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Q&A: Sherida Paulsen

Kelly campbell
 
 

On December 11, Sherida Paulsen assumed her responsibilities as the 2009 president of AIA New York. William Menking, editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, sat down that afternoon with Paulsen in her office at the architectural firm PKSB, where she is a partner, to talk about her goals for AIA NY, her thoughts on architects as communicators and public activists, and her experiences with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, where she served as commissioner from 1995 to 2004.

The Architect’s Newspaper: AIA NY presidents come into office with a theme or initiative for the year. In 2008, James McCullar focused on housing, and in prior years, it was public policy and interior architecture. What have you proposed for 2009?
Sherida Paulsen: My theme is “Elevating Architecture,” which is broad enough to allow us to do a number of things. I hope to use the Center for Architecture as it was intended—a true public resource center. I want to build up the awareness of our library as a professional and public resource and to promote our public information exchange and our online information site for projects around the city. I also want to get AIA members out into the community as much as possible. My secondary theme is “Design Literacy for All,” and that is meant to broaden our outreach to various educational constituencies and neighborhood groups in order to increase design literacy among the public.

What specific initiatives, programs, or projects do you have in mind?
Some programs have been happening for years. At the Center, they run a symposium with the NYC Department of Health, called Fit City. It broadens the audience for health-related things having to do with architecture. And we’re planning another one. We’re also doing a symposium on design literacy for kids with the AIA’s existing programs, Learning by Design, which has over 5,000 kids participating in the public schools and on Family Days at the Center. If we can increase the numbers of those programs, it gives more people a reason to come to the Center on Saturday or Sunday. And this does two things: It teaches people about design, and it creates awareness among parents and children that architecture is a profession that might be of interest to them. 

This suggests there is a disconnect between the profession and the public. Do you believe the public misunderstands architects?
The public doesn’t understand what we do. It’s never been properly explained to the users of our designs what they should expect from a building. We need to explain better what quality design is. Part of that means shifting from simply grading buildings on a form-making scale for design and looking at a performance scale. Does it result in a sustainable building? Does it function? Does the building work for the people who use it?

Do you think that’s because architects don’t explain well enough what they do?
I think that we’re good at explaining buildings, but I don’t think we’re good at explaining why we’ve made the choices we’ve made in designing a building. When I was at the Landmarks Commission, it was interesting to watch architects get up and describe what they were doing. In order to explain why a design is appropriate in an historic district, you need to cycle back and think about narrative. What’s the story of this site? What’s the story of the building? What’s the story of the company or the people who are going to use the building? You need to put this story together. Architects are picture people, but it’s a right-brain/left-brain kind of shift that needs to occur. We need to use both sides of our brain to be successful architects.

Your job as AIA NY president is to represent architects. So are you trying to help architects make the larger case that they are better qualified to design public spaces as well as buildings? Especially now, they’re all competing for public commissions.
I tend not to draw boundaries. My goal has always been to get the best environment in the public realm that we can get. If an architect can do the job, fine, but if a landscape architect has got a better answer, that’s fine too. As someone who has been a public servant, I understand that we have to look at a wide array of designers to get the best possible results, usually working in teams.

Architecture is often viewed as an extra benefit—if you can afford an architect, you get one; if not, you leave them out. How’s the architect supposed to deal with that situation?
It does initially cost more to hire an architect, but I’m hopeful in this current economic climate that we stop looking at quick returns or first costs. We need to look at a building’s entire life cycle. The value of having a design professional, whether it’s an architect or anybody else, is that there’s a value to including that person as part of your team, and that person’s cost is basically spread out over a much longer period. The most money we spend as adults is on our houses, our furniture, and we don’t teach anybody how to make choices for those items, which seems a bit insane. How can you create a consumer audience for design in this country when developers are only looking at whether a marble counter or a Corian counter is going to sell the house, instead of what material makes the most sense from an environmental and functional standpoint?

What other areas might architects be involved in, areas that currently are not thought of as being in their purview?
Every time a new elected official comes into office, they start making appointments. Rarely are architects included in the applicant pool. If we’re really looking for people who know how to analyze problems, know how to create a range of options, and know how to do the analysis to recommend an appropriate answer for the problem, architects are the people who can do that. What architects have not been trained to do is to talk about and articulate why those choices are rational. Broadening the pool of people that are considered as candidates for appointment to include architects is very important in any administration. The New York AIA is trying to motivate its members to volunteer to serve on community boards, because it’s a first step into the public realm. My path to public service was volunteering to be on different committees with outside industries like the real estate board. You widen the audience for architecture, and begin to understand how to communicate with the users of a building. It’s a sure way to be an advocate for architecture and good design.

Are architects equipped or trained to work in this kind of civic realm?
Yes. One of the things that was interesting to me as a Landmarks Commissioner was seeing the so-called star architects make their presentations. Without exception, those were the people who had the greatest skill at describing and presenting, or making a compelling story for their projects. It says to me that if Norman Foster and Aldo Rossi can be good at that, and also good at designing buildings, the two aren’t exclusive. It’s simply that not everyone is encouraged or asked to use both sides of the brain.

The skills of a really successful architect are rarely found in a single person, and sometimes not even in two people.
That’s why we have partnerships. It’s very hard to be a sole practitioner. I’ve watched Jim McCullar this year as president, and he’s exceptional because he’s one of those people who can speak very eloquently and also practice in a very compelling way on affordable housing. But when I look at our firm [PKSB], there are two partners, three principals, and it really does take all of us to do the kind of work that we want to do.

You’ve talked about being commissioner at Landmarks. What did you think about the preservation series that The New York Times did last December?
It was a lot of ink to no great effect. I don’t know what [Robin Pogrebin] was hoping to accomplish, and I think some of it was simply inaccurate. My experience of being both a commissioner and a chairman was that nobody ever told me what to do or what decisions to make, and I served two mayors. I was asked what did I think, and what would I recommend. And that went for everybody in City Hall, whether it was the mayor or the deputy mayors. The assertion that commissioners respond only to the mayor is just not accurate. Commissioners are voted on and approved by the city council, undergo background checks and conflict of interest evaluations by both City Hall and the city council, and must meet professional and residency requirements. So to be appointed to a job that pays you nothing is a pretty arduous path.

Pogrebin claimed in one piece covering the controversy over the Museum of Arts and Design that consultant Laurie Beckelman was sending Bob Tierney notes that influenced his decision. The article tried to make it seem like they were scheming to keep the building from receiving a hearing. Is this a normal part of the process of landmarking a building?
That charge has been made in print for a number of years. It was at the time that the advocacy groups tried to stop the museum from doing what they wanted to do. The courts rejected those charges. I’m not a judge, so I can’t say, but I don’t think there’s anything to it. Bob Tierney and Laurie Beckelman are friends of long acquaintance.

What do you think about the Landmarks Commission not landmarking the Edward Durrell Stone building at 2 Columbus Circle?
I was never in favor of landmarking it for the simple reason that the facade of the building could not be preserved. There was nothing from a technical point of view to protect. It had to come down, and you could say “Fine, we need to rebuild it.” That’s the way that we did it with the Lever House facade. I simply didn’t see this building as rising to that iconic level. I wrote a New York Times op-ed piece on the subject and I compared it to John Carl Warnecke’s buildings and Charles Luckman’s buildings in California which used similar kinds of material, and also had a few bits of quotations from other cultures.

What do you think of the new building?
I think adding the horizontal band of windows weakened the design of the facade, and I’m disappointed in the detailing. I like the building on the inside tremendously. One of the initiatives I’m promoting this year is a major landmarks exhibition. It will open on October 7, and will focus on new buildings in historic districts. It happened because Mark Silberman [counsel to the Landmarks Preservation Commission] called and said, “We’d really like to do an exhibition that explains how the commission looks at new buildings in historic districts.” It was critical to try to dig down and get a list of all the new buildings in historic districts, which is hard to do. The records of the commission are excellent from 1986 forward, when they got computerized, but before 1986, things were filed by address. And so you don’t really know whether it was a new building application or a window replacement application. You just don’t know. So it took a lot of work to assemble a list of buildings for review.

Designing a modern building in an historic district is a big issue in New York. Can you point to important precedents that show it’s possible to achieve?
The Hugh Hardy townhouse in the Village on the site of the building destroyed by the Weather Underground bomb is important. Brooklyn Heights probably has the most new buildings as a proportion of the district overall. The Brooklyn Heights Association, while very protective of their historic buildings, has always been a strong advocate for contemporary design.

What about Aldo Rossi’s Scholastic Press building in Soho? At the time it went up, I thought the Mercer Street facade was about as far as anyone could push for modern architecture in a historic district.
It opened the door to more modern designs because people saw the postmodern answer on Broadway and then they saw the modern or contemporary answer on Mercer Street and they all liked the Mercer side better.

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No One Buying New Housing Marketplace
There has been a lot of talk lately about how it is now up to the government to spend stimulate our way out of the current economic doldrums, and how much of that will come through infrastructure spending. One place where such investment is critically important is affordable housing, especially in light of all the foreclosures. While New York has fared better than other areas on that front, it is still unwelcome news that the city has rolled back the timeline for its New Housing Marketplace Plan. Back on December 14, Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave one of his weekly radio addresses, which focused on the rising foreclosure rate and how his administration was coping with the challenges that presented (text). In addition to mentioning expanded mortgage advice and anti-abandonment measures, the mayor highlighted the New Housing Marketplace Plan, which is run by the city's Department of Housing and Preservation:
"The New Housing Marketplace - our Administration's affordable housing initiative, and the most ambitious such effort ever made by an American city. Our ten-year goal is to fund development and preservation of 165,000 homes - enough to house the entire population of Atlanta."
But, the mayor continued:
"Now, with the economy stalling and even the most qualified developers having a hard time getting credit, we know we can't keep that pace up. So we're stretching out our schedule for completing the second half of our housing program to six years instead of the five years we'd planned for at first." [Emphasis added.]
As the Times pointed out today, "Mr. Bloomberg announced the extension in December during a speech and in one of his weekly radio addresses, neither of which received much attention beyond housing advocates." Whether it was impacted by the news the day before that HPD head Shaun Donovan would be taking over HUD for the Obama administration, we're also not sure (the HPD press office has yet to return our call). But according to the Times, a spokesman for the mayor said the extension was tied to Bloomberg's announcement in May that he would stretch a four-year construction plan for the city to five years amid signs of a declining economy. Still, this isn't exactly news. In September, when the mayor was trumpeting the successes of the program at its halfway mark, the Observer was already calling them into question. Eliot Brown reported that the administration was already shifting gears:
[A]s the financial industry hits major turbulence and the city’s once lush climate for development turns dry, the Bloomberg administration is struggling to meet its goals for new construction (currently targeted at 91,637 units) and will likely need to shift the balance more toward preservation (73,395 units).... Although city officials say the original plan emphasized preservation in its early years, the reality of an inclement market has caused reevaluation, and the administration says it will likely need to lower its goals for creating new units, and increase its goals for preserving current ones.
There are other factors at play, such as the impact of changes to the 421-a tax program, which, along with inclusionary housing bonuses--like those in many recent rezonings--encourage for-profit developers to include low and moderate income housing in their projects through tax breaks. But still, with the paucity of credit having dragged the city's construction sector to a halt and many predictions of a new recession, what the administration can do to continue to stimulate affordable housing remains an open question. This is especially bad news for out-of-work architects given all the affordable housing work they've had of late. Perhaps the mayor should try giving Secretary Donovan a call.

Measure for Measure

On Election Day across the country, citizens registered their votes for major changes in the White House and Congress. But change will also soon come to California’s built environment, as several major initiatives facing California transit, infrastructure, and development were approved or denied. 

On the statewide ballot, Proposition 1A passed with 52.3 percent approval, meaning a high-speed train linking San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento—and most major cities in between—could be ferrying passengers at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour by 2030. While a whopping $9.95 billion in state bonds was allocated by the proposition, development cannot continue until matching funds are secured from federal, local, and private sources. A business plan for the program was released on November 7, equating it in scale to the State Water Project, the world’s largest public water and power system, funded by a 1960 bond measure. California High Speed Rail Authority chairman Quentin Kopp called the proposition’s approval a “21st-century golden spike." 

Once funding is secured, the Authority will focus first on the LA-to-San Francisco “backbone” segment. Environmental impact reports have been completed for the route and alignments chosen, with the exception of the Northern Mountain Crossing connection between San Jose or Oakland and the Central Valley.

In Los Angeles County, another major transit proposal, Measure R, reported 67.93 percent voter approval when a 2/3 majority was needed. The 30-year, half-cent sales tax increase will fund improvements and expansions for light rail and subway lines, HOV lanes, freeways, and traffic reduction. According to Metro spokesman Rick Jager, the tax will go into effect next July, and citizens could start to see evidence immediately, since a portion of the funds will go directly to LA-area city governments. “The local return is an important element because these 88 cities will start getting their 15 percent share from the tax that’s generated,” he said, noting that many cities had plans for street resurfacing, pothole repairs, improving left-hand signals, pedestrian improvements, and bikeways. It also postpones a planned Metro fare increase to 2010.

The rest of the funds generated by Measure R will be available in 2010, when the major projects up for funding will be an extension of the Gold Line that goes to Azusa (the first six-mile extension of the Gold Line, begun in 2004, is on budget and on schedule to open in the summer of 2009), the Green Line extension to LAX, and the second phase of the light rail Expo Line stretching from downtown LA to Santa Monica. The first segment of the Expo Line’s route from downtown to Culver City is scheduled to open in 2010, and with this burst of funding, it could reach Santa Monica as early as 2013. Later, funding will become available for the Purple Line or “Subway to the Sea” extension in 2013.

In Santa Monica, the hotly-contested Proposition T, which would have limited development in the city to under 75,000 square feet annually, was defeated 55.92 percent to 44.08 percent. This was a relief to many architects and developers who had fought hard against the measure, including Gwynne Pugh of Pugh + Scarpa, who, in his role on Santa Monica’s planning commission, will address Proposition T’s concerns in the city’s new Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), which is currently in environmental impact reviews. “The LUCE has addressed this issue by stating that there will be a goal of ‘no new net trips,’” he said. “Unlike previous plans, this will be monitored, and development phased as resources are developed such as the Expo Line.”

After Beverly Hills’ city council approved a 12-story, 170-room Waldorf-Astoria hotel and two condo buildings on the site of the Beverly Hilton in May, opposed residents gathered enough signatures to put the decision on the ballot as Measure H. After results were too close to call for several weeks, on December 2 the city certified that Measure H had been approved by 129 votes, meaning that an architectural design review and tract map will move forward as planned.

In San Francisco, Proposition B, which would have required the city to set aside 2.5 cents for every $100 of assessed value over the next 15 years for affordable housing, failed 47.4 percent to 52.6 percent. This was disheartening to housing advocates and the city’s Board of Supervisors, who strongly urged its approval to prevent what they called an “affordable housing crisis” due to budgetary concerns. Proposition B would have allocated $30 million to help house those making less than $18,000. According to housing advocate Calvin Welch, the budget currently only reserves $3 million for affordable housing. Mayor Gavin Newsom was one of the strongest opponents of Prop B, arguing that it was unnecessary.

And while its outcome did not directly impact architects, another Measure R, this one also in San Francisco, was certainly a topic of conversation for anyone working in infrastructure: This ballot initiative that would have renamed a Bay Area sewage plant in honor of President George W. Bush was soundly defeated.

Editorial: Promises to Keep

It’s finally happening! We have a president who cares about architects! And architecture! And the urban environment! And infrastructure! As we've noted elsewhere, President-elect Obama has promised to invest billions in alternative energy, to increase new and existing building efficiency, and to revamp our nation’s decaying infrastructure.

It goes without saying that I’m not the only one now holding my breath and hoping that he follows through on these promises. But I’d like to ask our leader-to-be to go even further. First, in implementing his new agenda, he needs to take architects and other design leaders on board and single out the built environment in his strategic planning. I agree with recommendations recently circulated by the AIA that a high-level advisor on green buildings must be part of the White House advisory team, and that the White House ought to develop its own office of Urban Policy. Our country has cabinet members dedicated to the health of our national parks, our housing, and our transportation systems. Why not members dedicated to green building and urban issues? Plenty of political pundits are all coming together on the subject of green building and infrastructure as a sure way to save our environment, and even rescue our economy.

Furthermore, we need to pay closer attention to the way that the health of our cities—where the majority of our citizens live and where most of our wealth is created—has an immediate impact on such issues as public transportation, coordinated planning, and affordable housing. Singling these areas out will send a message that President-elect Obama takes the environment seriously. Whether cabinet-level post or urban policy office, either one would help to better organize efforts that are now scattered across various government branches. At the very least, these topics should be given specific managers, empowered to spearhead efforts and whom we can hold accountable, within existing departments.

And regarding the President-elect’s promises on infrastructure—something we know about here in California—he needs to push not only for more funding, but for tying that funding firmly to much more innovation and integration. Forget the same old same old, it’s time to use our technology and our design skills to create transit systems and support systems that increase efficiency, usability, and safety; preserve and enhance open space; meet our green building goals; and blend seamlessly and dramatically with our cities and our neighborhoods. In order to help spur this effort, AN is teaming with SCI-Arc’s newly inaugurated SCIFI (Southern California Institute for Future Initiatives) program to develop a competition for architects, engineers, and urban planners to propose new ideas for LA’s—and the country’s—infrastructure. LA County’s recently-passed Measure R, which will provide up to $40 billion for transportation in the next 30 years, is an opportunity we can’t afford to squander. Nor are federal infrastructure promises. Stay tuned to our pages for more updates on the competition, which will launch early next year. We need you, and our best minds in all fields, to think together to come up with the best solutions. This is our chance of a lifetime.

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LA Planning Czar Resigns

 
 
 

Los Angeles Planning Commission President Jane Ellison Usher, who transformed the commission through the adoption of a set of principals called “Do Real Planning,” but created enemies on LA’s city council when she urged neighborhood groups to sue the city over a state law providing density bonuses for developers who included affordable housing, resigned on December 11.

As word swept the blogosphere, many asked if Usher, who had at times battled the city council and planning department director Gail Goldberg, had been forced out. In a tightly orchestrated round of interviews, Usher insisted that she hadn't. Despite widespread rumors to the contrary, friends and colleagues of Usher did not break ranks with her official explanation, which attributed the move in part to financial concerns.

In an interview, Usher told AN, “I have pushed my message and my agenda, and I have made progress.” But, she said, “there is a time and a place for every leader.… Sometimes [it requires] a new leader to push the message to a new level.”

She added that such a new leader “can bring new voices to the table" to help build a "stronger, larger more unified coalition.”

Usher had served as the commission’s chair since 2005 when she was appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Her participation in Los Angeles politics reaches back to Mayor Tom Bradley, whom she served as in-house attorney. Her initial actions on the board—brokering compromises rather than basing decisions directly on planning policies—belied her legal training. In one early case involving the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Venice bus yard, Usher brokered a compromise between community and development entities that was the antithesis of smart growth: lower density but higher FAR. But Usher rapidly became an advocate of sound planning policies and what she called “elegant density.”

Her planning manifesto for the city of Los Angeles, a document called "Do Real Planning," which the commission adopted unanimously in 2007, followed development principals advocated by architects and planners such as demanding a walkable city, identifying smart parking requirements, and requiring density around transit. Yet Usher was considered by many to be at odds with the mayor’s development interests, and frequently and vocally sided with neighborhood groups to protect communities against unwanted development.

Few had thought Usher would survive the controversy surrounding her open letter of opposition to the city’s enactment of SB1818, the affordable housing density bonus. Usher objected not only to the ordinance, but also to the fact that the city had enacted it before the planning commission. Within her letter, she laid out a precise and detailed legal blueprint for the ordinance’s legal deficiencies and encouraged neighborhoods to sue over what she believed to be a usurpation of neighborhood authority (despite her often-expressed support of smart growth).

Her four-page resignation letter, dated December 8, was full of such contradictions. While lauding LA Live, which many in the architectural community view as an inward-facing island, she advocated neighborhood-centered planning. Divided into seven categories, the letter recommended, among other things, providing mixed-income housing, enacting urban design guidelines and street standards, and updating the city’s environmental mitigations.

In regards to another proposal, “Mapping Elegant Density,” she suggested that the city build vertically, but not in a precipitous fashion. “Please reject any proposed update that relies on the careless, sprawl-inducing approach of adding density at every rapid bus stop; this would be unnecessarily hostile to many of our appropriately low-rise residential neighborhoods that also reside along our long, multi-faceted corridors,” the letter said. 

Planning Commissioner Michael Woo, who is a former city councilmember and now teaches at the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development, credits Usher with a number of achievements. Most prominent among them, he said, was transforming the commission from a “passive, quasi-judicial role,” content with adjudicating cases brought to it, into a proactive, policy-making body.

In addition to "Do Real Planning" and a moratorium on new billboard placements—currently languishing in City Hall—Woo also cited the commission’s revisions to the city general plan’s housing element. “We set higher targets for more housing [despite] opposition from some business groups that thought we were doing too much," he said. "But the city council approved our version.” Woo added that Usher discovered and leveraged each commissioner’s specialty, that her ability to work collaboratively fostered votes that were unanimous, and that her skills as an attorney will be missed on the commission.

As for her future, Usher told AN she doesn’t have a new position lined up at the moment.

Hope for Housing (Update: And Carrión)
President-elect Barack Obama named Shaun Donovan, chair of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD bio), to serve as his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The announcement came during his weekly web-address: AN had heard from a number sources that Donovan--an outside candidate--had taken a month off in late October and early November to prepare a white paper on affordable housing for the Obama campaign, though HPD did not return numerous calls seeking confirmation on this or his possible nomination. Well, now it's official. If confirmed, Donovan will be returning Washington, where he served as Deputy Assistant Commissioner for Multi-Family Housing in the Clinton Administration. A graduate of Harvard, Donovan has been acclaimed for his work on the mayor's New Housing Marketplace plan, which seeks to create 165,000 affordable units over a decade through construction and preservation. Get acquainted with the appointee's thoughts on housing policy, which AN published after a chat with Donovan last year. Update: Both Posts--that being The New York Post and The Washington Post--are reporting that Bronx Borough President Adolofo Carrión Jr. will serve as Director of Urban Policy for the Obama administration. The Bronx Beep had been also in the running for the HUD position, though whether he has been awarded a greater or lesser prize remains to be seen as the exact mandate of directorship has yet to be laid out by the administration, as we reported. Carrión is less known for his work on land-use issues than his compatriots in Manhattan and Brooklyn--partly a result of the relative levels of development in each borough--though the Baychester-raised Bronxite did receive a masters in planning from Hunter, according to his official biography, followed by stints at the Department of City Planning, Bronx CB5, and local non-profit developer Promesa before he moved to City Council and then the borough presidents office. Politco points out that the number of New Yorkers in Obama's cabinet is beginning to rival the number of Illini there, which hopefully means the Feds will stop ignoring the city as it has in the past.
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That Other Queens Rezoning
courtesy nycedc

Over the past two days at City Council, Queens representative Hiram Monserrate has been lavished with praise by his colleagues for engineering a last-minute compromise with the Bloomberg administration over its controversial proposal for Willets Point. Much less talked about, though equally significant, was the eleventh hour deal struck by fellow Queens delegate Eric Gioia.

Hunter's Point South, a 30-acre project on the spit of land adjacent to Queens West, was envisioned by the city's Economic Development Corporation as a middle-class haven. Of its 5,000 units, a whopping 60 percent would be set aside for families making between $60,000 and $125,000. "In this city, we make housing for the fantastically wealthy and the desperately poor, but the vast middle gets left behind," Gioia said.

But housing advocates complained because the project included no low-income housing in a neighborhood and borough that is sorely lacking it. Today, Gioia announced he had gotten an agreement from the Bloomberg administration not only to include 200 low-income senior units in the project, but the city also undertook a landmark study of the surrounding area to identify other underutilized parcels in the immediate area of Long Island City as well as throughout the borough. City officials said they project at least 500 units could be built in the former and another 1,500 in the latter.

And so, with their local council members' support, both Willets Point and Hunters Point South passed the council today. The votes were, respectively, 42-2-1 and 45-0. The former received two no votes and one abstention because the one concession that had not been made was to remove eminent domain from the deal.

"I know this is going to pass," Brooklyn representative Charles Barron, one of the two no votes, said of Willets Point. "The reason I will be voting against it is not because I am anti-development but because we cannot allow the threat of eminent domain to continue to be used in this city."

Despite the complaints, Gioia declared it a historic day for affordable housing in the borough. "If you add together Willets Point and Hunter's Point South, this may be the biggest day for affordable housing in Queens history," he said at a press conference.

"Or the city, for that matter," chimed in council speaker Christine Quinn.

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Willets Point-Man
Queens council member Hiram Monserrate announced his newfound support for the mayor's Willets Point plan.
WILLIAM ALATRISTE/Courtesy NYC City Council

It looked as though the Bloomberg administration's proposal to transform Willets Point was bound for the City Council's axe, but a deal announced yesterday all but assured its passage.

Since the project's inception, local council member Hiram Monserrate had campaigned vociferously against the proposal in part for its lack of affordable housing and threatened use of eminent domain against the area's 260-odd businesses. But at a November 12 news conference, he and a handful of his colleagues urged passage of the plan today, when the council is scheduled to vote on it.

Famously portrayed as the Valley of Ashes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the 61-acre area adjacent to Shea Stadium eventually developed into the Iron Triangle, a pothole-strewn neighborhood lined with auto body shops, scrap yards, and factories both small and large. The city's Economic Development Corporation hopes to transform it, into a bustling mixed-income, mixed-use community. Highlights here include a convention center and LEED-rated housing and office developments.

Monserrate said the city's agreement will include historic levels of affordable housing—35 percent of the 5,500 units—a new 850-seat school, a workforce retraining program, and relocation funds for small businesses.

"Today we stand together in support of a plan that puts people first, the people of Queens,” Monserrate said. “This new and improved plan reflects the true potential of large-scale development projects. It proves that we can include the best long-term planning and the smartest allocation of resources while keeping our moral responsibility to the families and workers affected.”

Monserrate was joined by Christine Quinn, the speaker of the council; Melinda Katz, a fellow Queens representative and chair of the council's land-use committee; Helen Marshall, the Queens borough president and a longstanding supporter of the plan; Robert Lieber, deputy mayor for economic development; and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

(According to PolitickerNY, it is only the second time Bloomberg has made an appearance at a council press conference—the first was the passage of congestion pricing—underscoring how important he considers the project, for which he has taken a number of other unusual steps, like personally lobbying council members.)

Now that it has the support of the local representative, the plan—which had been opposed by 31 members, a majority—will almost certainly pass. There will likely be a few symbolic opposition votes, but members typically defer to local interests. And with the support of the powerful Quinn, the project seems doubly assured of passing.

The last contentious rezoning vote came from Harlem, when a similarly last-minute deal was brokered with Council member Inez Dickens on the future of 125th Street. Then, too, more affordable housing was added to the initial proposal.

Some of the project's advocates are couching their support in terms of the recent financial crisis. “As we find ourselves in the midst of an economic downturn, I urge my fellow members to support responsible and visionary developments like Willets Point," Quinn said. "As we confront such hard economic times, these important projects will create jobs, generate revenues and help keep our City moving forward."

But this is the same rationale critics have been using to attack the project, saying it eliminates well-paying blue collar jobs in favor of minimum-wage service work. Back in June, a number of unions brokered a deal with the mayor to ensure a "living wage" for hotel and retail workers, but those same critics continue to question how such a bargain could be enforced. Also, in light of the current economic climate, some question the decision to evict 260 companies employing 1,700 workers.

Whether or not it impacted his decision today, it should also be noted that Monserrate was elected to higher office last Tuesday. He will join the New York State Senate come January.

What Recession?

Consumers may be relieved that energy prices have fallen in step with the wider markets, but cheap oil has many environmentalists worried that the hard fought gains of the recent “green revolution” could be wiped out. As companies and consumers alike feel the pinch, there have been reports that hybrid cars and LEED ratings could become luxuries we can no longer afford. Fortunately for architects, many in the building industry seem to be drawing the opposite conclusion.

“So far, we haven’t seen any slowdown,” said Michelle Moore, senior vice president for policy and public affairs at the U.S. Green Building Council. “Our green buildings numbers are really strong, our membership numbers remain strong. In fact, we’re at record levels across the board, from registrations and certifications of projects to the number of people taking the LEED AP test. They’re all way up.”

The council is not the only one continuing to see growth in the face of a cooling construction market. In interviews with a number of architecture, development, and construction principals, the story was the same: There is no turning back. In fact, sustainability might be the industry’s salvation.

“Just because the credit is hard to find, you’re not going to build a bad building,” developer Douglas Durst said. “You’re not going to leave out an efficient HVAC system or a co-gen elevator. You’re still going to build that in because that is now what the market demands.”

As the man who was a driving force in bringing sustainable design to the city’s office market at 4 Times Square, Durst should know. He said that in this day and age, all the top tenants demand green projects, a fact the banks know, making financing such projects easier, not harder. With credit so difficult to come by, a few sustainable features or a LEED application may be the deciding factors on that eight-figure loan.

The same is true of housing, especially mixed-income and affordable housing projects. Jonathan Rose, president of the Jonathan Rose Companies, one of the city’s largest affordable housing developers, said that many financiers not only favor sustainable projects but often award more money to them, such as James Rouse’s Enterprise Community Partners. He also pointed to the special tax credits that are available. Rose said that because publicly funded housing is less susceptible to market swings, it will see continued investment, which translates to continued green growth.

Besides falling demand, the other complaint about green design is that it costs more, at least up front, an intolerable burden during a downturn. But just as demand has risen in recent years, so have costs fallen. “Green is still a good play, even in this market, because we have gotten the so-called cost burdens down to one or two percent, which is negligible,” said Michael Dean, chief sustainability officer at Turner Construction. Bruce Fowle, principal at FXFowle, said that a slowdown can give architects the time they need to devise new, cheaper, and smarter sustainable solutions that do not raise costs.

The one area where there could be some decline is on the bleeding edge of the industry, where cost still drives innovation. “You might not see as many photovoltaics or integrated wind turbines or other bells and whistles,” Durst said, “but that doesn’t mean the projects will be any less green.” He predicted any lag in technical development would last no longer than the recession itself, and might subside sooner.

One area where such high-level design could see a boost is from Washington. President-elect Barack Obama trumpeted “green collar” jobs on the campaign trail as a way to revive the country’s moribund industrial sector, a commitment that could feed into more R&D for sustainable building technology and construction methods. “You can’t outsource this stuff,” Dean said.

In many respects, the Feds have fallen behind state and local governments, which have begun to find creative ways to require projects, and particularly those drawing public money, to go green. New York, California, and Washington are among a number of states requiring all government buildings to achieve some level of green certification, usually LEED Silver.

New York City now makes the same requirement of any cultural institution using more than $2 million in city funds. Schools have also taken up the banner because of the desire to provide healthy environments for children.

Lately, the U.S. Green Building Council has put its weight behind rehabilitation work, something it sees as especially viable during a recession. “This is an incredible opportunity for the industry to turn its focus to existing buildings,” she said. “In any given year, new construction makes up only 10 percent of the overall building stock. But now, there will be fewer people building but just as many people wanting sustainable living or working environments. We hope architects will respond accordingly.”

As they should, Rose said, since sustainable work can help insulate companies from future downturns. He cited the Vance Building, a green office renovation his firm undertook in Seattle, which raised its occupancy rate from 68 to 96 percent, even with a significant rent increase.

Between traditional and sustainable work, architects involved with both said that those projects boasting green features seemed to be doing better at the moment, too. George Miller, president-elect for the AIA, said he had heard as much from a number of his colleagues; it is also the case at his firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, where nearly every project has some sustainable feature. “Everyone’s looking for it, and they will continue to do so, no matter what,” he said.

And deep down, the name says it all. “One hopes this isn’t a movement tied to boom and bust cycles,” said Colin Cathcart of Kiss+Cathcart, Architects. “One hopes that sustainability actually promotes sustainability.”

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Fair Trade
The rebuilt High School of Art and Design will sit within SOM's one-million-square-foot, mixed-use complex.
Courtesy SOM

Even in flush times, the New York City public school system has capital needs that far outstrip its budgets, and so for several years now, the School Construction Authority has been looking at its biggest asset: the 1.5 acres of land under the schools themselves. At 250 East 57th Street, on a site that used to hold P.S. 59 and the venerable High School of Art and Design, work has begun on the first phase of a one-million-square-foot complex that will house the rebuilt schools, as well as housing and retail. Roger Duffy, the lead architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, explained the logic of the idea: “A lot of school sites in New York remain underdeveloped in terms of FAR (floor-area ratio).”

In exchange for the right to create a lucrative mixed-use development on the block-through parcel, developer World Wide Holdings negotiated a deal with the State Board of Education to rebuild and enlarge both schools on the site. In addition to lease payments, a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Tax) scheme will contribute additional funds to other education programs across the city.

Construction will occur in two phases, with the retail levels and a significantly enlarged P.S. 59 emerging first. A 59-story residential tower and new High School of Art and Design will follow in an estimated four years.

One of the more appealing features of the design is the large Astroturf play area on top of the building’s retail plinth. There are six outdoor terraces, each catering to a different age group—which are unusually generous outdoor provisions for a public school in Manhattan. The second phase will see the rise of a concertina-like 59-story glazed tower, housing 320 apartments and condos; 20 percent of the units will be affordable, with another 30 affordable units built off-site.

This type of partnership has been growing more common in recent years and is not without its critics, but in a time of chronic budget shortfalls, Duffy sees it as an avenue worth exploring. “The involvement of private developers needs to be composed in an intelligent way to create leverage [for the school system],” he said. “But there is also a need to bring the public and private sectors together.”


The project's first phase will include an enlarged P.S. 59.
All images courtesy SOM

 

Generous outdoor terraces are designed to serve different age groups of students.
 

Beyond plop-art parks
When I first received Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe’s 2007 greeting announcing PlaNYC, I felt a great wave of exhilaration—probably the same one experienced by all architects, landscape architects, and planners who have fantasized about a nascent era of great design sponsored by visionary leadership in City Hall. Office interiors were spruced up, websites revised, and principals’ sartorial splendor amplified in anticipation of knocks at the door from beneficent developers and eco-conscious politicians who would beseech us to create the New York City of tomorrow. As my fantasy faded to something resembling reality, I tried to grasp the magnitude of the gauntlet thrown down by the mayor. With selfish concern for my own studio’s chances of participation in this metropolitan dream, I also wondered whether there would ever be a significant opening up of the job market for small design firms—or would all the request for qualifications (RFQ) documents arrive with their onerous requirements for mega-building experience, multimillion-dollar liability protection, hundreds of consultants under one roof, and the thinly veiled implication that success depended on the invitee’s ability to invest in competitive bidding (with free design services tossed in to sweeten the deal)? By the time Adrian’s call for designer involvement in an expanded parks program arrived, my enthusiasm for PlaNYC had been diminished by memories of futile efforts to break into New York’s public space job market. Since my firm, SITE, is an architectural practice that focuses on parks and plazas (but mostly works abroad, where there is less resistance to innovative solutions and green principles), I could see the handwriting on the wall: The future would be sponsored, controlled, designed, and built by the same cast of characters that has dominated the city’s architecture and planning markets for the past 30 years. Clearly, the tasks outlined in PlaNYC—repairing infrastructure, constructing affordable housing, reducing traffic, improving mass transit, and saving energy—are top priorities. But by focusing on these imperatives, an investment in imaginative ideas for the social, psychological, and aesthetic resolution of parks, streets, and gardens should not be assigned to the back burners. (Just look at Detroit and Cleveland!) The usual tactic of favoring operational efficiency and restorative technology, at the expense of social interaction and access to nature, has demonstrated how such legislative abandonment can destroy the very “quality of life” that a massive investment in infrastructure is meant to preserve. My fear that New York’s grand park plans may become another blueprint for business as usual was confirmed by news accounts early in the game. When the mayor’s original challenge was issued in December 2007, it proposed to open 90 percent of the city’s waterways for recreation by limiting water pollution and preserving our natural areas. But earlier that year, the Regional Plan Association was already complaining that the city had planned for more park expansions than it could afford. This suggests that public space may become PlaNYC’s first casualty, and I suspect that similar economic and political inertia will thwart the mayor’s water, transportation, energy, and air improvement agendas. Still, in the hope that such initiatives may succeed, I want to emphasize a few issues that have enormous impact on the way our city’s parks and gardens have been shaped until now, and on how they will be designed in the future. It is no secret that most public spaces constructed in New York over the past two decades have been based on Modernist traditions. The ingredients invariably include a massive slab of concrete, donut fountains, “plop art” sculptures, and a scattering of park benches. The reasons for this formulaic consistency can be found in the politics of architectural employment and the entrenchment of a Robert Moses–era planning legacy. Clearly, we can do better. But for a flexible climate of creativity to succeed, city agencies must first provide a less labyrinthine and preferential RFQ process. It should certainly encourage smaller architecture and landscape offices to compete for city commissions by placing more value on the applicant’s track record of creativity. Since the criteria for what constitutes “creativity” can vary according to taste and time, the Parks Department might do well to sponsor a monthly series of public-space design symposia, where new talents would have a chance to showcase their visions and learn more about RFQ procedures. City Hall and the Parks Department can improve the RFQ process, but they obviously can’t legislate better design. For this reason, I have a few items of cautionary advisement to offer. First, there should be enough memorable features in a park or plaza to encourage people to travel out of their way to see the space and, after leaving, tell their friends about it. Second, public space is successful to the degree that people look attractive to each other and are encouraged to interact in new ways. Designers should be sensitized to “prosthetic engagement,” where body movement and pedestrian interaction become as much a part of the raw material of design as paving, steel, and vegetation. Third, parks, plazas, and gardens should involve all of the senses in equal measure. And fourth, the design of public space today includes an awareness of “integrated systems.” This suggests a design philosophy based on understanding the parallels between the components of electronic communications and their symbiotic equivalents in nature. If Mayor Bloomberg expects his plea for new ideas to reach high fertility, his passion for change must reflect a more psychologically engaging and aesthetically innovative brand of street and park life for New York City. There must also be support for a truly civic-minded “mandate for change.” Today, this means green and sustainable. By Manhattan standards, being green is a rather restrained and puritanical notion—the antithesis of Big Apple optimism. If the green movement ever expects to conquer New York, it must reverse its scold tactics and provide the same kind of inspiring catalyst for change that the industrial revolution offered our flamboyantly receptive island over a hundred years ago. This means shaping and selling a persuasive new “philosophy of the environment.” Come on Mayor Bloomberg, let’s go for it!
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Olin to Roll?
Olin's masterplanning work for the Atlantic Yards megaproject is currently on hold.
Courtesy Olin

As the financial challenges to Bruce Ratner’s proposed development at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards site intensify, the landscape architect who helped glamorize the project in urban planning circles seems to be moving to the sidelines. Philadelphia-based Olin, which designed a masterplan and landscaping for the 22-acre site, has suspended work until the developer can secure financing, which is growing more difficult in today’s lending environment. 

The past few weeks have left Ratner’s proposal—which some neighborhood groups have depicted as a juggernaut—looking less and less inevitable. A judge refused Forest City Ratner’s motion to dismiss a longstanding lawsuit challenging the state’s use of eminent domain law to take land in the project footprint. That decision, said Forest City Ratner spokesperson Joe DePlasco, could delay construction by six months. “We had hoped to close in November and break ground in December,” DePlasco told AN. “Assuming the state wins the case, work on the arena and the first residential building starts then.” But even if he wins in court, the developer may not find a lender willing to support the controversial project. All of which leaves Olin’s future role difficult to pinpoint.

“Olin completed a masterplan for Atlantic Yards that we believe was a serious response to the great need for large amounts of affordable housing with adjacent well-designed, environmentally-responsive public landscape,” said the firm’s spokesperson Rick Mitchell. “The current economic turmoil points to the truth that plans of such scope almost inevitably are realized over several economic cycles and must both be able to endure as well as be flexible to change.”

Laurie Olin declined to comment further, but it’s possible that someone else will use his plan in developing future parcels. “Olin was contracted to do master planning for the entire development and schematic design for the Arena Block, both of which were successfully completed,” said Mitchell. The firm does not follow the current status of Ratner’s other proposed buildings, Mitchell added, “but assumes they will go ahead as the market allows.”

At the moment, then, Frank Gehry remains on the job designing the project’s centerpiece, the Barclays Arena and one residential tower, while Olin awaits a cue. “Laurie Olin will continue to work on the design of the public space,” DePlasco told AN. “The planned eight acres of public space have always been part of phase II. So the expectation is very much that he will continue to do that work.”

Even if Atlantic Yards does build a second phase with Olin on the design team, though, the project may represent another sort of coda. Another architect, who asked for anonymity, told AN that working with Gehry’s proprietary software and idiosyncratic methods has become financially difficult for the Olin office. “I heard that when Laurie was passing ownership of the firm to the other partners, and they wanted to make it more solvent and profitable, they basically had to stop working on Gehry projects,” he said.


Olin still expects to design eight acres of public space for phase II of the project.