Search results for "affordable housing"

Air Rights Fright

It is far from difficult to spot a housing project in New York City. They tend to stick out like massive, redbrick sore thumbs, cookie-cutter in their incongruity. But despite their stature, many of these housing projects have unused air rights because they were built in the decades before the city instituted the current Zoning Law in 1961.

The New York City Housing Authority is now looking to sell some of its 30.5 million square feet of air rights in Manhattan to help fill a $195 million budget gap. That being his backyard, Borough President Scott Stringer has called on the agency to formalize its plans in a report his office released yesterday.

“NYCHA needs new revenues to support the buildings that house thousands of residents in Manhattan and around the city,” Stringer said in a statement. “But selling off development space in hot neighborhoods without a plan and no real public review is not the answer.”

The disposition of any such air rights to new projects within or adjacent to the agency’s properties can currently be pursued as of right. But Stringer believes that because of the volume—developments equivalent to 11 Empire State Buildings or a single-story building covering Central Park from 59th Street to 102nd Street, the report points out—and public stewardship of these lands, Manhattanites deserve a say in the process.

Especially since so many of them are affected: The report notes that all but one community board has a complex in it with at least 100,000 square feet of development rights. However, four neighborhoods in particular are hardest hit, with 25.8 million square feet, or almost 85 percent, of all unused air rights in the agency’s Manhattan complexes. The neighborhoods are, from most to least developable, East Harlem, the Lower East Side, Central Harlem, and the Upper West Side.

According to the report, the housing authority had generally eschewed plans for the development of its unused air rights until 2001, though it was not until 2006 that a project entered the planning phases, for a multi-site development in Hell’s Kitchen. Though that project has advanced amicably, Stringer still hopes the agency will pursue a more comprehensive plan concerning the disposition of its air rights.

“It is clear that NYCHA intends to pursue transfer or sale of its unused development rights and expects revenue from these dispositions to meet short-term budget needs,” the report states. “But the annual plan provides little clarity as to the agency’s ultimate goal—whether to build as much affordable housing as possible, to make as much money for NYCHA as possible, or to strike some kind of balance between the two.”

To prevent future fights over such issues, Stringer wants the agency to catalogue its unused air rights, develop a detailed long-term plan for how it might dispose of such air rights, and create a site-specific planning process for any dispositions. Stringer also urged the agency to bring the community into this planning process to better assess and influence any new developments. “We owe it to ourselves, and especially to the public housing community, to look carefully before we leap,” the report concludes.

A statement from the agency was appreciative but non-committal: “We welcome the Borough President’s analysis and recognition of NYCHA’s efforts to develop a pipeline of 3,000 units under Mayor Bloomberg’s historic plan to expand affordable housing in New York City. We will review the recommendations in the report and look forward to a continuing dialogue on these important issues.”

Placeholder Alt Text

Pop Goes the Bubble

COURTESY rafael vinoly architects

Its four Doric chimneys bounding a sombre, elegant brick quadrant, the enormous Battersea Power Station is a beloved industrial relic on the London skyline. Disused for over 25 years, the building passed into cultural history when it appeared on Pink Floyd’s album cover Animals in 1979, replete with giant pig suspended between the two front chimneys. Its notoriety is about to get another chapter, however, as Londoners seethe over a newly-released masterplan by Rafael Viñoly.

The features of Viñoly’s scheme are dizzying: landscaping of the 38-acre site that incorporates a six-acre riverside park, a pier restaurant and continuation of the westward Thames river walk, and a separate water feature. The station will, for the first time in 25 years, regain its original function, generating power from a biofuelled heat-and-power plant underground. The restoration will accommodate a luxury hotel, an Energy Museum, housing, public gardens, and a riverside balcony above two floors of vital retail space; the station itself is flanked by residential development, including affordable housing. Ambitious as this may sound, it is dwarfed by commercial property on a former brownfield to the south. That campus of office buildings and gardens, comprising 2.5 million square feet of office space, more housing, and a transport link extending the London Underground system—is enclosed in an extraordinary transparent “ecodome,” the largest and most advanced sustainable development in the U.K. Crowning this re-imagining of the Fullerdome will be a transparent ventilation chimney that rises to 984 feet, symbolizing the city’s commitment to sustainability.

The principle behind this giant greenhouse is simple. At a recent public lecture, Viñoly explained, “it’s like a giant oven.” The transparent ETFE material and interior geometry of the ecodome use solar power to create a convection flow of air released through the massive chimney, resulting in a controlled, naturally ventilated environment. The outcome is a projected reduction in energy demand for air conditioning from the enclosed buildings by up to 67 percent, and an estimated annual saving of 16,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

However, it is the design’s visual analogy to science fiction, rather than its basis in science, that has drawn gasps. Ex-president of the Royal Institute of British Architects George Ferguson deemed the scheme “a menace to London”; critic and ex-director of the Architecture Foundation Rowan Moore bristled with indignation in an article titled “A Towering Affront to Common Sense,” in which he calls the scheme “spectacularly, riotously, extravagantly nuts.”

Viñoly is swift to counter opposition concerning the form of the ecodome as evidence of ignorance or denial of the green technology employed. “We experimented with two chimneys, shorter chimneys, thinner chimneys; this is what works, that’s why it is the way it is,” he maintains. The developers opine that climate change has not been adequately addressed by their industry and on this, London’s largest single development site, they certainly make no bones about bringing that most seductive of credentials to the forefront of their agenda.

With planning permissions yet to be granted, the developers would be right to be wary. London’s newly appointed Conservative mayor Boris Johnson and his crony, councillor Sir Simon Milton, are notoriously unsympathetic toward any affront to London’s skyline. Mulling it over could take up to three years—jeopardizing both the estimated completion date of 2020 and the disintegrating old power plant. London’s architectural sophistication has made enormous strides in the last decade, but this may be a step too far.

The New Math

With the expiry of 421a tax abatements on June 30, developers in New York City entered their most uncertain era of pricing decisions since the city created the program a generation ago. The Cooperative and Condominium Abatement program, which used a system of graduated tax abatements to spur development at a time when there was little, lasted decades longer than the crisis that gave rise to it, becoming a part of local developers’ financing logic. Now, anyone who uses it will also have to set aside 20 percent of new units for lower incomes. Some developers say they don’t know how to make the math work.

For more than a generation, 421a was a sine qua non in local development. The 421a program, as the city’s website defines it, came along in 1971 “to promote multi-family residential construction by providing a declining exemption on the new value that is created by the improvement.” In other words, a developer using the program can use the value of raw land to calculate taxes for somewhere between ten and 25 years. (The name references Section 421a of the relevant city law.) An exclusion zone between 96th to 14th streets and down through much of the West Village required developers to include affordable housing to qualify for abatements.

Beyond changing developers’ risk basis for construction in former industrial neighborhoods, 421a created a sort of currency. Developers who built affordable housing collected five certificates per low-income unit, which they could sell to developers working in the pricier districts where tax abatements were a particularly strong inducement for buyers. It was good policy in the Koch years, but as more and more of Manhattan gentrifed, projects in Soho and Tribeca took advantage of 421a. A law intended to preserve working-class housing had become an unintended boon to luxury developers.

Properties offering the abatement include 555 West 23rd Street in tony West Chelsea, and Soho Mews, a Charles Gwathmey–designed townhouse and condo with a private courtyard between Wooster Street and West Broadway. For even the most casual observer of the then-booming real estate market, it seemed out of whack.

Politically, though, 421a took a long time to reform. Condo buyers also became intimate with the program, since the abatement on taxes took the bite out of apartments’ closing costs and improvements. By 2007, nobody could argue that development would stall without a reform to the program. So as of July 1, the abatement only covers the first $65,000 of a property’s assessed value, and the exclusion zone has spread to parts of the outer boroughs. Now, uncertainties about the availability of bank financing and the thrust of the economy have some developers actually hedging before starting new projects. Evan Thies, a candidate for City Council in Greenpoint who worked for Councilmember David Yassky when the reforms came together, calls the new 421a more sensible and defensible. “David Yassky thought it absurd that we were giving away so much money to luxury developers,” Thies said. (Yassky is running for comptroller in a crowded field next year.) “So the new regime forces developers to find other ways to get a tax benefit.”

Romy Goldman, a principal in Manhattan’s Gold Development, takes a less blithe attitude. Without banking on tax abatements, she told AN, investors in projects like her firm’s cannot create meaningful forecasts for prices that will allow them to recoup their costs. Her firm developed the Deborah Berke–designed condo building at 48 Bond Street and is now marketing Hamilton Lofts, a 12-unit project on Edgecombe Avenue. Goldman calls herself a believer in mixed-income housing, but she said tacking a 20 percent requirement onto new condos in an uncertain mortgage market means forcing some developers to withdraw.

Indeed, developers who can neither offer buyers an inducement to pay high interest rates on mortgages nor sell only to very wealthy buyers may simply take their money off the table. If development slows down, the seemingly unthinkable would follow: The cost basis for local real estate may decline. “In six months, you’re going to see a major shift in land prices,” Goldman said. Theoretically, changes in the law should flow into land prices in a more orderly fashion, since the council debated reforms extensively before passing them earlier this year. Instead, in what Goldman calls a “perfect storm,” many developers rushed to pour foundations while they could still enroll in traditional 421a programs. That meant paying inflated construction and labor costs, which helped keep New York’s asking prices high even as the foreclosure crisis and Wall Street turmoil singed the economy.

Champions of 421a reform make no apologies. “My sense, from the developers that I have talked to, is that they will blame 421a changes for what many other factors in the marketplace are doing,” said City Council candidate Brad Lander. As head of the Pratt Center for Community Development, Lander advocated for more mixed-income requirements in new rezonings for residential development. If he and Thies win office and have to steer the new 421a to implementation, Goldman warned, they will find that such requirements are difficult to translate to a developer’s pro forma.

Thies says 421a was an anachronism in a city where developers are jockeying for sites in places like Greenpoint that suffer from poor subway access and extensive brownfields. The farsighted move, he argues, is to introduce a new trigger for tax abatement that matches a crisis of energy costs rather than a lack of eager developers. “Smart developers saw incentives for infrastructure improvements and environmentally friendly buildings on the way,” Thies said. By that logic, the end of 421a may mean the beginning of other programs that can make green architects, engineers, and planners valuable.

“If you can as a developer build an energy-efficient building for free because you’re going to get an abatement, you’ll make it energy-efficient,” Thies said. “Suddenly we as taxpayers have a lot more leverage.”

Placeholder Alt Text

Profile: Dawanna Williams

Yoko Inoue

Dawanna Williams
Founder and Principal
Dabar Development Properties

From the perspective of an airship or an urban planner’s PowerPoint, the city may look like swathes of unified development along major avenues and big-acre sites like Rockefeller Center, Stuy Town, and Battery Park City. But on the street, urban dwellers experience the city block by block, building to building. It’s that smaller scale that appealed to Dawanna Williams, so much so that she left off lawyering to become a developer in what she calls “signature neighborhoods,” including Harlem, Fort Greene, and Bushwick.

In a field dominated by extensive family clans and an apprentice-eat-apprentice ethos, Williams, 38, comes from an atypical background. Raised in Atlanta by a single working mother, she went on to study economics and government at Smith College. She came to New York in 1997 and started working for law firms with a hand in corporate real estate. That led her to get involved in deals like the sale of the 1921 skyscraper 30 Wall Street and financing the rehabilitation of the Starrett-Lehigh in Chelsea. “I liked the idea of putting together projects that people would later enjoy,” said Williams and so, while still working as a lawyer, she started buying up townhouses in her own Clinton Hill neighborhood, renovating them into rental apartments and using the assets to make more purchases. “One of her strong qualities is Dawanna’s ability to address and resolve gracefully unforeseen issues,” said Hilary Weinstein, a vice president at the Community Preservation Corporation that financed Williams’ first Harlem project. “She has a great temperament for dealing with things, and that’s rare in developers.”

In 2003, Williams founded Dabar Development Partners and set out to work on small and medium-scale developments in emerging communities. The name Dabar comes from the Hebrew for “words from God,” which Williams came across while reading Deuteronomy in the Torah. “In the late 90s, I had seen how the big developers went for older buildings and vacant sites, and I thought I could apply that same approach in signature communities with undervalued assets.” Williams started scouting properties marked by what she calls “tangible and intangible hallmarks,” including historic resonance, architectural distinction, thriving churches, intellectuals, and artists. She found those qualities in Fort Greene and Bedford Stuyvesant where, while still a lawyer, she started working on townhouse deals with four to six units. It grew quickly into something she hadn’t really expected: a niche in high-quality housing in historic but undervalued communities.

The first significant project on her own was the $6.2 million Marshall building in Harlem. Taking two 1920s townhouses that had been vacant for some 40 years, Williams gutted them, added 34 feet to the back, and transformed them into ten one-, two- and three-bedroom condos with 11-foot ceilings, granite kitchens, and fireplaces. With the most expensive unit going for $872,600, the project sold out quickly.

Up until then, Williams worked for the most part with contractors, but then she met Paola Antonelli, a senior design curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and Thelma Goldin, director of the Studio Museum Harlem. Both encouraged her to take it up a notch and engage with more adventuresome architecture and emerging architects. Antonelli wrote in an email that Williams has “a deep understanding of the context where she is operating and on pushing herself always a bit beyond her own comfort zone in order to deliver not simply buildings, but meaningful additions to the urban and social landscape.”

She started working with Galia Solomonoff, an architect who designed, as part of OpenOffice, the Dia:Beacon museum and has also done time in such prestigious firms as OMA in The Netherlands and Bernard Tschumi and Rafael Viñoly in New York. For Dabar Development, Solomonoff is currently designing an unusual $26.5 million project on an enviable site smack in the middle of Central Park North. It’s a joint venture with the New York United Sabbath Day Adventists to rebuild a church on the site with a 15-story setback condominium tower. “Dawanna’s dual talent is her patience in bringing together seemingly opposite stakeholders—bankers, community, church—and her ability to seize on rewarding yet underestimated urban situations,” said Solomonoff. “She’s a dealmaker extraordinaire.”

Williams has also tapped Danois Architects, a firm with a background in sustainable design, including the completion of Melrose Commons in the South Bronx that won a top award for affordable green housing from the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association in 2003. Williams turned to David Danois in 2006 when Dabar was selected as one of 25 teams to participate in Mayor Bloomberg’s New Foundations Initiative for developing 236 city-owned abandoned or vacant lots. Dabar will build 22 town- and multifamily buildings on 17 sites in Bushwick and East New York, one-third of which will be affordable and all LEED-certified.

Casting an eye beyond the city, Williams discovered the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia, a kind of sixth-borough Dumbo that has drawn artists to its warehouse conversions and new construction. With rapper/ producer Jay-Z as an investor, she is well underway constructing a 24-loft, eight-story condominium designed by the Philadelphia firm EM Architecture on a site with views of Ben Franklin Bridge and a block over from the 11-story American Lofts building designed by Winka Dubbeldam.

So far, Williams said that the biggest challenge she has had to face as a developer of projects over 15,000 but under 60,000 square feet is financing. “New York is loaded with tenement developers and visionary project developers,” she said, “but there’s not a whole lot in between. The banks are better set up for those extremes, while midsized developers tend to be undefined and have to structure deals case by case.”

One by one suits Williams just fine, and she is even sanguine about the current economic downturn. “I believe in, I am even thankful for, corrections because I believe that in the end, the most qualified will remain in play.”

Placeholder Alt Text

Profile: Jonathan Rose
Yoko Inoue

Jonathan Rose
president and Founder
Jonathan Rose Companies

When designs for Via Verde, a 202-unit, mixed-income green housing development in the Bronx were unveiled, they made headlines. The dramatically stepped design by Grimshaw, Dattner Architect and landscape architect Lee Weintraub, which varies from towers to townhouses with green-roofs and terraced gardens, demonstrated that affordable housing, sustainability, and innovative design were possible in even the most hardscrabble corner of the city. What was less apparent, however, was that the developer behind the project, Jonathan Rose Companies, has a long record of civic-minded thinking that has paid significant social, environmental, and economic dividends.

In 1989, Jonathan Rose, founder of Jonathan Rose Companies, left his family’s real estate business to found his own “mission-based” development company. “My family has been in real estate for three generations,” Rose said. “I learned the trade starting with my summers working for the family business,” referring to Rose Associates, the New York-based real estate giant that controls over 30 million square feet of property. The much smaller Jonathan Rose Companies focuses on urban infill, transit-oriented sustainable development, reflecting the interests of its founder.

Unlike many developers trained in business or law, Jonathan Rose, 56, earned a master’s in regional planning at Penn under the landscape architect Ian McHarg, a pioneer of the regional planning and sustainability govements. There, Rose learned the principles that would guide his company: “a commitment to socially and environmentally responsible development that integrates good planning into the business,” he said.

One of Rose’s first forays into green, mixed-income development, a plan for Brooklyn’s Atlantic Center, came while he was still at Rose Associates. Working with Berkeley, California-based architect Peter Calthorpe, the plan called for a mix of office, residential, and retail space at a walkable scale with passive solar design. “I talked to a number of environmental groups, and in the early 80s, anything dense or urban wasn’t considered green,” he said. “It’s amazing how much the thinking has changed.” After community opposition, the site was sold to Forest City Ratner, and the bland, down-market mall that presently occupies the site was built in its place. (Rose, with practiced decorum, declined to comment on the Atlantic Center or on the Atlantic Yards development, also by Forest City Ratner, planned across the street.)

Current projects in the company’s portfolio reflect his philosophy at work. In Brooklyn, Jonathan Rose Companies is one of the partners in Gowanus Green, the Rogers Marvel/West 8 housing development along the Gowanus Canal. Another green housing project, the Joyce and David Dinkins Gardens in Harlem, was recently completed and includes a community center and 80 units of affordable housing.

With the arrival of high density and mixed use as hallmarks of environmentalism, Rose is happy to see his philosophy moving into the mainstream. He believes that because of rising energy costs, dense, transit-oriented, energy-efficient design will become the standard. “It only makes sense. People are looking to reduce their VMTs,” he said, referring to vehicle miles traveled. He also believes the New York region is better prepared to weather the ups and downs of a volatile real estate market. “We see two ends of the demographic spectrum, seniors and younger people, who are increasingly attracted to urban areas,” he said.

In addition to the company’s standard development practice, Jonathan Rose Companies has three other divisions: the owner’s representative studio, the planning studio, and the investment studio. The owner’s representative studio works on a fee basis for non-profits, institutional clients, and private developers to select architects and other consultants, arrange financing, manage construction, and direct marketing and sales. Current projects include the classroom building for Cooper Union designed by Morphosis, the Theatre for a New Audience in the BAM Cultural District by the H3 Collaborative, and a renovation and expansion of the UN International School by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Roger Duffy. The planning studio has been hired by the town of East Hampton to refine its 20-year development plan, and the investment studio manages the Smart Growth Development Fund, a $100 million fund that invests in socially, environmentally, and economically progressive real estate acquisition and development. This diversity of engagement with the field, in addition to the company’s social commitments, differentiates Jonathan Rose Companies from its peers, including Rose Associates. “They do very high-quality work, but we have a different approach,” Rose explained.

The company’s successes show that measured idealism in no way interferes with good business. And judging by the founder’s relaxed disposition and the company’s cheerful, light-filled office space (renovated to green standards, or course, by Weisz + Yoes), the company’s approach is a welcome alternative to the cut-throat world of New York real estate and development.

Placeholder Alt Text

So Long, Ray
Courtesy DCP

Today is Ray Gastil’s last day at work. On August 25th, Gastil, director of the New York City Department of City Planning’s Manhattan office, will travel across the country to take a job as Seattle’s Planning Director, marking a return to his hometown. The department has yet to name a replacement for the position.

During his tenure, which began in 2005 when he succeeded Vishaan Chakrabarti, Gastil shepherded through the land use process some of the largest projects in the city’s history. He presided over the rezoning of the Upper West Side, which provided contextual protections against out of character development and provided incentives for new and affordable housing along Broadway. He also worked on rezoning to preserve the character of the Far West Village that was done in concert with historic district designation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, as well as a major contextual overhaul of the Lower East Side, still in process.

But not all of his projects were targeted at preserving a neighborhood’s character. Gastil oversaw the controversial 125th Street rezoning, adopted in April, which, while it fosters economic and cultural development along the corridor, many in the community feared would only increase displacement and gentrification in greater Harlem.

Though the notoriously press-shy Gastil would not comment on his work at the department or his decision to accept the job in Seattle, his boss, City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, had some nice things to say.

"Ray’s wit, intellect and proficiency will be greatly missed, as will his dedication to urban planning, to New York City, and to engaging a generation of young planners,” Burden said in a statement. “Ray brought to city planning a vast expertise of what makes great urban places and ensured that projects large and small contributed to and enhanced the urban fabric and public realm. I personally have benefited from his wisdom, his encyclopedic knowledge of world cities and their heritage, and by his friendship.”

Before working for the city, Gastil was the founding director of the Van Alen Institute: Projects in Public Architecture. He participated on the Memorial Center Advisory Committee for the World Trade Center site, and served as juror and adviser to a number of major urban projects. He also directed the regional and transit-oriented design programs for the Regional Plan Association, and taught urban design seminars and studios at Pratt Institute and University of Pennsylvania.

Gastil received his master of architecture degree from Princeton University, and is the author of Beyond the Edge: New York's New Waterfront (Princeton Architectural Press 2002).

Placeholder Alt Text

Brave New World
Courtesy Lennar Corporation

A San Francisco ballot measure named Proposition G got the green light on June 3, authorizing the second phase of a $1 billion mixed-used development in Hunters Point and Candlestick Point, two of the city’s least affluent and most isolated districts. The proposal by Lennar-Urban, a division of the Florida-based Lennar Corporation, will transform two decommissioned naval yards into multi-family housing, commercial development, and over 400 acres of open space. Although infrastructure work began on the site as early as 2006, construction on the project, designed by Vancouver-based architects IBI Group, is scheduled to break ground in fall of 2009.

The 771-acre site in the southeast corner of the city is currently occupied by Monster Park (formerly Candlestick Park), which will house the San Francisco 49ers football team until 2012. The 13 parcels of land are slated to receive about 15,000 units of high-rise, mid-rise, and low-rise multifamily housing, divided into two primary clusters. Each cluster of residential development is to be anchored with a commercial retail district. The former shipyards are also zoned for a two-million-square-foot high-tech industrial park, or possibly a new football stadium should the 49ers stay. More than half the site will become public open space, including a formal recreation area that runs the entire length of the project’s shoreline.

Proposition G represents the latest in a series of initiatives proposed for the area. Beginning in 1997, the city proposed a redevelopment plan for the Hunters Point shipyards; that same year voters backed a plan for a new football stadium in adjacent Candlestick Point anchored by a mixed-use commercial project. The stadium deal eventually proved unfeasible and the city moved to combine the two sites. Lennar signed on to develop a new conceptual design that the city’s Board of Supervisors approved in 2007. Because Lennar would be receiving the land from the city for free, a ballot proposition was necessary, and in cooperation with Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration, both properties were combined under the single initiative. Lennar invested a reported $3.4 million to promote the June election initiative. A competing measure, Proposition F, would have required half the new homes to be affordable, a suggestion that Lennar claimed would economically hobble the project.

The development agreement also reflects San Francisco’s agenda for sustainable development, transit-first initiatives, diversity, and open space. Public transportation schemes are being developed, 30 percent of the housing units will still be below market rate, and building plans include accommodations for artists already living in shipyard structures. Developers are to perform environmental restoration along the bay where the site overlaps state park lands. If the 49ers opt to relocate to the city of Santa Clara, where they’re currently negotiating to build a new stadium, the master plan proposes what it calls a “Clean/Green” research and development campus.

IBI Group leads a design team that includes SMWM, who designed the area’s original master plan about ten years ago, with Miles Stevens and Associates, and landscape architect Walter Hood. The plan, which builds on SMWM’s earlier scheme, also includes residential concepts from Solomon E.T.C. and landscape architects CMG. Several high-density housing prototypes will be considered, from San Francisco-style townhouses to more standard three- and four-story structures. Some residential architecture is already moving forward in localized developments, designed by Daniel Solomon. On Candlestick Point, the Doublerock parcel is a 28-acre site for mixed-income townhouses, a portion of which will replace the decrepit 1950s Alice Griffith public housing that currently occupies most of the parcel. A new low-rise and mid-rise cluster of housing to be erected on a 30-acre waterfront site at Hunters Point is in the design approval stage.

CMG’s ambitious open space plans led by Kevin Conger include a “green fringe” of parks along the area’s shorelines, a “Hillpoint Park” located on a 90-foothigh promontory overlooking the shipyards, and a network of smaller parks. The use of pocket parks and courtyards recalls high-density neighborhoods like Russian Hill and North Beach. Even the proposed stadium parking areas are designed using an irrigated natural turf with a 95 percent compacted subsoil for “dual use” recreation space.

Peter Vaucheret, SMWM’s director of urban design, said the master plan intends to reunite Hunters Point with the city by using a grid street layout that extends evenly over hillside locations, creating a residential density consistent with nearby established neighborhoods. SMWM’s master plan further enforces the open space initiative with housing types that enable porosity: mid-block breaks in the building masses allow alleyways and visual openings that link public and private spaces. Throughout the development, vantage points are also designed to give residents glimpses of downtown. Finally, it seems, residents in this once-isolated corner of San Francisco will be united with the greater city.

Placeholder Alt Text

Sweet & Lower
The new plan for Williamsburg's Domino Sugar plant is rougher around the edges, in keeping with the site's industrial history.
Courtesy CPC Resources

Beyer Blinder Belle’s initial proposal for Williamsburg’s redeveloped Domino sugar refinery boasted sleek lines and disappearing edges, meant to be all but invisible atop the recently landmarked icon. It was a typical move for projects before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but given the industrial character of the Domino factory—technically three interconnected buildings—the commission wanted something bolder to match. And, though it was not in their purview, they wanted something else: the factory’s beloved Domino sign.

At today’s public meeting, the commission, expressing admiration for the updated scheme, got both on its way to a 7-1 vote in favor of the project. “I’m staggered at how fabulously this has turned out, being one of the cranky ones,” commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz said to laughter. “I’m very cranky, I admit, but thrilled because what they’ve really shown is that there are ways to improve things so that the problems that some of us have with these projects when they first come on are really solvable under the skilled hand of someone who really listens to what is being said.”


Beyer Blinder Belle’s original scheme (top) featured a five-story addition and large but polite apertures where “chutes” now extend to other structures. The existing bin building (above, at right) will be razed for a condo tower, but the iconic sign will be saved.

The architects made four major changes to their proposal, which initially involved a five-story glass box set back from the riverside facade. The addition was lowered to four stories on the northern two-thirds and three stories on the southern third, which now accommodates the familiar yellow neon Domino Sugar sign. The bulkheads were also dropped into the mass of the addition, changes that cost the project 20,000 square feet, the architect, Fred Bland, was quick to point out. “We really need every inch to fund affordable housing,” he said during his presentation. An impressive 30 percent of the project’s 2,200 units will be affordable.

Other changes included new storefronts and windows, which now have more mullions to mimic other parts of the building; the roughening of the addition, with metal rods aligned with brick pilasters below; and new "chutes,” or conveyer-like segments that run between different parts of the factory. Two chutes currently connect the refinery to a 1960s bin building—the tall concrete structure currently sporting the sign—which will be demolished to make way for a condo tower. The architects had proposed turning the breech of the chutes into two massive windows. The commission said previously it wanted something less polite, and the response was redolent of Eisenman—balconies that directly mimic the angle and aspect of the chutes, a decision that greatly pleased the commission. “It’s a perfect way to approach this,” commissioner Pablo Vengoechea said.

Bland also noted that, at $40 million, this was the most expensive adaptive reuse ever undertaken by Beyer Blinder Belle, though he also added that it was one of the firm’s best. And though the meeting was not technically open to public comment, commission chair Robert Tierney read two letters of support from the City Council, one from the chairs of the council’s Landmarks and Rules committees, Jessica Lappin and Diana Reyna, and another from the local representative, David Yassky.

The one dissenting vote was cast by commissioner Margery Perlmutter, who generally favors modern projects more than her colleagues. She said she would rather have seen the refinery left alone, with its density shifted to the surrounding towers designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects. “I don’t think this building should be used to cover gap financing,” she said.

Tierney could not have been happier. “Overall, this is a landmark project on a very important landmark building that will say a lot for this generation and future generations about the industrial waterfront in Brooklyn,” he said. “I applaud everyone on this. We’ve come a long way, and I believe it’s a very approvable project.”

Susan Pollock, the project manager for the developer, CPC Resources, said the team hopes to enter the ULURP process, the next step in the public review, by early fall. She also added that changes to the Viñoly towers were being made that involved the location, mix, and massing of the towers, but not their height.

Matt Chaban

The current (top) and previous proposals for the refinery, as seen from South 3rd Street. The changing floor heights and shifted bulkheads are clearly visible, as are both iterations of the "chutes."
A detail of the proposed balconies, which are designed to mimic the chutes they replace.
Western elevation
Southern elevation
Placeholder Alt Text

Shop-ing at the Seaport
Courtesy SHoP

Though it has one of the city’s iconic postcard views, the South Street Seaport falls into that category of attractions that many New Yorkers confess they rarely visit, much like the top of the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. Yet Lower Manhattan is undergoing enormous changes, from the growth of the residential district around Wall Street, the planned transit hub at Fulton Street, to, of course, the World Trade Center site, so the Seaport’s leaseholder, General Growth Properties (GGP), has just announced a proposal to transform the area. The plan involves rebuilding much of the 19th-century structure of Pier 17 and replacing the 1982 enclosed mall with a series of smaller retail, hotel, and event buildings arranged around several public open spaces and promenades.

According to Gregg Pasqarelli of SHoP, the firm hired to design the project, SHoP and GGP wanted to conceive of the new Seaport not as a distinct megaproject but as the extension of a neighborhood. “The festival marketplace was just right for its time, and was the cutting edge of preservationist thinking,” he explained. “Today, the city as a whole is a festival marketplace, and you don’t need to seal off parts anymore. If [original developer] Rouse were to approach the city today with the same project, I’m not sure they’d get approval.”

GGP approached SHoP after seeing its work on the surrounding city-commissioned East River Waterfront plan, which was initially released in February of last year. One feature of that plan is the construction of retail and community buildings underneath the FDR drive, currently not much more than a dark parking lot for buses. These are in turn incorporated into the thinking and design for the GGP Seaport project, in order to create a more coherent and integrated approach to the waterfront.

SHoP's proposal for the South Street Seaport includes a 42-story, 495-foot tower and a public plaza approximately the size of Bryant Park.

The scope of SHoP’s design is significant, and includes both new—and very contemporary—construction, as well as the restoration and move of the Tin Building, the last remaining structure with historical interest on the site of the Fulton Fish Market. Though it has been mostly gutted and incorporated into the 1983 shopping mall, the structure would be restored to the extent possible on the exterior, then moved into the historic district on Pier 17. A 286-room hotel and 78-unit residential building would go up on its site. While the tower’s floor-area-ratio of 17 is as-of-right, it rises 495 feet instead of the permissible 350. Pasquarelli explained that they decided to build taller to maximize surrounding open space and to reduce bulk and maintain views. There is also likely to be some affordable housing in the mix: Project manager Thorsten Kiefer said that one possibility would be to create a mix of affordable and market-rate housing in the restored buildings on Schermerhorn Row, though that plan is still in the germinal phase.

The tower’s design is striking. Three stacked glass volumes are enclosed in an open, lattice-like exoskeletal mesh. (Note to would-be climbers: Each diamond-shaped opening in the structure spans several floors, so it won’t be easy to clamber up.) Pasquarelli described the exoskeleton as loosely inspired by the patterns of the old fishing nets once so prevalent there, but more than that, as a contemporary reinterpretation of the waterfront technologies of pier, cable, and mast.

Like any major project, the GGP/SHoP proposal will face a series of regulatory hurdles, including the Uniform Land Use Review Process, or ULURP, approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the New York City Arts Commission, Community Board 1, and the Department of City Planning. David Vermillion, a spokesperson for GGP, explained that the company is well aware of the enormous efforts of various city agencies to improve the quality of and access to the waterfront, and decided that the time was right to reimagine their stake in it, approaching SHoP specifically in order to coordinate efforts.

Vermillion and GGP may be on to something, because for the last several years, now-former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff staunchly advocated the development of a harbor district, which would include Ellis Island, Governors Island, the revitalized East River Waterfront, Battery Park City, and Brooklyn Bridge Park, and be connected via ferry service. That vision of the waterfront as an integrated and accessible whole is a compelling one, but will need the support and participation from the private sector as well. Pasquarelli, for one, is cautiously hopeful: “It is really extraordinary to see a situation like this, where the city is putting energy and money into reconnecting people to the waterfront, and a private company has decided to join in.” 

Mr. Ross's Neighborhood

When The Related Companies swept in to negotiate with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for a 99-year ground lease over the agency’s West Side railyards just days after the winning bidder Tishman Speyer Properties had pulled out, the developer hadn’t had time to tweak its proposal to reflect a changed team. But CEO Stephen Ross told reporters that his company, with Goldman Sachs and other investors backing it, would build towers around straightforward connections from an existing waterfront park, an emerging elevated park, and a planned grand boulevard. Or, as Ross put it, “a great New York neighborhood,” seen through the prism of current planning.

The Related proposal, which no longer has an anchor tenant, includes 440 units of affordable housing (out of 5,500 overall, including condos and townhouses) and a new school. It nods to widespread concerns about maintaining the city’s infrastructure by proposing two cogeneration plants beneath its towers. And it provides public space by focusing on three linear parks: the existing Hudson River Park to the west, the emerging High Line to the south and east, and the planned Hudson Boulevard to the north. Gone, at least from public display at the press conference, is the media-heavy “MySpace Pavilion” that the developer presented last fall when bidders showed off drawings in a Midtown storefront. That idea evaporated when Related lost News Corporation as an anchor tenant in late winter.

“We’re going to have to revisit the plan and adjust it,” said Ross, “but the most important part will be creating a great space and a great park for a great New York neighborhood.”

This is not a team inclining toward risk with a $1 billion investment that requires a $2 billion platform. Instead of the drama of something like the suspension-bridge meadow that Steven Holl designed for Extell Development’s failed bid, the document describes “the look, texture, and feel of a traditional New York neighborhood…with taller, denser buildings around a formal plaza and declining in height and density to the west.”

And instead of Chicago’s Murphy/Jahn leading the masterplanning, Related has named architects who know the territory. Kohn Pedersen Fox, which worked on plans for the Jets stadium that the city proposed for the site in 2003, takes the lead. Other players are Robert A.M. Stern Architects, whose headquarters overlook the site from West 34th Street, and Miami’s Arquitectonica, which designed the Westin Hotel on Eighth Avenue. The wildcard, Amsterdam-based landscape fantasists West 8, are learning the local ropes as designers of Governors Island—another long-delayed project for which Ross’ onetime business partner Dan Doctoroff emerged as a design champion.

As for worries about how to connect the neighborhood to the rest of Manhattan, Ross and MTA negotiator Gary Dellaverson were all smiles at the press conference. Dellaverson insisted that the city “has committed to borrowing [money]” to create a boulevard and extend the 7 subway line into the site: if the 7 extension fails to materialize by 2015, Related gets to suspend rent payments to the MTA.

“Certainly transportation is a key element,” Ross told reporters. “But we’ve been assured that the 7 line will be delivered for this project.”

Placeholder Alt Text

The Producers
Jonathan Segal's K. Lofts, a nine-unit residential project in San Diego's Golden Hill neighborhood. The building integrates the structure of the site's former building, a Circle K gas station and convenience store.
Paul Body Photo

Over the last hundred years or so, architects have watched their roles shrink to the point where “master builder” no longer applies. Now they seem relegated to the periphery, edged out of economic and even aesthetic control by powerful developers.

But a few intrepid CAD jockeys are working to take back control as developers of their own projects. While assuming new risks (the possibility of economic disaster) and responsibilities (even more work), they’re also reaping rewards that come with increased artistic and economic freedom. The trend is nationwide, but one of its epicenters is a place not known for architectural innovation. That would be San Diego, where a tight-knit community has developed around this pursuit, producing moderately-sized projects along the edges of downtown, and lending to a city dominated by faux-historic homes and banal high rises a much-needed shot of architectural character and sensitivity.

The Union, also by Segal, is the adaptive reuse of a former textile workers union building. The new steel and concrete-clad project includes 13 new townhouses and the architect’s offices.  PAUL BODY PHOTO

While architects like John Portman and Rob Quigley both dabbled in developing their own San Diego projects years ago, most architects in the city will tell you that the father of the so-called Architect as Developer movement is Ted Smith. Usually a cautious speaker, Smith loosens his reserve when it comes to his architectural pursuits. Like many, he started his career doing the bidding of developers, but soon decided the only way to do what he wanted to do was to do it himself. He attracted buzz in the 1980s with his first developed project, the Go Home—a revolutionary shared house with individual suites and entrances developed in Del Mar, a ritzy area zoned only for single-family homes. He later built more Go Homes with architect Cathy McCormack in the city’s Cortez Hill neighborhood, and has continued to push the envelope with his infill work such as the Essex, a group of for-lease apartments built over a raised parking structure in San Diego’s Little Italy. Another Smith undertaking, the mixed-use Merrimac, is part of the Little Italy Neighborhood Developer’s project (LIND), a collection of varied structures around a small green, each built by a different architect, among them Quigley. Smith is now working on a similar project, creating a “texture of small buildings,” co-developed with such local powerhouse architects as Teddy Cruz, Quigley, and Robin Brisebois, and called Barrio Logan in Logan Heights. “The reason I’ve developed my projects over the years is to have control and to be the artist, not the decorator. To have a blank canvas,” Smith said. As to the market for his edgy work, he said, “We’ve found groups of people who don’t want the normal thing.”

In Smith’s wake have come several loyal followers—some from within his own firm—who decided to develop on their own. His most successful protégé is Lloyd Russell, a young architect with whom he developed and designed the Essex and the Merrimac. Russell, who was awarded the AIA San Diego chapter’s Young Architect of the Year Award last year, has gone on to build his own unique house/art gallery/office in a structure, also in Little Italy, that he calls the Triangle Building for its shape; defined by its odd and quite narrow site. He is working as well on a development project in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood and also one in Portland, Oregon.

Like Smith, Russell said his favorite part of developing is the creative control and the ability to transform the city for the better with thoughtful infill projects that mesh with, instead of ignoring, the urban fabric. He feels for those still stuck in the architectural treadmill. “It’s a sad thing to watch students get out of school and slam against reality. Their beautiful dreams become a mansard roof on a Safeway,” he said.

Todd hido

Jimmy Fulker

dave Harrison
from top: The Merrimac, built by Ted Smith and Lloyd Russell as part of the LIND project; the Essex, a unique mult-family project downtown also by Smith and Russell; the Triangle Building, Russell’s first solo project, has a narrow plan that is shaped, not surprisingly, like a triangle.

The other major force in the architect-as-developer world is Jonathan Segal, who since 1990 has built 15 medium-sized projects downtown or nearby. Using a simple but elegant palette of materials like concrete and raw steel, he designs spaces that feel much larger than they actually are. His projects include K Lofts and The Union, buildings in Golden Hill with rooftop solar panels to help offset energy costs and that combine affordable and market-rate rental housing.

“It’s all about efficiency,” said Segal, who also leads the construction of his buildings, as do most architects/developers (either with their own crews, or in more cases, with sub-contractors). “By doing everything ourselves, we eliminate the grief, the change orders, and the job directives. Not having to deal with all of that takes about 40 percent of the architect’s time and work away, so that we can devote more time and money to the building.”

Working relentlessly, Segal has become the most financially successful of the lot. He said he recently sold 141 of the 171 units that his firm has built for an impressive $45 million. Segal has a garage full of vintage speedster cars, proof that developing your own projects can reap financial rewards. “Ted wants to save the world and Jonathan wants to own the world,” joked Russell.

Of course, Segal and others warn that development is not for the faint of heart. Any project can go awry, causing the architect to lose his or her shirt; and with the market taking a downturn, the risks have only increased. Russell said his bank account sank to $20 when he worked on his first project, the Merrimac, although things are much easier now. Securing funding and making insurance payments can make things difficult to get underway. And the amount of work and stress in managing everything from obtaining loans to cozying up to assessors can be a grind. Segal admitted that he now recruits more help than he did in the days when he worked seven-day, 80-hour weeks, handling everything from drawings to electrical work.

“Sometimes you’re dealing with bills and the bank and with the appraisals and doing other stuff where you’d rather be designing,” said Segal’s former employee Sebastian Mariscal, who is himself now developing the most high-end projects of the group. Mariscal’s Six, an ipê-clad condo project in La Jolla, has units that range in price from $2.3 to $2.9 million.

But Mariscal likes the life. Aside from the chance to maximize his architecture, he said he savors the opportunity to get a comprehensive view of the building trade. “It’s an amazing mental exercise. You really go from A to Z in the whole process,” he said, concluding that “you just have to be organized and you have to give yourself some parameters. You can’t obsess over a detail that will cost too much. It’s all about creating efficiency in construction and design.”

Indeed, these practitioners all claimed that hands-on development brings phenomenal lessons, insights, and benefits. These range from cutting out the middle man to learning when contractors are pulling a fast one, knowing how high to bid on a property or the most efficient means of welding. Mariscal, who has his own crew of contractors, has learned to order materials for multiple projects at once to lock down prices. Russell said that familiarity with the construction side has given him inspiration for design. He constantly gets tips on detailing from his builders; for example, the uneven concrete facade of his Triangle building, a nod to the staggered wooden formwork, he said, was inspired by a suggestion from one of his construction workers.

Sebastian Mariscal's SIX, in La Jolla, includes six condominiums that blur the distinction between inside and out. "Developers think too much about what the market wants. As architects, we can question what the market wants," he said. COURTESY SEBASTIAN MARISCAL  STUDIO

Such lessons are being passed on by Smith, Russell, Segal, and Mariscal. Together, they teach a Masters in Real Estate Development at Burbank’s Woodbury University. Classes are held in the Merrimac Building. The twelve-month, three-semester program is entirely studio-based. For the thesis, students develop finished presentation packages for a project, including market analysis, partnership agreements, funding proposals, architectural designs, and sales and leasing strategies.

Already, several new architect/developers have emerged from the class, including Mike Burnett, who is working on a Golden Hill mixed-use project; Ginger Reyes, who is breaking ground on an infill project in Riverside; and Dominic Chemello who is starting a house addition in Escondido. This adds to a growing number of practitioners in the area, including Kevin DeFreitas, who is working on several lofts and rowhouses around downtown; Graham Downes, a successful designer of local hotels, lofts, restaurants, and offices; and Public Architects (who are actually in the process of moving away from development to design larger projects). Even Kirk O’Brien, president of AIA San Diego, develops his own projects, and is a major proponent of the movement. “I’ve traveled around the country for my AIA duties, and I’ve never seen a community like this,” said O’Brien. Others point to scattered pockets in Portland, Chicago, New York, even Omaha, Nebraska. But nowhere does the phenomenon seem as focused and energized as it does in San Diego.

Ron Radziner, principal at LA-based Marmol Radziner, has developed some of his projects, and his company, which employs over 70 people on its building side, constructs most of them. But he admits that there’s really nothing in LA like the community in San Diego. “There’s a culture of do-it-yourself,” said Radziner, who credits the strong influences of Smith and Segal for pushing the movement.

Russell hopes the culture will continue to thrive, even while the economy slips and downtown development continues to push smaller projects further to the periphery.

He, like others, relishes lower costs for lots, but also feels that the hesitancy of banks to lend money for projects will weed out all but the savviest developers. But regardless, he noted he’ll continue on a path that he not only loves, but thinks could become the future of architecture. “For me, it’s intoxicating to have that connection to the building and the work,” Russell said. “I couldn’t imagine being in my position in life just being a normal architect.”

Placeholder Alt Text

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.”