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You Get What You Pay For

For the last year-and-a-half, the New-York Historical Society has been locked in a bitter feud with its neighbors around Central Park West over plans for a 23-story condominium tower that would help finance the project. But in early July, it changed tack. “We don’t have plans for a tower,” Louise Mirrer, the society’s president, told The New York Times. “We think we can meet our needs over the next few years by focusing on our building.”

It is a rare sentiment these days, and while it may be changing in light of economic realities, the trend of governmental and not-for-profit institutions relying on the private sector for the financing or construction of capital projects has continued apace. As the number of such public-private projects continues to rise, touching everything from schools to parks to hospitals, so too does the debate over which side benefits more.

Don Elliot, chairman of the City Planning Commission during the Lindsay administration, when such programs became more popular as the city’s fiscal crisis grew, said it is an issue of political math. “If it means less public money to get the same building, that’s what politicians will do,” he said. “The question is, are you getting the same building?”

Then again, what if the alternative is no building at all? “The city and the private institutions, if they were able to do it efficiently and in a timely way, they would have done it themselves,” said Michael Slattery, vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York, the powerful developers group.

A prime example of this dichotomy is the current fight in Greenwich Village over St. Vincent’s plans for a new hospital. Short on funds, hospital administrators partnered with the Rudins, one of the city’s storied real estate families, to swap its old facilities on 7th Avenue for a new hospital across the street. Of the project’s estimated $850 million budget, $310 million would come from the sale of those facilities. The Rudins would then adaptively resuse some buildings as condos while tearing down others.

On the other end of the city, in East Harlem, Mount Sinai Medical Center is pursuing a similar plan, and partnered with the Durst Organization, which agreed to contribute $250 million toward a new research facility in exchange for the new building’s air rights, which in turn would make way for a 540-foot luxury tower. Community opposition was swift and immediate, especially considering local dislike of the hospital’s Annenberg Building, the 436-story, blockwide black monolith that many see as a blight on the Central Park skyline.

“It’s a complex problem and we’re really alert to that,” said T. Gorman Reilly, president of Civitas, a local planning advocacy group that opposes the project. “The problem is, these community facilities do provide a lot of public good. But it’s gotten out of control because there are so few sites left.” But Brenda Perez, a spokeperson for the hospital, said it had no choice. “Mount Sinai considered multiple options,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Selling the air rights was the only option to make the financial equation work.”

No one questions the need for more hospitals. The question instead is one of public financing for such projects, or lack thereof. “There’s been an attraction in government to think that you can get the private sector to build infrastructure without having to pay for it,” said Kent Barwick, the outgoing president of the Municipal Art Society who also worked in the Lindsay administration. “The idea was, you’d pay for it with development rights, but we quickly learned that there are costs associated with such deals, as well.” Barwick points to the Education Construction Fund, which was created by Lindsay to offer bonds and air rights transfers in exchange for school construction. The fund created 18,000 school seats in a dozen schools, 4,500 units of housing, and 1.2 million square feet of office space, according to the city’s Department of Education. But Barwick highlighted its first project, the AT&T exchange tower (now Verizon) at 375 Pearl Street, which he called one of the city’s ugliest buildings, in part for the way it looms over the Brooklyn Bridge. “We have come to learn there can be hidden costs on the public realm that can negate the public gains offered by these projects,” he said.

Slattery countered that with developers’ experience, it is irresponsible of the city to otherwise use taxpayer dollars trying to complete these projects. “Developers have the kind of requisite experience to do this business, whether it’s schools or hospitals or parks,” Slattery said.“It’s compatible with what they do everyday.” He cited Battery Park City as a prime example of the private sector undertaking a project with public support that the government would have struggled to complete on its own.

The city, or at least the Bloomberg administration, seems to agree.“That’s our bailiwick,” said Janel Patterson, a spokesperson for the city’s Economic Development Corporation. “We take underutilized public land and work with the development community to develop it into something that benefits both parties.” She was also quick to emphasize the deep community involvement in creating such projects, which she said ensures local support and approval.

Still, some question whether the city is being taken advantage of, especially during the real estate bonanza of the past half-decade. “It’s not a positive trend,” said Tom Angotti, a planning professor at Hunter College. “It’s the neoliberal dream and what it leads to is the weakening of the public sector.”

Ron Shiffman, director emeritus of the Pratt Center for Community Development, believes such deals can work, though they require a balance that may be missing. “It’s a tool,” he said. “Tools can be used properly and improperly. At the moment, it’s being overused and misused. It’s not something I would throw out, it just needs to be used responsibly and accountably.”

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Profile: Dawanna Williams

Yoko Inoue

Dawanna Williams
Founder and Principal
Dabar Development Properties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Profile: David Von Spreckelsen

Yoko Inoue

David Von Spreckelsen
Senior Vice President
Toll Brothers City Living

The Gowanus Canal is as far as you can get from a greenfield in this country, and the last place you’d expect to find a development by Toll Brothers, the suburban luxury home-builder better known for sprawling tracts of neo-Georgians built on fast-receding farmland.

But that’s where David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president for the company’s City Living division, unflinchingly mapped out a 450-unit development—the first contract he signed in New York four years ago—that points to Toll Brothers’ future even as it has caused consternation back at the home office in Horsham, Pennsylvania. Company chairman Robert Toll vetoed the plan for the as-yet untitled project at 363-365 Bond Street when it was first pitched, said Von Spreckelsen, but he added, “Now it’s one of Bob’s favorite projects, because there’s so much potential.”

With nearly $1 billion in development and 1,200 units in New York, Toll Brothers is making the city a major part of its push into urban areas. Amid a longer-term trend to conquer new markets—and cushion the broader housing bust—Toll has diversified geographically (it’s in 21 states) and demographically with the launch of Toll Brothers City Living, the division that’s taken the company well beyond the ‘burbs.

“City Living really came out of Toll Brothers looking at who their customer was and where their customer was going,” said Von Spreckelsen, sitting in his notably unstuffy office near Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. “And they were seeing a trend toward people moving to more urban areas.” Young buyers and empty-nesters brought the company to Philadelphia, and from there the division hit Jersey City and Hoboken, where developments include Hudson Tea, a 1,200-unit condominium project. Success on Jersey’s waterfront whetted Toll’s appetite for the far shore of the Hudson.

Enter Von Spreckelsen, 45, a former director of real estate development for Silvercup Studios (he worked on the Queens rezoning that led to Silvercup’s Richard Rogers–designed expansion plans) who previously served at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. When he launched Toll’s local office in 2004, he figured cracking the Manhattan market would take a while. But through a broker he knew, Von Spreckelsen acquired a site near 14th Street, and soon built a 21-story glass tower designed by GreenbergFarrow. The project swiftly sold out, and this year the firm broke ground on a second tower by Perkins Eastman at 303 East 33rd Street.

But Brooklyn is where Toll has found the biggest upsides. Beyond Gowanus, the company led the wave of development along the rezoned Williamsburg waterfront with Northside Piers, a three- tower, FXFowle-designed project that is a joint venture with L&M Equity and RD Management. A few blocks away is a more modest Toll outpost, North8. (Another local project is 5th Street Lofts in Long Island City.)

New York hasn’t been without its challenges. While the hugely capitalized company rarely needs project-specific loans, cash flow can still be tight, since Toll builds suburban homes only after pocketing a down payment. “For single-family, you literally sell a house, and then you build it,” Von Spreckelsen said. “In New York City, you’re buying a piece of land, and then you’re putting up a multi-family building. It’s really building on spec.” And projects can get bogged down by the land-use process, as at Gowanus, where the team expects to finally be certified for public review in August. “When you’re still trying to get certified, there are basically no milestones at all,” said Von Spreckelsen. “That’s been a real challenge to convey back to the home office.”

Still, the company is adapting to the urban arena. In the suburbs, Toll has stakes in nearly the entire supply chain, with its own architecture, engineering, and marketing divisions. By contrast, New York’s 15-person staff outsources most services, but that will be changing. Halstead Property is the broker for projects currently in sales, for instance, but the second tower at Northside Piers will be sold in-house.

While grizzled urbanites might cringe at the thought of Toll tackling New York, the company’s reputation has already helped it grow. The brand resonates with buyers, said Von Spreckelsen: The company calls them Toll Groupies—a clan with friends or relatives who are Toll owners and eager to buy into new projects. Whether or not such loyalists will be enticed to Brooklyn’s Lavender Lake, of course, is a question taking Toll Brothers into uncharted territory.

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Profile: Jed Walentas
Yoko Inoue

Jed Walentas
Director of Daily Operations
Two Trees Management

Jed Walentas doesn’t get the same degree of media attention that’s been leveled at his father David, the scruffy, tennis shoe-clad founder of Two Trees Management. Walentas père made his fortune in New York real estate through rehabs and conversions, among them such landmarks as One Fifth Avenue, Alywn Court, and the Silk Building. Yet the younger Walentas, 33 and an only child, for the past seven years has been in charge of daily operations of Two Trees, and might well be one of the more intriguing young developers in the city.

In 1981, with Leonard and Ronald Lauder as investing partners, the senior Walentas had bought 11 19th-century factory and warehouse buildings in Fulton Landing, which was then a derelict section of Brooklyn more popular as a dumping ground for hit men than as an industrial zone. Walentas calculated that its zoning would soon change, and the area would gentrify as Soho had done—indeed, artists and artisans were already settling in. His hunch was right, but not his timing; it took 16 years for Dumbo (from Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, as the place was renamed) to get rezoned.

Meanwhile Jed, tutored in the business from the age of ten, graduated from the Penn with a degree in economics and went to work for Donald Trump, converting 40 Wall into one of the city’s first “wired” buildings. Walentas was working for Trump a little less than a year when his father called him to Two Trees to work on Dumbo’s redevelopment.

Low key in his sartorial and management style, much like his father, Jed Walentas controls somewhere between 2.5 to 3 million square feet of real estate in Dumbo. With Amish Patel, his best friend from college and now business partner, the younger Walentas has converted industrial buildings into offices and condos, and constructed a stylishly outfitted rental building, all while carefully cultivating Dumbo’s distinctively genteel but bohemian character. While condos with river views regularly fetch million-dollar-plus prices, there are still artists who pay their rent with artwork. Priced out of Williamsburg last winter, the Galapagos Art Space took up residence in a LEED-certified former stable on Dumbo’s Main Street, paying rent just short of $7 per square foot per year. The experimental theater St. Anne’s Warehouse, housed in an old spice mill, pays no rent at all. Sprinkled into this arty mix are trendy boutiques and design stores, specialty food purveyors, and a few restaurants and cafes. While there’s also a Starbucks, Dumbo still feels more like a gritty urban neighborhood than the posh open-air shopping mall that Soho has become. Nevertheless, many in the community gripe about the control the Walentas family wields over the place.

And there have been missteps, most famously in 1999, when Two Trees proposed a Jean Nouvel-designed steel-and-glass hotel, shopping, and entertainment complex, which would have jutted into the East River like a futuristic pier. The project’s outsized scale raised an uproar in the surrounding community, which was intent on turning the property into a waterfront park. Ultimately, Nouvel’s plan was aborted, and the park secured.

More recently, Jed Walentas has branched into downtown Brooklyn. Two Trees has constructed the Court House, a mixed-use condo/retail building with a fully outfitted YMCA at the corner of Court and Atlantic streets, and converted the old Board of Education building, a McKim, Mead & White landmark at 110 Livingston Street, into trendy condos. Walentas likes to put younger staff in charge of these “night and weekend projects” so “they can learn to solve problems on their own,” much the way he learned himself. “We give them a real ownership interest,” he said. The latest “goofy” project he’s considering is the construction of a small hotel in Williamsburg.

Given that Two Trees finances its own ventures and employs its own construction team, the company is necessarily focused and efficient. “We can only take on one or two big projects at a time,” said Walentas. “We’re looking now at possibilities in the BAM Cultural Zone. But there are a lot of public policy requirements, so there’s only so much economics there. And people want great architecture.”

Great architecture is exactly what he’s promising in his most ambitious project to date in Midtown Manhattan: a dramatic, zig-zagging, mixed-use building with landscaped roof terraces and louvered windows designed by Enrique Norten’s TEN Arquitectos. The massive, 100,000-square-foot site at 11th Avenue between 53rd and 54th streets affords “great opportunity and flexibility,” said Walentas. Not to mention risk, as it’s not yet zoned for residential use. Nevertheless, Walentas spoke confidently about the Clinton Park project. “Enrique’s office is a good fit, very practical, and not too big. The project is super important to them,” he said. “They understand that their design has to be buildable, not just sculpture.” And TEN sends the love right back. “They’re a fantastic client,” said Mark Dwyer, the project’s principal. “You couldn’t get many developers to be this adventurous with a skin on a rental building. But they’re invested in it. They want to know how to clean the facade years down the line. And they’re investigating LEED certification.”

Apparently, Walentas has learned a lot since his previous venture into the world of celebrity architects. He’s also learned a thing or two about community outreach. In addition to the 900-some rental apartments, 20 percent of which will be affordable, the building will house a car dealership, preserving 11th Avenue’s traditional commercial business; a supermarket, sorely needed in the neighborhood; and a state-of-the-art stable facility for the city’s mounted policemen. What’s not to love?

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Profile: Jonathan Rose
Yoko Inoue

Jonathan Rose
president and Founder
Jonathan Rose Companies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So Long, Ray
Courtesy DCP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bracing for the Worst

The Numbers

While it lacks the dramatic symbols of Bear Stearns and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac, the apparent architectural recession may be getting as bad as the one ravaging the financial sector at the moment, at least according to the AIA Architectural Billings Index. The overall index, which surveys the increase or decrease of billings at a panel of firms nationwide, rose slightly for June but still remained on the decline for the industry.

“These numbers are a continuation of weak conditions in the nonresidential construction sector,” AIA chief economist Kermit Baker said in a statement. “Given that inquiries for new project work have not seen much improvement, it’s likely we are several months away from a turnaround.”

In June, the index rose to 46.1, up from 43.4 in May, but only a measure of 50 or above means billings are rising; this change simply means the decline has slackened, though is still falling. The one positive note is that the index continues to rise, from a record 13-year low of 39.7 in March, though given that numbers fell two points from April to May, the gain could only be temporary. Inquiries also rose from a record low of 46.5 last month to 51.8, another positive sign, suggesting interest in new work may be returning.

Regionally, the Midwest remains the one region seeing growth, with a billings reading of 51.8, continuing a trend begun last month. In his statement, Baker called it the one bright spot in the industry. The South has seen steady one to two point growth since bottoming out in March at 45.3 points and has now reached 49.0. The West and the Northeast, however, continue to decline, with scores of 36.1 and 40.7 respectively.

On the ground here in New York, opinions remain mixed. “We’re on major alert,” Fred Bland, a principal at Beyer Blinder Belle, said. He said his firm’s work remains steady but he is beginning to see signs of concern. “You would start to see more highly competitive RFPs and a leveling off in inquiries,” Bland said. “It would be fair to say we are starting to see a little of that.”

Jon Kully, a principal and co-founder of architecture firm FLAnk, said his office actually began two new projects and is looking to hire, hoping to boost his staff of 15 by two to five employees. “It’s hard to say exactly what is happening,” he said. “Everyone is different.” He did add that he and his partner at the firm, Mick Walsdorf, are trying to gauge the market to “find the best talent for the best price.”

Kully does admit that he has been particularly fortunate, given what he has heard from friends. “It sounds pretty bad out there,” he said. “I’m knocking on wood as I say this, but we’re pretty good right now. At the same time, Mick and I, we were talking this morning, and we really think it will be Q1 of ’09 when everyone really sees this hit, when designers start to get laid off.”

Good Housekeeping

In its ongoing effort to reform the Department of Buildings in the wake of the two crane accidents earlier this year, the City Council passed three new pieces of legislation yesterday cracking down on what the council considers minor but important issues within the construction industry. The three bills passed by a unanimous vote of 45-0.

The first bill (text) tackles so-called housekeeping violations, basically the order and cleanliness of a given worksite. “There is a direct correlation between sites with housekeeping violations and serious life-threatening accidents,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn said during today’s meeting. “We believe that by policing these sites, we can keep them from going down this path.”

The bill categorizes any housekeeping violations, such as tripping hazards, unsecured material, or unsafe storage of combustibles, as “immediately hazardous,” the highest level of violation. This means that such a violation will trigger a stop-work order and can result in fines if not addressed. Quinn put it simply: “When materials are not taken care of, they can injure people. We want that to stop.”

The next bill (text) addresses problems with vacant buildings, which, if unoccupied for over five years, will be inspected for structural soundness, with follow-up inspections occurring every five years. If violations or unsafe conditions are discovered, the owner is required to address them immediately or face fines.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, the representative for East Harlem and the lead sponsor on the bill, proposed the action after two such buildings in her district collapsed. “When we talk about construction safety, we shouldn’t just be talking about new construction and work sites but also existing buildings, and especially those that have been neglected,” Mark-Viverito said.

The final bill (text) requires that retaining walls be regulated in the same manner as building facades, putting them under increased scrutiny, oversight, and safety restrictions that strengthen the city’s ability to induce necessary repairs. Councilmember Robert Jackson, who introduced the bill, noted that it was long overdue, after the collapse of a retaining wall three years ago in his district, but he was happy to have it finally pass. “This legislation is a no-brainer,” Jackson said.

But if that was the case, then why did it, and all the other recent reforms, require a disaster to finally pass them? Councilmember Tony Avella, an industry critic, chocked it up to politics, adding that a great deal more work remains to be done. “These are good bills,” Avella said, “but there are a number of good bills and initiatives that are languishing in the DOB due to a lack of action on the part of the Speaker.”

A spokesperson for Quinn declined to address Avella’s complaints, but did say: “The bills passed are part of an extensive review of the construction safety in the city. We have passed several bills so far, and several will be passed in the near future.”

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No CAMPing Here?
Courtesy Gluckman Mayner Architects

On July 14 an overflow crowd presented impassioned public comments to the Presidio Trust—a U.S. government corporation established to preserve and enhance the former military post—regarding its Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) proposing options for the future of the Presidio’s central, 120-acre Main Post district.

The audience came largely to address the Trust’s controversial recommendation in favor of the Contemporary Art Museum of the Presidio (CAMP), a modern design by New York firm Gluckman Mayner that would house the extensive contemporary art collection of Gap founders Donald and Doris Fisher. Other plans for the area include a 125-room guest lodge on the eastern edge of the main parade grounds, an orientation center, and an addition to the existing Presidio Theatre.

In a raucous event that extended well past midnight, members of several groups came out in opposition against the CAMP proposal, including the Presidio Historical Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, the nearby YMCA, the San Francisco Democratic Party, and the Green Party. The California Office of Historic Preservation has also spoken out against the plans. Due to the large number of speakers, the public comment period was extended until September 19. A second public session will be held September 15, and a separate meeting related to traffic and parking issues is set for July 28.

Some expressed suspicion that the project was an "inside job" and a foregone conclusion, alluding to the Trust’s membership being dominated by prominent San Francisco real estate and business leaders, and to Don Fisher’s role as a former Trust member. Others criticized the scale and stylistic compatibility of its minimalist design in the historic context of the Main Post. And more brought up the perceived reversal of land use policies outlined in the 2002 Presidio Trust Management Plan (PTMP), and to the possible reconsideration of the Presidio’s status as a National Historic Landmark District.

Supporters of the scheme, including San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, emphasized the importance of the art collection and the generous financial opportunity for the Trust, which would receive a world-class institution from the Fisher family. The cost of the 100,000-square-foot museum has been estimated at around $150 million, which includes restoring one of the adjacent barracks for classroom and administrative uses. In addition, the Fishers would donate $10 million toward the cost of reconstructing the parade grounds. Newsom also expressed confidence that public concerns could be addressed in the review process.

A motivating concern for the Trust is the federal mandate that the 1,491-acre Presidio be financially self-sufficient by 2013, and that the park subsequently fund its future operations. Among the limited set of proposals presented to the Trust through the RFP process, the CAMP design, the Trust has indicated, appears to be the only viable option that would ensure a continuing draw for the park.

An alternate scheme for a History Center presented by the Presidio Historical Association (occupying the same site as the museum) was accompanied by a basic schematic design and program proposal with no collection or funding source identified. The design itself, still fairly vague, features a Spanish-style, pitched-roof building.

Missing in both the SEIS and the furor of public comments was any serious critical discussion of Gluckman Mayner’s building design, a contemporary interpretation of the site that emphasizes the formal geometries of the Main Post. The vertical mullions of the curtain wall echo the white-columned arcades of the surrounding military barracks, while the horizontal striations of the masonry walls and filigree patterning of the shading louvers deliberately recall the texture and scale of Presidio barrack construction. The orthogonal face of the scheme gives a defined terminus to the parade grounds, which will be restored from their current status as a sprawling parking lot.

Design architect Richard Gluckman admits that early press images raised questions about the design, appearing as an aloof white box isolated from its context. Subsequent studies reveal careful attention paid to situating the building within the architectural context of the Main Parade.

The Trust and National Park Service’s 2002 Cultural Landscape Assessment of the Main Post noted that the "site’s overall historic integrity is grounded in a rich but fragmented record of continuity and change." In distinction to the History Center’s historical palette, Gluckman argues that "using a contemporary architectural language to differentiate the new structure from the old respects the integrity of both."

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House of the Issue: Taalman Koch
Eight rooftop solar panels provide electricity and hot water.
All images Art Gray

It’s hot, dry, brown, and dusty—and for some, a personal paradise. Welcome to the California high desert, where a pair of Los Angeles-based architects, Linda Taalman and Alan Koch, have finished construction on their own 1,100-square-foot getaway.

An experiment in hands-on minimalism, the house sits on a remote five-acre site in Pioneertown—just beyond the northwestern boundary of Joshua Tree National Park—and two hours east of Los Angeles. A husband and wife team, Taalman and Koch bought the land in 2006, and with the help of friends and family, built much of the house themselves.

It’s a project they had been contemplating since moving their design firm, Taalman Koch Architecture, to Los Angeles from New York five years ago. The couple, who met at Cornell and founded OpenOffice arts + architecture, relocated shortly after completing the design and renovation of the Dia:Beacon museum in Beacon, New York, in 2003. Their move west was precipitated by a desire to experiment with new building materials and construction techniques, and to have a more direct role in seeing buildings they had designed come to life.



The Off-grid iT house is the result of the couple’s latest experiment in mixing prefabricated and on-site construction techniques. The aluminum framing, steel roof, cabinets, and 3-form bathroom walls arrived ready to install, while the concrete foundation and electrical and plumbing systems were fabricated to meet site-specific needs.

Since the house is two miles away from the nearest electric tower, Taalman and Koch engineered an off-the-grid power system that includes eight solar panels, four of which are on the roof and provide electricity, while two additional panels serve as the house’s solar water heater.

A sizable overhang shades rectilinear floor-to-ceiling windows, some of which are patterned with a vinyl decal grid that functions both as a shading device and a privacy screen. The strategy for enclosing the living quarters is equally low-tech: the bedroom area is nestled between a small hill and a cluster of acacia trees. A pair of outdoor courtyards completes the rectangular floor plan, creating the same sense of easy indoor/outdoor living popularized by modernist architects working in California during the 1950s and ‘60s.

The house was designed as a kit around a modular floor plan, with open sections that can be shifted or mirrored to meet the client’s space and privacy needs. Taalman is unsentimental about the notion of site specificity, believing, as many modernists did, that architecture can become more accessible by way of being more generic and, in turn, more easily reproduced. The iT house may seem one-of-a-kind, but the firm has built three others just like it in Villa Park, Paso Robles, and Three Rivers, near Sequoia National Park.

“The idea of the house is that ‘iT’ can be whatever one wants it to be, it’s up to you to fill in the blanks,” explained Taalman.

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Spin City
Bicycles awaited takers outside the Storefront for Art and Architecture.
Ian Volner

After a quiet start last year, the second annual New York Bike-Share Project kicked off an expanded program on July 10 that included depots at four sites downtown with 30 bikes in all, available at no charge for a half-hour spin from rack to rack. The stations were located outside City Bakery near Union Square, at Birdbath Bakery’s two branches in the East and West Villages, and at Storefront for Art and Architecture on Kenmare Street, and attracted steady traffic, according to volunteer staff from the Forum for Urban Design, which co-produced the project with the participating locations.

The five-day pilot program was the latest development in the ongoing campaign to increase bike ridership in New York. Successful municipal bike-shares abroad have paved the way for a bike-friendly city, one where thousands of bicycles stationed at hundreds of racks would offer residents a practical alternative to the automobile—a vision long shared by local groups like NYC Bikes and Transportation Alternatives, both sponsors of this year’s trial.

Some of the challenges inherent to that vision have already arrived stateside. This month’s bike-share follows the announcement last spring that Washington, D.C. would introduce a European-style SmartBike of its own. That rollout, however, is behind schedule: There’s been difficulty integrating the new electronic kiosks with existing infrastructure. “I’d like to say we’ll be up and going in two weeks,” said District Department of Transportation’s Jim Sebastian, “but I’ve been saying that since May.”

In a shift away from Mayor Bloomberg's public skepticism about the feasiblity of bike-sharing in New York, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has recently signaled a greater commitment to exploring the idea. On July 7, NYC DOT issued a Request for Expressions of Interest for companies or organizations that could initiate and run a large scale program.

Forum for Urban Design executive director Lisa Chamberlain hopes the current experiment can prove the practical value of bike-sharing for New York. And it might do just that. The program attracted a daily record of more than 60 riders on Saturday, July 12. And Chamberlain reports that one man stopped to inquire about the rack on First Avenue, telling volunteers he was late to a meeting on the West Side. He grabbed a bike, sped westward, and deposited it at the Seventh Avenue Birdbath, arriving at the office with minutes to spare.

Editorial: Fresh Resolve at the WTC

Last week the Port Authority made headlines when it came clean about the need to rethink budgets and timelines for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, but it may have been the least surprising piece of news New Yorkers have had in a long time. What was noteworthy, however, was the straightforward but detailed analysis of the existing sticking points and a commitment to a more pragmatic and hard-nosed approach to moving forward.

At the request of Governor Paterson, Port Authority director Chris Ward and his staff conducted a review of the rebuilding process to date, and they produced a report that is well worth reading. It will be particularly interesting to those who find it hard to keep on top of who is in charge of which building, or which architect’s work is getting scaled way back due to budget problems; i.e., about 7,999,995 New Yorkers. The report emphasizes the interconnected nature of all 26 major projects, and identifies 15 issues that must be resolved before any reasonably accurate budget or schedule can be drawn up. According to the report, this new budget and schedule could not—and should not—be released until the fall, since it will take at least that long to coordinate updated information. That may seem like yet another delay, but it will be time well spent, especially if the new numbers are accurate and lead to progress. The last thing we need is to be told once again that things are moving along nicely, thanks very much, and it’ll all be grand.

The Pataki “groundbreaking” for the Freedom Tower was a particularly cynical example of that kind of wishful thinking—the July 4, 2004 ceremony to lay the cornerstone coincided neatly with the Republican National convention, but not with anything in the construction plan. (Two years later, it was shipped back to Hauppauge, Long Island, so that site work could actually begin.) Governor Paterson referenced that stunt at the press conference announcing the Port Authority’s report, saying, “We’re not going to give any phony dates or timetables at this point and then follow it up with phony ribbon-cuttings and encouraging words and no follow-up.”

Follow up has always been the problem, and one of the major issues that has prevented it is the enormous (and sometimes competing) agencies and interests involved. One of the report’s most interesting conclusions regards governance, and the fact that there is currently no single decision-making body. It calls for both a steering committee that would make the call when programmatic conflicts arise, and a site logistics authority that it likens to an air-traffic controller, coordinating the complex logistical issues on-site.

This new tack toward transparency and pragmatism is particularly refreshing after the Kremlinesque secrecy of the old LMDC. It has called fresh attention to the fitful progress at Ground Zero, but if Ward can institute the suggestions he and his staff have outlined, that progress should be a lot smoother.