Search results for "affordable housing"

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George Miller to Become AIA President

George Miller (right) with Mayor Bloomberg and 2007 AIA New York Chapter president Joan Blumenfeld.
Courtesy George Miller

For the first time in more than 30 years, New York City will claim one of its own as president of the American Institute of Architects. At the annual AIA convention in Boston yesterday, George H. Miller was named first vice-president and president-elect, taking that office in 2009. When he becomes president in 2010, he will be the first New York City architect to represent the national organization since 1971, when Max Urbahn held the office.

The AIA also elected Pamela Loeffelman as vice-president and named Rick Bell the board representative of the Council of Architectural Component Executives, meaning that three longtime associates of the AIA New York chapter will sit on the national executive board next year, perhaps acknowledging the local chapter's reinvigorated public presence at its Center for Architecture.

Miller, a partner of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects, was named AIA vice-president in 2007, and served as president of the AIA New York chapter in 2003. Born in Berlin, he emigrated to the United States as a child and studied architecture at Pennsylvania State University, receiving his B. Arch. in 1973.

As a 30-year veteran of Pei Cobb Freed, Miller’s projects have included the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (2003), the Amsterdam headquarters of ABN AMRO Bank (1999), and Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas (1989). He also served as management partner for the Central Terminal Complex at JFK International Airport in New York (1990), among many other projects.

His platform as AIA president includes an aggressive push toward sustainable design, energy conservation, and carbon reduction, as well as a focus on affordable housing, comprehensive regional planning, and public transportation.

"I am interested in elevating the voice of architects, and celebrating the importance of quality design in our communities, much as we have done through our own Center for Architecture," Miller told AN. "The Institute’s strategic initiatives for sustainable design and carbon reduction will be an important focus, as will the support of our young and emerging architects."

But expanding the profession’s diversity has also been one of Miller’s top priorities. As he emphasized at a recent conference on diversity in the architectural field, African Americans account for only 1.15 percent of AIA membership. “In the United States, we have a grand total of 242 registered female African American architects, less than five per state,” he said. “There is much work to be done.”

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Q&A: Jane Ellison Usher
Downtown LA at night
Courtesy LACVB

In the heady first days of his administration in 2005, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa handpicked Jane Ellison Usher, a legal adviser to former Mayor Tom Bradley and counsel to the 1984 Olympics, to be president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission. He also selected the well-respected Gail Goldberg to be director of the Los Angeles City Planning Department. The two women set out on a course to deliver a great urban city to the mayor by adopting a manifesto entitled “Do Real Planning.” The rich but brief document represented a change in perspective for City Hall: create a beautiful, livable, and walkable city by upholding overall planning strategies rather than allowing city council members to negotiate political favors with developers in individual districts. More than two years later, that vision is taking hits. Not only did the council cast off Goldberg’s policy to protect lots currently zoned for industrial uses citywide, but Councilman Ed Reyes said that each councilperson should be free to determine planning policy in his own district.

Then came the council’s adoption in February of SB 1818, a state bill that provides developers with density bonuses and other incentives in return for constructing affordable housing. When the city council passed an ordinance exempting certain SB 1818 developments from environmental review processes (CEQA), Usher not only opposed the city and its planning department, but she suggested that neighborhood groups sue the city. With insiders wondering whether she would be removed from her position, Tibby Rothman sat down to talk to her about the state of planning in Los Angeles.

The Architect’s Newspaper: Given the events of the last few months, is the era of “Do Real Planning” over before it has begun?

Jane Ellison Usher: There are some foundational activities occurring in the city of Los Angeles that keep “Do Real Planning” alive certainly for me, and hopefully into perpetuity for the rest of the city. But here’s what we’re facing:


COURTESY J.E. USHER
 

One, a planning department that culturally has not been as excited and aggressive as they needed to be to do real planning. There’s a lot of leadership now at the top that’s encouraging them to be more aggressive, to think out of the box, to behave and act differently, but I don’t think there’s a magic bullet.

I would add to that that there’s quite a legacy of absence of planning in Los Angeles. There is some sense of entitlement on the part of the development community to live in a city where planning principals are secondary or perhaps tertiary. It will take us more time than we’ve had to turn that thinking around.

The third piece is the regular practice of the city council to defer to the home district whenever a planning issue is on the table. This practice has caused the city council to forget to think holistically about the city and about a vision that can be achieved if we’re focusing on all the moving pieces at the same time.

You openly invited neighborhood groups to sue the city over its implementation of SB 1818.

I did.

What’s wrong with it?

Part of my dissatisfaction was that my commission wasn’t updated until the day the ordinance took effect. And on that score, I have to say that the planning department did its commission a disservice. But the other part of my dissatisfaction was when I read the final ordinance that day, I saw such departures from all of the “Do Real Planning” conversations that the commission had been having for the last two-and-a-half years. I was taken by surprise by the final product.

An awful lot of work went into [the ordinance] on the council floor and I will confess to you that I don’t think that that’s the optimal place for that volume of change to occur.

Then my eye falls, almost immediately, on language that I had never seen discussed and it does this because I’m a lawyer. I saw a word in the ordinance that means an awful lot to a land-use lawyer and that word is “ministerial.” To a land-use lawyer, anything that is ministerial, by definition, doesn’t require CEQA [environmental impact] review. The ultimate payday for a developer is something that is ministerial, and the ordinance was defining a large set of projects as ministerial. That surprised me.

I went back and looked at the CEQA clearance for the ordinance itself. In January, the planning director had offered the council CEQA: a categorical exemption for the ordinance. And the basis for its being exempt from CEQA was her description of how the ordinance would work, namely, every project using the ordinance’s provision would have its own independent, individualized CEQA clearance. 

So here you find an ordinance that’s categorizing a large class of projects as ministerial and exempt from CEQA and the ordinance saying: Each project will have its own CEQA clearance. The two are inconsistent. 

I took it a step further. In a brochure that the California APA had written for cities as they worked on implementing SB 1818 ordinances, the California APA said that implementing ordinances must have an environmental clearance; they must go through CEQA.

So I stitched all of those pieces together and came to my own conclusion, which was that the city’s implementing ordinance insufficiently attended to CEQA. Whether a court would agree with me remains to be seen, and may never be known. But it absolutely did bother me.

In your opinion, which group hinders Los Angeles from being a great city: those developers who don’t respect the envelope or use mandates, or NIMBYs who fight structures in their neighborhood that could alleviate chronic problems such as affordable housing or mass transit projects?

Well, it’s funny. I don’t think of anybody as being a NIMBY. Somebody coined that less-than-gracious phrase and it stuck. I was thinking about this, and I like to call these people WIMBYs in the city of LA. It’s not “Not In My Backyard.” I’ve met with countless members of residents and homeowners and neighborhood associations and neighborhood councils. Their question is: “What’s In My Backyard?” I find them to be largely very responsible. They simply want to know: What’s going to be in their backyard and have we provided the support and the infrastructure for whatever it is that is going to be located near them?

Those questions are smart questions, the right questions. So if I’m supportive and in league with those kinds of questions, what is it that I have to say to developers? Well, there again, I find the developers to be largely very reasonable. They just want to know what the rules are. So I don’t blame the developers and I don’t blame the homeowners. I find that the most blameworthy place is the department of city planning, which I think has let down both sides of the equation by not defining for them with sufficient specificity what our vision is for land use.

But doesn’t that go to the city council and not the planning department?

I think we should delineate—if you have a department that’s insufficiently staffed and not directed to do real planning, you’re going to have an unhappy outcome. Here we are at a crossroads, where we’re asking the right questions, we’re staffing up the department, we’re focusing on rewriting all of the community plans with an eye to do real planning. If these plans arrive at the city council and as a consensus-building matter become adopted, we should see a different kind of city in the future, one with lots of predictability and much less uncertainty. If these plans arrive at the city council a year, two years, three years from now and are eviscerated—then you’ll have your answer. 

The word on the street is that the mayor will quietly remove you because of the email you sent out on SB 1818. What’s your response? 

I work in my role as the president of the commission at the pleasure of the mayor and on any day, at any time, it is absolutely his prerogative to remove me and that’s a power unique to him and he should exercise it whenever he thinks the time is right. 

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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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Comment: Save Old Stockton
Joy Neas

The city of Stockton, CA, was founded at the eastern terminus of the San Joaquin River and the southern entrance to the Siskiyou Trail in 1849. Here, a German gold miner, Charles Weber, purchased 49,000 acres of a surrounding Spanish land grant and built a camp to serve other gold miners and the first permanent residence in the San Joaquin valley. The city eventually became the distribution center for the enormously rich farmlands of the valley, and even built one of the largest inland deep-water ports in the country to service its farm economy. 

The land immediately adjacent to Captain Weber’s settlement and the port developed as Stockton’s commercial and civic downtown. The agricultural wealth of the region provided the economic base to support some splendid downtown commercial and government buildings in the 19th and early 20th centuries: the grand mission-style Stockton Hotel of 1910, the 1930 Fox Theater (now the Bob Hope Theater), and several beaux arts office towers. The areas around this center developed modest residential neighborhoods with towering shade trees that would be the envy of any new urbanist to protect the houses during the valley’s scorching summer sun. 

In the post-World War II period, Stockton suffered, like most American towns, from the rapid relocation of its downtown retail and commercial core to new suburban shopping malls, office parks, and car-dependent residential neighborhoods. It did, however, retain its county court and administrative buildings, providing the downtown with a daily influx of workers. 

In the 1960s, the city’s redevelopment agency decided to stop the outflow of businesses from downtown by knocking down many blocks of 19th century commercial structures (several with wooden sidewalks) and the towering 1910 stone county courthouse, replacing them with car-friendly shopping centers. If this “urban renewal” scheme did not totally destroy the entire downtown, an elevated “crosstown” highway was eventually rammed right through the area, effectively cutting the city in half. But despite these nearly calamitous projects, Stockton’s downtown still has enough buildings to give it the feeling of a central urban downtown core. 

Now the Stockton Redevelopment Agency wants to knock down seven more hotels in the downtown that serve as a handsome urban fabric and streetscape, weaving together the disparate structures that still remain in the area. The agency hopes to replace them with something the downtown already has in abundance—more parking lots—turning it into a hodge-podge of half-empty blocks that wants to be suburban but is neither that nor a functioning urban quarter. 

Fortunately, there is a dedicated local group, Save Old Stockton, led by city planner Joy Neas and architect Linda Derivi, fighting the agency and trying to keep these buildings, restore them (perhaps as affordable housing), and bring people back to the area. It’s a historic first step at an important preservation movement for the city. And though the group has run into well-organized opposition from local property owners and city officials, it is now preparing a lawsuit to have the buildings and downtown saved. 

There will be a series of court cases in the coming months that will determine the fate of the buildings and what remains of the downtown’s unique fabric. This is the perfect moment for architects, preservationists, and planners to weigh in on the importance of preserving dignified usable structures and to reverse the trend of reconfiguring California’s downtowns around the requirements of the automobile. If you want to write a letter to protest this needless demolition, write the Stockton Record (www.recordnet.com) or the city council (www.stocktongov.com/citycouncil/index.cfm) and the leaders of Save Old Stockton, 924 North Yosemite Street, Stockton, CA 95203. 

WILLIAM MENKING 
 

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Vert En Vertical
Courtesy Atelier Jean Nouvel

On February 8th French architect Jean Nouvel unveiled plans for a 45-story luxury tower in Los Angeles’ Century City, just on its border with Beverly Hills. The building, 10000 Santa Monica Boulevard, is being developed by Irvine-based developer SunCal. 

Nouvel referred to the tower, expected to be submitted for entitlements this week, as the “green blade.” And for good reason. The “blade” will have an extremely thin 50-foot depth, permitting north and south glazing for all of its 177 units. Each unit will also be wrapped outside with plants, resting on projecting podiums, giving the building an organic aesthetic and lending living spaces a combination of light, calm, and privacy, a rare combination for this type of building. Nouvel says his firm is investigating two types of irrigation systems for plants: a hydroponic, soil-less system using mineral-rich nutrient solutions (he may work with artist Patrick Blanc, with whom he recently collaborated on a green wall for his Musée du Quai Branly in Paris), or a more conventional soil system. Reflecting the landscapes of Southern California, the north side of the building will be planted with lush greenery and the south side will be planted with desert vegetation. 

“This is the idea of the green city,” explained Nouvel, who noted that the building will reflect LA’s context of “beautiful homes surrounded by greenness.” 

The concrete-framed building will sit close to Santa Monica Boulevard to its north, to engage with the street and to leave room for a 40,000-square-foot garden to its south, which is being landscaped by local firm Rios Clementi Hale. That firm recently completed a study for the Century City Chamber of Commerce called “Greening of Century City,” which suggested more green spaces, a better pedestrian experience, and more sustainable projects. Local councilman Jack Weiss pointed out at the press conference that projects like the new tower are aimed at undoing the original scheme for Century City, which focused on offices, cars, and concrete. The developers hope the building will achieve at least a LEED Silver rating. 

This is definitely not affordable housing. Prices have not been determined, said SunCal, but units will range from about 3,400 square feet to 9,500 square feet, and penthouses will have two stories. The building marks SunCal’s first foray into urban infill. The developer is known mostly for its gated communities and sprawling suburban developments throughout the state. 

“We’ve decided to get in the urban business,” explained Frank Faye, SunCal’s chief operating officer. 

Nouvel’s commission comes shortly after his unveiling of a new 75-story residential tower in Manhattan, adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art. That building’s exposed structure, intricate patterning, and varied morphology makes it one of the most promising new buildings in New York. 

This will be Nouvel’s first project in Los Angeles. The executive architect will be local firm House & Robertson Architects, which has worked in a similar role on projects with OMA, Allied Works, Koning Eizenberg, and Philippe Starck. French architect Olivier Touraine, of Venice-based Touraine Richmond Architects, is also working with Nouvel on the tower. Once the project is approved, construction is estimated to take 37 to 40 months, said SunCal. 


Jean Nouvel

Jean Nouvel  10000 Santa Monica Boulevard

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Of Torii and Roji
Courtesy Edaw San Francisco

San Francisco’s Japan Center, the retail centerpiece of a controversial downtown redevelopment project that leveled most of Japantown nearly 50 years ago, is now the subject of its own new development plans presented at a public meeting on February 12. EDAW’s San Francisco office and Colorado-based retail architect Studio Taku Shimizu recently unveiled preliminary plans for a mixed-use center that reintroduces housing to these historically residential blocks. While the proposed housing enjoys broad community support, the project poses more complex questions about how best to preserve Japantown’s cultural core when the Japanese-American population is diminishing and only three such districts remain in the United States. 

This latest look at reinventing Japantown was set in motion, in part, by the 2006 sale of two malls and a hotel comprising two-thirds of Japan Center plus a nearby hotel to Los Angeles developer 3D Investments. Working with hotel group Joie de Vivre, 3D Investments moved quickly to reopen the hotels as the upscale Hotel Kabuki and anime-themed Hotel Tomo, but heeded the planning department’s request to let the larger vision for Japan Center unfold as part of the city’s community-focused Japantown “Better Neighborhoods Plan” process, set to establish land use, urban design, preservation, economic development, and transportation strategies for the area. 

The Japan Center development is seen by officials as a way to revitalize the district by restoring some of its historic density and reversing the malls’ inward-facing stance. “Before redevelopment, an estimated 250 residences and 100,000 square feet of retail, mostly in three-story Victorian shop houses, filled these two blocks,” said EDAW principal Stephen Engblom. “What we have today—a one- to two-story blind box with roughly the same amount of retail plus the hotel, and none of the residential capacity—physically has much greater potential to contribute to the community’s goals of creating an intergenerational environment with safe and friendly street fronts on Post and Geary.” 

The four schemes presented for input at a community meeting last December range from a “baseline scheme,” which would add two stories of housing above the existing malls and open the malls to the streets, to comprehensive site reconfigurations that would more than double the leasable retail space to 200,000 square feet and add 73 to 210 residential units. The higher density of such schemes would require a 14-story tower comparable in scale to the existing hotel. 

Public comment at the meeting and online has favored the “Roji” scheme (rojimeans “alley” in Japanese), which introduces more human-scaled, mid-block alleys that break up the retail and strengthen connections through the site. The “Torii” (gate) scheme’s gateway retail bridge and the “Hirobai” (plaza) scheme’s open plazas linked by curving passageways have drawn criticism for imposing upon or eliminating the Peace Plaza, an important civic gathering space, which the Roji scheme preserves. 

While higher density and expanded retail promise more affordable housing, jobs, and tax revenues, the community is cautious about gentrification, said Bob Hamaguchi, executive director of the Japantown Task Force, which facilitates the neighborhood’s planning and improvement projects. “This plan is very important to Japantown’s future,” he said. “Preserving the cultural institutions, community services, and small businesses that make Japantown what it is today is one of our objectives.” 

Paul Osaki, executive director of the nonprofit Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Northern California, echoed the concerns for small businesses that would be displaced during construction, yet acknowledged the need for Japantown to reach beyond its traditional community as low birth and immigration rates and higher rates of multi-ethnic marriages reduce the Japanese-American population. “The challenge will be to attract new, culturally relevant businesses that make Japan Center exciting and engaging to a broader multi-ethnic audience,” he told AN. Osaki, like Engblom, sees Japan’s vibrant youth culture as an energizing element of a contemporary Japantown that is anchored by history and heritage. 

After two more rounds of community input, the refined scheme will be presented in April. 

Next Big Thing

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) is designing San Francisco’s largest new development, the 393-acre Treasure Island. As if that weren’t enough, the firm’s San Francisco office is now also working on a blockbuster on the other side of the city: a transformation of Park Merced. If approved, the scheme for the World War II-era housing development will add about 5,700 new units to the 115-acre site, now renamed Parkmerced, tripling the number of apartments there today. Like Treasure Island, the project’s cost is estimated at $1.2 billion. In January, Parkmerced’s owners, Texas-based Stellar Management, filed an environmental evaluation application, effectively starting the planning process and giving rise to vocal opponents from the community and beyond.

The original Park Merced, composed of simple, modernist towers and town houses arranged around varied green spaces, was designed by Leonard Schultze and Associates and built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which also put up similar complexes like Park La Brea in Los Angeles and Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. Completed in the early 1950s, it was intended for moderate-income families, many of them from the military. Most agree that its most notable feature was the relationship of its buildings to its landscaping, with its intricate internal courtyards and interrelated terraced patios largely designed by Thomas Dolliver Church, who also oversaw the master planning of UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and the Mayo Clinic.

Stellar Management bought Park Merced in 2005 and has already begun a $130 million renovation. The development’s four-phase plan will retain the largest towers and replace its two-story buildings with four-story units. The plan will also add retail and slightly reconfigure Park Merced’s street grid, create more intimate green spaces, and stagger new buildings to minimize cold winds coming off the waterfront, said SOM partner Craig Hartman, who likens its current feel to a retirement home. He points out that the new buildings will be designed by several architecture firms (as yet, unselected) in a style “that reflects our contemporary culture.”

Hartman also hopes to bring the entire development off the grid and reduce energy consumption by about 60 percent using wind power, solar power, high-efficiency fixtures, water recycling, improved insulation, and co-generation (using existing power sources to generate energy on-site). The new plan will connect the park to public transportation by moving an existing MUNI stop, adding a new one, and providing low-emissions shuttles to BART.

But the intensive scheme, which would radically change this once-sleepy development, has its opponents. Aaron Goodman, an architect at San Francisco’s Studios Architecture and vice president of the Park Merced Residents Organization, the area’s recognized tenant group, complains that the new plans will be unaffordable and will disturb the area’s neighborly atmosphere. 

“The character of the site will be lost,” said Goodman. “I wouldn’t call it charming, but it’s very effective.” Goodman is one of the leaders in an effort to landmark the property, and has filed documents with the city’s Landmark Preservation Advisory Board. Docomomo (International Working Party for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement) is working together with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the California Preservation Foundation, San Francisco Architectural Heritage, and the Cultural Landscape Foundation to get Park Merced placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s highly significant,” said Andrew Wolfram, president of Docomomo’s Northern California chapter, who pointed out that Park Fairfax, also built by Metropolitan Life, is already on the National Register. “We’re not saying it needs to be frozen in time, but its important elements should be preserved.”

Stellar Management spokesperson P.J. Johnston points out that the scheme has been through 63 community meetings, and that many of the buildings on the property are too degraded to save: “It’s a property that’s well beyond its use-by date. It needs to be revitalized and rebuilt.”

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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.

Urban Jungle to Get Denser

On August 7, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed the Downtown Planning Ordinance. Initiated by the Department of City Planning, the measure is part of a concerted effort to update and urbanize planning codes that were appropriate for postwar suburban developments, but woefully out of sync with the current needs of the city and its ever-increasing population.

The ordinance is also expected to create more highrise density downtown as well as more affordable housing by offering a 35 percent floor-area-ratio (FAR) bonus as an incentive for developers to include affordable units.

News of the ordinance’s passing set off a flurry of newspaper opinion pieces and letters from readers, critics, and urban planners, some of whom bemoaned the notion that LA was falling victim to “Manhattanization,” a term used during the 1960s by critics of San Francisco’s highrise developments. Others applauded the city council’s effort to steer LA toward a denser, vertical profile, accusing critics of being “urbanphobes.”

In the LA Downtown News, urban design critic Sam Hall Kaplan wrote, “Interestingly, the paramount concern of our persistent ‘urbanphobes’ is not about making these developments more accessible and pedestrian friendly, nor how to provide more housing choices, nor how to offer more inviting parks and public spaces. Rather, what apparently worries them, and many others in Southern California, is the ogre of traffic.” 

Scott Johnson, principal at Johnson Fain, a downtown-based architecture firm, said that any move toward more density and mixed land use is a good thing. But he considers it only one part of the total equation. “We need to see sustainability, affordable housing, and expanded use of public transportation happening at the same time as density,” he said. “LA is really behind on every one of these fronts.”

Even while LA is expanding its transit system to the further reaches of the metropolitan area, only about 12 percent of new residents in downtown, the public transit hub for greater LA, say they use the train or bus.

What most concerns Beth Steckler, policy director at Livable Places, an affordable housing and environmental advocacy group in downtown LA, is not public transportation or density but the lack of available affordable housing downtown.

“The real purpose of this [Downtown Planning Ordinance] is to streamline market-rate housing in highrises,” she says. Steckler argues that there are too many ways for developers to get around applying FAR bonuses toward affordable units. Livable Places proposed alternatives to the incentives detailed in the ordinance, which among other things would require higher percentages of affordable housing units than currently accepted by the city council.

Clearly, LA has a long way to go before reaching a consensus, and even further to a skyline of Manhattan-like density, if that’s even desirable. But what is apparent is the public’s ongoing interest in the debate, particularly on matters concerning the city’s unrelenting transportation woes. “The public is ready,” says Johnson. “We’re beginning to change.”

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A Spoonful of Sugar
Courtesy Landmarks Preservation Commission

Despite calls from some preservationists to protect more of the sprawling Domino Sugar Refinery adjacent the Williamsburg Bridge, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated only three interconnected buildings at the center of the site at its weekly meeting on September 25. The decision paves the way for the New Domino, a mixed-income development designed by Rafael Viñoly that will occupy much of the refinery’s land.

In an interview, LPC chair Robert Tierney said the commission had to balance preserving North Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront while still serving its current residents. “On the merits, this is clearly the way to go,” he said. “Assuming there are no other constraints—an unlimited budget, no housing, the community didn’t care—then it would be great to save everything, but you have to be realistic.” Part of the reason the community cares so much and wants to only preserve part of the refinery is that nearly a third of the New Domino’s 2,200 units will be affordable for low- and moderate-income families.

Not all of the complex could be saved while making room for such an ambitious project. The commission decided to keep the pan, finishing, and filter houses, which comprise the massive brick structure that is the heart of the complex, both historically and visually— it is the oldest intact portion of the complex as well as the tallest, with a 210-foot smokestack. It should make a nice counterpoint to a the 30- and 40-story towers that will rise beside it. (“How Sweet It Is,” AN 13_08.01.2007).

Some preservationists, however, see this decision as a whitewash job. Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, applauded the Domino designation but said he wishes more could have been saved to better convey the history of the refinery. He was also concerned that the newer buildings could overpower the older ones. “Ten years from now, we’ll look at that, and will anyone understand what it was?” he said of the refinery. “We’ll have part of it, but is that enough? Is this really the purpose of preservation?”

Tierney did emphasize that the commission considered all buildings on the site and maintained only those worthy of preservation. This, however, does not include the concrete Bin House that has held aloft the iconic yellow neon Domino Sugar sign since 1960. (The developer has said it intends to keep the sign in some fashion.)

The 19th-century Adant House, which has been repeatedly modified, will not be saved. Neither will the many warehouses that line the site, which no one has campaigned for specifically. “The difficulty is not that we didn’t do enough,” Tierney said. “It’s that we did any preservation at all. It may seem like a given, but it is very possible nothing could have been saved. They’re going to keep the buildings that count.”

But which buildings count is a matter of debate, even for Tierney, given his statements during the September 25 meeting. “If sugar was king in Brooklyn,” he said at the time, “the former Domino complex for decades was its crown.” Does that then mean that only a handful of jewels have been saved?


421-a Deal Struck

For a moment, it seemed like the months of hard work spent transforming the 421-a tax abatement program into an engine for affordable housing would come crashing down. After the program emerged from the State Legislature in late June, Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt his plan had been so changed that he asked the governor to veto it if no compromise could be reached. And as often happens in Albany, a last-minute deal was struck on August 7, “a positive result for affordable housing in New York City,” said the mayor in a statement.

“I’m happy with the final outcome of the bill,” said Assemblyman Vito Lopez, architect of the bill the mayor opposed. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we’re happy.” Namely, the city’s demands for middle-income housing have returned, whereas Lopez wanted the program to only benefit low-income families.

Some New Yorkers are still missing what they most wanted, though. Under the June bill, Forest City Ratner’s (FCR) Atlantic Yards development received what critics are calling a “carve out” that could have netted the developer $300 million. Even though he is a supporter of the project, the mayor had threatened to revoke city funds, arguing that Ratner’s windfall would be the city’s loss. Instead, he balked and knocked the subsidies down to $200 million with the guarantee that affordable housing would be built during each phase of the project instead of at the end, when critics claim Ratner could renege on promises due to lack of funds.

For Atlantic Yards opponents, the deal still goes too far. “The provision is giving Bruce Ratner a tax break no one else can get,” said Dan Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. “It’s just a little bit smaller, but he shouldn’t have it at all. The mayor said that, ACORN said that, everybody said that.” Neill Coleman,spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said the city won appropriate concessions from FCR, and the deal made sense. "This restores its position very close to where it was before the City Council passed its bill” in December," Coleman said of Atlantic Yards. “Back then, it was not in the exclusion zone.”

Central to the debate are the boundaries of the zones that are excluded from eligibility. The 421-a program, created in 1970 to spur residential development in a beleaguered city, was so successful in parts of Manhattan where the market was strong, an exclusion zone was established. To gain tax breaks within those areas, developers had to create affordable housing equivalent to 20 percent of the units in the project.

Mayor Bloomberg decided two years ago to expand these zones to encourage affordable housing, which would now have to be built onsite within an exclusion zone that would encompass most of Manhattan, and the Brooklyn/Queens waterfront. The City Council expanded that zone, as did the legislature. Lopez expanded the zone to all of Manhattan, and every borough has one. Developers outside the exclusion zone still receive the tax abatement as-of-right.

The Bloomberg administration hopes to negotiate the exclusion zone when the legislature reconvenes next year—they think the latest additions will see a lack of necessary development—but the city is happy with its larger victory, the inclusion of middle-income projects like Queens West and Willets Point. Now developers must make a percentage of units affordable to 90 percent of the area mean income, though this is actually an average that extends between 120 percent and 60 percent. “It’s one-for-one,” Lopez said. “For every middle-income unit, there will be a working-class one.” Coleman estimates this will help realize 10,000 units the city had planned but feared lost under the new rules.