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In Detail: Eleven Times Square
The north and south faces of Eleven Times Square were treated distinctly to respond to their unique contexts.
All images courtesy FXFowle

All architecture, to a certain extent, is a response to the demands of external forces and interior programming. Eleven Times Square, however, a new speculative office tower designed by FXFowle now nearing completion on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, goes further than most structures in deferring to its surroundings while catering to the needs of tenants. In the process, the skyscraper has moved beyond even its most environmentally friendly contemporaries—the New York Times Building, Hearst Tower, and One Bryant Park—to set a new standard for tall building design.

The tower’s sensitivity to the streets and structures around it is immediately apparent upon visiting Times Square. Though it stands 40 stories tall and encompasses 1.1 million square feet, the tower is far from imposing. In fact, it’s hardly noticeable. This is because at the northwest corner, after the sixth floor, the building steps back significantly. Higher up the elevation, it cants out again to regain floor space, creating a skewed profile, but the gesture is highly effective.

The south face echoes the massing of Piano’s Times Building next door, and features a solar shading system and highly reflective glass.
 
The north face pulls back after the podium to preserve views from the street, then cants out to regain floor space.
 
Approaching from the west, the neighboring Empire Theater remains in plain sight, as does the Candler Building with its Coke bottle– green windows. The same is true of the opposite approach: Pedestrians can continue to appreciate the view of Raymond Hood’s art-deco masterpiece, the McGraw-Hill Building. These historic structures, so important to the character of the district, would have been obscured if Eleven had jutted straight up into the sky.

Eleven’s highrise neighbors to the north and south also influenced its form. The podium and setback tower motif echoes Arquitectonica’s Westin Hotel across 42nd Street, creating an open gateway to Times Square from the west. Meanwhile, the massing of the building’s south face mirrors Renzo Piano’s Times Building across 41st Street, with its cutout corners, sheer verticality, and horizontal detailing.

Following these disparate design cues created two different aesthetics and, for each, a distinctly defined side to the building. FXFowle harnessed this dynamic to create what might be New York City’s only solar-oriented skyscraper—a factor that added points to the project’s target LEED Gold rating. The south portion of the building features perforated aluminum sunshades—a nod to Piano’s exterior shading system across the street—and the glass is more reflective than in the north portion, which was outfitted with fritting at the upper regions of the vision panels.

Overall, the curtain wall is extremely performative. It is structurally glazed, meaning that there are no exterior mullion caps, which can create heat transfer points. The insulated panels are filled with argon gas rather than a vacuum, further adding to their insulation value.

In addition, stainless-steel spacers were used between the lites at the edges of the panels, where curtain walls lose most of their heat, rather than aluminum, which is one of the best conductors available. Altogether, Eleven’s envelope boasts a U value—or rate of non-solar heat loss—of approximately .28, making it more efficient than the curtain wall at 7 World Trade Center, a previous touchstone for highly insulated glass walls.

While allowing the context to mold their building, the architects did not give short shrift to Eleven’s unnamed future tenants. This meant maximizing flexible floor space, access to daylight, and views. The site itself is L-shaped, an awkward template for a skyscraper, but FXFowle again used the two-faced nature of the building to their benefit.

Like nearly all New York City office buildings in the post-9/11 era, Eleven has a composite structure of a concrete core and steel-framed bays, marrying the security of the former’s rigidity and fire resistance to the versatility inherent in the latter’s long-span capabilities. The architects couched the core in the crook of the L, keeping the street faces open and dividing the north and south sides into distinct spaces, each large enough to accommodate disparate programming.

FXFowle located the core at the crook of the L-shaped Building, opening up the street faces for wide bays and an open plan. The rotation of the north face provides more ample views of the nearby Hudson River.

Eleven’s plan also turned out to be a boon for views of the city. The cutouts made on the south face created a kind of bay window, adding to the panoramas and daylight available to tenants—factors that earned more points in the LEED tally. The north side, however, is even more of a view machine.

FXFowle rotated the canted portion of the building, a volume known as the crystal, by several degrees to the west so that the north-facing windows did not look out directly onto the Westin, but instead opened up dramatically to nearly unobstructed vistas—at least on the upper floors—of the Hudson River and New Jersey. The crystal also features perimeter columns pulled back from the facade, creating cantilevers of as much as 15 feet ending in unbroken expanses of glass.

The architects were also able to avoid placing columns in the building’s many corners, a consideration that will no doubt add to the allure of these locations for offices, while at the same time perhaps opening them up to more than just the upper echelon of the corporate chain.

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The High Line of Hamblen County
New York and Paris will soon be joined by Morristown, Tennessee as cities that have turned abandoned, elevated bits of their aging infrastructure into pleasant walkways. New York’s High Line and Paris’ Promenade Plantee have justifiably received many pages of press, but Morristown’s 1968 Skywalk is known to few people outside of eastern Tennessee. The sheer audacity of the concrete promenade—“built to Interstate quality,” with planter boxes and piped-in Musak—should rank it with the better-known works of 1960s utopian planning. It’s not exactly Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt in aspiration, but more like Peter and Alison Smithson’s concrete service ramps in Robin Hood Gardens if they were designed by Victor Gruen. Yet unlike most of the era’s utopian visions, over 1,000 feet of Skywalk was actually built. Morristown’s Main Street grew up directly above a main line railroad and a waterway known as Turkey Creek. In 1962 the creek flooded, nearly wiping out the commercial district. At the same time, a suburban shopping mall was ruining the historic downtown district, and the city developed a plan to modernize Main Street by creating an “overhead sidewalk” that would turn the second floor of the existing buildings into a new street while serving as a canopy for the sidewalks below. Building owners spent nearly $2 million upgrading their properties and linking them to the ramp, while the government contributed over $5 million to build the ramp and place Turkey Creek underground. The project, the city fathers hoped, would turn the dilapidated central business district into a bright and enticing commercial haven and “aesthetically place the downtown on par with any shopping center.” In the end, however, the Skywalk was no match for air-conditioned and enclosed suburban shopping malls, and it has served as little more than a roof over the sidewalk and a remnant of the idealism of 1960s urban renewal. That may soon change, though, as Morristown is embarking on a resurrection of the Skywalk as a social and commercial hub. A newly accessible ramp has been built up to the walkway, and it has been made a key element in a greenway master plan for the region. (Plus, it’s about to receive a fresh coat of paint.) Town librarian Bill Denton claims the Skywalk remains a source of pride for many local residents. It may not have saved Morristown’s Main Street in the 1960s, but to its credit, it was essentially an urban approach that may outlive all the ill-conceived suburban malls built in the 1970s and beyond.
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Redlining the Panorama
The Queens Museum of Art opened its latest exhibition Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center on Wednesday with a discussion of the mortgage foreclosure crisis in the city’s five boroughs. The event featured the exhibition's designer Damon Rich, founder of the Center for Urban Pedagogy and now urban design director for the city of Newark; policy expert Sarah Ludwig; community organizer Michelle O’Brien; and urban historian Kenneth Jackson­—all tip-toeing around the museum’s famed New York panorama. For the exhibition the panorama—which includes every mapped block in the city—has been fitted out with orange triangles, their one-inch legs set above every block with three or more recent foreclosures. These foreclosures, according to museum director Tom Finkelpearl, depict a landscape of “displacement,” and the speakers addressed the origins of this crisis in the creation of redlining by the Home Owners Loan Corporation in the 1930s. The speakers emphasized that the current foreclosures and the predatory lending practices that led to the problem have overwhelmingly taken place in neighborhoods with large populations of African Americans and Latinos. The orange placeholders, for example, cut a huge swath through Bedford Stuyvesant and Brownsville/East New York to East Flatbush. Jackson, contemplating the sea of triangles (representing over 13,000 foreclosures) in Brooklyn, described the magnitude of the problem, but pointed out that New York has been less affected by the crisis than cities like Detroit and Dayton, Ohio, because of its relatively vibrant economy and large population of renters. The exhibition itself details the history and material culture behind the current crisis, curated by Rich and Larissa Harris as “an experimental site for learning,” and will be open until September 27.
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HARPing on Affordable Housing
The HARP program is as much about protecting surrounding neighborhoods from blight as it is about completing stalled projects.
Matt Chaban

Last year’s bursting real estate bubble left the five boroughs littered with vacant and half-built projects, many of them market-rate units few can now afford. But city officials are hoping to rescue some of those stalled projects, create much needed affordable housing in the process, and begin to steady the real estate market as a result. Wednesday, the City Council and Bloomberg administration announced a $20 million program known as HARP—as in Housing Asset Renewal Program—that would subsidize the conversion of upwards of 400 stalled market-rate units into affordable ones.

By thawing frozen projects, the hope is to free up financing to finish construction on those that are not yet built and to fully occupy those that are. (The imprimatur of the city should help with financing, as well.)  Meanwhile, the city will help stabilize these buildings and their surrounding neighborhoods, thus avoiding the blight that plagued the city during the decline of the 1970s and 1980s. With 138 stalled projects confirmed by the Department of Buildings, and countless more unaccounted for, there are plenty of projects in need of support.

“Private developments that sit vacant or unfinished could have a destabilizing effect on our neighborhoods, but we’re not about to let that happen,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement. “This program holds out the promise of addressing the unintended blight caused by vacant sites, while transforming what would have been market-rate buildings into affordable housing for working class New Yorkers.”

City officials expect only some units of buildings entering HARP will be converted to affordable units--just enough to get them back on track.
Matt Chaban

The program is the result of a council taskforce on affordable housing launched in 2008, though many of its ideas crashed along with the housing market. Instead, the taskforce began outlining HARP, which speaker Christine Quinn introduced in February during her State of the City address. The council then turned to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to implement the details and administer the program, which is still in the pilot phase. The cost is also shared between the council and the city through the reallocation of existing capital funds.

The city will issue a request for funding applicants—a sort of RFP with a rolling deadline—in July that is expected to run through December. Applicants will be judged on three criteria: those who offer the deepest discounts, require the least amount of subsidy, and provide the most “stabilization” to the neighborhood. For instance, a single building in need of subsidy in a ten block radius would be more likely targeted than 15 buildings in need within a five block radius, according to Andrew Doba, a council spokesperson.

While details of the plan are still being worked out, the expectation is that most of the money will be spent in the outer boroughs, where the greatest speculation and destabilization took place, and also where the city can stretch its money the furthest. For each unit of a project pledged as an affordable rental unit, applicants will receive $50,000 an amount officials emphasize is about a third to a half as expensive as the typical rate paid for new affordable units. Both unfinished and finished-but-empty projects are eligible for the program, though the expectation is that only a portion of a project’s total units would be converted from market-rate to affordable.

Vacant yet completed projects, such as 66 North 1st Street in Williamsburg, are also eligible for the program, and could account for a sizable portion of the funds as they can be more readily occupied.
Courtesy Curbed.com

But first those seeking money must agree to take a loss on their projects, as the city insists that the program is not intended as a handout or bailout. “This will require real sacrifice from the banker and the developers,” Catie Marshall, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said. “We’re not going to bankrupt anyone, but we’re not making them whole, either.”

Marshall said the department expects to get many of its applications from banks that have foreclosed on projects and want to get rid of them as quickly as possible. When money will begin to flow out remains to be seen, but it could be as soon as the department begins getting applications back. “We could start working on projects, depending on what comes in and how clean it is, by the Fall,” Marshall said. If the pilot phase goes well, the city will consider expanding it or even making it a permanent housing program.

Developers large and small, not-for-profit and high-end are already hailing the project. “I see a plus-plus for the city of New York, both for the people in the neighborhoods, who won’t have to look at these half-built buildings anymore, and the affordable housing users who will have shelter,” said Vincent Riso, a principal at the Briarwood Organization, which has been developing affordable housing since the 1980s.

Projects proposed for empty lots are also eligible, though few are expected to qualify because of the considerable amount of subsidy they would require to get off the ground.
Matt Chaban

Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, acknowledged that while the program would not directly benefit his members—many of the city’s biggest name developers—it would provide a benefit by absorbing excess inventory and stabilizing lending. “I think it’s a creative use of rather limited city resources, and at the same time to throw a little help to a developer in challenging times,” he added. “It will create opportunities that did not exist before.”

And given the continued stasis in the financial markets, HARP could be the only opportunity for developers to get projects off the ground. “There’s so much inventory, why would a bank finance any new construction?” said Julien Vernet, Briarwood’s marketing director.

The only criticism of the program so far was that it would primarily support middle-income families because lower income housing would require greater subsidies. “They can either serve a large number of folks with a moderate income or less folks with low income,” Josh Lockwood, executive director of Habitat-NYC, said. “We just hope there’s room in the conversation for low-income families.”

But Lockwood was also quick to praise the program as one-of-a-kind. “They’re light years ahead of anywhere else just trying to make this work,” he said. “I just hope other cities will follow.”

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Mall City
East River Plaza in East Harlem subsumes its big box stores below grade with airy walkways and smaller shops above.
Courtesy GreenbergFarrow

The vacant storefronts in commercial districts throughout New York City are among the most striking signs of the economic downturn. However, on old industrial sites and in neighborhoods where national retail has never ventured before, developers are betting that a new generation of malls will bring in hordes of shoppers. One such mall is the $500 million Gateway Center at the Bronx Terminal Market, which in May held a ribbon cutting for its first tenant, Home Depot.

Situated on a 16.5-acre site along the Harlem River near the new Yankee Stadium, this 950,000-square-foot project for the Related Companies represents a major departure from the traditional suburban mall. Instead of being enveloped in parking lots, this mall is pedestrian friendly. It has wide sidewalks, a small outdoor plaza with seating, and several street-level spaces for restaurants and retail. Sloped roofs and interior streets break up the massing of the enormous development.

Instead of big-box stores spread out laterally, here they are stacked on top of one another in two three-story retail blocks that flank a six-story garage for 2,341 cars. The two retail blocks are staggered by about 15 feet, allowing each big-box store to connect to its own dedicated parking deck by walkways that pass over interior streets. If a mall of this size were built in the suburbs, it would typically take up 100 acres.

The vertical design, with its relatively modest footprint, resolves many concerns that critics have about malls, said John Clifford, principal at GreenbergFarrow, which did the project’s master plan and retail design. A large share of shoppers, about 37 percent, are supposed to arrive by public transit and on foot. “There are a lot of urbanists who hate the suburbanization that these uses bring,” Clifford said, “but when you think about it, there couldn’t be a better use of land resources.”

Gateway is one of several vertical-style malls under construction in the city that GreenbergFarrow has helped design. East River Plaza, planned by the Blumenfeld Development Group on a three-block site between East 116th and 119th streets adjacent to the FDR Drive, is due to open this fall. Vornado Realty Trust’s Rego Park II in Queens will also open this year. And a GreenbergFarrow design for another Related project, the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, is in the midst of a contentious public review process.

The Gateway Center at the Bronx Terminal Market incorporates a defunct La Guardia-era market into a larger modern mall complex.
Courtesy BBG-BBGM

These massive developments will undoubtedly change the way that many New Yorkers shop. Gateway, which is 90 percent leased, will provide the Bronx with its first Bed Bath & Beyond and its first wholesale club, BJ’s. East River Plaza will house the first Costco in Manhattan. The new malls also promise thousands of jobs for low-income neighborhoods that suffer from high unemployment.

Yet many community groups and local business advocates are not thrilled by the new designs or the shopping opportunities these developments promise. While some opponents are willing to accept new malls if they commit to paying a living wage, others ask whether the new malls, which receive generous tax abatements and subsidies, are coming at the expense of more sustainable and less inherently auto-dependent forms of development.

Irwin Cohen, a developer who specializes in adaptive reuse, had plans to redevelop old industrial buildings at the Bronx Terminal Market into a multipurpose facility that would rent to independent food vendors, much as he did when he turned a former Nabisco factory into the highly successful Chelsea Market. Local operations would have been better anchors for the Bronx site than big-box national retailers, he argued. “Why should we have what is being done in the rest of the United States foisted on us—shopping malls and cars?”

For his part, Clifford has long pondered such questions. He began designing malls out of GreenbergFarrow’s Atlanta office for Home Depot, and helped introduce the big-box concept in New York in 1993, designing the city’s first Home Depot in Ozone Park, Queens. Since then, Greenberg Farrow has designed more than 6.5 million square feet of big-box stores and malls in New York City alone. In recent years, as developers have looked to more urban neighborhoods, new design strategies were required: hence the vertical mall.

Take East River Plaza. Instead of existing as a monolith that eats up three city blocks, the 650,000-square-foot project is broken up by an open-air galleria, similar to the one at Gateway, that lines up with 117th Street, providing orientation to the neighborhood and to stores on four above-grade retail levels. Here, every other level of retail is accessible from the adjacent, eight-story parking garage by pedestrian bridges that connect over the galleria.

related companies plans to insert new retail uses into the Kingsbridge Armory's historic facade. the plans have run into opposition from local groups fighting for Fair wages.
Carlos E. Restrepo

The project also seeks to harmonize with its surroundings through a facade of masonry and brick, chosen to echo the texture of the neighborhood and to reference the 19th-century Washburn Wire factory, which occupied the site. While these are worthwhile tactics, one wonders if the factory might have been salvaged for reuse in the project, making a more than symbolic nod to neighborhood history.

A similar strategy has been used at Gateway Center, where remnants were incorporated from the art deco Bronx House of Detention, demolished to make way for the new mall. Eagles from the structure’s frieze, for instance, are perched on steel columns around the mall’s street-side plaza. The building also references heroic 1930s warehouse architecture through four 30-foot-tall glass towers, which conceal exit stairways and serve as beacons above the Deegan Expressway.

“We wanted to take a little bit of the history of the site and impart it onto the design of the building,” said Gregory Cranford, partner at BBG-BBGM, which served as design architects for the massing and exteriors of the buildings, and as overall architects for the project. “So we have done that with the massing and with the big forms. We wanted to have a little bit of the same scale, but in a modern vocabulary.”

Among the new malls, Rego Park II may best address its surroundings. First, the superblock is not out of place here—neighbors include tower-in-the-park residential developments, along with the original Rego Park mall. And instead of being primarily a retail zone dominated by big-box stores, the 1.675 million-square-foot development called for a more diverse mix of uses to animate the public spaces, including a 25-story residential tower atop a seven-story parking garage with ground-level retail. Currently, however, the tower is on hold.

Other elements of the project go well beyond window-dressing. A tensile fabric canopy covers a 50-foot-wide galleria along the central axis of the development. In contrast to the gallerias at Gateway Center and East River Plaza, which accommodate cars and pedestrians, the one at Rego Park is strictly a pedestrian mall that attempts to bring an urbanistic feel to the neighborhood. “We are trying to integrate open space into the community,” said Giovanni Valle, project architect for Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, which designed the facade for Rego Park II. (SLCE is the architect of record.)

The mixed-use Rego Park II in Queens includes connections on several levels: A pedestrian galleria links the retail building with surrounding streets, while a bridge connects pedestrians and vehicles to a neighbroring mall.
Courtesy EE&K Architects

Kingsbridge Armory, meanwhile, represents another approach. This project involves building a vertical mall inside the landmarked Kingsbridge Armory. Under the plan developed by GreenbergFarrow, the inside of the armory would be ripped out and a steel-truss-framed structure would be inserted inside the shell of the building.

The project, though, has been opposed by groups like the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA), which demands that Related commit to have tenants pay a living wage, as well as add recreation space for children. There is also outrage about plans for a 60,000-square-foot grocery store, which residents say could drive out local grocery stores that pay union wages.

“We are not looking to create a poverty wage center in the middle of Kingsbridge,” said Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, a KARA spokesperson. (Glenn Goldstein, senior vice-president of the Related Companies, said that it was too early in the approval process to discuss plans for the armory.)

There is much to praise about New York’s newest vertical malls. They’ll revitalize old industrial areas, and relate more sanely to the city than earlier megaprojects did. But worries remain that these projects are still suburban—reliant on car and truck traffic, and a threat to local businesses.

That is a particular concern given the subsidies and tax abatements involved. Related, for example, received a $7.1 million city subsidy toward the expense of razing the original Bronx Terminal Market, as well as about $133 million in city tax abatements for Gateway. The company also received preliminary approval for subsidies and tax abatements on the mall it plans for Kingsbridge.

“These urban mall projects fit into a pattern of public dollars being used to fund the expansion of national chain retailers,” said Stacy Mitchell, the author of Big-Box Swindle, “while independent businesses never see a dime.” There is no reason why forward-thinking design couldn’t also serve a more balanced vision of community investment—and a still more sustainable wave of shopping in the city.

Editorial: Ambition First, As Usual

On June 25, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the city had acquired a 30-acre spit of land in Queens to build the largest middle-income housing complex since Starrett City in 1974. Situated where Newtown Creek empties into the East River, the Hunter’s Point South project sounded like the best of all possible worlds: a school, 3,000 units of affordable housing for true blue New Yorkers—those cops, firefighters, and schoolteachers that everyone roots for in movies but otherwise ignores—and an 11-acre waterfront park. As usual, however, it was hard not to be cynical.

That great mascot of American independent spirit, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote that every soul must learn from making its own mistakes. But that hardly seems like a game plan where the collaborative business of making cities is concerned. New York is currently glutted with grand plans gone awry, dead in the water, or compromised beyond recognition: Atlantic Yards, Hudson Yards, Moynihan Station, ground zero. They do not inspire confidence that this one will fare any better. Apparently, past errors in judgment—May we cut you another deal, Mr. Ratner?—have only served to fuel a determination to repeat until bankrupt.

The mayor’s press release made no mention of the hurdles and controversies looming at Hunter’s Point South. Even Wikipedia knows that Newtown Creek is one of the most polluted industrial sites in the country, flowing with an “estimated 30 million gallons of spilled oil and raw sewage.” A clean-up plan was not mentioned.

Nor was it disclosed that this largest subsidized project in the city in 35 years is based on creating a specious nonprofit by which developers would be paid in federal tax-exempt bonds rather than municipal bonds, thus avoiding the requirement to include 20 percent low-income housing in the project. (Originally, years before the site was to be the Olympic Village of the failed NYC2012 bid and was called Queens West, it was all going to be low-income housing, a plan that would have paid off nicely right about now.)

But the real purpose of Hunter’s Point South seems to boil down to the mayor’s need to get a move on his $7.5 billion New Housing Marketplace Plan and its promise of 165,000 affordable housing units. Now, 68 percent of those are supposed to be low income, but none of them, it seems, will be at Hunter’s Point South, where the 3,000 units of middle-income housing will be rounded out with 2,000 market-rate apartments.

The mayor did toss in this bone: 3,000 permanently low-income units will be built someplace else in Queens “over the next 10 years,” and an adjacent site will be rezoned to allow for at least 330 low-income units. That’s not much comfort to local residents who have been complaining for years that no one consulted with them about the project, and that the housing qualification of a $55,000 to $158,000 household income is way over their own heads. Once again, city leaders have projected their ambitions on what they see as a blank slate but others know to be an existing and needful community.

In Urban Design (Minnesota Press, 2009), an excellent collection of persuasive essays rehashing the hits and misses in the field, Michael Sorkin describes post-Moses urban planning in New York as “the ongoing willed incapacity to think comprehensively.” To which one might add: “or to learn from one’s own mistakes.”

A version of this article appeared in AN 12_07.08.2009.

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With Virgin Eyes
Computer rendering of 17th Century Manattan (2008).
Markley Boyer/The Manahatta Project, WCS

Mannahatta/Manhattan:
A Natural History of New York City

Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
Through October 12

In the opening pages of Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas states that the physical form of New York City is the product of a self-conscious urge to rewrite the past in order to serve a particular vision of the future. Writing of the pre-European New York, he asks, “What race first peopled the island of Mannahatta?” Quoting the 19th-century historian Peter Belden, he answers, “They were, but are not,” victims of a vast, fictitious plot in which barbarism gives way to refinement.

As recounted in Koolhaas’ delirious reality, European settlers erased all traces of the island’s pre-existing civilization, replacing it with “a city renowned for its commerce, intelligence, and wealth.” According to Koolhaas, the outcome of this Darwinian survival of the fittest, the New York we know, love, and hate, is the product of a “cyclical restatement of a single theme: Creation and destruction irrevocably interlocked, endlessly reenacted.”


Split Rendering of Manhattan of today and the 17th Century. 
Markley Boyer/The Manahatta Project, WCS
 
 
Though the exhibition Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City, on display at the Museum of the City of New York until October, appears at first glance to have nothing in common with Delirious New York, the exhibit self-consciously attempts to influence the city’s future by including the landscape eulogized by Koolhaas. The feat of recreation is accomplished using historic maps and the modeling tools of ecological science. The result is a computer-generated vision of Manhattan as it appears on the sunny September afternoon, four hundred years ago, when Henry Hudson first set eyes on the island. The beautifully rendered images depict a land of abundance covered by pure green forests, washed by clear flowing streams, and ringed by sparkling wetlands: an ideal habitation for both man and beast.

The ecologist responsible for this Arcadian vision, Eric A. Sanderson, is careful to state that the imagery should not be seen as a call to return Manhattan to its primeval state, but rather as a visualization tool that reveals “something new about a place we know so well, whether we live in New York or see it on television, and, through that discovery, to alter our way of life.”

Consequently, the exhibit challenges the viewer to see the contemporary city as “a place shaped by the relationship between nature and people.” In order to function as good stewards of this ecological heritage, we, individually and as a society, must realize that the “principles of diversity, interdependence, and interrelativity operate in a modern mega-city much as they do in nature.” The clear implication is that this newfound understanding will enable the people of New York to re-envision the future as a sustainable ecological reality.

The exhibit begins with an interactive display. One click and an aerial view of the current urban grid transforms into an image of long-ago ecological abundance. A topographic map of Manhattan dominates the center of the space, and functions as a display screen for the cultural, natural, Native American, and ecological history of the island. But the real heart of the exhibit is a Muir web, a set of computer-generated connections between the ecologies that once composed the Manhattan landscape.

Consisting of abstract lines that converge and cross to define dense, multi-dimensional landscape communities, the web emerges from simple relationships such as “squirrels eat nuts.” Even though the relationships lose some of their dynamic power when rendered in two dimensions, the resultant forms clearly illustrate the complexity of the natural environment. A quote from Jane Jacobs is used to relate this natural complexity to healthy urban growth: “Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration.”

Mannahatta’s modeled reality is a harmonious vision that showcases the best of nature’s resilience and abundance. Here, sylvan ecologies synergistically combine to create a gentle mythology of the island’s natural history. There is no Sisyphean struggle between creation and destruction. As I viewed this algorithmically derived Arcadia, I couldn’t help but wonder how much different the images and the exhibition would be if the true depths of the growth and decay cycles that govern the forms of nature were plumbed, as the artist Robert Smithson did when he pictured himself one million years ago, “alone on the vast glacier covering Central Park.”

In the silence, he wrote, one would not sense the glacier’s “slow, crushing, scrapping, ripping movement as it advanced south, leaving great masses of rock debris in its wake. Under the frozen depths where the carousel now stands, you would not notice the effect on the bedrock as the glacier moved itself along.” Smithson’s vision, carefully documented with historical and Polaroid images of Central Park, oscillates between creation and destruction. Though a less nominally beautiful vision of nature, Smithson’s embrace of destruction as the necessary seedbed for a lively, diverse, and creative growth is perhaps more truthful.

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Protest: Lisa Kersavage
The Municipal Art Society's counter proposal for Admiral's Row, which retains all possible historic buildings.
Courtesy MAS

It has been a rough few weeks for Admiral’s Row, a collection of historic buildings on the edge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In response to the Yard’s plans to purchase the land and demolish all the historic buildings—making way for a Fairway-sized grocery store and other retail and industrial uses—the Army National Guard Bureau recently recommended that only two of eleven historic structures must be preserved. That is far fewer than the Municipal Art Society and other groups like the National Trust for Historic Preservation had recommended. And on June 19, one of the buildings, Quarters C, collapsed after a month of unusually heavy rain.

The Row’s future may look grim, but the Municipal Art Society of New York remains optimistic that it is still possible to preserve and reuse more than two of these remarkable buildings. Despite the collapse of Quarters C—an outrage given the National Guard’s mandate to protect these historic resources—the Guard’s own studies show that most of the other buildings are structurally sound and can be rehabilitated. And MAS has developed six site plans that show it is possible to preserve the buildings and also provide the community with a grocery store it so sorely needs. In other words, there is no need to choose between preservation and produce.

At the heart of our plan is a respect for the Row’s irreplaceable historic fabric. Located at Flushing Avenue and Navy Street, the site includes 10 houses, constructed from the mid-19th century until 1901, which housed high-ranking naval officers until the early 1970s. An adjacent timber shed dates from the 1830s, and is believed to be the only mid-19th-century survivor of this building type among Navy yards throughout the United States. Long and narrow, the shed’s form made it ideal for storing ship masts as they cured.

Together, these residential and naval service buildings are incredibly significant to the Navy Yard, the borough of Brooklyn, and the history of the U.S. Navy. Although Admiral’s Row and the timber shed have been allowed to deteriorate for forty years, they retain a great deal of both exterior and interior architectural detail. In fact, a National Guard report found that the Admiral’s Row district retains an extremely high level of historic integrity.

The structures were used and maintained by the Navy until the 1970s, when the Navy Yard was closed. New York City subsequently purchased the majority of the Yard from the federal government, with the exception of this parcel. The National Guard now wants to sell this property to the city, which will lease the land to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation.

The Guard’s recommendation that only two of the eleven historic buildings be preserved stems from the Section 106 process, which is a federally-mandated review that requires federal agencies to study the impact of their actions upon important historic buildings. As part of the process, the Navy Yard disclosed their plans to develop the site with a 65,000-square-foot grocery store (approximately the size of the Fairway in Red Hook), a large surface parking lot for at least 300 cars, and additional retail and industrial space on the site. Throughout the process, Navy Yard officials have maintained that they can only proceed with the development if they demolish all of the historic buildings.

While MAS agreed with the Navy Yard and local residents that a grocery store was needed in the area, we did not agree that the best plan was to create a suburban-style store set in a sea of parking. Given that the historic buildings occupy about 25 percent of the six-acre site, we were certain that alternatives could be sought that allowed for both preservation and development.

Last fall, MAS—a consulting party in the Section 106 process—presented six different alternative plans, demonstrating that it is possible to retain the historic buildings while also allowing for the construction of the supermarket and new retail and industrial space. By reconfiguring or reducing the parking, and shifting the location of the new buildings, a greener and more pedestrian-friendly site could be achieved.

These plans were developed after a visioning session in which community representatives, architects, preservationists, and others came together to brainstorm about ways to save the buildings while furthering the needs of the community and the mission of the Navy Yard. We worked to not only preserve as many buildings as possible, but to promote sustainability and foster small businesses and new employment opportunities. Renderings produced by Andrew Burdick of the studio collaborative and Architecture for Humanity New York illustrated the stark differences between the concept behind one of MAS’s alternatives and the Navy Yard proposal.

So we were disappointed when, on May 27, the National Guard released its recommendation calling for preservation of only the timber shed and one of the houses, Building B. While these are two of the most significant buildings, preserving only two is inadequate. The Guard has made it clear that the preservation of these two buildings is a minimum requirement, and MAS will continue to advocate for more preservation. We are also calling on the National Guard to take three specific steps to help balance preservation and development interests.

Most urgently, the Guard must stabilize the buildings. MAS had known that the collapsed Quarters C, unlike most other Admiral’s Row buildings, had major structural problems due to a fire. That said, we are disappointed that the Guard had not better secured the buildings to protect them from further damage from the elements. The Guard must make necessary repairs to stabilize the 19th-century structures as the process of deciding the buildings’ future moves forward.

Secondly, the National Guard is required by law to sell the land to the city at fair market value—an amount that has not been made public. MAS has argued that requiring the retention and rehabilitation of the buildings will lower the fair market value, thereby freeing up money for the Navy Yard to renovate the historic buildings. We have asked the National Guard to explore this possibility.

Finally, the Guard should require an RFP that incorporates the preservation of more historic buildings. Once the Guard announced their proposed mitigation of preserving two buildings, the Navy Yard moved to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for development of a grocery store on the site. That RFP will be released within the next two months, and will call for the construction of a 40,000-square-foot grocery store (smaller than originally proposed), an employment center, and additional industrial space, as well as the retention and renovation of the two historic buildings. MAS believes the RFP must include the preservation of more buildings.

None of our work in developing alternative plans would have been possible without volunteer support from architects and developers. And now we need help again. During the RFP process, MAS hopes to identify developers who would consider preserving more of the buildings. We also would like to provide potential responders with practical information on how additional historic buildings can be integrated into new development on the site. We could use expert assistance in developing revised site plans specifically tailored to the information provided in the RFP, and aid in identifying tax credits and financial incentives to help fund the preservation of these buildings.

The Municipal Art Society will continue to advocate for New York’s architectural heritage. We strongly believe that more of these very significant historic buildings can be retained and incorporated into this development. Our fight is far from over. We welcome your expertise and advice as our important work continues.

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Nobody at the Wheel

Grim news awaits public projects and the professionals who want to contract for them. Even when New York gets its state government back, the state will be operating without permanent chiefs at its key transportation and development agencies. That impasse, while more bureaucratic in nature than the June 8 coup in the state senate, means little is likely to occur on major development initiatives until 2011


Governor David Paterson
 
FOrmer MTA Director Elliott Sander
 
Former Development Chief MArisa LavGo
 
Courtesy New York State; NY1; Tracy Collins
 

Well before Governor David Paterson lost control of the senate, many of his appointees had already fled their positions. Today, the heads of New York State’s Department of Transportation, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Empire State Development Corporation are all working under interim status. MTA executive director Elliott G. Sander quit hours after the state legislature narrowly approved a flawed bailout package on May 7. The ESDC’s chief, Marisa Lago, stepped down on June 6. Both agencies steer the fate of Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards, two stalled development sites, and of broader transit spending.

The rush to the exits, said Regional Plan Association analyst Neysa Pranger, “is coming at a very bad time,” since Congress will draft a new appropriations plan for federal transportation grants this fall, and the state will vote on long-term capital plans around the same time. “For the MTA, there aren’t that many candidates out there who qualify, and it’s even harder because the governor is not attractive to work for right now.”

Assuming that the senate resumes its business by early July, it remains doubtful that any of these agencies will have a new head before the gubernatorial election in 2010. Longtime Albany-watchers hesitate even to toss out names. Howard Roberts, head of New York City Transit, scores high marks from advocates. (So did Sander.) Transit chiefs from San Francisco and Atlanta, also well-regarded, seem unlikely to accept a job that may end with Paterson’s in January 2011.

This means big projects will continue without the expertise or the leadership to make them quick or transparent. Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the New York Public Interest Group and head of the Straphangers Campaign, said the refinancing of Atlantic Yards, approved at an MTA board meeting on June 24, will probably be as opaque as any deal the MTA cut before the reformist Sander arrived. Russianoff said interim head Helena Williams seems interested in transparency, but also lacks authority to impose it. “She has limited wiggle room,” Russianoff explained.

Taken further, this stasis hurts the region. When lawmakers vote on capital plans, they may privilege roads and bridges over transit. Deals like the East Side Access project to bring Long Island Railroad commuters to Grand Central Terminal have stalwart advocates and will survive. But the absence of persuasive managers will shrink the scope of transit and transit-focused development, say experts. “The federal dance that goes on requires somebody with the ability to look ahead,” said Pranger. That quality is lacking in Paterson’s Albany.

 

A version of this article appeared in AN 12_07.08.2009.

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Abandoning CAMP
WRNS's proposal for the Contemporary Art Museum of the Presidio, which attempted to disturb the historic fabric as little as possible.
Courtesy WRNS

In an announcement Wednesday, Gap founder Donald Fisher said he was withdrawing his plan for a contemporary art museum in the Presidio’s Main Post. Ever since Fisher first unveiled the renderings of a luminous white box by New York’s Richard Gluckman in 2007, the plan has met with fierce opposition by preservationists, who have objected to a modern building on the historic parade grounds.

Despite several iterations of a new design by San Francisco’s WRNS Studio, which took over the commission from Gluckman and sunk much of the 100,000-square-foot museum below ground, while attempting to make the above-ground portion look like a glass pavilion, it wasn’t enough to quell the dissent.

Gluckman Mayner's proposal, which mirrored the geometries of historic quarters along the Presidio parade ground.
Courtesy Gluckman Mayner

“It’s become clear over the course of the two years that the Main Post wasn’t going to be a good fit,” said Dana Polk, spokeswoman for the Presidio. The decision was influenced by a report issued in April by the National Park Service, which stated that “the new construction will dominate the head of the Main Parade and will negatively impact the setting, feeling, association and historic character of the property.”

According to Alex Tourk, the Fishers’ spokesman, the family is still considering three alternative sites in the Presidio—the Commissary (a building in Crissy Field that is the preferred location for a museum under the 2002 Presidio Trust management plan), an area south of Moraga Avenue (across the street from the current location) and Fort Scott (an open field in the northwest corner of the Presidio)—while also looking at other potential sites in the city and other municipalities. The project, budgeted at $150 million, was also going to include $10 million to turn the parade grounds into open space.

 

 

 

 

Several proposals including one exhibited at 3a Gallery (above, left) and  WRNS's (above, right) sought to hide at least part of their mass below ground, to no avail.
Courtesy 3A Gallery, Wrns

“Mr. Fisher is passionate about the Presidio and leaving his collection as a legacy to the city,” said Tourk. He also said that the Fishers were “thrilled” with the work of WRNS Studio and had no plans to change architects.

The announcement came after the second round of public comments on the environmental impact report closed on June 1; the final report is scheduled for the fall. Other proposals for the 120-acre Main Post are continuing to move forward: a lodge along the eastern edge, the restoration of the historic movie theatre, and a new heritage center. And early this fall, another museum will be opening at the Main Post—the Walt Disney Family Museum, in a former army barracks building renovated by Page & Turnbull.

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Schrager in Chicago
Ian Schrager is coming to Chicago. Crain's reports that the hotelier, known for his high design boutique properties, is looking to buy and renovate the Ambassador East and it’s famous restaurant, the Pump Room. The Gold Coast hotel was built in 1926 has 285 rooms. The restaurant was a hangout for actors and musicians passing through Chicago and is mentioned in songs by Judy Garland and Phil Collins, who titled his album “No Jacket Required” after the Pump Room’s dress code. Perhaps Schrager will hire Peter Zumthor to redesign the hotel.
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A Park Fit For Queens
A rendering of the new park, with apartment towers rising behind it.
ARUP, Thomas Balsley, Weiss/Manfredi/Courtesy NYC EDC

As if developing affordable housing were not hard enough, carving out a slice for middle- and moderate-income New Yorkers is even harder. The Hunter’s Point South project was developed largely to address that problem, and with the city’s acquisition of the 30-acre spit of land just south of the Queensboro Bridge today—along with the release of new plans for the complex’s 11 acres of waterfront open space—this community-in-the-making can move forward.

“With the acquisition of the site and the start of the design work,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said in a statement, “we are setting the stage for the largest investment in permanently affordable housing for our police officers, nurses, teachers and public employees and other middle income New Yorkers.”

The city’s Economic Development Corporation paid $100 million to the Empire State Development Corporation and the Port Authority for the land. It will house dozens of apartment towers similar to those at the Queens West development to the north. Of the 5,000 units that will be created, roughly 60 percent will be affordable, targeted to New Yorkers making between $55,000 and $158,000.

The concept plan for the new park. (Click to Enlarge)
ARUP, Thomas Balsley, Weiss/Manfredi/Courtesy NYC EDC

The project sits on the former site of the Daily News’ printing plant. Originally planned as the third and fourth phases of Queens West, the project stalled during the early ‘90s recession. Revived by the mayor as part of the city’s 2012 Olympic bid, it was later repurposed for affordable housing, and the 30-acre site was rezoned last year.

A key part of the plan is reconnecting Queens with its formerly industrial waterfront. To this end the city hired landscape architecture firm Thomas Balsley Associates, who have brought on Weiss/Manfredi as co-designers of the waterfront parkland. Arup is responsible for all engineering on the site, as well as project management.

“It’s nice to bring a park like this anywhere, but especially nice to bring it to an underserved corner of Queens,” Thomas Balsley said in a telephone interview. The architect happens to have experience in the area, as he developed the open space plan for Queens West.

Balsley described the new park as a seemless progression from the man-made to the natural, as it transitions from open recreational fields, concession stands, and an urban beach into lagoons and picnic lawns. But rather than create signage making these uses explicit, the designers are taking a more intuitive approach, letting the landscape direct the users. There is also a linear park that reaches up one of the central streets, creating a clear link between the park and its new neighborhood and helping to drawn residents in.

Details of the Promontory and Linear Park, with conceptual inspiration.
 
 
The Green, a massive ovoid lawn, will be a focal point, while the playground and basketball courts located just north, in the Grove, will be dotted with trees to emphasize a remove from the city beyond. To the south are tighter paths and more passive recreation. A small peninsula is where native species begin to take over, leading to a 25-foot-high promontory created by infill originally trucked in to make space for the printing plant. “That’s an elevation one does not experience in any park on the East River, so we wanted to keep it intact,” Balsley said.

While most of the park’s waterfront edges will be protected, get-downs will allow direct access to the water. In at least two places, paths will be built up to provide observation decks, as will the roof of the multi-use building just to the Green’s south. On the southern tip, at the mouth of Newtown Creek, will be a kayak launch. Balsley said the mix of uses would be similar to those in his work on Riverside Park South.

“We’re not dictating much,” Balsley said. “We think people find their own spots, and our job is to set the stage for that to happen.