Tag Archive for #urbandesign

Make it Even Bigger

With yesterday’s announcement, Governor Cuomo brought a needed sense of urgency to the redevelopment of the Farley Post Office and Penn Station in Manhattan, a now nearly twenty year saga most notable for its total lack of progress.

It’s a great start, and an ambitious plan, but not ambitious enough. Here’s what should be on the table.

Evict Madison Square Garden. Back in 2013, the City Council wisely declined to grant MSG management a special permit to operate in perpetuity, and instead gave another ten years. The clock is ticking, and now it’s time for the Council to close ranks, dig in, and make it clear that MSG has to find another site, build it out, and vacate. No extensions.

Tear the Garden Down. It’s old, it’s outmoded, and the fact that a even Newark has a better-designed arena should be a regional embarrassment. It also sits on top of the busiest, most important train station in the country. No half measures here, no insertion of a glazed entry in place of the theater. Tear it all down and build a new, state-of-the art railway station that will serve the region for the next century or so.

Dump Moynihan Station. It’s a seductive repurposing of a building, a relic of 1970s design thinking that appeals only to the preservation/adaptive reuse crowd. For the rest of us, it’s a poorly conceived plan that would never be quite right. Not even Amtrak wanted any part of this one; even they didn’t want their waiting room a block away from the train platforms. If the project had been done twenty years or so ago, when first proposed, it would have been here already and we would have seen just how flawed the concept it. By living with it.

Move Madison Square Garden. Here’s a radical proposal: tear down the west half (or more) of the Farley Post Office and replace it with a new, up-to-date Madison Square Garden with all the amenities and features that a 21st century arena needs. Preserve the magnificent portico and principal façade on Eight Avenue and incorporate it into the new complex (rail and entertainment) in a creative way befitting the times we live in. As for the west half, yes, McKim, Mead & White designed it, but it’s a loading dock for heaven’s sake. Let’s preserve what’s worth saving and remake the rest in our contemporary image.

OK, how do we pay for all this? Fair question. The knee-jerk reaction these days seems to be to get a private sector developer onboard, give them a piece of the action, in this case the retail space, and turn them loose. The problem is, developers, like all business people, have their own agendas, which are usually not aligned with anything resembling the public good. The other problem is that this approach didn’t work with Related and Vornado in control of the Farley Post Office project, which is why they are out and a new RFP is coming. The alternative is Federal money, and lots of it; there’s a very strong argument that this is a national growth driver that deserves Federal money. Add to that a massive state bond financing, and a requirement that the private developer selected to build all this should be able to finance whatever piece of the action it gets upfront, and we should get there. You can read the NY Times article here http://nyti.ms/1THfP90.

Time to think really, really big. Maybe even huge.

Tunnel Rats

Yesterday, none other than the New York Times editorial board got on the train to urge the construction of new rail tunnels under the Hudson to alleviate the strain on the existing tunnels, which are around 100 years old and in dire need of replacement, or augmentation, or both. It’s about time.

Readers of Naked Urbanism already know the back story: how Chris Christie torpedoed the ARC project back in 2010 that would have addressed this now urgent situation. No matter what he said at the time, he was angling to be President, and used this issue to vault onto the national stage, playing as he was to the national Republican Party to burnish his credentials as a slash-and-burn rock ribbed conservative, the needs of his constituents be damned.

Clearly, the New York metro area contributes much more to the national economy than its size would suggest, and Republican politicians across the country would ever admit. But it’s true. We have more high-value, high income jobs here per capita than anywhere else, save perhaps the Bay Area/Silicon Valley, and I would suggest that our distribution is more diverse than theirs. So this is arguably both a local and a Federal matter.

Now that Christie’s performance to date in the Republican circus makes clear that his Presidential aspirations were far-fetched at best, and delusional at worst, it’s time to get back to reality and face the music. But how to pay for this?

Let’s start with how the ARC, a $10 billion project, was to be financed. The Federal government committed to 51% of the cost. The balance was to come from New Jersey Transit, the state of New Jersey (until Christie pulled the plug), and the Port Authority.

So if the Feds were ready to step up for 51% a few years back, there is no obvious reason why they wouldn’t do at least that much again. The revised estimate is now $20 billion, so there should be $10 billion right there. New Jersey will benefit tremendously from this project once it is done, and so should step up, too, for big money: According to a study done by the Regional Plan Association for the ARC, New Jersey can expect to see another $375 million in new tax revenue. If New Jersey contributed even a portion of that windfall, say $200 million, which would be recurring income, mind you, that would cover the debt service on nearly $4 billion in public finance at 5%. That would get us to $14 billion. New Jersey Transit should also take a piece, as should New York State, since New York will benefit from is a precedent to financing projects like this. At least on the back of the envelope, this job can be paid for, and we should start it immediately.

Chris Christie ceded the leadership on this one five years ago as he prepared for his quixotic quest on the backs of his constituents. Senators Menendez and Booker from New Jersey seem to absent on this one, Menendez possibly distracted by his indictment last April, and Booker likely wearing out his thumbs tweeting. So Chuck Schumer has rightly taken the lead here; the spectacle of spanking a deserving Republican a mere side benefit to this important project.

Reflecting on 1 World Trade Center

With Michael Kimmelman weighing in on 1 World Trade Center earlier this week, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the lessons learned.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was an Associate at SOM back in the mid-1980s, where it was my privilege to work with many of the very talented architects and designers who eventually played leading roles in the design and construction of 1 World Trade Center.  Unfortunately, talent and hard work are too often placed in the service of disappointing ends.

While SOM’s execution is superb, Mr. Kimmelman’s overall assessment was too kind.

Even so, when SOM shoved Daniel Libeskind out of the way, and I have no doubt that their fingerprints are all over that one, we were done a great service.  Daniel Libeskind is really in the business of winning architectural competitions, a great business by the way, but not necessarily the same business as actually making the buildings that his renderings conjure up.  As seductive as the renderings may have been, and they were, and as heartfelt his accompanying “Memory Foundations” essay was, and it was the best part of his entire submission, the resulting buildings would have been even more disappointing than what was really built.  The fault, though, really lies in the plan, which was flawed from the beginning.

Before that beginning, there was a far better plan back in 2002, proposed by Beyer Blinder Belle, another well-known and very well regarded New York firm.  BBB’s plan clearly showed that they had reflected on the costly lessons learned from dozens of failed urban development projects since the 1960s.  Unlike the plan that finally took hold at the Trade Center site, BBB discarded many of the now-discredited planning strategies that go back nearly sixty years; more if you count the original sin, which is LeCorbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris from the 1920s.

Beyer Blinder Belle’s proposal charted a new course.  Streets destroyed for the construction of the original WTC would be restored.  The office space lost would be completely replaced, but in a series of smaller buildings, more appropriately and urbanely scaled.   There was an opportunity for mixed use development, so that people could live, work, dine, drink, meet, greet, take recreation, and enjoy fuller lives all in one neighborhood.  Open spaces would be woven into the new urban fabric, creating a harmonious rhythm of built and open, brick and green.  Many different architects would design individual buildings, creating variety, interest, and excitement.  There would, of course, be a memorial, perhaps more intimate and less bombastic than what is there.  And the economics would be more manageable, the growth more flexible and organic, responding to true market forces, not subvented ones.

The opportunity was there to reimagine urban development and redevelopment, and establish New York in its rightful place as the city where great ideas come from.  You can see at least some of that proposal here http://to.pbs.org/1nHZi6E

The reaction?  A resounding chorus of disdain and derision led by the late Herbert Muschamp, Mr. Kimmelman’s predecessor at the Times, and joined by the mainstream press, even, inexplicably, by Ada Louise Huxtable.

Mr. Muschamp, suffering from what I can only understand as a severe case of cultural inferiority, railed against BBB’s proposal, even going so far as to call it “blah, blah, and blah”, advocating instead a collection of office towers, each designed by a global superstar architect, arrayed as if in a kind of museum of late-career-toppers by the superannuated darlings of the global architectural press.  Mr. Muschamp seemed to believe that by building these things, New York would finally get “good” architecture.  The fact is, New York has lots of talented architects, and plenty of good buildings; while developers may need them to push their wares, New York as a city doesn’t need branded starchitect buildings the way, for example, Milwaukee needed its Calatrava, or China needs just about everything.

Chances are, given George Pataki’s delusions of national office, the Port Authority’s internal machinations, and the power of not only Larry Silverstein but the entire New York real estate business, no other plan stood a chance, and the press went along for the ride. Still, one has to wonder what form the discussion would have taken had Mr. Muschamp and others considered the logic of BBB’s plan, and advocated its more evolved thinking, instead of championing the outmoded ideas that have driven the planning of the Trade Center site.

There’s cause for cautious optimism here.  Mr. Kimmelman has had some success in his advocacy for the relocation of Madison Square Garden, the demolition of the current Garden, and the construction of a world-class new Penn Station.

That’s a project we all can, and should, get behind.