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August 10, 2005

Developmentally Challenged

The Architect's Newspaper
ARCHPAPER.COM
by Peter Slatin

Developers have been catching on that brand-name architects and community outreach can add dollar value to their projects. That’s a big development in itself, but doesn’t always translate to good development.Peter Slatin reflects on how developers can do good while doing well.

The sudden tussle between developers over Brooklyn’s Atlantic rail yards throws into grand scale a classic New York question: Do developers give a damn about how their buildings impact a given community?

Bruce Ratner, wearing Frank Gehry on his sleeve from the get-go, rode into Brooklyn Borough Hall in December 2003 to unveil a master plan for an arena-anchored district, which includes millions of square feet of office, retail, and residential real estate, much of which will rise from a platform built over the Atlantic rail yard. The plan, which would overwhelm the two adjacent, low-scale neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights, has also had community opposition from the get-go. This hasn’t stopped it from ballooning in ambition, scale, and budget. But despite the project’s unwieldy size, difficult financing, and an angry community, Ratner’s chances of winning the bid for the rail yards, being auctioned off by the MTA, are excellent. He started from the top down, lining up powerful political supporters, sports celebrities, investors, and yes, a superstar architect. The MTA soft-peddled its RFP, which has given Ratner’s effort the appearance of a closed deal.

A community group, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, began contacting developers in hopes of finding one that would make an alternate bid. Enter Gary Barnett and Extell Development Corporation with their scaled-down scheme: 2,000 units topping out at 28 stories compared to Ratner’s 6,000 units at 60, spread out over 8 acres instead of 21. Extell’s architect is Cetra/Ruddy, a decent if uninspired production firm whose vision lacks the punch and excitement of Gehry’s fistful of highrises. The Extell scheme does, however, provide connecting tissue and green space for the two low-scale, old Brooklyn neighborhoods that will be divided under Ratner’s plan.

What does all this say about whether developers care about the places they transform? The answer is, They do care…up to a point. Good development is almost always a trade-off that begins and ends with the pencil—and I’m not talking about the drafting pencil.

It also says that good-guy developers can switch hats, well, on a dime. Barnett is a white knight in this part of Brooklyn, but he is under heavy fire from Upper West Siders railing against his plans for two skyscrapers straddling Broadway at 99th and 100th streets. (The project is now under even more scrutiny after a structure on the 100th Street site collapesed on July 14.) Ratner, at one time the city’s commissioner of consumer affairs, is the cat’s meow to sports fans seduced by the idea of the major leagues returning to the borough, but others see his plan as antithetical to everything Brooklyn, even though he has hired one of the world’s great architects. The architects of Cetra/Ruddy might be regarded as heroes in Fort Greene and Prospect Heights, but in Red Hook they are the bad guys, having designed the six-story residential project at 160 Imlay Street that the local Chamber of Commerce recently tried to halt (See “By Hook or Crook,” page 1). The point is, you never know who the good guy is.

The good news is that more and more developers want to be the good guy. They are patronizing good architecture, even if their motivations are not entirely altruistic. Good design sells, in the end, better than bad design. It lasts longer, both physically and psychically; it creates its own set of values. Developers have also realized that good design is not the province of well-known architects. Indeed, we’ve seen some pretty horrible work by high-profile architects in prominent locations—work that can drastically alter the character of a neighborhood, like Astor Place, for example. In such an event, one can only hope that the pre-existing condition has enough depth and breadth to sustain itself.

Given these circumstances and the multiple real-world challenges that confront any project, it’s especially exciting when good development—informed but not intimidated by context and community—comes into place. And good development is happening throughout the city on a wide variety of scales and property types. Even as examples of tired design and cheap production abound, one can find reason to celebrate smart efforts at different stages of development, especially in residential and office design.

Take the small Chelsea/Meatpacking District projects of developer Jeffrey M. Brown. From the start, both in Manhattan and Philadelphia, Brown has turned to SHoP Architects for his renovations and new projects, and has been unafraid to let them have their own ideas. Brown has pushed the envelope farther than did developer Robert Wennet, another Meatpacking District maven who was also active in neighborhood development in cities such as Miami and Washington, D.C. Developers like Time Equities have also long sought ways to use their project to enrich their neighborhoods, as well as themselves. Richard Meier’s fine Perry Street towers stand out in the way they draw on their neighborhood for context and then alter it with a single stroke. That effect is driven as much by siting as by design. Should developer Frank Sciame’s vision for Santiago Calatrava’s twisting residential palace ever be realized, it too will transform a historic district with a magnificent gesture.

On the office-building or commercial front, there are a handful of projects in the works that are significantly different from the standard-issue skyscraper to indicate that their developers have a committed vision. The least obvious of these is 505 Fifth Avenue, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox for developer Axel Stawski’s Kipp-Stawski Group. It’s a relatively small, neat design that is not all that unconventional. But Stawski has gone the extra mile inside, commissioning reclusive light artist James Turrell to transform the building’s lobby into a light sculpture that is intended to go beyond decoration, setting it a world apart from the granite/ marble standard by requiring something in turn from visitors.

Just a block west is the city’s second largest construction site, after Ground Zero (which is not something we can discuss here while considering good development). The big hole is for One Bryant Park, designed by Cook + Fox for the Durst Organization. In contrast to 505 Fifth, this is a huge building. It deploys crystalline forms in a tapered structure to minimize its undeniable bulk. But the developer’s announced intention to achieve LEED Platinum status is an important step for a commercial structure of this size, especially since about half of the space is being built on spec. The use of an efficient cogeneration energy system, recycled steel, sub-floor air circulation, and graywater recycling are all part of the package.

Finally, there is the Hearst Building at 57th Street and Eighth Avenue, designed by Foster and Partners as a corporate and environmental showcase. Without flinching at the sharp contrast between historic and contemporary, the architects scooped out the guts of the old headquarters, built for Hearst by Joseph Urban and George B. Post & Sons in 1927, and inserted a new iconic structure in the base. Hearst is seeking LEED Gold certification. If one can accept (or even consider) the difficult premise that there is such a thing as good corporate citizenship, this building strives to express that.

While developers and architects will always do battle over design’s place in the hierarchy of place-making—still a very linear concept in the minds of most development practitioners—continued pressure can help move that mark. And then there will always be some who understand that architecture is the fulcrum that can successfully balance neighborhoods and returns.

Peter Slatin is the founder of www.theslatinreport.com, and writes our regular real estate column, Curbside. He lives in what was an unglam Upper West Side developer monstrosity when it was built that is considered highly desirable real estate today.

Posted by lumi at August 10, 2005 7:25 AM