Encircled by thriving neighborhoods that are both tall and small, artistic and prosaic, diverse and even more diverse, Sunnyside should connect, celebrate, and enhance its surroundings. Like the rest of Queens, with its vast industrial and residential neighborhoods, the World’s Fair grounds, MoMA PS1, the Noguchi Museum, Socrates Sculpture Park, and Gantry Plaza State Park, the ideas for Sunnyside must be diverse, creative, and contemporary. These places—like the future-facing borough they call home that led New York into the Jet Age—have never been about the same old same old, never about nostalgia, and never succumb to the banal. Neither should Sunnyside Yard, which could portend our future as a city.“It’s unprecedented in the last 50 years and it’s amazing,” Jonathan F.P. Rose, an urban planner and affordable housing developer, told the Journal. “When you combine those things with schools, parks, health care, social services, it creates the platform for people to move forward economically with their lives.” How Sunnyside Yard will be paid for is a detail that’s yet to be ironed out, and backers of the project admit funding will be an uphill battle moving forward. Cash will likely come from a mix of federal, state, and city resources including affordable housing subsidies and tax-exempt bonds. Sunnyside Yard recently made news when the project's EDC-organized steering committee lost Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sylvia White of the Justice for All Coalition as members. Their resignation came after local residents and leaders strongly objected to the project during a months-long public outreach period. Those in opposition believe that the funds that would be allocated by the city to develop and build Sunnyside Yard should instead be used for more urgent community needs. In her resignation letter, Ocasio-Cortez argued that funds “should be invested in shoring up the existing transportation infrastructure that already exists there or investing it in other under-funded public resources that our community relies on.” “Sunnyside Yards presents an opportunity to build a stronger New York for generations to come that includes more open space, transit, affordable housing, jobs and green infrastructure in western Queens,” wrote an EDC spokesperson in response. “This planning process has always put community engagement at the center. We’re committed to continuing our work with the community to build a strategic vision that can better serve local residents and all New Yorkers.” It was first announced that the New York-based PAU had been selected to develop the project master plan in May 2018. Landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz and Carlo Ratti Associati are among the collaborators that worked alongside PAU in realizing the vision, which as the Sunnyside Yard executive summary states, is “not a shovel-ready mega-development plan, but rather a long-term framework to guide decisions, ensuring that they are led by public priorities, and centered on human needs.” “As an architecture firm deeply committed to advancing equitable, ecological, and joyful cities, PAU has been honored to collaborate with the City, Amtrak, the Steering Committee, our extraordinary consulting team, and innumerable local stakeholders on this intensively community-based, long-term vision for Sunnyside Yard,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder of PAU, in a statement. “At over 180 acres, the Yard represents our city’s most significant opportunity to realize shared progressive goals all in a carbon neutral environment that will set a model globally for sustainable urban growth while maintaining a scale and density reflective of Western Queens. Neighboring communities now have a unique opportunity to leverage this Plan to address long-standing needs in terms of transportation, housing, jobs, open space, social infrastructure, and environmental resilience.” In a 2019 article about Sunnyside Yard, AN editor-in-chief William Menking speculated that “we are more likely to get another version of Hudson Yards on this public land.” Although nothing yet is set in stone, PAU's ambitious master plan helps to ensure that this won't be the case.
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Chakrabarti announced yesterday that he will be the next Dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design (CED) starting in July of 2020, a post that was previously held by Jennifer Wolch. He is founding an outpost of his PAU practice in California, and leaving the New York office in the hands of Ruchika Modi, the office's associate partner and studio director.In a letter, Chakrabarti noted that the appointment would give "jet fuel" to PAU and enable it to go after institutional and cultural projects. The firm is behind the redevelopment of the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn into high-end office space, a proposed Penn Station transformation, and a master plan for the sprawling Sunnyside Yard in Queens. "CED and PAU also perfectly mirror each other in terms of their twin pillars of design excellence and social impact," reads the open letter. "This is why Berkeley was excited at the thought of a practitioner dean consistent with the top design schools around the world." "Berkeley approached me about this in January, and after much discussion both at home and in the office, we all decided this would add jet fuel to our practice and our desires to design buildings for universities and cultural institutions, and would add adventure to our personal lives. California itself is extraordinary, and is also the gateway to all of the west coast and Pacific Rim. "One final note: I love New York and I always will. In my heart I am not going anywhere, and at the end of either a five or ten-year term as Dean, I may well be back ready to take on even bigger challenges here in the Big Apple."
In addition to running his firm, Chakrabarti is currently an associate professor of professional practice at Columbia GSAPP, a position he has held for the past decade.
Between now and 2020, professor Renee Chow will serve as interim dean of CED.
As the scale of climate change has accelerated and grown direr in recent months, upstart politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York have made addressing the issue a central part of their political platforms. Talk of a Green New Deal (GND) has picked up since November's elections, reflecting a major shift in how Americans discuss climate change. But what is the Green New Deal and how might it impact architects?
The impetus behind the GND is simple: Because the threat of anthropogenic climate change is so fundamental, only a government-led, war-like industrial and economic mass mobilization effort can potentially transform American society quickly and thoroughly enough to avoid global catastrophe.
There are plans to unveil the first round of draft legislation at the federal level this week, but as of yet, no official set of policies has been agreed upon by legislators and activists. But various elements of a supposed GND have been touted for years (see here and here for thorough explainers).
Generally speaking, GND proponents have three specific and wide-ranging goals:
First, activists are calling for the wholesale decarbonization of the U.S. economy. That means eliminating all carbon emissions across every industry in the country, including in vital sectors like energy production, building design, construction, and transportation.
Second, this transition would include a federal jobs guarantee backed by the large-scale deployment of new public works projects. A job guarantee, which, generally speaking, would provide anyone who wanted work with some form of federal employment, would allow people currently working in carbon-intensive industries to leave their jobs for publicly-funded green-collar work. The guarantee, supporters argue, would create a vast, fairly-paid workforce that could get to work transforming American society right away.
Third, activists pushing the GND generally agree that the transition to a carbon-free economy must incorporate socially-just practices that rectify past practices that have exploited certain communities. Such reforms include finding ways to house people displaced by climate change, countering the long-term effects of redlining and the racial wealth gap, and making sure that unlike the original New Deal, the benefits and jobs created by any GND are enjoyed by people of color and other historically marginalized groups.
The initiative would go beyond simply greening the country's energy grid or incentivizing a shift to public transit and electric vehicles; the GND envisions a top-to-bottom reworking of the U.S. economy. Likely, the effort will involve densifying existing cities, building new ones from scratch, and perhaps most importantly, retrofitting and upgrading nearly all of the country’s existing building stock. Architects will be vital to the effort and are likely to benefit from a potential GND through new commissions and opportunities to provide input and expertise across a range of projects and scales.
In an effort to help spur discussion among architects on a potential plan, The Architect’s Newspaper asked designers from around the country to share their wish lists for what a potential GND might include. The responses span a range of issues that touch on the built environment, project financing, building codes, and environmental regulation, among other topics.
For some, creating incentives to reuse and retrofit existing buildings could be a key component of the deal. Karin Liljegren, principal at Omgivning in Los Angeles said, “I’d like to see how legislators can reassert the importance of the federal government’s Historic Tax Credit Program (HTC). The HTC incentivizes developers to rehabilitate iconic and viable old buildings, but it has recently been under threat after decades of stability. Enshrining these incentives in the legislation would send a massive signal to clients like ours.”
But, of course, focusing only on the most iconic historic structures would likely send many buildings to the trash heap. To address “less iconic structures or ones that require an approach that is more adaptive than restorative,” Liljegren suggested “a program of economic incentives that helps developers prioritize the broader reuse of existing buildings. Reusing a structure can certainly be more challenging than building new, but the payoffs are enormous—less embodied energy and waste is only the beginning. In terms of texture, form, and spirit, existing buildings enrich our identities and communities.”
For other architects, increasing the scope of public transportation options in parallel with boosting density is the way forward. Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder of PAU in New York City, said, “A Green New Deal should include what I called the 'American Smart Infrastructure Act' in my 2013 book A Country of Cities. In that proposal, I call for the elimination of existing subsidies that encourage sprawl like highway funding, the mortgage interest deduction, and low gas taxes.” Chakrabarti argued for applying this new revenue toward building a national high-speed rail and urban mass transit network that can serve new investments in affordable transit-oriented multi-family housing and low-cost office space. The funding, however, “should only go to municipalities that discourage single-family housing density, like Minneapolis recently did,” Chakrabarti added.
Of course, the overarching network of regulatory policies, like environmental, structural, energy, and seismic codes, that shape the built environment could be improved, as well.
Anica Landreneau, director of sustainable design for HOK in Washington, D.C., pointed to the recently-adopted Clean Energy DC Omnibus Act, which she helped craft, as a potential guide for creating a “self-improving threshold” that requires building owners to retrofit existing structures above a certain size according to rigorous energy performance standards. The plan, set to take effect in 2020, seeks to align the energy performance of existing buildings with the steadily-increasing performance metrics crafted for new structures, like LEED certification and Energy Star ratings. The plan will peg the performance standards for existing buildings to the median Energy Star score for all buildings of the same type in the District of Columbia. As the overall energy efficiency of buildings in the District improves over time, the thinking goes, periodic post-occupancy reviews will help create a self-improving target that will compel building owners to upgrade their structures to avoid fines.
In addition to improving incentive programs like the HTC, changes to the way projects are financed more broadly could also help bring to life many of the GND's transformative new projects.
Claire Weisz, principal at WXY in New York City suggested the government “require banks to invest a required minimum 40 percent of their loans in building construction and projects that have sustainable longer-term benefits and proven investments in training and hiring for green jobs.”
David Baker, principal of David Baker Architects in San Francisco, advocated for increased funding for affordable and urban housing projects overall. Baker said, “A major limiting factor on beginning to solve our affordable housing crisis—and the associated climate impacts—is simply money. We have many affordable projects ready to go but currently delayed by a lack of funding.”
Peggy Deamer of The Architecture Lobby wants to make sure that the rights of workers—and the right to work, in general—are not left out of the conversation amid talk of green infrastructure and shiny, new projects. Deamer said, “It is too monothematic to go after environmental solutions without the larger economic structure into which both the effort unfolds or the new carbon-free world functions. If the tech industry’s effort at automation leaves most of us without work or income, who wants to live in that green world?”
In conversations with architects, the issue of affordable urban housing came up often, especially in relation to the stated aims of the GND’s main backers, which include increasing social equity through the program. Because America’s urban areas contain 85 percent of the country’s population and are responsible for 80 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, it is likely that the GND’s effects will be most profoundly felt in cities.
That’s important for architects concerned with racial and social equity in the field. With a rising cohort of diverse young designers—as well as many established firms helmed by women and people of color— it’s possible a potential GND could engender a surge of important projects helmed by diverse practitioners. That possibility, when coupled with the existing diversity of urban residents and potential clients, could transform how architecture is practiced across the country.
It’s a realm where Kimberly Dowdell, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), thinks her organization can have an impact. “Black architects have a unique opportunity to take the lead in shaping the future,” Dowdell said. “In under-resourced urban communities, which are often majority Black, there is a great need for a new approach to design and development that fully embraces the quadruple bottom line: social, cultural, environmental, and financial.” Dowdell added, “NOMA members have been doing this kind of work for generations. Now, with the Green New Deal, this experience is especially relevant.”
With a “quadruple bottom line” approach at the center of a potential GND, professional architecture organizations pushing for increased equity among their ranks, and demographic trends leading to greater diversity, the architectural profession is poised for significant change that could be accelerated by a GND.
As the potential changes begin to take form, inclusion will likely remain a top priority for designers. Dowdell explains: “In general, everyone needs to have a seat at the decision-making table as it relates to shaping our collective future on this planet. With such a high concentration of minorities in cities, it is absolutely critical that a truly diverse set of minds and voices are empowered to implement the best of the Green New Deal.”