtown (whose entire membership seemed to turn out for the hearing) contests the preservation schemes put forward by the well-funded parties involved in the plan. The project was not without a few supporters, including David Childs—he called himself “a friend and admirer” of Nouvel— as well as MoMA heavies Glenn Lowry and Barry Bergdoll. Perhaps Nouvel’s greatest promotion, however, came from a young, pony-tailed Pratt architecture student. The only speaker without notes, he delivered a blistering defense of the project, arguing that it will become an instant landmark. Because the hearing ran past 7 p.m., a number of the commissioners had left, and, lacking a quorum, the project could not be discussed or cross-examined as usually happens at the end of a hearing. Commission chair Robert Tierney said it was a “terrific presentation”but would go no further. A commission spokesperson, Lisi de Bourbon, said it was unlikely the project would be publicly discussed until it came back for a vote on the transfer within the next few months. This leaves the opinions of the oft-enigmatic commission a big question mark. Afterward, Nouvel said he was not surprised by the reaction. “I’m always a little bit sad of that,” he told AN. “Ninety-nine percent of the presentations are negative because they want nothing. Every project for them is a disagreement.” Asked what he would do if the commission sided with the community, Nouvel began to speak before a Hines representative tried to cut him off. “No, no, I can answer this,” the architect protested, waving the man away. “I can always change a project if I have a good reason. It could even get better.”
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New Willets Point? No Way!
Courtesy NYCEDC

When a pothole forms in Willets Point, business owners there don’t call 311; they call an asphalt supply company. “We have to fix it ourselves,” said Jerry Antonacci, owner of Crown Container Company. “Going back 30, 40 years, the city just hasn’t provided services for us.”

The 61-acre site houses about 250 businesses, most of them auto body shops. Streets are rough, the soil is polluted (the land used to be an ash dump), but for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, it is a promising site for development. On April 21, the city certified a rezoning proposal for the area, which is the first step toward realizing a LEED-rated development plan that includes a convention center, hotel, parks, 5,500 units of housing, and 500,000 square feet of office space. This initiated the public review phase that could last for seven months. The same day, 29 members of the council came out against the plan in political opposition.

But while the mayor calls the area blighted, locals call it neglected. Last month, the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association (WPIRA), a group of the ten biggest businesses and landowners there, sued the city, demanding they fix the area’s broken infrastructure and compensate property holders for the hit to their land values.

The city wants to move now—and has not ruled out the use of eminent domain—but landowners are convinced they’d get much better deals on their turf if only the properties were more attractive. “Put in the infrastructure, and development will take care of itself,” said Councilman Tony Avella, who, with hundreds of others, protested the development near Shea Stadium on the Mets opening day.

But City Hall wants a hand in the plans. Announcing the development last May, Mayor Bloomberg explained that the city’s goal is to turn the zone into “the city’s first truly green community, with buildings that use the latest energy-efficient technology and parks and open spaces that give New Yorkers new places to play.” The NYCEDC also promises 5,000 new permanent jobs, and relocation assistance to businesses already there. But that’s little comfort to locals.

“These are pie-in-the-sky ideas,” said Avella. Relocating the businesses is impossible, he says, because “it’s the only zoning of its kind in Queens.” Antonacci said relocation means he shuts down for good. “I run a rubbish hauling station,” he said, “and to relocate me, you have to promise you’ll pull some strings to get me the permits I need because they don’t issue these kinds of permits anymore.”

“The city’s intent on developing this area, and eminent domain continues to be a very serious threat,” said Michael Gerard, a lawyer for the WPIRA. For Antonacci, the city’s just not playing nice. “It’s their way or no way,” he said, referring to eminent domain’s intimidation factor. “They’ve got that gun and they put it on the table. How are you going to negotiate with that?”

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No Nouvel in My Backyard
Matt Chaban

It has been suggested that Jean Nouvel’s design for a 74-story tower abutting the Museum of Modern Art helped the French architect win the Pritzker Prize a month ago. Whether there is truth to this or not, the building certainly earned the French architect little admiration or appreciation from dozens of the building’s future neighbors. Instead, they ridiculed the project for more than two hours during a hearing at the Landmarks Preservation Commission on April 8.

Though Nouvel and Hines, developer of the newly christened Tour de Verre, made the most detailed presentation of their condo/hotel/MoMA gallery yet, the designs were not actually under review. Instead, the commission was asked to determine the worthiness of a transfer of air rights from two landmarks down the block: St. Patrick’s Church (275,000 square feet) and the University Club (136,000 square feet). It is up to the Commission, as per the Zoning Resolution, to determine whether the transfer and its resulting development “contribute to a preservation purpose” and “relate harmoniously to the subject landmark.”

The Hines team took a nuanced approach in their arguments for the transfer, suggesting it would move the development rights almost a block away from the two landmarks in question. This move would protect them from closer and therefore disharmonious developments, they explained. “The strategy here is to move the bulk into that higher density zone” along Sixth Avenue, said Michael Sillerman, Hines’ counsel. The idea is that at that remove, it would just be another Midtown skyscraper. “You’ll see a new building amidst a series of towers,” said Ward Dennis, the project’s preservation consultant. “Really, this is about an urban experience, not building side-by-side.”

Nouvel argued that the design itself, while not stylistically analogous to the landmarks, would still have little effect on them. “The impact is less strong because the building is very narrow,” he said. “I wish to enrich this neighborhood, to open the sky, and also to create a kind of signal you can read in the skyline of the city and you can say, ‘The MoMA is here.’”

Furthermore, to deny Nouvel would, as the architect put it, deny the city a wholly new building type, a departure from its boxes and cylinders. Then, following a series of renderings reinforcing the building’s slim profile, Nouvel concluded, “You understand we really can’t see a lot of the building. This vertical line, this élan is very important to convey this sense of lightness.”

Despite Nouvel’s poetic performance and the near-breathless reviews in the architectural press that preceded it, almost every speaker lashed out against it, bringing a litany of complaints. The most persistent, and perhaps obvious, concerned the building’s size—at 11,150 feet, it is taller than the Chrysler building—and scale.

The necessity and validity of the air-rights transfer also came into question. “These landmarks are already well taken care of,” said Veronica Conan, president of the West 54th-55th streets Block Association. Her group, which represents a block of anomalous residential buildings in the heart of Midtown (whose entire membership seemed to turn out for the hearing) contests the preservation schemes put forward by the well-funded parties involved in the plan.

The project was not without a few supporters, including David Childs—he called himself “a friend and admirer” of Nouvel—as well as MoMA heavies Glenn Lowry and Barry Bergdoll. Perhaps Nouvel’s greatest promotion, however, came from a young, pony-tailed Pratt architecture student. The only speaker without notes, he delivered a blistering defense of the project, arguing that it will become an instant landmark.

Because the hearing ran past 7 p.m., a number of the commissioners had left, and, lacking a quorum, the project could not be discussed or cross-examined as usually happens at the end of a hearing. Commission chair Robert Tierney said it was a “terrific presentation” but would go no further. A commission spokesperson, Lisi de Bourbon, said it was unlikely the project would be publicly discussed until it came back for a vote on the transfer within the next few months. This leaves the opinions of the oft-enigmatic commission a big question mark.

Afterward, Nouvel said he was not surprised by the reaction. “I’m always a little bit sad of that,” he told AN. “Ninety-nine percent of the presentations are negative because they want nothing. Every project for them is a disagreement.” Asked what he would do if the commission sided with the community, Nouvel began to speak before a Hines representative tried to cut him off. “No, no, I can answer this,” the architect protested, waving the man away. “I can always change a project if I have a good reason. It could even get better.”

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Whitney Unveils New Satellite at the High Line
Courtesy Whitney Museum

The April 30 debut of Renzo Piano’s shimmery design for a Whitney Museum branch at the High Line featured none of the hallmarks that usually greet international architects in moneyed Manhattan. Nobody protested the plan, called it “out of scale” or demanded the architect plead his case. Such are the advantages of building on a vacant city-owned site that abuts a meatpackers’ processing facility. 

But, Whitney director Adam Weinberg told a public forum as he unveiled the plans, Piano’s design uses the friendly context to deliver a crowd-pleaser. “The simplicity and character of the neighborhood are things Renzo really wants to pick up in his design,” Weinberg told a placid crowd in the half-full auditorium. “And this is the most outdoor neighborhood in the city of New York.” 

The project made its debut at this forum, which Manhattan Community Board 2 hosted, because it needs a variance from manufacturing zoning and approval of city conveyance of air rights to go forward. (The Parks Department will use part of the ground floor for High Line maintenance and operations.) That approval seems likely. 

Piano’s plan pushes the museum outdoors. The generous 43,000-square-foot site, Weinberg said, would allow an outdoor restaurant, an outdoor performance space, and a lobby big enough for concerts. And in order to free 25,000 square feet for displays from the permanent collection, Piano proposes 15,000 square feet of showcase on the roof. 

At the same time, the plan intensifies the quiet of its indoor zones. At ground level, Weinberg promised a series of free programs for visitors who enter from the High Line or the nearby boutique-y blocks. Glass walls, like a glass elevator and oversize window at the second floor landing, mean that visitors will look over the river and into the West Village while passersby see works from the street. “Before an installation, you’ll see art going up and down the elevator,” enthused Weinberg. 

Then a red-tinted escalator, echoing the High Line’s anticipated “slow stair,” delivers visitors to the western edge of the site and a 250-foot-long special exhibition space. The permanent collection, Weinberg said, will live on the top three floors in setback galleries. But outdoor spaces extend to the lot’s edge on each upper floor, mirroring the setbacks. “You could go from staircase to staircase and just do the museum via the exterior in good weather,” promised Weinberg. “Artists could do projects that could be seen from the High Line itself.”

Not that Piano’s logic matches the Miami-manqué of nearby hotels. It’s local. The upper floors would be clad in a stone layer that, judging from early sketches, suggests a more curvaceous quote of Marcel Breuer’s flagship Whitney uptown. The white façade on the upper stories is a visual link to the meatpackers’ site and nearby High Line, while the glass lobby and elevator emphasize views across the city and the river. “The Whitney forms an outdoor bridge between the High Line and Hudson River Park,” said Weinberg.

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How the West Won’t Be One
Tishman Speyer Properties

When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Governor David Paterson joined developer Jerry Speyer at a March 26 press conference announcing Tishman Speyer’s $1 billion-plus bid to lease the Hudson Yards from the MTA, everyone gathered around the Plexi-enclosed model and smiled for the cameras. The model depicts nine towers, many with porches over the High Line, and a public forum with a big staircase. But this diorama, a masterplan by Murphy/Jahn and Peter Walker and Partners, is simply a placeholder: the western half of the railyards has to go through a rezoning that will shape building heights and masses, all of this after Tishman invests $2 billion to build a platform over the yard and get office construction underway. When complete in 2016, the design will be as different from the model as the politicians surrounding it.

This deal doesn’t focus on architecture: it’s about getting money to the MTA. The agency is facing serious deficits, and Tishman’s willingness to sink capital into the neighborhood was particularly attractive. “Cash flows one way,” explained MTA’s Gary Dellaverson to his board before unanimous approval for the tentative deal. “Tishman’s obligation is to us.” The developer outlasted an early dropout (Brookfield Properties), a bidder for half of the site (the Related Companies), and a near-match from the Durst Organization and Vornado Realty Trust that Dellaverson described to his board as slightly less and later than Tishman’s. Tishman is working out terms to lease the 26-acre site for 99 years, with rights to develop the western half one parcel at a time, selling each parcel only after paying the MTA for it and paying hundreds of millions in cash if it decides to quit.

But what will the new neighborhood look like? The draft commitment letter obliges the developer only to produce a place “consistent with developer site plan and master plan proposal.” Tishman will probably sell any parcel the 7 subway extension and economy make valuable when it’s complete. At the ceremony, CEO Jerry Speyer affirmed that “any architect” could design the school, apartment towers, office buildings, cultural center, or park within the guidelines of the masterplan. Speyer’s son Rob, the company’s president, insisted the builders would “keep an open mind” about whether the High Line stays intact, and on other questions that preoccupy urban-design types.

So the office towers’ cantilever over the High Line, the classical fountain in the center, and the multicolored rooftops could vanish. Jerry Speyer said his group remains “absolutely” set on building the staircase from 10th Avenue, which is part of the master plan and which Rob Speyer has eagerly described as Manhattan’s next great public space. But a challenge in making a public space great will be getting people there: The site slopes downwards and will be hard to reach unless the planned 7 subway line extension finds money for a stop at 10th Avenue. “The most challenging part is how to avoid an overly-programmed, sterile, and disconnected end result, “ said FXFowle partner Dan Kaplan, who worked on Durst/Vornado’s bid and the Hudson Yards Development Corporation’s design guidelines. Activists will undoubtedly also push for more affordable housing than the 391 units currently in the proposal.

At the ceremony, Governor Paterson said the best plan will come when “the elected community, developers, and planners consult with the public.” He was gently pointing out that the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a six-month gauntlet of community meetings and scoping documents, will determine how quickly Tishman can leverage its investment and how hard it can push for office space to recoup extra spending. 

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Re-Rezoning 125th Street

Before representing Central Harlem on the City Council, Inez Dickens was a developer there. But of all the deals she struck in her previous profession, none comes close to the changes she announced today to the city’s contentious plan for rezoning 125th Street, so sweeping were they that could even shape future rezonings citywide. She presented her amendments to the plan before the council’s zoning subcommittee, which then voted 10-1 in favor of the revised rezoning.

Building on complaints from Community Board 10 and other concerned citizens, Dickens negotiated with the Bloomberg administration for an increase in affordable housing, a reduction in proposed building heights along the street’s core, a relocation fund for impacted businesses, and a strengthening of the arts bonus program, and nearly $6 million in improvements to Marcus Garvey Park.



COURTESY CITY COUNCIL
 
“Much has been said about the impacts of this plans and its focus on Harlem’s past, present, and future,” Dickens said. “It is my opinion that all of the components I have worked so hard to secure to protect my community will honor Harlem’s past, claim Harlem’s present, and provide for Harlem’s bright, expansive future.”

Dickens was applauded by a number of colleagues on the subcommittee for what they called one of the most progressive rezoning any of them could remember. “This is a major accomplishment that sets a template and a blueprint for all those communities of diversity that exist in our city,” said Bronx Councilmember Larry Seabrook, who also envisions the new rezoning leading to “a second Harlem Renaissance.”

The plan, announced last October, met with widespread opposition from the community, which had already been reeling from gentrification and feared the rezoning would only exacerbate the problem. The City Planning Commission, which certified the plan last month, maintained that with height restrictions and an enticements for cultural development, it would preserve the community’s character while providing for its future.

The community then turned to Dickens for support, but she had remained silent throughout the land-use review process, until two weeks ago, when she declared, “There will be no rezoning plan signed into law if I do not get the protection for my community.” Councilmember Robert Jackson, who represents Washington Heights and West Harlem, a small part of which is within the rezoning, bowed to Dickens’ efforts. “I’ve never seen anyone work as long and as hard on any issue,” he said.

“Affordable housing was the first priority, with small business and cultural institutions a close second,” Dickens said. As a result, she has secured the largest block of affordable housing within any rezoning. Of the roughly 3,900 units the rezoning will create, 46 percent will be income targeted, with 900 guaranteed at 60 percent of the area-median-income and 200 units at 40 percent. And 50 percent of all affordable units will be two bedrooms or larger, to provide for family housing.

The revisions also create a $750,000 forgivable loan program to assist in the relocation of the 71 businesses the Department of City Planning expects could be displaced by the rezoning, which would be moved to within ten-blocks of 125th Street. There is also a $1 million fund to help for the potential relocation of other businesses on the street. 

The pioneering arts bonus, which restricts development rights at the core of the zone unless an arts or cultural organization is given space, will now be overseen by an advisory board to ensure the organizations are representative of the Harlem’s indigenous artistic community. The terms of the arts leases have also been increased from five years to 15 years, with the option for two additional five-year terms.

The plan will be voted on tomorrow by the full Land-Use Committee, which tends to follow the recommendations of the subcommittee. It then moves back to the Department of City Planning, where some of the modifications will have to go back through the months-long ULURP process.

While some may remain resistant to the plan—zoning subcommittee chair Tony Avella said it is still a troublesome example of the city’s preference for “top-down development”—many of its earlier critics are thrilled. Community Board 10 Chair Franc Perry said he was thrilled that his board’s dissenting resolution served as a guide Dickens’ negotiations.

“We’re very excited with the changes because the they took our objections and them realized,” he told AN. “All the things we wanted to happen have to fruition. We were told this day would never come, but here we are.”

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Ennis in Limbo
Ennis House
Courtesy NTHP

Frank Lloyd Wright’s renowned Ennis House, badly damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, is finally ready for visitors after a lengthy stabilization and renovation. But because of a dispute with neighbors, the house has yet to open to the public, and may even be put on the market for sale.

The Mayan-inspired structure, completed in 1924 in LA’s Los Feliz neighborhood, is the largest and most recognizable of Wright’s Textile Block houses, gaining fame from its appearance in films like BladerunnerHouse on Haunted Hill, and Black Rain. Originally under private ownership, the house was donated to the public in 1980 by its eighth owner, Gus Brown, in the form of the Trust for Preservation of Cultural Heritage, renamed The Ennis House Foundation. The Northridge earthquake damaged several of its concrete blocks and caused large sections of its south retaining wall to break away. This, along with subsequent rain erosion, water damage, and neglect, left the house decaying and in serious danger of collapse. But thanks to over $6.5 million collected in 2005 from the Ennis House Foundation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, stabilization as well as an intensive renovation were able to go forward.

That project, headed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son Eric Lloyd Wright with Matt Construction and Historic Resources Group, included structural stabilization, refinished woodwork, ceiling replacement, floor repair, concrete block replacement, and cleaning. While restoration work continues (including replacing more blocks and finishing work on part of its retaining wall), the house is now ready for visitors, said Linda Dishman, chair of the foundation.

But the neighborhood isn’t ready. A group of about 20 adjacent neighbors is fighting plans to reopen the house to the public, arguing that the house should be sold to a private owner. They say that re-opening it will again create havoc on a tiny street that was never intended to host visitors, conferences, fundraisers, movie shoots, or parties (Gus Brown was notorious for loud parties and for constantly allowing movies to film there). They add that local zoning prohibits any house in the neighborhood from hosting public visits or events, and point to a letter signed by the foundation in 2005 assuring them that the house would not be re-opened to the public.

“It’s not a shrine, it’s a home,” said Frank Masi, who along with Donna Kolb is leading the group of opposed neighbors. “We want to restore the house to what it was meant to be—a single-family residence.” He added that a recent proposal from the foundation was inadequate because it called for hosting events or tours over 200 times a year. He says he might consider a compromise, but still prefers a sale, preferably to a reputable realtor who would be able to find a respectful owner. The house is landmarked, so its exterior could not be changed.

While Ennis House Foundation secretary-treasurer Stephen McAvoy said that right now the board has no plans to reopen the house to the public, Dishman said that the foundation is working hard to develop a plan allowing limited public access to the house that lessens impact on the neighbors. She said this could include carpooling to the site and having fewer visitors and events. But she admits that sale is a possibility. “If we can’t work out something with the neighbors, then we might have to look at that,” she said. “We’ve made a proposal. The ball is in their court.”

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And Then There Were Four


brookfield hudson
Brookfield’s Manhattan West. COURTESY SOM
 

Since the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced five bidders to buy air rights over its Hudson Yards that span the lower West 30s from 10th Avenue to the river, the Brookfield Properties bid has stood apart from the others. It rejected the MTA’s guideline to create a platform over the yard, arguing that it could keep the rail lines in service by locating buildings on the avenues and their entrances at street level. It also employed 11 architecture firms, including SHoP Architects and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, in a proposal that won the affection of members of the local community board and passersby at the MTA’s December exhibition. All of this has made the developer’s decision to abandon the bid raise eyebrows in the architectural community.

One reason that Brookfield may have dropped its scheme is that it violated the city’s 2005 zoning for the eastern portion of the site, meaning that a fresh rezoning would likely add at least 15 months to the schedule.

“Everyone who has worked on this will tell you they would like to relook at that zoning,” said a source associated with another bidder, who asked for anonymity. “I thought Brookfield’s proposal was entirely feasible from an urban design point of view, and there were good, intelligent principles in it.” 

Those principles may yet drive some of the site’s planning. It will take at least a decade to build out the project, and no developer will want to sink a lot of capital into it without knowing the prospects for Moynihan Station just to the east. So most observers (and some participants) expect players to lean on or borrow from each other in executing the project. That means Brookfield could get back in, as an investor in a single building or by virtue of its control over the site’s eastern gateway.

Brookfield recently secured $105 million in predevelopment financing for Manhattan West, a 5.4 million-square-foot mixed-use project featuring twin SOM skyscrapers. That project, on a deck from 9th Avenue to Dyer Avenue, will abut Hudson Yards, so Brookfield will still affect how construction crews, buses, and pedestrians eventually cross from Moynihan Station (or Penn Station, if it doesn’t change) into the Hudson Yards site.

The local community board and other well-organized civic groups in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen have advocated a plan integrating Moynihan and the Brookfield site into plans for Hudson Yards. Their advocacy has already led the MTA to release design proposals to the public: After the authority selects a bidder, support for the Brookfield idea may bring that model back into the picture. 

brookfield hudson
The Hudson Yards version of the SOM towers.COURTESY ARCHIMATION
 

“We’re all wondering whether there’s going to be room for change in urban design,” said someone who has participated in the bid process since last year. “The community itself is looking for it. The problem is, I don’t think anyone is going to take the time to build consensus.”

Governor Eliot Spitzer, at a February 28 speech, promised resolution of Moynihan Station’s unsure financing: MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said the agency will consider bids this month. As economic assumptions change, Brookfield’s choice to sit out the term-setting on Hudson Yards may prove wise later on if zoning problems make the project seem less financially; it doesn’t mean the company won’t get involved at a later point. 

ALEC APPELBAUM

 

More Forms?

For more than a decade, licensed architects and engineers have enjoyed the privilege of self-certifying their building plans with a minimum of interference from the city’s Department of Buildings. But on February 13, in an effort to improve its efficacy—not to mention its image, damaged by abuses of the program—the department announced that it is developing a new set of qualifications for designers to complete in order to self-certify their work. 

The self-certification program, known as Professional Certification, was created during budget cuts in the mid-1990s to allow any licensed architect or engineer to waive plan examination by the department. Instead, the designer signs off on the documents, guaranteeing their compliance with the city’s Building Code and Zoning Resolution. 

The program streamlines the filing process but also gives designers more freedom to bend and even break the rules, an increasingly common problem causing embarrassment for the department. The department audits only a small percentage of the certified plans, making it easy for abusers to sneak through, such as Brooklyn’s infamous Robert Scarano, who has misfiled self-certified plans throughout the city that were in violation of the code.

Last year, when some 37,000 projects were self-certified, the city passed legislation empowering the department to punish the handful of designers who wrongfully file plans, but the next step is to prevent them from self-certifying in the first place. Phyllis Arnold, the department’s deputy commissioner for legal affairs, said the new qualifications program has yet to be defined but will seek to provide oversight. “The idea is to pre-qualify rather than rely on prosecution at the back end,” she said. “We’re hoping to weed out problem filers at the beginning to keep them from ever getting into the system.”

The program, in the earliest stages of development, grew out of last year’s overhaul of the Building Code, which mandates the creation of compulsory qualifications for designers to self-certify. The program will function somewhat like a driver’s license points system, wherein designers will apply to the department to self-certify, demonstrating their compliance with the qualifications. There will be a monitoring component, and should a designer breach the criteria, the department will take action commensurate with the violation. This could range from a warning, to the suspension of professional certification privileges, to a petition to the state to revoke the offending designer’s license. 

Above all else, the department insists the new program is not a citywide license. Instead, Department of Buildings spokesperson Kate Lindquist said that the new program is akin to an additional layer of legal oversight. “What will change is, in addition to adhering to the law, you will have these qualifications to adhere to,” she said.

“It’s long overdue,” said Councilmember James Oddo, a department critic who pushed for the new program. “When Giuliani introduced self-certification, it was as a carrot-and-stick operation. The carrot was speed, one-stop shopping. The stick was, ‘If you abuse this, we’ll come down on you, and you will be punished.’ I’m not sure if the carrot worked, but the stick certainly hasn’t worked.” 

Without specific recommendations available—they are due by July 1, with an application deadline of December 31—AIA New York State president-elect Burton Roslyn would not say whether the inevitable changes will be good or bad for architects, but he does hope to be involved in crafting them. “As long as the guidelines as drafted and agreed upon are fair and equitable, there would be no conflict,” he said. “If they are arbitrary, then you start to have problems.” 

MATT CHABAN 

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Harlem’s Future?
Courtesy Vornado Realty Trust

Harlem has long been a divided community, between color and creed, between haves and have-nots. The Bloomberg administration’s recent proposal to rezone 125th Street, Harlem’s historic, cultural, and economic epicenter, has brought some of those groups together while pushing others further apart. On January 30, during a hearing of the City Planning Commission on the project, these divisions and alliances came into full focus.

For landlords, developers, and the street’s numerous arts institutions, the city’s plan is an opportunity to secure their economic triumph in a long-suffering neighborhood. But local residents, businesses, and some politicians fear the changes may threaten those who have stood by Harlem through the highs and lows by choice, circumstance, or both.
Relative to the recent spate of rezonings across the five boroughs, the 125th Street plan is modest in size, covering only 24 blocks running along a 1.6-mile strip from Broadway to Second Avenue, but it stands to have a major impact, for good or ill, on a community already under duress.

As City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden declared back in September when the plan was certified, “This comprehensive initiative will fulfill the promise of Harlem’s ‘Main Street’ as a vibrant corridor and a premier arts, entertainment, and commercial destination in the city.” But others see it as the latest tremors of gentrification. Craig Schley, who founded VOTE People to oppose the rezoning, said Harlemites would never accept the city’s proposal. “With the stroke of a pen, you will achieve as much destruction as Hurricane Katrina,” he told commissioners, underscoring the racial sensitivity of the project.

Many, however, are excited by the proposal, perhaps none more so than local arts organizations such as the Apollo Theater, the Studio Museum, and the National Jazz Museum. They stand to benefit because the rezoning creates a special arts and cultural sub-district at the center of 125th Street. There, any new building must devote five percent of its space to an arts organization in order to achieve maximum square-footage on the site. “I want to go back to a time when I couldn’t count the arts and cultural institutions on two hands, there were so many,” JoAnn Price, vice chair of the Apollo Theater Foundation, told AN

To create new commercial space, much of which is underutilized because of 125th Street’s generally small lots, the street has been upzoned to allow for larger and denser buildings; to counteract overdevelopment, height caps have also been instituted for the first time. These concentrate development between Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X boulevards and the Metro-North station at Park Avenue. This and similar measures have gained the support of the 125th Street Business Improvement District and other economic groups hoping to capitalize on the projected 6,000 jobs the new commercial buildings will create.

But some developers still want more, such as the Vornado Realty Trust, whose representatives asked the commission during the hearing for an exception in order to build the Harlem Park, a high-end office tower at 125th Street and Park Avenue. This request drew jeers from the crowd, who see it as emblematic of the overdevelopment threatening the area.

For Nelly Bailey, director of the Coalition to Save Harlem, Harlem Park is precisely the sort of project she is defending against. “They are handing us something that will destroy Harlem,” Bailey told the commission. She then described the proposal as “Mayor Bloomberg’s masterplan, on a scale that has not been seen since Robert Moses. It is a plan that seeks to replace a working class community of color with an affluent white community.”

Franc Perry, chair of Community Board 10, which voted against the rezoning, said that Harlem is not opposed to development, and in many cases needs it. Instead, the concern is whether Harlemites will be driven out. “We understand that change is inevitable,” he told AN, “but there has to be change with conscience, with consensus from the community.”

TROUBLED CONTRACTOR STILL SWINGING IN CITY

Little has changed since deadly accident at Trump Soho
Despite complaints for months of an errant crane and other unsafe work conditions at the Trump Soho construction site; despite biweekly inspections by the city’s Department of Buildings; despite a previous tragedy on another of the general contractor’s worksites; despite all these warnings and precautions, it was not until the death of Yuriy Vanchytskyy, a construction worker from Greenpoint who fell 40 stories when a portion of the 42nd floor collapsed on January 12, that Bovis Lend Lease’s crane fell silent on the 46-story project. But they are still at large throughout the city. Construction accidents are nothing new. And though their numbers had fallen in the city in recent years, last year they shot up by 83 percent. Tony Avella, chair of the city council’s zoning and franchise subcommittee and an outspoken critic of the Department of Buildings, sees this as the result of two factors. On the one hand, Avella said, there are so many projects underway that talented contractors are spread thin and hard to come by, and on the other hand, there is such pressure to complete these projects before the market grows worse that the breakneck pace has created an untenably dangerous work environment. “When will this city learn?” he asked. “When will this city learn to put safety before money?” It is not just small projects but major ones as well, including incidents at the New York Times Building, One Bryant Park, and the new Goldman Sachs headquarters in Battery Park City. The city’s Department of Buildings is still trying to determine the exact cause of the collapse at the Trump Soho at the corner of Spring and Varrick streets. If numerous reports are correct— it is still not official that it was the project’s crane carrying a massive concrete hamper that caused the accident—it would not be the first issue with the crane. Since the project began rising in July, there have been complaints to the department at least once a month since September and as recently as January 5, a week before the accident, that the crane was erratic, either hitting nearby buildings or dropping debris. At least eight previous violations had been filed concerning the crane by the department, though it was allowed to continue “once the contractor [had] a preventative plan in place,” spokesperson Kate Lindquist explained. Lindquist said they had been placed under increased scrutiny but appeared to be in compliance. “Buildings has been and will continue to step up enforcement at the site,” she said. Despite the department’s redoubled efforts, Lindquist could not explain how the accident happened with inspectors on the watch. Bovis Lend Lease was also the contractor at 130 Liberty Street, the former Deutsche Bank Building that was heavily damaged on 9/11. When a fire broke out there (“Many Question in Ground Zero Fire,” AN 14_09.05.2007), two died in part because a faulty standpipe robbed them of necessary water to combat the blaze. The standpipe was missed during a routine inspection. Calls for comment to the Trump Organization and Bovis Lend Lease were not returned. Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and one of the loudest critics of the Trump Soho, said the city has long been complicit in the disastrous handling of the project. He decries the deal cut by the city council and mayor that allows the condominium project to masquerade as a hotel by restricting the number of days it can be occupied to 100. Adding insult to injury, while a lawsuit filed by the Soho Alliance and a claim to the Board of Standards and Appeals wend their way through the city’s bureaucracy, the project has hurtled ahead at a pace of two stories a week, which many believe contributed to the dangers on the site. The further along the project is, the harder it becomes to defeat or overturn. As Berman wrote in an open letter, “This building was already a monument to greed and hubris; now, sadly, it will be a monument to tragedy as well.” Ali, a hot dog vendor who has worked for years at the corner of Broome and Varick streets, heard but did not witness the collapse firsthand. But he has seen other accidents, such as the flight of a half-dozen plywood panels off the top of the building, which damaged several cars nearby. He has a simple explanation for the troubles plaguing the project: “I think people jinxed the building. They didn’t want it in the first place.”
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Wonder Wheels at Work
Courtesy Coney Island Development Corporation

There may be light at the end of the long dark ride for Coney Island after all. For Joseph Sitt, of developer Thor Equities, it's no tunnel of love, but at least he hasn't been ejected from the Cyclone at top speed.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's announcement of the new Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) rezoning plan on November 8 put to rest local residents' concerns that a high-priced private complex would turn Stillwell Avenue into Vegas East. Dividing a 19-block, 47-acre district into three differently zoned segments, the CIDC aims to foster new residential and retail development in two areas further removed from the current Astroland and other attractions, and, in the Mayor's words, "to preserve the world's most famous urban amusement park in perpetuity" by mapping it as city parkland managed by a single specialist developer. In return, by de-mapping a site officially identified as parkland—but currently used only by Cyclones baseball fans as a parking lot for Keyspan Park—the city would give developers incentives to create a thriving new mixed-use neighborhood with connections to the boardwalk and the beach.

The proposal is essentially a land swap, with the public sector offering the property near the ballpark plus a negotiated subsidy that Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff estimated at probably tens of millions of dollars to obtain the land owned by Thor as part of a projected $1.5 billion investment. Mapping the Coney East amusement area (West Eighth to West 19th streets between Surf Avenue and the boardwalk) as parkland makes it harder for Thor simply to warehouse its holdings, wait for a successor administration that might favor its scheme, and lobby for zoning changes that would allow Sitt's complex to go forward. Should Thor hold onto its parcels (or flip them) instead of taking the city's offer, zoning will remain at its current C7 level, offering little incentive for construction. "The value that he will be offered [in Coney West] will be substantially greater than that," said Doctoroff, asserting that this win-win scenario should obviate eminent-domain proceedings. "One assumes," commented the mayor, "that Mr. Sitt is rational."

Instead of Thor's plan—visionary in its way, but unpopular with local business owners, community groups, and city officials alike—the CIDC plan preserves what planning chair Amanda Burden called the essence of Coney Island: "It has to be open, accessible, and affordable." Under the new plan, Coney would feature year-round, all-weather attractions such as water rides and a modern ice rink; an open-air performance space; a high-speed roller coaster winding through the district (echoing early designs executed for Thor by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn and Thinkwell); and some 4,500 new apartments, 20 percent of them affordable. High-rises will be allowed outside Coney East, with height limits respecting the Parachute Jump. Changing what Bloomberg repeatedly called "outdated zoning" will allow 100,000 square feet of new retail space in Coney North (bounded by West 20th Street and Stillwell, Mermaid, and Surf avenues) and 360,000 square feet in Coney West (south of Surf to the boardwalk, between West 19th and West 24th). Upzoning along Surf will create an additional million square feet of new entertainment-related retail, including hotels and restaurants. Noting that C7 zoning bans sit-down dining in Coney East, Bloomberg commented that after all these years, "Nathan's would like some company." Parking for Keyspan Park will be integrated and a new street network will replace superblocks, enhancing sightlines and beach access. Overall, Bloomberg projects $2.5 billion in private investment in Coney over the next decade, creating 3,000 permanent jobs and 20,000 construction jobs over 30 years.

The mayor's projections for Coney East remained cautiously hypothetical. Along with Doctoroff, Burden, and assorted commentators, he acknowledges the need for substantial work before new features begin to appear. The city needs to consult with the community about details of the RFP; select a master developer with amusement expertise; negotiate terms with Thor and other landowners, possibly integrating some existing attractions into the park; undergo ULURP; obtain state approval to demap Coney West; and explore mass transit options to handle the residential influx. Not surprisingly, Bloomberg stressed the value of his congestion pricing plan as a feasible funding source. DCP's timetable sets an initial public scoping meeting for January 2008 and projects a complete ULURP by summer 2009. Bloomberg expressed a wish to have developers begin work before he leaves office in 2009 and estimated an end date ten years away.

Community Board 13's Chuck Reichenthal says the plan is "pretty damn close to what we initially had worked out with the [2005] Strategic Plan. It's open; it's still a people's playground." Phil DePaolo, however, a community organizer working with the Save Coney Island group, expressed concern over just how affordable the district will remain, both in the amusements and in residential areas. Affordable housing may be little help to many, he says, if it is based on citywide rather than local Area Median Income. The new Coney is likely to spur displacement in as-of-right areas just outside the new zones. "Three blocks over, there are no rules, so that's where [gentrifying developers] are going to go," DePaolo observed. "Once you put density in an area, the city tends to allow the density to expand. The city grants variances like water. These are all the trickle-down mechanisms that people don't look at; they just say, 'Oh, good, no towers on the boardwalk.'"

Meanwhile, Coney Island USA's Dick Zigun, the seersucker-suited "Mayor of Coney Island," is still feeling optimistic these days, calling the plan brave and visionary.