Amanda Burden — Engine Driving Mayor's Redevelopment Frenzy

Event: City College School of Architecture Lecture Series: Amanda Burden
Location: City College School of Architecture, 03.27.08
Speaker: Amanda M. Burden, Hon. AIANY — Chair, NYC City Planning Commission & Commissioner, NYC Department of City Planning
Moderator: George Ranalli, AIA — Dean, City College of New York (CCNY) School of Architecture, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture
Organizer: CCNY School of Architecture, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture


Long Island City is one of the major development sites Amanda Burden, Hon. AIANY, has taken on as commissioner of the NYC Department of City Planning.

Jessica Sheridan

Under the leadership of Commissioner Amanda Burden, Hon, AIANY, the NYC Department of City Planning has worked at a frenetic pace over the last six years, including rezoning one-sixth of the city — more than combined actions of the past 40 years.

Burden’s role in reshaping NYC is significant in making Mayor Bloomberg’s aggressive redevelopment plans possible. A review of City Planning’s major initiatives during the Bloomberg administration include: the East River waterfront, World Trade Center site, West Side Rail Yards, Jamaica Business District, Long Island City, Greenpoint / Williamsburg waterfront, the South Bronx, 125th Street, and the High Line, to name a few. Each of these projects could take years of analysis, field observation, and community interaction, yet somehow they have all been implemented under one administration.

Embedded in Burden’s City College lecture were counterpunches to criticism of some of the proposals’ scale, affordability, and potential to restrict community access to neighborhood assets. For example, when discussing the Greenpoint / Williamsburg waterfront, Burden cited the FAR bonus for waterfront buildings that include at least 20% affordable housing. Burden also mentioned “get-downs” allowing direct water access that will be part of both the East River and the Greenpoint / Williamsburg waterfront projects, deflecting criticism that recent waterfront redevelopment projects tend to treat the water as something to be seen and not experienced. Burden also discussed the numerous down-zoning and preservation efforts made by the department in an effort to maintain the character of important neighborhoods like City Island, Park Slope, and Whitestone.

While the debate rages on as to whose needs these massive development projects address, there is no debating Burden’s sweeping impact on the shape of this city.

Climbing the Stairs of School Spirit

Event: City College of NY (CCNY) School of Architecture Lecture Series: Herman Hertzberger
Location: CCNY School of Architecture, 03.20.08
Speaker: Herman Hertzberger, Hon. FAIA, Hon. FRIBA, Hon. FRIAS — Founder, Architectuurstudio HH architects and urban designers (Amsterdam)
Moderator: George Ranalli — Dean, CCNY School of Architecture
Organizer: CCNY School of Architecture

Montessori College Oost

The central stairs in the Montessori College Oost in Amsterdam.

Architectuurstudio HH architects and urban designers

The creation of social space within a building drives every design for Herman Hertzberger, Hon. FAIA, Hon. FRIBA, Hon. FRIAS, founder of Architectuurstudio HH architects and urban designers in Amsterdam. This comes through especially in his school designs, which typically includes three architectural strategies: oversized stairs, split level floor plates, and the creation of an internal street or piazza.

In the Montessori College Oost in Amsterdam, a ground floor “piazza” with stairs crisscrossing overhead connects split-level classroom floors. From the stairs, students visually connect to others on floors above or below, even down to the ground floor. The stairs incorporate double-height risers to provide seating, and wood is the dominant material, as Hertzberger believes students are more likely to gather around materials that resemble desks and tabletops. In essence, the stairs are the nexus of physical interaction in the building.

Hertzberger’s use of the stair as a prominent social space was greatly influenced by a visit to Columbia University in 1967. He observed students using library stairs as a common gathering space to debate intense political issues. He relished the symbolism of students turning their back to an institution of academic knowledge, and using the building in an informal manner to better serve their needs.

The replacement of formal spaces with informal space is another layer to Hertzberger’s work. He sees buildings as mini-cities and seeks to replicate the informal characteristics of the street, rather than the formality of the square. “The square is somewhere you go — a destination that is stagnant. The street is where you move. If you pass the same person on the street a few times, perhaps you may talk to them… That is social interaction.”

NYC Future Could Hold Green Space for All

Event: Public Architecture Conversation Series: NYC Department of City Planning
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.28.08
Speakers: Alexandros Washburn, AIA — Chief Urban Designer, NYC Department of City Planning & Partner/Principal, W Architecture and Landscape Architecture
Moderators: Michael Plottel, AIA, & Anna Torriani, AIA — Co-chairs, AIANY Public Architecture Committee
Organizers: AIANY Public Architecture Committee

The urban design discussion in NYC has long been dominated by two figures in the city’s history — Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Now, Alexandros Washburn, AIA, Chief Urban Planner at the NYC Department of City Planning, believes there is a third important individual whose vision of the city may provide insight for the future: Frederick Law Olmsted. At its core, Olmsted’s vision of a city included a common green space accessible to all citizens, providing a respite from the city’s intensity.

Washburn argues that urban design, good or bad, provides the most effective teaching tool for those who will shape our cities. Successful urban design maintains cultural diversity in gentrifying neighborhoods whose development is spurred by re-zoning projects. While his presentation emphasized pedestrian planning, the public realm, and a variety of uses, the audience pointed out a contradiction in the recent Department of City Planning’s re-zoning efforts that include the waterfront from Long Island City to Williamsburg, West Side Rail Yards, and Atlantic Yards.

Although these three projects include provisions for affordable housing and potential jobs, the scale of the developments as determined by the zoning appear to be too large for the neighborhoods in which they lie. New zoning along the water’s edge seems to create a wall between the waterfront and the community. Of particular concern were the gentrification and spate of new developments in Williamsburg and Harlem, with fears that the homogenization brought on by increasingly expensive apartments spells doom for the diverse character of these communities.

However, there are projects that respond to the community’s environment. The firm Washburn used to lead, W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, is close to completing Harlem Piers on the Hudson River, for example, that takes an ecological approach to the design of piers. Natural systems determined the piers’ forms and allow the waterfront to function in multiple ways, including water access for the neighborhood.

Perhaps NYC should demand more than a thin strip of green along the water’s edge from developers in charge of newly designated R8 lots. Re-built piers with water access, green roofs and urban farms, and expanded bicycle routes with bicycle sharing programs are possible solutions. PlaNYC could use the persuasive power of zoning to achieve its goals.

Carrots Could Grow in Brooklyn

Event: Food Groups
Location: Housing Works Bookstore, 02.12.08
Speakers: Amy Franceschini — Artist, Educator, Futurefarmer; Michael Hurwitz — Director, Greenmarket & Co-founder, Added Value
Moderator/Host: Kate Zidar — Environmental Planner, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice & Professor, Pratt Institute Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment
Organizer: Housing Works Bookstore; Center for Urban Pedagogy


With the help of organizations like Futurefarmers, people can transform their backyards (top) into fruit and vegetable gardens (bottom).


The definition of a sustainable city begins with food, not wind turbines or solar panels, argue artist, educator, and “futurefarmer” Amy Franceschini and Greenmarket director Michael Hurwitz. The food supply in many urban areas comes from afar, arriving by truck, train, or ship, greatly exacerbating cities’ ecological footprints. Urban agriculture can offer a more sustainable alternative to the “don’t ask-don’t tell” mentality of food sourcing.

For Franceschini, urban environments represent a great untapped source of food production. As lead artist for Victory Garden 2007+ program, currently being developed by Garden for the Environment and the City of San Francisco’s Department for the Environment, she helps city dwellers transform their backyards into mini-farms. While NYC does not boast a burgeoning backyard mini-farm movement, its extensive network of farmers markets provides some of the freshest local produce to New Yorkers. Established in 1976, Greenmarket operates the city’s 46 farmers markets. It was purposely designated as separate from city government and allows the organization to speak out on issues that may not align with current city policy. For example, Greenmarket is advocating further integration of food stamps into farmers markets. Also, it is fighting to incorporate urban agriculture into Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC.

Mini-farms are also known to the city, albeit at a smaller scale. Hurwitz also co-founded Added Value, a group that works with youth in Red Hook to help develop skills necessary to “grow food from seed to sale.” The group’s first plot was an abandoned ball field in the Rockaways. Local kids turned a community eyesore into a community asset. Unfortunately, development pressure for that “undeveloped” lot proved too great and the farm is now gone.

The fight to use vacant lots for agriculture seems to be a losing battle in the city, considering the few small-time urban farmers versus an army of real estate developers. Although neither Hurwitz nor Franceschini have a solution for preserving established urban farms against development pressure, they believe the answer lies in the city’s undeveloped rooftops. Green roofs are currently proposed as either turf grass or inedible native plantings. Instead of bringing grass to our rooftops, why not bring food?

Sustainable Affordable Housing Is No Myth

Event: “Green Affordable Housing” screening
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.24.08
Speaker: Jonathan Rose — Jonathan Rose Companies
Moderator: Jessica Strauss, AIA, LEED AP — Co-Chair, AIANY Committee on the Environment (COTE)
Sponsors: COTE; Jonathan Rose Companies; Autodesk; Natural Resources Defense Council; Enterprise

Via Verde

Via Verde in the South Bronx — a sustainable, affordable housing project by Phipps Rose Dattner Grimshaw.

Phipps Rose Dattner Grimshaw, courtesy AIANY

The success of a sustainable and affordable housing development hinges on the community in which it resides, not on the building itself. This insight has helped Jonathan Rose of Jonathan Rose Companies develop a portfolio of successful affordable housing projects, some in areas that initially fought the idea with a not-in-my-backyard mentality. With the Burnham Building, David & Joyce Dinkins Gardens, and the upcoming Via Verde, Rose has proven that sustainable architecture can thrive in the intensely budget-conscious arena of affordable housing.

“Green Affordable Housing” is one of a handful of documentaries in the PBS series dedicated to sustainable design, Design e2. The film opens with examples of our past misguided attempts at affordable housing — specifically the isolated brick tower planted on a swath of dying grass with little or no community social life. Previously, the goal was to provide as many housing units as possible, as cheaply as possible, creating a monoculture in these towers. This model was doomed to failure as it ignored the critical biological principle of strength in diversity. A sustainable community should support a poly-culture of individuals and families.

In his quest to strengthen communities through diversity, Rose’s recent sustainable, affordable housing developments all include a mix of uses. In the adaptive reuse of the Burnham Company’s abandoned boiler and greenhouse plant in Irvington, NY, Rose with Steven Tilly Architects not only engaged in a housing renovation, but also inserted the town library into the ground floor. This allowed the existing community to interact with the low-income residents enough to realize that “they” are a lot like “us.”

With David & Joyce Dinkins Gardens in Harlem (expected to come in at $170-per-square-foot), Rose, in partnership with non-profit Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement (HCCI), built on the idea of diversity. Not only does the building mix uses with the Youth Construction Trades Academy and the Learning Garden on the ground floor, but also mixes the types of affordable housing — one-third of the units are reserved for 18-year-olds who have aged-out of foster care, and the remaining two-thirds are for low-income residents.

Finally, Rose’s current affordable housing project is the highly publicized Via Verde, winner of the New Housing New York competition with Phipps Houses and architecture firms Dattner Architects and Grimshaw, collectively PRDG. Located on an abandoned lot in the South Bronx, Via Verde will include 139 rental units and 63 co-op apartments, designed sustainably with an emphasis on health. The project will include a Montefiore community health center, an exercise facility, and an organic food co-op, promoting community contacts not only at street level, but also vertically within the project via stepping roof gardens and linked paths.

A strong community, like an ecosystem, consists of a network of multiple linked systems where greater complexity leads to a richer social and cultural experience for those living there. In Via Verde, the South Bronx will have a symbol of a new way forward, repairing the fabric of a community, and Rose, a man who believes in the potential of people regardless of their social or economic standing, has set a precedent of success.

NYC’s Waterfront Washes Up in Debate

Event: Berlin-New York Dialogues: City of Water: A Documentary and Panel Discussion about the Future of New York’s Waterfront
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.30.07
Speakers: Majora Carter — Executive Director, Sustainable South Bronx; Carter Craft — Director of Programs and Policy, Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance; Greg O’Connell — Manager, Pier 41 Associates; William Kornblum — Sociology Professor, CUNY Graduate Center
Moderator: Daniel Wiley — Community Coordinator for Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez
Organizers: AIANY; Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance; Municipal Art Society
Sponsors: Underwriters: Digital Plus; RFR Holding; Patrons: Eurohypo; IULA-International Urban Landscape Award; Lead Sponsors: Carnegie Corporation of New York; Tishman Speyer Properties; Supporter: The German Consulate General New York; Friends: Aucapina Cabinetry; bartcoLighting; Getmapping; Osram Sylvania. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs

City of Water

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance

We are in an era where NYC’s waterfront is seemingly up for grabs. The maritime industrial trade that literally pushed and pulled the city to prominence has been relegated to back-of-the-house status and sent to New Jersey, leaving the shoreline infrastructure abandoned and prime for redevelopment. With development already underway along the Long Island City-Greenpoint-Williamsburg stretch of the East River, advocates including U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez are expressing concern that the public’s basic right of access to the water is being ignored by private developers. Many dismiss Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff’s vision of an emerald necklace as a “Disneyification” of the waterfront, where a promenade in the shadow of a 40-story building produces a sterilized environment virtually eliminating the public’s physical interaction with the water. As a counterpoint, the town dock often becomes a vibrant nexus of community interaction and does what the ever-present promenade does not — allows people to get into the water (gasp!).

These issues, among others, are captured in City of Water, a documentary produced by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. The three opening scenes of the film set the stage: first, a stoic workhorse of the harbor, a McAllister tugboat pushes a gravel barge in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge; next, Doctoroff appears promoting the current redevelopment of NYC’s waterfront at an historic rate; and finally, Velazquez counters, stressing the need for public access and use of the waterfront.

A proposal from the Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) for the Oak Point Maritime Eco-Industrial Park seeks to appease all three players in waterfront development. Majora Carter, executive director of SSBx, describes the project as an opportunity to create living-wage jobs, promote a clean-tech economy, and utilize inter-modal transportation opportunities (barge and rail). Sadly, the city currently has other plans for the Oak Point site — a 2,000-inmate jail.

The slow burn of the city’s last major redevelopment of the waterfront — Robert Moses’ asphalt necklace known as the West Side Highway and the FDR Drive — has prompted waterfront advocates to speak with a louder voice this time around. Unfortunately, the odd man out in this debate seems to be those hoping to enhance the working waterfront in the city, prompting fears that the workhorse that got us here may soon be tossed overboard.

Small Firms Take Expansive Measures

Location: Center for Architecture, 11.06.07
Speakers: Oliver Freundlich & Brian Papa — Partners, MADE; Mark Tsurumaki, AIA — Principal, Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects; Fernaz Mansuri, Assoc. AIA — Lead Designer, De-Spec
Moderator: Anne Guiney — New York Editor, The Architect’s Newspaper
Organizer: AIANY New Practice Committee
Sponsors: Exhibition Underwriters: Associated Fabrication, Häfele, SKYY90; Patrons: 3Form, ABC Imaging; Sponsors: Severud Associates, Thornton Tomasetti, OS Fabrication & Design, The Conran Shop, Perkins Eastman; Supporters: Arup, bartcoLighting, Fountainhead Construction, FXFowle Architects, MG & Company, Microsol Resources, Structural Enterprises; Friends: Barefoot Wines, Cosentini Associates, DEGW, Delta Faucet Company, Perkins Eastman

While principals of small architecture firms often maintain meticulous control of their projects from design through construction, many of the not-so-glamorous issues related to running small businesses weigh equally on their minds. Fernaz Mansuri, Assoc. AIA, lead designer at De-Spec, is as proud of the sophisticated accounting system she has refined over the past few years as she is of the firm’s design projects. For Oliver Freundlich and Brian Papa, partners at MADE, one of the biggest challenges has been reining in the paperwork associated with tracking a design studio, fabrication shop, and contracting team under one roof (not to mention the added caveat that design/build is illegal in NY).

Lacking the financial resources of larger firms, small firms have to be creative when it comes to revenue sources. For this reason, Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis (LTL) Architects and MADE build many of the projects they design. In the case of LTL Architects, getting into fabrication in their early restaurant work was a necessity due to the complexity of their designs, inflated cost estimates from inexperienced contractors, and tight budgets. Offering more than one service is a key survival method for small practices, since it helps insulate them from market fluctuations. Another motivation for LTL Architects and MADE is the extra level of quality control that comes with building their own work.

While De-Spec does not offer general contracting or fabrication services, it, too, thinks outside the box regarding revenue. “If we spec it, we buy it,” says Mansuri. “This way we avoid the contractor’s mark-up and we avoid attempts to substitute inferior products.” This practice provides more wiggle room in the budget, usually paying for additional design work that often goes uncompensated.

The biggest challenge for small firms is making the jump in scale from furniture design and loft renovations to larger ground-up construction projects. All three firms agreed that seizing every opportunity to promote, publish, and even pursue more public work (installations, restaurants, and retail) is essential. It is also important to be strategic about amplifying a small opportunity. For LTL Architects, Bornhuetter Hall at the College of Wooster in Ohio represented this jump in scale, but the project was not simply handed to them by the college. It was the result of a relationship built from an initial contract to study an existing residence hall. As more single-task contracts proved successful, the commission for the residence hall’s design became inevitable. Based on the scale of recent projects on LTL Architects’ website, it seems this approach has paid off.