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Comment: James Wines
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's 140 Broadway, completed in 1967, with Isamu Noguchi's Red Cube.
Ezra Stoller/Esto

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, multi-million-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!

You Win Some, You Lose Frisco

As Barack Obama supporters tended to their Election Day hangovers throughout California, the results were finalized for several other ballot measures watched by the architecture, development, and planning fields (including AN California editor Sam Lubell).

On the statewide ballot, Proposition 1A passed, meaning a high-speed train linking Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento is in Californians' not-so-immediate future. The $9.95 billion in bonds will fund the project, transforming each city's train station into massive, high-tech transit centers, and affecting development of smaller cities along the route.

In Los Angeles County, Measure R squeaked by with 67.4 percent voter approval when a two-thirds majority was needed to pass. The half-cent sales tax increase will fund improvements and expansions for light rail and subway lines, HOV lanes, freeways, and traffic reduction. (Good news for at least one AN contributor.)

In Santa Monica, the hotly-contested Proposition T, which would have limited development in the city to under 75,000 square feet annually, did not reach its two-thirds majority, a relief to many architects and developers who had fought hard against the measure.

Down south in San Diego, Measure S passed overwhelmingly, with 68.16 percent approval. This measure will give $2.1 billion to help rebuild an aging public school system.

In San Francisco, Proposition B, which would have required the city to take $30 million out of the budget for the next 15 years to fund affordable housing, failed by a single percentage point.

And Measure R, whose outcome would not directly impact architects, was still a major 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.
 

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Cutting the Nets?
At Monday's Coney Island charrette kick-off, hosted by the Municipal Art Society, a number of stakeholders from the area gave presentations to the design team to help them form ideas for leading the charrette in a few weeks. (To share your own, visit the imagineconey.com, which just launched today.) One of the presentations was given by Jon Benguiat, the director of planning and development for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who spoke about Asser Levy Park, a small outdoor amphitheater and park across Surf Avenue from the aquarium, which is getting a dramatic $64 million retractable roof courtesy of Grimshaw. (More on that soon, we hope.) As with all these things, there was a Power Point presentation, and as with all Power Point presentations, the whole thing took some time to boot up. In the interim, Benguiat decided to tell the story of how he became Marty's planning direct, during which he let some shocking news about the Atlantic Yards, or at least the fate of the Brooklyn Nets, slide. But first a caveat: We had considered letting this news go on Monday, in light of the off-hand circumstances and the fact that AN is not one for "gotcha journalism." After all, it would not come as a surprise to most people following the project that it is in trouble, what with Forect City's stock plummeting, its credit rating following suit, and, speaking of suit's, DDDB's got picked up by the state appeals court. Granted the IRS ruled in Bruce Ratner's favor on some tax-exempt bonds, but that's got to be small consolation. However, when reports about the possible sale or relocation of the Nets began to circulate the past two days, as Atlantic Yards watchdog Norman Oder has pointed out, we felt it out duty to relay Benguiat's words. Waiting on Monday for the projector to warm up, Benguiat told the crowd that, when Marty got elected, he had served as the previous borough president's director of land use. Asking if Markowitz was looking for one, the beep-to-be said no, but he did need a director of planning. "Without even thinking about it, I said yes," Benguiat said. "Then I spent the whole night fretting, wondering what I'd gotten myself into." Benguiat said his anxiety only grew when he showed up for the first day of work and Markowitz rattled off the list of initiatives he hoped to pursue: the revival of Coney Island, return of pro sports to the borough, realization of Brooklyn Bridge Park, and redevelopment of the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront. "I won't repeat all the expletives I spewed when I heard this," Benguiat said. "But here we are, nearly all of them complete. I'm not sure if we're going to get the Nets or not. We should have groundbreaking in December, but we'll see." How much Benguiat knows--even Ratner has admitted that the groundbreaking will likely be pushed back due to the lawsuit--is uncertain, but his statement is one of the most dire to come out of the Markowitz administration, which is uniformly unwavering in its support for the project, no matter the legal or financial circumstances. Asked to clarify his comments afterwards, Benguiat declined to comment, instead directing AN to the borough president's press office, which released the following statement from Markowitz:
The current state of the American economy underscores the importance of moving ahead with projects like Atlantic Yards, and I am confident the project will happen. It will create union jobs and much-needed affordable housing, as well as bring professional sports back to Downtown Brooklyn—becoming just the kind of investment magnet that Brooklyn and New York City need right now
Now that the team is in doubt, would the Atlantic Yards project still enjoy the full support of the borough president without one of its foremost reasons for being? Markowitz's office has yet to respond on that front. No word yet from Forest City Ratner, either.

Let's Dense

California passes anti-sprawl legislation
Could California’s boundless sprawl be coming to an end? Don’t bet on it, but California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signing of anti-sprawl measure SB 375 on October 1 could help curb it quite a bit. The measure, first proposed by State Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), will direct the state’s Air Resources Board to set regional greenhouse gas reduction targets and work with planning authorities to set their transportation, housing, and regional land-use plans with greenhouse gas reductions in mind. That means rewarding sustainable, dense, infill, and transit-oriented communities with less strenuous environmental review and more funds, reducing the number of new highways built, and discouraging development on valuable untouched land through reduced transportation funds. It will also call for state agencies to study the effects of new developments on transit patterns and on greenhouse gas emissions. The bill is basically the land-use extension of AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, passed in 2006 with an aim toward reducing carbon emissions in California to 1990 levels by 2020. Advocates of the new law point out that planning is finally being taken to task for its role in the state’s environmental degradation. “Potentially this is the most far reaching attempt to curb greenhouse gases in a generation,” said Michael Woo, consultant to ClimatePlan, a coalition advocating reduced greenhouse gas emissions in California, based on land use and transportation changes. Automobiles are still the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, accounting for 30 percent of the total. But lowering emissions is only part of the solution. For architects, said Woo, the new law could mean more sustainable and infill work, and a chance to create more walkable and livable design. Other changes, he added, will have to play themselves out. “They could relate to parking. They could relate to the mix of residential and commercial.” But, he added, “if you were an architect who specializes in tract homes on agricultural lands that might be an obsolete assumption.” Woo added that it is still early in the process and that many of the specifics are yet to be determined. He warned that much of the effectiveness of the law will rest on its implementation. One discouraging sign: the Air Resources Board was supposed to set greenhouse gas reduction targets by early October, but that release has been delayed. According to the governor, California is the first state in the country to take on land use planning related to greenhouse gases. The bill enjoyed fairly high popularity, even among the building industry, particularly because it will help to streamline onerous environmental review, at least for sustainable and affordable projects.

Game Changer

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Editorial: Vote Local

This presidential election, seemingly unending, but now just days away, is being called the most vital and important election in a generation. But there will be more on the ballot than just the choice for president. As architects you also have a responsibility to vote for priorities that can benefit our urban and built environment, not to mention voting for your interests as a profession.

California’s largest cities have several major initiatives on the ballot that could help rectify problems that have long plagued their urban fabric. Perhaps most significantly in the Los Angeles region, voters will have a choice to vote for improved public transit in southern California with Measure R. Through a half-cent sales tax increase (providing more than $4 billion in funds) the measure would provide an expansion and improvement of local rail and bus systems, road improvements, and traffic reduction. That could include expansions of LA subway and light rail lines in all directions, new HOV lanes for highways, better traffic monitoring, and even reduced fares for bus riders. As our Protest column points out this month, it is not perfect, but it is far superior to the alternative of continued gridlock and environmental degradation. Also, San Francisco voters will have the chance to vote for support for much-needed affordable housing in a city where it is sorely lacking. Proposition B would require the city to take about $30 million out of the budget each year and use the money to build affordable housing over the next 15 years. That measure isn’t enough, but it will help. And in San Diego, Measure S would provide $2.1 billion to help rebuild the city’s crumbling school infrastructure.

I support all three of these measures. But besides these essential propositions there are important, ongoing initiatives that require your vote, including the local legislation and reforms that local AIA chapters are pushing. Unlike ballot measures, getting these passed will take continuous pressure and resolve. In LA that includes implementation of a distributed power generation network; getting more architects on city commissions; and enhancing local streetscapes to address environmental and pedestrian concerns. In Sacramento that means making new buildings carbon neutral by 2030; reducing sales taxes on architectural services; and blocking an interior design practice act. In San Francisco that means, in addition to pushing for more affordable housing and new zoning, establishing rules that respect individual neighborhoods’ specific character.

So for all of you that have been glued to CNN and voted for or contributed to your preferred candidate, why not participate in a local process that can have an equally significant impact? That means paying attention to and voting for propositions. It can also mean attending your local chapter’s legislative day or putting pressure on your local council member. Of course we have a responsibility to vote for our national leaders. But we also need to ensure for ourselves that our priorities are heard loud and clear at a local level.

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No Building Left Behind
Michael Maltzan Architecture's Inner-City Arts.
Iwan Baan

Inner-City Arts
Los Angeles, California
Michael Maltzan Architecture

Inner-City Arts was founded in 1994 to supplement arts and cultural education for downtown Los Angeles students at schools where such programming had been cut. The final phase of its new campus opened on October 2 with a parade of pinwheel-waving kids led by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Located on a one-acre site in the heart of Skid Row, one of the city’s most economically depressed neighborhoods, Inner-City Arts represents a 15-year collaboration between Michael Maltzan Architecture, landscape designers at Nancy Goslee Power and Associates, and environmental designers at Ph.D, who each donated their time over 15 years to the continuously-evolving project.


Iwan Baan
 
 

The first phase, completed in conjunction with Marmol Radziner + Associates in 1994, included an adaptive reuse of a 10,000-square-foot abandoned auto body shop. The most recent additions—which include the Rosenthal Theater, a state-of-the-art black-box performance space, a ceramics studio, and a DreamWorks-sponsored animation studio—are raw spaces that employ inexpensive materials like stucco, wood, and concrete, and are painted defiantly and completely white with abstract orange lettering by Ph.D. The angular, low-lying buildings are arranged into a unique indoor-outdoor layout that “cracks open,” according to Michael Maltzan, along the perimeter. Students catch glimpses into the outlying neighborhood, and locals can see in, said Maltzan, so “it doesn’t feel like an isolated incident in the middle of Skid Row.”

The indigenous gardens within the courtyard include elements like a tiled fountain, a dry creek bed planted like a local arroyo, a teaching garden, and a labyrinth, all inspired by drawings the students made when asked to sketch their visions of the new school. The completed design of Inner-City Arts creates a place for serious art making, said Maltzan, but is also an example of how an optimistic environment can impact a depressed area. “We’ve tried to make an entire campus which can be seen as a microcosm for a transformative experience,” he said.

Alissa Walker


 

 
AF Payne Photographic 

Bioscience School
Phoenix, Arizona
Orcutt/Winslow Partnership 

Under the design leadership of local firm Orcutt/Winslow Partnership, with input from science specialists and the local community, the Phoenix Union High School District recently opened their new comprehensive Bioscience High School in the heart of downtown Phoenix. Orcutt/Winslow’s design is strategically located within the Biomedical Research Campus, including the Translational Genomic Institute, where students participate in internships. The school’s pedagogical and physical organization models itself after these research laboratories, encouraging collaboration, team teaching, independent learning, and a “rigorous and relevant” science and math focused curriculum. It also integrates a historic one-room school house that now serves as the school’s administration center.


AF Payne Photographic
 
 

Seven laboratories (six indoors and one on the roof deck) are the focal point of the campus, and around these are clustered the student “studios” (not unlike architecture studios), teacher work areas, and, at the extremities on two levels, naturally illuminated, flexible-dimension classrooms. A multi-level space called Town Hall is the heart of the school—serving as the locus for presentations, the cafeteria, and a link to the desert courtyard.

In support of scientific understanding, the open-web structure and mechanical systems are laid bare to the eye. Desert-specific environmental strategies include solar heated water, east and west facing tilt-up concrete “fossil” walls, and provisions for a photovoltaic array.

Beth Weinstein


 
 

Gary Wilson Photo/Graphic 

Rosa Parks Elementary School
Portland, Oregon
Dull Olson Weekes Architects 

Since it opened in 2006, Rosa Parks Elementary in Portland has been a community magnet. Part of the broader New Columbia neighborhood, a large and formerly run-down affordable housing enclave that has become the largest redevelopment project in Oregon history, the 66,863-square-foot, LEED Gold–rated K–6 school is also host to a Boys & Girls Club that opens when classes end and is available to other organizations in the evenings.

The school, designed by Portland’s Dull Olson Weekes Architects (DOWA), is oriented around a series of existing legacy trees. As a result, said DOWA’s lead designer Karina Ruiz, “It doesn’t take the shape of a traditional double loaded corridor building.”

The classroom wing is divided into what are called “neighborhoods,” two per floor, with five classrooms, a resource room, and a shared common area. The glass-enclosed west side of the building also opens out onto the trees with a small park-like green space and a bioswale. The configuration allows classrooms to receive natural light on both sides.

The school’s sustainable features include a stormwater management system that keeps all water on site, an array of photovoltaic solar panels, displacement ventilation, and extensive daylighting. Designed to be 25 percent more energy efficient than code and in actuality performing 30 to 35 percent better, Rosa Parks is the most efficient building in the Portland Public Schools system. “It’s not just to save energy, but to connect students to their world,” Ruiz said.

Brian Libby
 





Tim Griffith

Trinity School
Menlo Park, California
Mark Cavagnero Associates 

Mark Cavagnero Associates designed a 1,200-square-foot expansion for one of the K–5 school’s existing 1960s Bay style buildings, as well as a new 4,800-square-foot Enrichment Center containing classrooms for music, science, and the arts.

The project, pointed out Cavagnero, creates a much-needed connection between the school and its lush new yard and play areas, which are separated by a steep slope. A dramatic, canopied stair between the existing and new buildings has become the center of campus life. Large landings on either side of the stair as well as weaving terraces serve as perfect places to rest or eat lunch, and also function as places to sit for assemblies.


Tim Griffith
 
 

The glazed, rectilinear addition to the existing building—which provides a much-needed extra classroom—edges into the hill and abuts the left side of the stair. Meanwhile the new building, clad in stained cedar with copious glazing, welcomes plenty of light and cross breezes thanks to its narrow floorplate and its orientation perpendicular to prevailing ocean breezes. Building this structure against the hill, said Cavagnero, was meant to make it feel as if it were “floating out from the hill and reaching out to trees.” None of the new construction uses air conditioning, and heating is by means of an underfloor system.

Sam Lubell





David Wakely 

The Nueva School Hillside Learning Complex
Hillsborough, California
Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects

With this 27,000-square-foot addition to an independent pre-K–8 school, Leddy Maytum Stacy has created a multifaceted environment that encourages learning and curiosity. Guided by the school’s mission to instill “a passion for lifelong learning” and a commitment to the environment, the design takes every opportunity to engage students with the world around them.

“Our goal was to create a great educational environment,” said William Leddy, design principal. “Sustainability was a crucial element, but to succeed, we needed a more layered design response that considered the role that day-to-day experience plays in education.”


David Wakely
 
 

The new complex expresses a strong connection to the 33-acre campus landscape and community. The three program elements—classrooms, library, and student center—occupy separate buildings, arranged around a plaza to form a hub of student life that stitches the 40-year-old campus together. The open, single-loaded buildings benefit from natural light, and living roofs totaling 10,000 square feet provide new habitats for native species, including an endangered butterfly. “X-ray” windows expose the building systems within, and a man-made “arroyo” activates the plaza during rainstorms. Finally, the LEED Gold complex teaches by example, using 65 percent less energy and 50 percent less water than a typical new school in the U.S., and generating 21 percent of its electricity needs through a 30kw photovoltaic array. Resource-efficient materials, 36 percent sourced locally, include non-native cypress trees removed from the site and milled for the building’s benches, screens, and decks.

Yosh Asato

Game Changer

At the end of September Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced an ambitious $5 billion plan to provide 20,000 affordable homes in the city over the next five years, despite the national credit squeeze and the collapse of the local housing market.

Dubbed “Housing That Works,” the mayor’s multi-income, mixed-use plan seeks to create or preserve homes for low and moderate-income families (that is, making less than $90,000 per year) to be located near Metro Rail stations and bus routes in an effort to address the city’s housing crisis.

"This is the least affordable big city in America," Villaraigosa said, acknowledging the widening gap between the number of units available for high-income families and the dwindling options for those at the low end of the spectrum. The plan falls under the direction of the mayor’s office and according to Jonathan Powell, a representative from Villaraigosa’s office, is “already going into effect.”

Funded by a mixture of public sources—including the LA Housing Department, the LA Housing Authority, the LA Community Redevelopment Authority, Affordable Housing Trust Funds, and county, state, and federal funds—as well as private sector loans, the plan consists of broadly drawn proposals for an array of issues, from streamlining the city’s entitlement and permitting processes, to providing housing for larger numbers of LA’s homeless.

The plan includes a “Sustainable Communities Initiative,” which will create 20 environmentally friendly neighborhoods near transit nodes. These mixed-use, multi-income developments are intended to link affordable housing for low- and middle-class workers with easier access to centers of employment.

Stuart Magruder, an architect and founder of the LA-based Studio Nova A, points out that the plan, reminiscent of the European model that locates people closer to where they work, shop, and go to school, is reliant on more effective transit systems than currently exists in Los Angeles. “We’ve got to decide to go forward on all cylinders on both issues—developing denser communities and building more transit,” he said.

Carol Schatz, president and CEO of the Central City Association, likewise supports building around transit corridors, but her enthusiasm is tempered by the plan’s mixed-income component, which she says does not provide developers with necessary incentives to defray the cost of subsidizing the low-income units. “The first version of the plan was not workable,” she said. Among the incentives she suggests are a reduction in the number of required parking spaces per development. Schatz is also skeptical about the availability of funding in the face of the current financial crisis. “There is no housing market to speak of. It’s really ugly out there,” she said.

Administratively, the mayor’s plan includes a mixed-income housing ordinance, requiring developments over a certain size to contain an as-yet undetermined percentage of affordably priced units. The ordinance requires passage by the city council and final approval by the mayor. According to Powell, the council intends to pass the ordinance by the end of 2008.

The mayor’s plan also seeks to streamline the city’s convoluted entitlement and permitting process, which can involve 12 different departments, with the so-called “12-to-2 Development Reform Plan.” Under “12-2,” the planning department will become the single point of contact for the entitlement phase of new projects, while the building and safety departments will handle the construction phase.

Los Angeles has the nation’s largest homeless population, numbering over 44,000. The mayor's plan increases rent subsidies, in the form of Section 8 vouchers, for the chronically homeless and creates 2,200 “permanently supportive housing” units that will move homeless people from revolving-door shelters into permanent housing.

Additionally, the plan seeks to redevelop blighted housing projects, beginning with the gang-infested Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, hoping to replicate the successful resurrection of the Pico Aliso complex in East Los Angeles.  

The obvious question is how the weighty financial framework of such a large proposal will be lifted into place given the turbulent economic climate. Mayor Villaraigosa has already secured one nonprofit investor: Enterprise Community Partners has pledged $700 million to the plan.

Still hopeful that the recent congressional bailout package will ease constricted credit markets and allow “Housing That Works” to move forward, Powell pointed out, “It’s the financing that’s slowing down. The demand for housing, office, and retail space in Los Angeles is not slowing down at all.”

With no timeframe as to when results would begin to materialize, Powell noted that the mayor’s office was moving quickly to implement the various steps of the plan. “There’s really no better time than right now, in the middle of a crisis, for us to show some leadership,” he said.

Raft of Legislation

Despite almost all the talk at City Hall yesterday being dedicated to the electoral aspirations of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the City Council still managed to pass an important piece of legislation that bolsters waterfront planning efforts, along with two other new laws that create a mixed-use development in Harlem and protect a small slice of affordable housing in Chelsea.

From a planning standpoint, the first piece of legislation is the most impressive. It calls for the creation of a comprehensive waterfront plan, prepared by the Department of City Planning each decade, beginning in 2010. Back when New York’s waterfront was largely dedicated to commercial uses, it, along with the entire harbor, was overseen by the New York-New Jersey Port and Harbor Commission. Now, with the city finally returning to the waterfront with parks, projects, and follies, some two dozen agencies have taken a stake.

The key is making sure the various uses and interests on the waterfront work in concert, not opposition. “With the introduction of this legislation today, we will ensure that New York City never turns its back on the waterfront,” Christine Quinn, the council speaker, said at a press conference. “A comprehensive plan provided to the city every ten years will allow us to best assess the different ways our waterfronts can be used for leisure, employment, and industry.”

Under the legislation [text], which passed unanimously 51-0, the city’s planners must consult with affected local, state, and federal agencies, as well as the public, about their waterfront needs and how resources should be allocated to address them. For groups like the Waterfront Alliance (formerly the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance), it is an important opportunity to finally weigh in on issues that might otherwise be ignored. “One thing near and dear to our heart is a working waterfront,” Roland Lewis, the group’s president, said.

While waterfront access, parks, and development are important, Lewis said, the waterfront’s historic use cannot be ignored. As the economy struggles, the better-paying work traditionally offered near, on, and in the water must be preserved, and with a comprehensive plan in place, it will be easier for such jobs to thrive without impinging on their neighbors. And vice versa. “Nothing against IKEA,” Lewis said, “but you can put an IKEA almost anywhere. You can only do dock work on the docks.” Lewis also hopes it will spread across the river to New Jersey and up the Hudson to “sister cities,” creating “a truly comprehensive plan.”

The council also endorsed a rezoning plan for yet another piece of 125th Street in East Harlem that will create a 1.7 million-square-foot, mixed-use project on three vacant city-owned parcels. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the local representative, said it was a landmark project not only in its scope, but also because the community rejected a developer three years ago, leading the city to take the incredibly rare step of rescinding its development contract. “Since then, we have worked hard with the community to come up with a satisfactory plan, something we have now achieved,” she said.

Covering an area between 125th and 127th streets, from 2nd to 3rd avenues, the rezoning calls for a 30,000-square-foot cultural space, 850 apartment units (600 of which are affordable), a 98,000-square-foot hotel, and 250,000 square feet of office space. Also included are 500,000 square feet of retail space with an emphasis on local businesses, and a mid-block public plaza at the center of the complex.

The council also passed a bill [text] modifying the J-51 tax benefit to include Penn South, a Chelsea co-op that was at risk of losing the benefit due to rising assessment values amid skyrocketing prices in the neighborhood. “By including Penn South in the J-51 program, we are taking the important step of preserving a community that is and will remain a source of affordable housing for thousands of residents,” Quinn said.

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The $6,000 House
A completed 10X10 house (right), with another under construction.
Courtesy UK College of Design

The Pritzker Prize has often been called, or at least explained as, the Nobel Prize of Architecture. If that is the case, then the Curry Stone Design Prize could be considered architecture’s Peace Prize. Established this year by the University of Kentucky College of Design through a generous gift from architect Clifford Curry and his wife H. Delight Stone, the prize honors innovative achievements in humanitarian architecture and design.

MMA Architects of South Africa took the top prize of $100,000, which was announced today by the school. The firm, based in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Berlin, won for their 10X10 house, an extremely affordable structure built using sandbags and timber. It requires no tools or advanced construction knowledge and can be built for slightly more than $6,000, while still presenting a striking, modern design.

“We feel it’s important to give back to the community we come from,” Luyanda Mpahlwa said in a telephone interview. “Most black people in South Africa come from the projects, and the shantytowns are actually growing. No one should be living in shantytowns. So anything we can do to help that, we will.”

Mpahlwa, who shares the firm with Mphethi Morojele, said that a key component of the house was to provide not only shelter but also social justice and pride. The house was originally designed for an affordable housing competition last year that required architects to devise a house for 50,000 rand ($6,200), which required some very unusual thinking. “My view is that there is no way you can use conventional materials and methods if you want to resolve the housing crisis that plagues the world,” Mpahlwa said.

In addition to utilizing inexpensive and locally accessible building materials, which required not even a single electrical outlet to put together, the designers turned to the community to build the houses, the first of which was recently completed, with nine more planned for a community in Cape Town. Mpahlwa said that this approach not only saves on labor costs but gives an added sense of ownership to the occupants and work for those in a community that is riven with unemployment.

Other finalists included Shawn Frayne, who designed the world’s first non-turbine wind-powered generator; Wes Janz, an architect and professor at Ball State University who builds “leftover places” with scavenged material; Marjetica Potrc, an artist who has designed a number of clever devices for impoverished communities, including a “dry toilet” in Caracas and rainwater harvesting system in New Orleans; and Antonio Scarponi, a Venetian architect who constructed a “Dreaming Wall” in Milan that allowed people to text social messages onto it. Each runner-up receives a $10,000 prize.

“From the jury’s point of view, it was both a conventional and unconventional firm doing conventional and unconventional work,” David Mohney, secretary for the prize, said. “They saw it as an inspiration to other conventional firms that they could start doing unconventional work themselves, that they can bring a high level of design and comfort to a project that doesn’t usually have access to it.”

To call MMA unconventional could be considered an understatement. As one of only a handful of black firms in the country, they have long struggled to get work. “Old prejudices die hard,” Mphahlwa said. “Some people take one look at me and do not believe I can build them a house.” The firm took a number of government commissions out of a sense of civic pride and duty but also because they had little choice. Thanks to the success of those projects, including embassies in Berlin and Adis Ababa, they have been able to afford more humanitarian work.

As a testament to MMA’s commitment to that work, when asked what he would do with his share of the money, Mpahlwa said he would probably buy a few more 10X10 houses and send some underprivileged kids to architecture school. On top of the two he has already sent.

Matt Chaban


sandbags HELP FORM THE STRUCTURAL CORE OF THE HOUSE.
 
 

MMA has plans for ten houses in a housing project in cape town, arranged somewhat like in this model, where some houses have been combined into double-wide units.
 
 

Mphahlwa admires his work...
 
 

As do a group of local boys.

A RIFT in Santa Monica

To understand the severity of Santa Monica’s traffic problems, visualize this: Of the beachside city’s 85,000 citizens, only about 10,000 people both live and work there, which means that 60,000 people arrive daily from other parts of Los Angeles to fill its 70,000 jobs. That’s about 150,000 people coming and going every weekday, all of whom seem to be lined up along Cloverfield Boulevard at 5:30 in the afternoon.

It was this mounting frustration that earlier this year led a group of citizens organized by the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC) to propose the Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), a 15-year measure which would cap commercial development at 75,000 square feet annually in an effort to curb traffic. In August, RIFT received more than twice the 5,000 signatures needed to place it on the ballot. In November citizens will be voting on the referendum, now known as Proposition T. An opposing group, Save Our City, which includes citizens, politicians, and about 60 local architects, supports an existing document—the city general plan’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE)— which calls for smart growth over limited growth and more nuanced solutions for combatting the crippling traffic.

“Rift” could also describe the breach between Santa Monica’s residents and politicians, who are deeply divided over various solutions to traffic and development. After decades of enthusiastic growth, Santa Monica is a victim of its own success. High-rise luxury hotels and high-end retail line the once-decrepit coastline. And Santa Monica’s uniquely dense, walkable community has made it one of the most desirable places in the Los Angeles area for companies to locate, luring headquarters for mega-companies like Sony, Yahoo!, and MTV. But want to leave in time for dinner in Silver Lake? Forget it.

If implemented, Proposition T would amend LUCE in hopes to stop some of those drivers from having a reason to come into the city. The 75,000-square-foot cap would last until 2023 and would not include uses like residential, parking, schools, or hospitals. Proposition T also makes allowances for ground floor “neighborhood-serving goods, services, or retail uses” in mixed-use developments where 100 percent of the housing is affordable. According to supporter, rent control board member and planning commissioner Jay P. Johnson, RIFT pre-empts what will be almost certain future battles over city development policies, which he called “undefined” when it comes to height and density. “My experience tells me that as key crossroads of decision making are passed, the collective ability to ‘go back’ or reverse course is highly unlikely, since many big money stakeholders exert their influence, privately and publicly, to maintain the direction,” he said.

“To say we can stop traffic and do it by stopping development sounds fantastic, but the devil is in the details,” said Gwynne Pugh, principal of Santa Monica firm Pugh + Scarpa and one of the key organizers of Save Our City. In his role as chair of the city’s planning commission, Pugh points to LUCE (a document he helped research and draft), which he said would address many of these same traffic issues but in a more comprehensive way. LUCE’s plan calls for mixed-used projects and dense transit centers in hopes of creating more “complete” neighborhoods that will discourage residents from using their cars. It also includes a focus on affordable and workforce residential development (for young professionals making around $70,000 a year) to house more Santa Monica residents closer to jobs and services. In addition, the plan will explore many more options for employers like flex hours, biking incentives, and shared parking.

LUCE has already been approved by the city council and planning commission, and is now in the environmental impact report stage. It could be implemented within the next six months, but if the November initiative is approved, Pugh said, “it would be obliterated by RIFT.” In June, Pugh + Scarpa held a fundraiser for Save Our City that was also an educational event for architects. Of prime concern to the group were transit-oriented projects anticipated at places like Bergamot Station, for the expansion of the Expo Line. With the 75,000-square-foot cap, Pugh said the developments won’t be able to achieve the proper mix of high-density residential and commercial floor space, potentially jeopardizing the future of a sorely-needed public transit line, as well as the eventual “Subway to the Sea.”

Making special allotments for public transit projects like the Expo Line activity centers raises questions about how exactly Proposition T will be enforced. It has not yet been decided whether the 75,000 square feet per year would all be alloted at once, and which projects would get precedence, although the measure allows for “borrowing” square footage from future years if necessary. Johnson says the cap simply ensures that projects are carefully thought out and overdevelopment won’t happen. “My choice was too little or too much,” he said. “I chose too little since it can be corrected by increasing the amount in the future. If we go with too much, and are wrong, we cannot correct the error by tearing down buildings.”