Fulton Street Plan Takes New Yorkers by the Hand

Event: Fulton Street Revitalization Plan
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.20.09
Speakers: Keith O’Connor — Senior Planner for Lower Manhattan, NYC Department of City Planning; Ali Ruth Davis — Project Manager, Lower Manhattan Redevelopment, Office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development; Bissera Antikarov, AICP, Assoc. AIA — Principal & Founder, UrbanVision; Allen Swerdlowe, AIA — Co-Chair, New York New Visions; Christopher Reynolds, AIA, LEED AP — Assistant Vice President for Planning, Alliance for Downtown New York
Organizers: AIANY Planning and Urban Design Committee

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The Fulton Corridor Project will create a mixed-use retail area.

Courtesy renewnyc.com

As one of the few roads in lower Manhattan that goes fully east to west, Fulton Street is at the heart of New York City’s plan for the area beneath Chambers Street. Fulton Street will eventually transform itself into a modern thoroughfare if plans for the Fulton Street Revitalization Plan succeed.

Keith O’Connor, a senior planner at the NYC Department of City Planning, focused on the “Fulton Corridor,” the route from the Financial District to the East River waterfront. In this context, it is important to make the Fulton Street/Nassau Street crossroads a “real asset for Lower Manhattan,” said O’Connor. The revitalization program covers a total of 150 storefronts and 86 buildings, the “densest concentration of storefronts in Lower Manhattan,” according to O’Connor. The aim is to both improve retail conditions and reinstate some of the historic architecture in the district. The city offers three tiers of support for property owners and tenants who wish to improve their façades and storefronts. Tier 1 is for services worth up to $15,000 for basic ground level improvements. Tier 2 is worth up to $60,000 for the storefront in its entirety, and Tier 3 is worth as much as $200,000 for the entire façade. This, said O’Connor, would produce a “clear and distinct transformative effect,” bringing uniformity to signage and presentation, and making Fulton Street the “Main Street” of Lower Manhattan.

Ali Ruth Davis, a project manager from the office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, more specifically outlined how the program is being carried out. Perkins + Will and Li-Saltzman Architects are acting respectively as program architects and historical advisers, while construction management is being carried out by Hudson Meridian. Davis made it clear that the money being provided by federal funding was not simply a handout — property owners receive the funding in the form of improvements and services, and must match every dollar of public funding with 50 cents of private money. So far, the program has had an enthusiastic response, said Davis. There have been 63 approved applications, with nine Tier 1 projects set to complete in January 2010, and both Tier 2 and 3 projects in the construction managers’ books. The Tier 3 application is to restore the façade of DeLemos and Cordes’s K&E Building at 127 Fulton Street, a designated landmark building dating back to 1892.

In a brief panel discussion, Allen Swedlowe, AIA, co-chair of New York New Visions, questioned whether or not the city was “wiping clean the patina” of historic buildings that make up the area. O’Connor replied that archival research into the area’s history was “keeping us honest,” and added that the program was structured to ensure Lower Manhattan’s individuality was preserved with its monuments. Christopher Reynolds, AIA, LEED AP, of the Alliance of Downtown New York, queried how the redevelopment would maintain the diversity of the retailers. “We have keymakers and bodegas and grocery stores,” he said. “How do you sustain that long-term diversity?” O’Connor reassured Reynolds that the city “didn’t want to see anyone go.” The “character” of the retail units was of paramount importance, and that’s why the support has different tiers. “We are specifically trying to get people who are perhaps less sophisticated to get involved. Sometimes they have to be taken by the hand, but we are actively doing that.”

Grand Concourse at 100: Growth Abounds

Event: Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx
Location: AIA Center for Architecture, 11.11.09
Speakers: Ray Bromley, Ph.D., AICP — Professor, Department of Geography and Planning, SUNY Albany; Gelvin Stevenson — Special Assistant to the Founder & CEO, Clear Skies Group; Ron Shiffman, FAICP, Hon. AIA — Professor of Urban Planning, Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, Pratt Institute
Moderator: Constance Rosenblum — Editor, the City section, New York Times
Organizers: AIA New York Chapter; Art Deco Society of New York

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Grand Concourse.

Jessica Sheridan

The story of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx is a metaphor for nothing less than “the rise and fall and rebirth of the American city,” according to moderator Constance Rosenblum, New York Times journalist and author of Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (NYU Press, 2009), a new book on the thoroughfare. This event, like the book, was scheduled to celebrate the centennial of the Grand Concourse’s opening in November 1909.

In her opening remarks, Rosenblum told the audience how the concourse had changed from its origins as a “mesmerizing Mecca for the city’s upwardly mobile Jews,” to a decayed and rotting estate “comparable to Dresden after the war.” Race, economic issues, government policy — particularly the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway — all played their part. How can the extraordinary decline of the Grand Concourse during the 20th century be explained?

Gelvin Stevenson, a director of the Clear Skies Group and a long-time Bronx resident, responded first by using the Roosevelt Gardens as a symbol for what happened to the district. Stevenson listed the number of ways in which residents had been duped and cheated out of money and basic services from 1950 to the mid-1970s. By the end, the building’s tenants were literally forced out by spiraling rents. From 1943 to 1973, rent increased by 80%. In the two years that followed, rent rose another 90%. The building, crime-ridden and dangerous, was abandoned in 1975. “The story of Roosevelt Gardens tells you everything you need to know about what went wrong on the Grand Concourse,” he said.

Ray Bromley, Ph.D., AICP, a self-described “amateur Bronxologist” is a professor of planning at SUNY Albany. Responding to Stevenson’s remarks, he countered by taking a macroscopic look at the conditions in the U.S. during the 1960s and 70s. “Cities across the country were devastated by events in the national sphere,” he said. “What happened in the Bronx, Harlem, and Washington Heights happened in Utica, Detroit, and plenty of other places.” The 1960s saw an “intense surburbanization process” which left the inner cities without urban renewal, he said. Those who blamed the Cross Bronx Expressway for “ghettoizing” the Grand Concourse ignore the “broader contextual issues” surrounding it. “It’s too simple just to blame Robert Moses and the Cross Bronx Expressway,” he concluded.

Ron Shiffman, FAICP, Hon. AIA, the only panelist raised in the Bronx, returned to the subject of urban planning. The Pratt Institute, where he is a professor, had researched the area extensively and found that its decay was the “consequence of intentions both good and bad.” So while the Cross Bronx Expressway was a useful thoroughfare for the “middle classes” to get out of the city, it had the unwanted side effect of bisecting living communities in the Bronx. The area was also “eroded” by housing commissioner Roger Starr’s “triage” policy on city services (also known as “planned shrinkage,” withdrawing services from deprived areas so the population is forced to leave). “This is what happens when you plan from the top. You have to plan from the ground. That’s what Roger Starr and Robert Moses got wrong,” he said. Happily, Shiffman was able to report that the 21st-century Bronx was “seething” with activity. “What we have now is what was needed all along,” he said. “A place where we allow people to grow.”

Puerto Rican Architecture Ripens

Event: PUERTO RICO NOW: Recent Architecture and History
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.29.09
Speakers: Segundo Cardona, FAIA — Partner, Sierra Cardona Ferrer; Luis Flores, FAIA — Owner, Luis Flores Arquitectos; Jorge Rigau, FAIA — Principal, Rigau Arquitectos
Moderator: Warren James — Principal, Warren A. James Architects + Planners
Organizers: AIANY Global Dialogues Committee
Sponsors: AECOM; Turner International; AIA Puerto Rico Chapter; Landair; Rums of Puerto Rico

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City Skyline, San Juan, PR.

Courtery: WAJAP New York, 2009

Architecture in Puerto Rico has come a long way in a short time. “When I started in 1966, there were barely 150 architects in a population of 2.6 million people,” stated Segundo Cardona, FAIA, of Sierra Cardona Ferrer Arquitectos. “Now there are 1,350 architects and 4 million people. The number of architects in the population has multiplied by six.” Cardona was one of three architects in New York to describe their body of work on the island.

Cardona speaks of his work in reference to the roots of Puerto Rican architecture. The island’s architects take inspiration from construction limitations and from the pervasive nature of the tropical climate. For his visitor center in the Yunque Forest, the building was created simply from timber and concrete and is in the shape of a cruciform. “I wanted to integrate the medium with the message,” he said. “The cruciform expresses a sense of reverence towards nature.” Cardona purposefully left a hole in the middle of the roof so that people would get wet when it rains. “You can’t ignore the climate, so why not pay homage to it.”

Luis Flores, FAIA, of Louis Flores Arquitectos, described how architects in Puerto Rico had established their own identities since the island’s architecture schools opened in the late 1960s. At first, architects were educated to build in a North American style rather than using the traditions of Spanish and Caribbean architecture. “Since then there has been an extraordinary revolution in terms of our awareness and our search for identity,” he said. Flores presented Balneario El Tuque, a pool complex made from concrete blocks and timber pergolas. “What architects in Puerto Rico learned was that you can use the tropicality and the breezes and the sun to their advantage. A minimalist architecture in this climate suggests space.”

Jorge Rigau, FAIA, of Rigau Arquitectos, was the youngest of the speakers, and his take on Puerto Rican architecture was less about handcraft than about style. He explained that he was influenced not only by traditional Spanish architecture, but also by late 20th-century tectonics. A career immersed in architectural education also contributed to his urban thinking, he claimed. This was best represented in a project in Isabela that re-imagined 35 kilometers of irrigation channels as landscaped nature trails for tourists and school groups on the island. “Design is not necessarily just about buildings, but also about making something happen,” he said.

The post-talk discussion centred mainly on sustainability, and how Puerto Rico is reacting to the climate change agenda. Cardona said that the primacy of the tropical climate meant that all Puerto Rican architects had to think about sustainability, but added that the stipulations of LEED ratings would not work in his country. Rigau explained that there was more skepticism about green architecture on the island. “In Puerto Rico, there is a saying that when things are green, we have to wait for them to ripen,” he said. An audience member asked if air-conditioning is the largest obstacle to lowering energy use. Cardona responded that air-conditioning is not needed. “We have a blessing — our climate,” added Flores. “We have another blessing,” cut in Rigau. “We can’t afford it.”

New Buildings in Historic Districts Produce Contrast in Context

Event: ContextContrast: New Architecture in Historic Districts Inaugural Forum
Location: Cooper Union Great Hall
Speakers: Hugh Hardy, FAIA — Principal, H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture; Richard Meier, FAIA — Principal, Richard Meier & Partners; Peter Pennoyer, AIA — Principal, Peter Pennoyer Architects; Annabelle Selldorf, FAIA — Principal, Selldorf Architects
Moderator: Suzanne Stephens — Deputy Editor, Architectural Record
Introduction: Robert B. Tierney — Chairman, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
Organizers: New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation; AIANY; NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission
Sponsors: New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation

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Langworthy Residence, 18 West 11th Street, 1972, Hardy Holzman Pffiefer Architects, in the Greenwich Village Historic District.

Norman McGrath

Building in historic districts is a challenge for every generation of architect. “Even if you are an architect with a good reputation, you can’t necessarily design an appropriate building in the center of New York City,” exclaimed Suzanne Stephens, deputy editor of Architectural Record. This inaugural forum on building in New York’s historic districts, hosted by the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation in conjunction with the “ContextContrast” exhibition at the Center for Architecture, brought together a range of architects to illuminate the discussion, including Richard Meier, FAIA, Hugh Hardy, FAIA, Peter Pennoyer, AIA, and Annabelle Selldorf, FAIA.

Each architect discussed projects that had encountered issues involving building in traditional surroundings. Meier’s examples were mainly drawn from overseas, emphasizing the importance of place-making over simply the buildings themselves. For example, his Stadhaus in Ulm, Germany, a cylindrical civic center completed in 1993, was built to complement its urban context in scale, but was a radical departure in form. Even so, said Meier, it was the creation of a public space on a former car park that provoked more consternation from local authorities. “Making the square around the building was probably more important than the building itself,” he said.

Hardy spoke about 18 West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, a reconstruction of an 1840s townhouse blown up in 1970 by American terrorists the Weathermen. H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture rebuilt it in 1978 with its façade partially angled at 45 degrees, a design which he said pleased neither “the Modernists,” who wanted it to be “steel and glass,” nor the “Traditionalists,” who wanted a recreation of the historic houses alongside. He said the surrounding massing inspired the design rather than any idea of what it had looked like before.

Pennoyer gave a visual tour of various townhouses his firm had restored, including a home at 91st Street whose cornices and window frames had been renovated through extensive architectural research of the era when the house was first built. His message was not to ignore history. “Tradition is more than just a set of rules,” he said. “It’s something we live in every day.”

Selldorf focused on the Neue Galerie and the difficulties of modernizing the Beaux Arts-era building for public use. While the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) had few problems with the restoration work, the air-conditioning system was the subject of four years of negotiation. There are three steps to carrying out the successful restoration of such a building, said Selldorf: restoring the existing elements; designing new elements how they would have been built originally; and acknowledging interventions that could never have been part of the building. “No matter how well we designed the lift,” she stated, “it would still have been a dramatic intervention because the building was never designed to have a lift.”

During the group discussion, Meier said NYC should not be set in stone. “The excitement of living and working in New York is change.” Added Hardy: “New York has dramatic juxtapositions of scale, which is what makes it such an exciting place to be, but it makes this subject very difficult to have rules.” Stephens asked Hardy about his controversial design for a 23-story extension to the New York Historical Society, turned down by the LPC in 1984. Hardy replied that he didn’t know if the “rhetoric” of preservation for preservation’s sake would stand if the scheme were put forward today. But Stephens reminded the audience that Foster + Partners had a similar problem at 980 Madison Avenue. The design for a 30-story extension was recently chopped down to four before receiving LCP approval. Pennoyer was in support of the LPC’s move. “I think a building on top of a building like this… would alter the scale of the entire neighborhood and be a looming presence on Central Park.” Selldorf countered that as long as it was “good architecture,” such a building would not in and of itself be a problem. “Just because it can be seen from Central Park doesn’t make it bad.”

Receiving a more unanimous reaction from the panel was Atelier Jean Nouvel’s 75-story tower planned for a site adjacent to MoMA on West 53rd Street. Hardy acknowledged that although he admired the “sculptural” form of the tower, he was “startled” by its height. Meier put it more concretely: “I happen to think it is too tall. It is out of scale with everything that will be in that neighborhood. It just doesn’t look right.” Pennoyer agreed that it was “dynamic,” but added: “It’s a bit too Spiderman for my liking.”