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For Buildings Commissioner, Demand the Real Thing

Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn introduced more than a dozen pieces of legislation targeted at reforming the beleaguered Department of Buildings. Much of the legislation had been introduced last month, prior to last Friday’s crane accident, but among the new initiatives was one of great concern for the city’s designers and for its residents as a whole.

The administration has been trying for some months to alter the requirement that the Buildings Commissioner be a professional engineer or registered architect. The mayor contends that it provides necessary flexibility for running a bureaucracy of the city’s own making, and the mainstream press has begun to agree with him.

As architects and engineers well know, this is fallacious logic, writes Fredric Bell, executive director of AIA New York, in a Protest column in our forthcoming issue. AN presents his argument in full below.

There are 41,000 professional engineers (PEs) and registered architects (RAs) in New York State. One of them should be the next commissioner of the New York City Buildings Department, replacing Patricia Lancaster, an architect who resigned in April.

Some in New York’s City Hall are questioning whether a professional license is needed or even desirable to effectively run the largest and most complex buildings bureaucracy in the country. In answer, architects and engineers have sent mailbags full of letters and emails to the City Council chambers to explain why—with safety concerns on our sidewalks paramount—now is not the time to relax the professional qualifications needed for this difficult job.

Noting that the Surgeon General must be a doctor, and that the Architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., should be an architect (although that, too, is currently being questioned by a congressional oversight committee), registered architects and professional engineers were heard chanting “No PEs, no justice” on the steps of City Hall in late May. The commissioner of the Department of Buildings must have the knowledge and experience that comes from being a registered architect or professional engineer. The current city law, which requires this level of tested expertise, is both logical and necessary.

Members of the Council’s Governmental Operations Committee heard many of the reasons why the head of the agency that guarantees safety on construction sites must be trained and tested in how buildings come together, how they rise, and how they stand. The process by which an architect or engineer becomes licensed by the state of New York is arduous, arguably harder than passing the state bar exam. It tests comprehensive knowledge of codes, zoning, building practices, and environmental standards, to name but four of the many constituent issues that are important in neighborhoods from Co-op City to Gravesend, from Midwood to Central Harlem, from Ozone Park to East New York.

Professional architects and engineers have an unparalleled combination of education, on-the-job training, licensure, and professional experience that makes them uniquely qualified to ensure the safety and security of the public. Professional architects and engineers understand the integration of structural, technological, and life-safety elements into buildings to assure their usefulness. Through their training and practice, they are capable of balancing the requirements of building codes with the goals of historic preservation, energy efficiency, sustainability, and accessibility.

In addition to technical training, architects and engineers, by law, are personally responsible for their work and have a fiduciary responsibility to maintain the health, safety, and welfare of the public. As licensed professionals, architects and engineers bring to the task a special degree of commitment crucial to the position of buildings commissioner.

This year, after long deliberations, New York City brought a new and modern building code to fruition, replacing rules mired in 19th-century construction practices. At the same time, in many neighborhoods, people have questioned whether some of the taller buildings going up fit into the context of their communities, and whether development pressures and the city’s double-digit growth have led in some instances to deliberate misinterpretation of zoning regulations. We need an architect or engineer at the head of the department who will interpret and enforce the city’s zoning codes, guaranteeing that political pressures and expediency do not engender neighborhood-busting mistakes.

Mayor Bloomberg’s administration and his friends in the City Council have pushed for progressive reform of Buildings Department operations, enforcement, and communications, insisting that building practices be forcefully regulated and made more transparent. The former commissioner, Ms. Lancaster, to her credit, got Buildings Department records out of dusty boxes and posted on the city’s website for all to see. We need an architect or engineer at the head of the department who will provide our communities appropriate scale and comfort, someone who knows about the economic and material determinants of buildings, not just how to manage a large and complicated bureaucracy.

Most importantly, through a wide variety of environmental initiatives including PlaNYC, our elected officials have insisted that New York City attain a greener future and carbon-footprint reduction by, among other things, regulating building materials and construction processes. An architect or engineer at the head of the department will enforce these laws—not just spout greenwash rhetoric—and assure our children and our children’s children that future buildings will help, not hurt, the environment.

There are some, though, in City Hall who insist that the business of New York is business; that any agency, any department, can be run like a Fortune 500 company. They say that good management skills are more important than mere credentials, stale tradition, or a philosophy that knowledge matters. They are half right. This is not about tradition, or a return to the bow-tied past. This is not about credentials or elitism or silly glasses. This is all about professionalism, and the knowledge needed for the person heading the Buildings Department to make the tough decisions when there is nobody else to call, nobody else to consult.

You would not want your kids treated by doctors who learned their medical skills by watching Grey’s Anatomy on television, nor public defenders and district attorneys who learned their legal skills from reading John Grisham novels. You want the real thing for a Health Commissioner and for the public counsel. Just so, you would not want the person who oversees all aspects of zoning, site safety, and the quality of construction in our city to have borrowed his or her word choice from management case studies at Harvard Business School or Brooklyn College.

We need the real thing for our Buildings Commissioner. And New York needs a Buildings Commissioner who not only knows how the government operates, but how buildings stand up.

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Park Problem
Historic Sutter's Fort in Sacramento
Robert English

Although it’s charged with protecting monuments like historic Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento (pictured), the entire California state park system has been listed as one of 11 endangered sites by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The annual list, which has brought attention to over 200 locations since 1988, names places known for their architectural, historical or cultural significance that are in danger of destruction or damage.

Chronic underfunding currently plagues the parks system with only 40% of annual operating costs covered. Extreme budget cuts, including a $13.3 million slash by Governor Schwarzenegger earlier this year ($11.8 million of which was restored in May) have resulted in over $1.2 million in maintenance deferment, which not only ignores proper care of historic buildings, but also structures like campground facilities, many of which have yet to be modernized. California’s is the largest state park system in the country with 278 parks covering 1.5 million acres and 295 miles of oceanfront.

The 2008 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places (in
alphabetical order):

Boyd Theatre, Philadelphia, Pa.

California's State Parks

Charity Hospital and the adjacent neighborhood, New Orleans, La.

Great Falls Portage, Great Falls, Mont.

Hangar One, Moffett Field, Santa Clara County, Calif.

The Lower East Side, New York City

Michigan Avenue Streetwall, Chicago, Ill.

Peace Bridge Neighborhood, Buffalo, N.Y.

The Statler Hilton Hotel, Dallas, Tx.

Sumner Elementary School, Topeka, Kan.

Vizcaya and the Bonnet House, Fla.


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Unveiled: Beekman Tower
Frank Gehry's 76-story Beekman Tower will be among the latest to rival the Woolworth Building on the Lower Manhattan skyline.
Artefactory/Courtesy Forest City Ratner Companies

At a sparsely attended press conference today, near the busy construction site, Frank Gehry talked up his first Manhattan residential tower, a structure that is already two stories out of the ground on Spruce Street near City Hall Park.

The event had been cancelled out of respect for the fallen crane on the Upper East Side, but a few journos still showed up for the white-glove event, where mini-burgers, filet mignon crudités, and even cotton candy were served. Ensconced near a table of chiseled Plexiglas models showing the family of reject towers, Gehry seemed more interested in the appetizers than the main event: himself and Beekman Tower.

Renderings depict a gleaming, stainless steel–clad skyscraper of the old school with muscular—almost six-pack-style—undulations rolling up its 76-story sides and setbacks that, Gehry said, “respect the New York building type.” In spite of the shiny envelope, the 1.1-million-square-foot Beekman Tower is not all luxury: the 903 studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments (from 500 square feet to 1,600 square feet) are all market-rate rentals, a rarity among new buildings in Manhattan. Gehry said that he would have liked to use titanium, but it seems that the wonder material is too fragile for New York window-washing equipment. A six-story industrial brick podium (Gehry said to think “Starrett-Lehigh”) will include space for a 630-student public school for grades Pre-K through 3; offices for doctors from New York Downtown Hospital; and 1,300 square feet of retail, for dry cleaners and drug stores, not Jean Georges and Chanel. Two plazas on William and Nassau streets will be landscaped by Field Operations. Gehry himself is still working out the details of the kitchen and bath designs, and the lobby will be beribboned with signature wavy bits of steel, reminding residents that they are indeed renting a real Gehry.

As questions about the tower petered out—Gehry himself said there was no architectural derring-do, just “a typical T-shaped apartment block and very efficient”—the conversation picked up when the architect answered a newsgal’s question about “green” with a spirited rejection of eco-friendly fashion. Features like gray water were often just a gimmick, he said, adding that photovoltaics were too ugly and expensive to use all the time.

Asked about his friend and developer Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, and whether he would ever pull out, Gehry declaimed loudly: No! He did admit, however, that he was taking the long view on a project that might require 20 years to complete. “And I am 79 years old,” he added. “So who knows what that means?”

Architect: Frank O. Gehry
Client/Developer: Forest City Ratner Companies
Location: 8 Spruce Street
Completion: 2011

Gallery: Beekman Tower

all images artefactory/courtesy Forest City Ratner unless otherwise noted

Oh, what might have been: Frank Gehry's study models on display at the Beekman Tower unveiling.
Julie V. Iovine



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Not Again
The damage done.
All Photos by Matt Chaban 

There is no question that today’s crane accident—the second in about as many months, leading to the 14th and 15th construction fatalities so far this year—is a horrible tragedy. And yet from his remarks today at the site of the collapse, Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed to be suggesting that what happened was merely the cost of doing business.

“Keep in mind construction will always be a dangerous business,” Bloomberg said at a press briefing only a few hundred feet from the tangled mess of debris that lay broken in the intersection of First Avenue and East 91st Street. “Now two crane collapses may look like a pattern, but there is no reason to believe so. We have to have a balance [between safety and expediency] to be able to build in this city.”

Two days earlier, the Department of Buildings released [.PDF] “Revised Protocols for Erecting and Dismantling (Including Jumping) Tower Cranes.” It was a revision of new regulations put in place on March 25, following the first crane accident ten days earlier. The thing is, it did not help much. As Robert LiMandri, the acting commissioner of the increasingly beleaguered DOB, said earlier this morning, all protocols had been followed.

“There was a pre-installation meeting of all the parties concerned, that was on 4/17,” LiMandri told the press. “Three days later, erection began, and department engineers and inspectors were on hand as the crane went up on 4/20 and 4/21. The crane was jumped twice, on 4/22 and 4/27, and it was inspected both times by our engineers.” A flurry of questions followed, the refrain remained, “We’ll have to look into that.”

Everyone—an army of officials and politicians, hordes of local, national, and international reporters, and onlookers both from within the damaged building, 354 East 91st Street, and without—were left scratching their heads. If everything was up to code, then what went wrong?

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer was short on explanations but long on solutions. “I think the Buildings commissioner has done a good job, but he needs more help,” Stringer told AN, just as a woman passed by wearing a dust mask. “We need to have an agency-wide strike force to address these persistent issues.”

Many who lived in the building wore masks in an apparent state of constant fear, or at least uneasiness. One woman, who gave her name simply as Carrie and was leaving the scene with her boyfriend, said that when they felt the building, 354 East 91st Street, shudder from their bedroom on the 18th floor, they immediately knew the cause. “We stare every day out our window at that thing,” she said, referring to the crane. “We used to wave to the guy in the cab. We all knew it was only a matter of time before it came down.”

Another woman, who lives on the seventh floor and was wearing a Princeton ’94 baseball cap, took a slightly more sardonic view of the situation. “I look at it like in The World According to Garp,” she said. “You know, where the plane flies into the building, and he says, ‘We have to live there. It’ll never happen again.’” She added that her biggest concern was making sure her pets and those of her neighbors were okay.

While the deaths of the two construction workers is terrible news, it is also fortunate the accident was not more devastating, like March's, which destroyed an entire five-story walk-up and killed seven. At one point, LiMandri was quick to point out that the crane spared busy First Avenue and countless lives as a result. Then again, and for the second time, it also spared the building that led to the accident.

Tony Avella, the Queens City Council member and frequent critic of the Department of Buildings and the Bloomberg administration, said in a phone interview that nothing had changed since the last accident, and he remains skeptical that it ever will.

“We have to send a message to the construction companies and the developer that we’re not going to stand for this anymore,” said Avella, a candidate for mayor for whom development reform is at the heart of his candidacy. “I don’t know what else to do at this point. I really think we just have to shut everything down. Shut them down until they can prove that this will never happen again.”

Such a proposal could be considered anathema to the development-first Bloomberg administration, but that is pretty much what happened, when LiMandri requested that all tower cranes forgo work over the weekend, with all Kodiak models—the same as the one that fell today—ceasing indefinitely. He also called an emergency meeting of industry leaders for tomorrow morning.

Before he arrived on the scene, Mayor Bloomberg was hosting his weekly radio show. While discussing the accident, he declared, "Nobody wants this economy to grow more than me, but we’re not going to kill people." Maybe there is hope for change after all.

Matt Chaban

The streets surrounding 335 East 91st Street, a development known as the Azure, were swarming with emergency responders after the cab of a crane working on the project fell into a neighboring building, 354 East 91st Street.
A half-dozen news helicopters were dispatched to survey the damage.
Across the street, two inspectors have a look of their own.


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Strength of Character
Courtesy BASF
Konstantin Grcic/Plank
Technology and design coalesce in Konstantin Grcic’s Myto cantilever chair produced by Plank. Using a new plastic from BASF, Grcic was able to conceive the chair as one monoblock with a supporting frame structure and perforated seat and back that convey the feeling of flexibility typical of cantilever chairs. Stackable, the chair comes in eight colors: black, white-gray, traffic red, pure orange, gray, yellow green, aubergine, and light blue. Grcic’s passion for technology and materials is showcased here along with his interest in detail and high performance.
François Russo/Poltrona Frau
Fellini would feel at home in this makeover of the classic director’s chair, which reinvents old-school wood and canvas with modern flair. The fixed steel frame is clad in glacier-white Corian, while armrests and cross brace are of reflective chromed metal. In place of canvas, a saddle-leather seat and backrest are sturdily secured with a clever system of stitch-like connectors. Dedicated to the late Jacques Helleu, Chanel’s artistic director for more than four decades, this chair melds simplicity and luxury, as evident in its finely worked leather—available in Conero red, dove gray, blue, coffee, and olive. 
Spoon Table
Antonio Citterio/Kartell
Cramped New York apartments need not stint on style with the arrival of this studio-sized folding table. With a white, melamine laminate honeycomb top that is just over half-an-inch thick, this lightweight piece can be easily demounted via its foldable knee mechanism. High-tech materials continue in the molded, bi-component legs, which are made of modified polypropylene aluminum in sharp colors (like fetching day-glo orange). Named in the spirit of Citterio’s Spoon Chair—which brought a snazzy glamour to office cubicles—this table does likewise for space-starved urbanites. And at more than six feet in length, it’ll seat six with room to spare. 
Riccardo Blumer and Matteo Borghi/Alias
Designed as an urban furnishing for public plazas, gardens, or backyards, this modular seating system is built to sprawl. It can snake around trees, roll in waves across lawns, or lock step in bench-like ranks. The basic module consists of a closed-frame, ergonomic chair, with 11 tapering ribs that shape its seat and back. With mirror-image modules and constructed of lamellar wrought iron, these heavy-duty chairs are built to last, with durable, exterior-grade finishes. And if you’re alone in a crowd, they also do just fine as a single seat.
Frame Chair
Wouter Scheubin/Established & Sons
Only four years old, Established & Sons has already made a name for itself and for its unerring knack in identifying new British and now also European talent. The Frame Chair, designed by Dutch designer Wouter Scheubin, owes a bit of its angularity to Rietveld but is also cleverly engineered. Belonging to his “Walking Furniture” series that explores the mechanics of motion, the chair is made of beech laths assembled to support an oak-veneered plywood seat and backrest.
Wyssem Nochi
Inspired by space-time travel, Lebanese designer Wyssem Nochi crafted this table with a funnel-shaped column whose form is borrowed from astrophysics. The designer’s flair for spatial flows stems from his career as an architect and urban designer who studied at the AA in London and Parsons in New York. With a sleek Corian skin, the Wormhole holds its own in Nochi’s quirky line of limited editions and one-offs.
Double Bottle Table
Barber & Osgerby/Cappellini
Long, sleek, and ultra-modern, Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby’s Double Bottle Table produced by Cappellini successfully combines innovative design with familiar forms. Part of a line of single bottle tables that have won international design acclaim, this latest version multiplies a singular element, the bottle, extending the size of the table to eight feet long and three feet wide. Rectangular in shape, the table connects to the two bottle bases with a simple yet resistant conical joint. A central element of furniture for any dining area, Double Bottle is available in white Calacatta marble or black Marquinia marble.
Mr. Impossible
Philippe Starck/Kartell
Bad-boy designer Philippe Starck may have inspired this chair’s moniker, but the official story goes like this: Tasked with creating a chair that would dazzlingly float in mid-air, Starck and his crack team at Kartell turned to advanced plastics technology to realize the impossible polycarbonate dream. This marvel of organic good looks is created by indestructibly welding two oval shapes together—the transparent frame and the seat—with a state-of-the-art laser process that sets off beguiling visual effects. The seat is available in both opaque or translucent versions, while the circular, transparent legs complete the sensation of a pearlescent shell in suspension.
Nine-0 Chair
Ettore Sottsass/Emeco
The Italian designer Ettore Sottsass, who died on December 31 at age 90, was the first to recognize the generic beauty of Emeco’s aluminum 1006 Navy chair, taking it out of its place as standard issue for submarines and government offices and putting it in homes and stores in the 1980s. A few years ago upon telling Emeco that this was the one chair he wished he had designed himself, Sottsass was invited to remake it his way. And so he did, giving the iconic metal shape a more forgiving polyurethane seat in five bright colors, including red and orange, that are as life-affirming as the designer himself. He also created a swivel armchair version.
Konstantin Grcic/Cassina
Gently curved and seemingly smooth, Konstantin Grcic’s wooden armchair, Kanu, exemplifies perfect form. German industrial designer Grcic teamed with Italian manufacturer Cassina to create this basin-shaped, plywood seat that is deceptively simple. Two molds—one for the frame, the other for the seat—were required to accommodate the different curvatures required for the back and seat support. Minimal in its design and available in white, black, and brown, the chair seems two-dimensional but relies on an interplay of conical volumes. Together, Grcic and Cassina create an impeccable icon of good design through careful crafting and state-of-the-art industrial technology.
Surface Table
Terence Woodgate & John Barnard/Established & Sons
With radius corners that pour into rounded legs, this nearly 10-foot-long carbon fiber dining table is as slim and uniform as it can be at only .08 inches thick at the edge. From British producer Established & Sons, the Surface Table was designed by Terence Woodgate, an industrial designer, and John Barnard, a racing car engineer who has worked for Ferrari and McLaren. (Barnard’s Ferrari 641 is in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.) According to Woodgate, the idea behind the design was “in taking the form of a normal table, one with legs at each corner, as far as we possibly could. It became a search for perfection.”
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Charles Warren Callister, 1917-2008

Charles Warren Callister died in Novato, California on April 3. Although he grew up in New York, Florida, Ohio, and Texas, he finally settled in San Francisco, making a name for himself as a preeminent postwar California architect. As a teenager, Callister studied art at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, leading to the formal study of architecture, art, and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1941, drafted into the Army, he helped build the Alcan Highway in Alaska with the Corps of Engineers and later served as a pilot in the Army Air Corps.

After World War II, Callister, his wife Mary Frances, and their two sons moved to Northern California, where he and his former Texas classmate Jack Hillmer (1918-2007) established an architectural practice. They were both active in Telesis, an organization of architects, planners, and artists charged with optimism, idealism, and an ambition to take part in creating a better world. Their first project, the Hall House in Kentfield (1947), was designed with rough redwood recycled from a stable and built on a post-tensioned concrete slab, considered to be the first residential application of that new technology in the United States. The house attracted national recognition in both the professional and popular press.

In 1950, Callister established an independent practice just across the Golden Gate in Tiburon, which expanded to an east coast office in Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1960s. The firm designed custom houses, churches, and entire communities, winning many awards, including the National Lumberman’s 1965 Wood Structure Design Award. In 1983, Callister received the prestigious San Francisco Art Commission Award of Honor. His most recognized designs are the Christian Science churches in Belvedere (1952) and Mill Valley (1955), California; the Mills College Chapel (1958) in Oakland, California; and the UC Santa Cruz Field House (1955). Rossmoor (1964), a retirement community in Walnut Creek, California, gained the firm national attention. Warren was an early pioneer among architects, bringing high-level design into major housing developments and new communities. Callister’s design partners included Jack Hillmer, Jack Payne, Jim Bischoff; David Gately, Michael Heckmann. Most recently, he worked with Barry Peterson on a church in Capitola, California, now under construction.

Callister’s design process depended on walking the site and listening, a technique he learned from the photographer Minor White, who had chronicled the Hall House extensively in 1947. “You leave yourself open and it all starts flooding in. You’re listening for more than superficial things. The most powerful things come in when you listen. You have to find the architecture, you don’t come to it preconceived,” Callister once said, later writing: “From the beginning, the really great interest for me has been in the development of an architecture that is as free of style and trends as I can possibly achieve. The great lesson to be discovered in the Bay region lies in the shared response of clients and associates to the social, spiritual, and natural environment in creating together appropriate designs that belong to the natural environment and that are rooted in the nature of the clients. I believe, even more so now than in the beginning, that unique and appropriate architectural design is inherent in the process of working and designing and building with others, in actually generating the architecture wherever it is.” 

Dead End

It has been a long, winding road this last year for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan. After passing numerous speed bumps on its way to Albany, the plan has been halted yet again by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

With a midnight deadline set by the Department of Transportation to pass the plan or forgo $354 million in federal funds, Silver announced this afternoon that there would be no vote on the mayor’s proposal. Congestion pricing, at least for the time being, has reached a dead end. 

After the City Council supported the mayor’s plan on March 31 by an unusually close vote of 30 to 20, the question all week was whether it would gain the necessary support from Silver and Assembly Democrats, who put a hold on it last summer. That reluctance never broke. 

"The conference has decided that they are not prepared to do congestion pricing," Silver told reporters in Albany, according to The Associated Press. "Many members just don't believe in the concept. Many think this proposal is flawed. It will not be on the floor of the Assembly.” 

This leaves the proposal’s many supporters, and even some of its critics, preparing for the next step. Though many did not support one or another aspect of the plan to charge cars $8 and trucks $21 to enter Manhattan south of 60th Street during the weekday, those critics insisted throughout that they were not opposed to ending congestion or improving the environment. 

“The people that opposed this plan can’t go off and gloat and the people that supported it can’t go off and sulk,” Councilmember Lew Fidler, who falls into the former group, said. “We can’t turn our backs on each other. We have to find a fair and equitable solution.” 

Those who supported the plan sounded a solemn note but promised to persevere. “I don’t think anything will be as immediate or effective as congestion pricing, but I have a laundry list of ideas,” Straphanger’s Campaign attorney Gene Russianoff said. 

Kathryn Wilde, president of the Partnership for New York City, which released a report saying congestion cost the city $15 billion a year, said there was no better alternative for reducing congestion and funding public transportation. “It may not be today,” she said, “but congestion pricing is the ultimate answer to both problems and that will become clear eventually, as it has in other world cities.” 

The mayor’s plan had gained the support of Governor David Paterson and the leader of the Republican-led Senate, Joseph Bruno, though there were rumors that the plan was also due to fail in that house if it came to a vote. Still, it was ultimately Silver who brought down Bloomberg, much as he had with plans for a West Side stadium for the Olympics and the Jets. 

“The city never responded to our requests for meetings or information or anything,” Assemblymember Richard Brodsky said. Brodsky, a member of the state’s Congestion Mitigation Commission, said 80 percent of his democratic colleagues did not support the plan. The mayor has yet to respond to the Assembly’s decision. 

Russianoff said that despite the defeat of the proposal and the loss of the federal money, a new plan must be taken up, as on the West Side. “Too much work, and too much good work, has been done,” he said. “Traffic is often treated by New Yorkers like the weather. We have to change that. They have a future, and that future is without congestion.” 

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Restaurant Row
Michael Moran


Reuse was the motto in designing Sweetgreen, a grab-and-go yogurt and salad bar near Georgetown University. The owners procured a 500-square-foot burger franchise whose exteriors were inspired by Tudor cottages. CORE changed little on the outside except to turn the red roof green. On the interior, reclaimed hickory planks run from the door to the floor, walls, and ceiling; a custom stainless steel serving counter focuses attention on the nutritious offerings; and brightly-lit menu boards reinforce the fast-food motif. 



Inspired by Japanese torii gates, a series of passageways defines this sushi spot’s dining hall, arching across the ceiling and folding into shelves and table-bracing brackets. Laser-cut from cold-rolled steel, the gates were easily bolted together on site. A gun-blue patina and coat of butcher’s wax, all hand-finished, protect them from restaurant wear and tear, while offset columns create niche-like spaces near the bar. Atop the gates, embedded LED strips soften the room with ambient light.

second home


When you come down from your Rocky Mountain high, Second Home offers a cozy environment to thaw the chill. The designers blended rugged, continental-divide surfaces such as dry-stack stone walls and rough-hewn wood plank ceilings with more cosmopolitan design elements, including 1950s Italian chandeliers, graffiti-covered chairs, fin-de-siècle Viennese secessionist banquettes, and upholstered walls. A sultry, low-slung lounge and open-air patio with a 15-foot fire pit sum up the restaurant’s frontier chic.



Inserted within the 1917 Penny Savings Bank building, Banq gives the radical-ceiling motif a sleek update. For this upscale South End eatery, the designers turned the task of concealing mechanical systems into a design brief: Wooden slats rise up from the floor and flow across the ceiling in undulating patterns to express vents, plumbing, and lighting, all of which form a grotto-like canopy soaring above the dining room.



Working with Ivanka Trump, Joe Valerio has created a destination restaurant in the new SOM-designed Trump Hotel that’s all about the view. Named after the floor where the restaurant resides, Sixteen’s neutral palette—a limestone floor, amber glass ceiling, tan leather seating—keeps the eye focused outward on the bridges, lake, and landmark architecture like the nearby Wrigley Building. Divided into three dining areas, the restaurant draws on the iconography of the city rather than the flash of the Trump brand.

zeff smith


Putting a slicker face on the urban rustic trend that has ruled the city’s hipster dining scene, this East Village bistro summons the vibe of a New York social club: Behold a 40-foot zinc bar, custom ceiling lights fitted with antique glass lampshades, old subway tile walls, and classic Thonet-style dining chairs. The main room features photographs of Victorian nudes, while the party-room walls show images from vintage magazines and books that contain the name Smith.

cafe grumpy


City traffic flows in streams and pools in eddies. Brett Snyder of Cheng+Snyder and Guy Zucker of Z-A used that metaphor as a design template for Chelsea’s Café Grumpy. Stuffed into a typically tight New York storefront, the cafe is organized around a coffee bar of plywood blocks that divides the space into an in-out corridor and small inlets for seating. The understated blond wood and exposed brick interior focuses all the attention on the java. 

red egg


The Lower East Side and Chinatown have always been liminal spaces between Old World and New. Bridging that gap was the main challenge in designing Red Egg. Would it be a small-plates bar or a restaurant with an ample lounge? Fish tank or light installation? Openshop opted to embrace it all: The ceiling is adorned with a constellation of “88 lucky koi” light bulbs; the bar is flanked by communal tables; and banquettes in back allow for more secluded dining. 



Located in the St. Regis Hotel, Adour takes the idea of urban theater long associated with the hotel lobby and translates it into dining experience as public ritual. For Rockwell Group, that meant layers of luxurious textured craft, from a bronze-based bar with a parchment goatskin top to panels of antique seeded glass. The main dining room is fashioned after an elegant library, where temperature-controlled armoires display an extensive wine collection, and the furniture is upholstered, naturally, in wine-colored leather.



L’Ouest Express, conceived by super-chef Paul Bocuse and French designer Pierre-Yves Rochon, aims for a new concept in restaurants that would be an oxymoron in less expert hands: elegant fast-food dining. Opened in January in Lyon, the first L’Ouest Express has a clean look based on big curves, a duotone palette, and a flattering lighting system that could have been borrowed from the cosmetics department of a high-end department store. It’s an aesthetic bound to travel far and fast.



David Chang has built his burgeoning Momofuku empire by taking exquisite ingredients and making simple dishes from them—ramen, pork buns, and chicken wings. It could be said that Hiromi Tsuruta of Studio März has worked this magic in reverse. At Ko, he takes simple materials—plywood, halogen lamps, brushed slate, an artfully rusted metal grating—and creates a sleekly understated 12-seat bar that puts the food first while still offering a comfortable atmosphere for enjoying the restaurant’s only offering, a marathon seven-course meal.



Located atop a 24-story tower in the Boca Raton Resort and Club, Cielo overlooks ocean and sky on three sides. Patrons enter the space on a slight platform (the architects raised the elevator stop to eliminate the step up) to maintain an unobstructed view. Ceiling “clouds” are made from a variety of materials, including stretched, reflective white PVC. Most diners sit a tier below at glass-topped tables on white, motorcycle-leather-clad chairs. “At night, the building envelope nearly disappears,” said partner Carol Bentel. 



Dutch artist Menno Schmitz designed Merkato 55, the latest Meatpacking District food palace, with the same panache he brought to his silk screens of famous American jazz musicians and not-so-famous Dutch rock bands. Here, Schmitz recasts African art and design in a contemporary American restaurant. From the massive silk-screened portraits of Africa’s many nations to the beaded chandeliers, the space has an unmistakable African character that artfully avoids pastiche.




Company is AvroKO’s second foray in Las Vegas. Located in the Luxor Hotel, the space is the result of creative thinking after the client asked for a lodge-look. Literal not being AvroKO’s style, they deconstructed various big-country motifs—think toboggan blades and wooden skis—and stacked them to create screens between the main dining area and a floor-to-ceiling wine wall. Over-scaled light wheels made of iron brackets and translucent fabric update the notion of saloon chandeliers, and a grid of aspen trunks greets guests at the entrance.



Located in the Palmer House Hilton, Lockwood is hard by Millennium Park, making it a good watering hole for architecturally inclined visitors. An island bar unites the historic lobby and contemporary restaurant, while square amber shades enclose original Tiffany chandeliers. “We wanted to create a hybrid, to be complementary without trying to replicate,” said Jennifer Johanson, principal of EDG. “We think Bertha Palmer [who first helped plan the interior] would have wanted to be on the leading edge.”



A CNC-milled honeycomb forms the backdrop for this wine bar at New Brunswick’s Heldrich Hotel, its palette crafted to show off the beverage of honor. “For any material we chose, we tried to superimpose a glass of wine next to it to see if it would look good,” said principal Fadi Riscala. The bar itself, made of white quartz slabs from Kentucky-based supplier Rover, harmonizes with white-glass-tiled columns. Custom-designed chairs offer privacy without blocking views—of the wine rack, of course.



Bolts of crimson and cobalt lure patrons to this locale in a suburban mall: A red ceiling band and floors to match pull visitors toward a lacquer-red-tiled fireplace. Taking a detail from Skylab’s Doug Fir Lounge in Portland, sixty thousand linear feet of horizontal fir line the walls. In the restaurant, a backlit ceiling features pyramidal forms borrowed from Japanese screens, a motif with a witty twist in the stunning “blue room” and its wall of tiled sushi plates.



Evoking the fall harvest season, this wine bar makes use of American white oak, stained concrete, leather, and copper in a tonal and textural homage to vintners, growers, and distillers. The sculptural, double-sided bar creates a social nexus with flexible seating options, defined by varied ceiling heights and color-coded nooks. The compact design also neatly meets the client’s request that the restaurant be operated by as few as two people—one in the kitchen and one tending bar.



It is fitting that a slow food–as–fast food restaurant in the Mission District would find a former KFC for its home. Not only did KFC popularize the spoon-fork hybrid for which the restaurant is named, but Spork’s owners aim to reclaim hamburgers and fried chicken as wholesome food. Designer Eric Heid recycled many original KFC features for this “utilitarian diner.” The fryers’ stainless steel hood has been bolted to the ceiling as lighting, and the re-upholstered plywood booths are crisper versions of their predecessors.

lucky devils


Located in a storefront space in Hollywood, Lucky Devils presents a quintessential LA vibe, right down to the wallpaper showing a time-lapse night-shot image of Highway 101. The 2,000-square-foot space presents a clean, well-lit room with banquettes and plastic chairs from the Italian manufacturer Kartell. The ceiling is more animated, with dropped white panels for subliminal way-finding. Regulation track lighting bounces off crumpled, red paper to toss “flames” that reinforce the restaurant’s inferno-based name.



Housed in an old Pontiac dealer-ship, this 8,000-square-foot Gulf Coast seafood restaurant combined an existing building’s industrial vocabulary with polished accents. The architects then structured their palette around oysters: rough on the outside, shimmering on the inside. The exposed kitchen opens onto an expansive dining room of patched concrete floors and pearlescent tabletops lit by capiz shell chandeliers. Shades of sea green and a wavy plaster wall above the banquette complete the aquatic ambience.

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The Storytellers
At the Park Avenue [Season] Restaurant, snap-on upholstery, mountable wall panels, and pendant lamps can all be easily changed and stowed away until next year.
Michael Weber/Courtesy AvroKO

“We like to think of ourselves as the most open-minded clients we’re going to have,” said Greg Bradshaw, principal of the downtown architecture/interiors/fashion/book/concept/ ethos/lifestyle/design firm AvroKO, which he heads along with Kristina O’Neal, Adam Farmerie, and a very tired—that evening, at least—William Harris. The four of them were sitting at the end of the bar at PUBLIC, their first venture as their own clients, and were talking about everything from the just-completed transformation of the restaurant Park Avenue Winter into Park Avenue Spring (on which Harris has been working non-stop), to their plans for a new restaurant on the rapidly gentrifying Bowery, to joking about what exactly O’Neal’s SAT scores were, and what exactly they mean.

The four, who met when they were eighteen, each have different approaches, personalities, and skills, but together they make up a coherent and collaborative whole. Initially, however, they operated as two firms, Avro Design (Bradshaw and Farmerie) and KO Media Studios (O’Neal and Harris). After many years of collaborating, the two firms merged while working on PUBLIC. Their ethos is research-driven as much as it is fantastical, interpretive as much as creative, and conceptual as much as style-conscious. The firm has become known mostly for its historically referential restaurant design, clear in everything from the Lower East Side’s Stanton Social, which adopted the neighborhood’s long history of tailoring with a herringbone-riffing wine wall, to PUBLIC—the restaurant they own and above which they work—where they took the discarded fixtures of municipal buildings from the 1930s and recast them, so that an old library card catalog is used to store old menus.

Bradshaw talks about the process of collaborating (on a good day) and struggling (on a bad) with a client. “Most clients don’t have briefs, or an idea of what they want to do,” O’Neal explained. “If they’re coming to us, it’s often because they’re looking for a concept or a name—for the tabletop, the interior design, architecture.” So how do they make something—the boudoir-inspired upstairs dining room at Stanton Social, the gastropub-meets-manor-kitchen of E.U.—from nothing? “We try to apply information based on what we’re feeling on the location, space, and chef,” O’Neal said. “And then we find the seed idea.”

The seed for Stanton Social, then, was a gender-specific interpretation (silk florals upstairs, manly leather downstairs) of the neighborhood’s fashion history. The seed for E.U. was to turn the kitchen inside out, embracing the theater that restaurants have become in the last few years.
























And for Park Avenue [Season], the seed was a cheekily literal take on the current craze for food that is fresh, seasonal, and local, and a recognition of the fact that people like to eat differently in different weather. Switching from one season to another is a 72-hour process that completely transforms the space at the same time as the chef is transforming the menu. In the most recent transition from Winter to Spring, AvroKO replaced a spare white motif with one that Bradshaw described only as “Green!!!” Not literally, they all jumped in to explain, but more the idea of what “green” could be—by swapping out cushions, changing the lighting and fixtures, and re-coloring the wall. “Everything had to be flexible,” Farmerie explained of the firm’s design, which was as much about creating the details—quick but stable snaps, packing systems, storage ideas, and an installation plan—as a look.

AvroKO’s adoption of restaurant-as-stage is one sign of the way in which the firm co-opts the contemporary ethos without adopting the current trend. It’s easy to see the horse head jutting out of one of PUBLIC’s walls as just another example of the urban-rustic style currently fashionable in restaurant design—weird taxidermy, rusty farm implements, and un-ironic waistcoats—until it’s just as easy to remember that not only did AvroKO come first, but they’re already onto the next thing. “The design that we’re doing in New York now is shifting away from that,” O’Neal said of the craze for old brick and dark wood. “It starts as an ethos and then gets translated down as a trend,” she pointed out. “So what you wind up with is a flat version of what should be a dynamic experience.” 

So. How to keep things moving? 

“Neon!” Farmerie said, and it’s a sign of how thoroughly defined AvroKO’s overall aesthetic is that none of the group—especially him—took it seriously. “Our design is driven by our desires and wants and needs, and that’s driven by the landscape,” Harris said. “And if that landscape starts to shift, then we’ll shift as well.” Their Bowery restaurant is a perfect example. When the Bowery Hotel was under construction two years ago, homeless men took shelter under the scaffolding; by the time it opened, the glitterati that fill it every night had forgotten this. “It has so many histories—its rock-and-roll history, its life as a restaurant supply center,” Farmerie said of the neighborhood. “But I think there’s a sensibility of invention that’s always been on the Bowery.”

“It’s about not making things too precious,” Harris added. “Many designers can get very wrapped up in quote-unquote design.”

Instead, the four are looking to push things as far as they can. How far? “It’s like the title of the book; it’s the best of the worst,” Harris said, talking about Best Ugly, a book on the firm’s design philosophy that has just been released by HarperCollins. “It’s not conventional, it’s not traditional, it’s not so self-conscious—you just have to let things float and trust yourself enough.” How do they know when they’ve pushed it too far? “It’s when all four of us are looking and we all say ‘that doesn’t work,’” O’Neal said.

It’s clear, talking and listening to them, that the way they work together can’t be easily broken down into Bradshaw and Farmerie: architect or Harris: designer—much as they like to break it down into personalities like, “Kristina: smart one.” The number of sentences that go unfinished and the ones that go lovingly heckled is a sign of just how entrenched these four are in working together. “Before PUBLIC, we were like individual cowboys working together,” Harrison said. “And with PUBLIC, we were like a gang!”

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Changing Tastes
Edwin Montoya

To understand how food can reflect the debates surrounding a gentrifying neighborhood, look no further than the Bushwick entries on the blog Chowhound. One writer calling himself LittlePiggy asks for help dealing with “the food wasteland of the Morgan stop.” Another retorts, “MOVE BACK TO MANHATTAN!!!! This is a neighborhood that is primarily Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Mexican. You will find great food all around you if you stop expecting to see a French Bistro (I am sure there will be one soon).”

Bushwick, a neighborhood until recently viewed as down-and-out, victim of both looting after the 1979 blackout and the end of big manufacturing in New York City, has become popular with artists looking for large spaces at lower rents than in Williamsburg or in Greenpoint just to the west. A highly visible sign of the undercurrent of change here has been the handful of restaurants opening in the last few years, places meant to appeal to people newly moved into the area—young, single, often white. Of course, there are many Latino restaurants in Bushwick, from Los Hermanos, the popular taco cart parked in a tortilla factory on Starr Street, to the homely Mexican and Ecuadorian storefronts like El Jarro on Knickerbocker Avenue. But the newer places, with comfort food menus and rustic-chic designs, work like an extended living room for the “loft kids,” the not-always-flattering moniker for new residents. Like the highly-designed Thai restaurants in Williamsburg and the first bistros on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, these restaurants telescope a clear message to potential residents and investors: The neighborhood is safe, interesting, and poised for middle-class gentrification. Whatever prejudices this might reveal, the arrival of more upscale restaurants signals neighborhood regime change.

Though the Chowhound writer viewed the Morgan Street stop on the L train as a culinary dead end, it happens to be sited near the newest Bushwick eatery. Right beside the subway is a cafe and DVD rental store called the Archive, a well-stocked grocery named Brooklyn Natural, and a new pizzeria, Roberta’s, which was recently reviewed in the $25 and Under column in The New York Times. The reviewer, Peter Meehan, said the restaurant, which opened on Moore Street three months ago, “has a D.I.Y. feel, like a Bushwick loft.” That aesthetic isn’t so surprising given the restaurant’s former incarnations: It had been a construction depot, a commercial landscaping factory, and a nuts and bolts warehouse. Before Roberta’s opened, the building was vacant for three years.

Northeast Kingdom is one of Bushwick’s newer restaurant arrivals.

Latino restaurants and bodegas line Knickerbocker Avenue. 


From the outside, the restaurant looks less than unassuming with a cinder block facade. Inside, the look is still rough, but considerably warmer: There are two long wooden tables that lend themselves to communal dining, and smaller round tables in back. A stack of firewood lines one wall, the fuel for the focal point of Roberta’s: a red pizza oven the owners bought in Italy and shipped to Brooklyn. The ingredients used are geared toward a hip, health-conscious clientele—fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, and organic Berkshire pork—with prices to match. A personal-size Margherita costs $8; a Milennium Falco with tomatoes, breadcrumbs, parmigiano Reggiano, onion, and pork sausage, $13.

Chris Parachini, one of the restaurant’s three owners and himself an artist and musician, moved to Bushwick two years ago because he wanted a neighborhood quieter than Greenpoint, where he had lived for a year in the late 1980s. He believes that in the most industrial sections of Bushwick, “there are no old-timers. It was like moving out to the country.” He believes the new, non-manufacturing businesses haven’t been the cause of the neighborhood’s financial tensions. “They were kicked out by the laws of economics,” he said of local factories, not by small restaurants and cafes. Parachini maintains that artists are, in their way, keeping the industrial tradition alive in Bushwick: “People are still manufacturing, but they’re working alone in their studios.”

Yet according to one advocacy group, true manufacturing continues in Bushwick, if on a smaller scale than a generation ago. Paul Parkhill of Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a group dedicated to keeping light industry in New York, said that while many factories look empty, they house small manufacturers. Small companies’ greatest hindrance isn’t foreign competitors but the cost of rent in New York, Parkhill said. Landlords know they can get more from newcomers.

At the same time, small delis and restaurants that catered to factory workers find business considerably slower. Maximiliano Gonzalez, owner of the I & B Deli, had dozens of customers from manufacturing plants who would buy groceries or the hot lunch Gonzalez serves—roast pork, boiled platanos, and mondongo, a stew of tripe and potatoes. Gonzalez, who has been in business for 20 years, said that with so many factories closed he can no longer count on a steady flow of customers during the day, even with new residents moving in. If people aren’t working in the neighborhood, his business suffers. “They go to work in Manhattan and buy their things there.”

For others, the arrival of Roberta’s, along with the older Life Café NINE83 and Northeast Kingdom, means not having to go to Williamsburg to get the kind of food they want. Paige Newman, a 27-year-old trend forecaster, said that at Northeast Kingdom, “I can get nitrate-free bacon and mac-and-cheese with gruyère.” Newman, who moved to the neighborhood in 2003, likes Bushwick because of its relaxed atmosphere, less conspicuously fashionable than the world of Bedford Avenue.

Around the corner at Ad Hoc Gallery, Andrew Ford talks to three high school boys who have come by to see the exhibit called Brick Ladies of NYC showing the work of legendary graffiti artist Lady Pink and street artist, Aiko. Ford has been working in Bushwick since 2003 and likes to eat at a diner on Flushing Avenue called Tina’s, a place that opens at 3:30 in the morning and closes at 4 in the afternoon to suit the schedules of truckers coming into the Boar’s Head meatpacking plant across the street and cops from around the corner. He’s glad that new places like Roberta’s have opened, but Tina’s, he said, is an old standby: cheap, simple, and a gathering place for a different demographic in the neighborhood. “It’s real. You know what I’m saying?”

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Tower Crane Topples
A building on 50th Street damaged by the falling crane
Aaron Seward

On the afternoon of Saturday, March 15, at a construction site at 305 East 51st Street, a 22-story-high tower crane came loose from its moorings and fell to the south. The crane’s latticed steel mast collided with the building across the street and sheared in half. The cab, jib, and rest of the mast continued to fall, damaging two other buildings on the way down and completely demolishing a townhouse on 50th Street. As of press time, rescue workers had recovered the bodies of seven people killed in the collapse, including six construction workers, and a tourist from Florida. The collapse is the latest and most serious in a recent string of accidents on high-rise building sites around the city, and has led many to question the enforcement of safety and inspection standards.

According to reports, the crane toppled after workers jumped, or raised the crane and were installing a structural steel collar to attach the mast to the concrete structure. During the installation procedure, the collar fell, smashing into another collar that attached the mast to the 9th floor and disconnecting it. Both collars then fell to the base of the tower and the destabilized crane tipped over. 

crane falls
The crane fell from this development at 305 East 51st Street. AARON SEWARD

While the findings of the official investigation into the disaster had yet to be released as of press time, attention seemed to be focused on a frayed nylon sling that was still attached to the fallen collar. An industry insider who requested anonymity told AN that the use of nylon slings for this kind of work is poor rigging practice because steel has sharp edges and can easily cut nylon. In fact, Section 31 of the Ironworkers’ Collective Bargaining Agreement, entitled “Safety Provisions,” contains a clause that clearly states that wire rope slings will be used instead of nylon straps. But these workers were not ironworkers, nor was there a master rigger on site supervising the jump, said the source; they were crane operators from Operating Engineers Local 14. The Department of Buildings (DOB) allows anyone who obtains a tower crane rigger’s license to supervise and execute a crane jump and does not require the presence of a professional engineer or a master rigger (a master rigger must be the officer of a company and be able to acquire $10 million in insurance). As a result, said the source, “You get these roving bands of operating engineers getting their buddies together during the weekend and jumping cranes. They don’t have anywhere near the expertise at rigging that ironworkers do. You have to ask yourself, why are they using nylon slings? It’s the first no-no. They shouldn’t even be in the toolbox.” Ironworkers execute all crane jumps on structural steel building projects, but they are rarely used for concrete projects because they are one of the most expensive trades to hire. 

According to the source, another factor that may have attributed to the fall was the crane’s floating foundation. Tower cranes are designed to be freestanding up to, and sometimes above, 200 feet; but they have to have solid concrete foundations in order to absorb lateral loads, which this crane did not have. Most developers are loath to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a temporary foundation for a crane, and so engineers have to rely on tiebacks to the building, which leaves no redundancy if the tiebacks fail. 

The real trouble with the situation is that while the workers involved in the accident were doing things by the book, the book itself has two loopholes that may have led to the catastrophe: The city allows people who are not professional riggers to execute crane jumps, and does not require stand-alone foundations for tower cranes. 

The city will most likely tighten regulations on crane jumps as a result of this accident by requiring that a master rigger and professional engineer be on site during jumps, and perhaps requiring more robust foundations. The regulations were tightened last year after sections of a tower crane fell on a taxi on 3rd Avenue during a jump, that time by requiring that a licensed tower crane rigger be on site during the process. Previously, tower crane riggers only had to be onsite when a crane was put up or taken down. 

In spite of these regulatory shortcomings, New York City’s crane laws are the most stringent in the nation, even more restrictive than those required by federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. “If you compare the number of cranes in the city with the number of injuries it’s a pretty low percentage,” said the source. “You look in the newspaper in Florida and every day you see cranes tipping over. We don’t have that. But because of our environment, when something goes wrong it goes catastrophically wrong and takes out a building.” 

The DOB’s investigation is looking into the companies involved with the construction site, including Joy Contracting, a New Jersey-based concrete company that held the crane contract and employed the operating engineers involved. The DOB is also investigating Kennelly Development Company of Manhattan, the developer of the property, a residential condominium, and the general contractor, Reliance Construction Group (RCG). Both Kennelly and RCG expressed their sympathy to the victims and said that they are cooperating with government agencies in the investigation. 



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Lost City in the Woods

Architect and photographer Christopher Payne is fascinated with the afterlives of buildings. A chronicler of ruins, he has photographed disused factories on the East River, the High Line on the West Side, outmoded transit electrical substations throughout Manhattan, and, for the past few years, shuttered insane asylums and state hospitals across the country. Payne’s latest subject is the buildings and landscape of North Brother, a derelict hospital island in the Bronx under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, far removed from the cycles of development and change that are transforming the city. Evidence of habitation and of the island’s checkered history is literally disappearing into the woods.

In the 1880s, the island was home to a contagious disease hospital and was a model of reform-era hygiene and efficiency, earning the praise of the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis. Among its inhabitants was “Typhoid” Mary Mallon, the cook and notorious source of several outbreaks, who died there in 1938. The island was also the site of one of the nation’s worst nautical disasters, the 1904 downing of the steamship General Slocum, which sank just offshore carrying German immigrants on a holiday outing. Nurses and patients on the island rescued nearly 250 passengers, but more than one thousand people died. The tuberculosis hospital was completed in 1943, but was quickly repurposed to house World War II veterans who were attending college in the city through the GI Bill. By 1952, the island became a treatment facility for juvenile drug addicts before being abandoned altogether in 1964.

Today North Brother has largely slipped from public consciousness. It does not, for example, appear on the MTA Subway map: The place where the 29-acre island would be shows only water. “The city has an uncountable number of histories and events that are lodged, hidden away in some archive or someone’s memory,” said Randall Mason, a professor of historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the island extensively. “But things have a way of coming back; they resurface.” He cites the African Burial Ground as an example. “Places become invisible if they’re not used,” he said. The Parks Department classifies North Brother as a nature preserve. Department representatives visit only a few times a year and the public is prohibited because of safety concerns.

While photographing sites for the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, Payne first saw the island from afar. “I felt like I had found a lost city in a jungle, and yet here I was in New York City,” Payne said. His boat, he realized, was too big to get close to the island’s ruined dock. “Here was this lost world, a hundred feet away, that I couldn’t get to.” On a second trip, he found its buildings—a hospital, power plant, boiler, morgue, housing, cistern, and other infrastructure—receding into the landscape. “It’s strange to look at old photos and see how it functioned, how clear it was, a modern, open campus,” he said. “It’s amazing how quickly Nature reclaims what’s Hers.” In his photographs, trees sprout from the foundation line of the solitary staff house as layers of brick peel away from the facades. Brightly painted interiors are visible through the shards of glass in the robust-looking art deco tuberculosis hospital.

For the Parks Department, the island’s most important resident is the Black-crowned Night Heron, a rare bird that has slowly been returning to the region since the passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s. North Brother is part of a chain of small islands throughout the region called the “harbor herons complex,” according to Bill Tai, director of natural resources for Parks. The much smaller South Brother Island came into the Parks portfolio this November, when the federal government bought it for $2 million and turned it over to the city. Acknowledging the island’s history and its crumbling architecture, Tai called North Brother “the most interesting of the heron islands.” He added, however, that “maybe its highest and best use is to preserve it for wildlife.” Parks is sympathetic to the island’s history and the concerns of preservationists, and according to Tai, the department is hoping to do a partial restoration of the dock to make it occasionally accessible for small groups, and has secured $500,000 in funding toward that goal. Restoration of one of the smaller buildings as an interpretive center may be possible, but he noted, “We have very reduced budget forecasts, so it’s not a very high priority.”

In this era of public-private partnerships, piecemeal development, and limited public resources, the state of limbo in which the island sits is not altogether uncommon. The scale and significance of its architecture, once accessible by frequent ferry service, is a disquieting reminder that such limitations were not always commonplace. For Payne, abandoned public buildings hold a particular attraction, not just for the romance of their ruin but as vestiges of civic aspirations long since jettisoned.