NYC Architecture and Development


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Mar 20, 2009
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NYC development projects get mentioned and discussed time and again here - so I hope it will be useful to create a dedicated thread.

To start off, here's a great op-ed in today's NYT on the architectural, development and transportation priorities for the next mayor:

Building a Better City
For the Next Mayor, a To-Do List

On Jan. 1, the next mayor — either Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate, or Joe Lhota, the Republican — will face a fiscal cliff of unpaid bills. Schools will need to be saved, union contracts negotiated — the future of New York envisioned.

In his 12-year tenure, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg built a gleaming Oz of new parks and plazas, skyscrapers and bike lanes. This didn’t stop plenty of terrible buildings from going up. But a focus on streets and architecture redrew whole swaths of the city: Brownstone Brooklyn boomed, the High Line opened, industrial wastelands became waterfront playgrounds. Urban living became a cause, a public good. Design, down to the curbside and the public bench, was no longer an afterthought, although the city became increasingly unaffordable to many.

The next mayor can keep architecture and planning front and center or risk taking the city backward. Courage, guile and not a little art will be required to meet the obvious challenge: building on the good parts of Mr. Bloomberg’s urban vision, but also doing some course correcting. The social welfare of all cities is inextricable from their physical fabric. A more equitable and livable city is ultimately smartly and sustainably designed. New York’s competitive future depends on getting this right.

Some moves are no-brainers: extending the bike lanes, bike shares, the plaza program, rapid-bus service, the High Line and the No. 7 subway; pushing forward with charging stations for electric vehicles, preparations for the next Sandy-like storm, and PlaNYC 2030, Mayor Bloomberg’s guidelines for a greener future.

It would also be hard to find a cogent argument against extending the Bloomberg administration’s Design and Construction Excellence Program, which raised the bar for public buildings like branch libraries, fire stations and police precincts, spreading new work by gifted local architects and by some stars, too, across the five boroughs.

At the same time, the billionaire mayor, unbeholden to special interests and devoted to data, attracted competent and dynamic commissioners, whom he let run departments as they saw fit. And he hired a powerful deputy mayor, Daniel L. Doctoroff, who cooked up major renewal projects across the city. The American Institute of Architects has floated the notion that the next mayor should appoint a deputy for design and planning. The city relies on zoning, a blunt instrument, to shape communities, which leaves us with atrocities like Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue development.

A new deputy mayor could coordinate parks, schools, transportation, landmarks, buildings and small-business development — now controlled by agencies that have too often failed to work together — in ways that might streamline construction, save tax dollars and foster neighborhoods. A deputy mayor for design could also help rethink some undercooked Bloomberg initiatives, like redeveloping Willets Point in Queens as a shopping mall; rezoning 73 blocks of East Midtown; and awarding $150 million in taxpayer money to redo the New York Public Library building at 42nd Street before there was even a solid renovation plan. (That plan may yet be forthcoming, as library officials promise, but, meanwhile, branches across the city are starved for cash.)

Everything worth doing in New York comes down to money, of course: who has it, how to get it. Building even one new PATH station ends up costing billions of dollars. Cognizant that government can’t pay for everything, Mayor Bloomberg trusted developers and the rich to share his sense of public duty. That produced some innovative public-private ventures, like Brooklyn Bridge Park. But it also fueled the mantra of disgruntled New Yorkers that much of Manhattan was becoming a corporate retreat, illustrated by the conversion of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village into the site for yet another luxury condo complex, and by One57, a 1,000-foot apartment tower for Russian oligarchs and other zillionaires. Now rising across from Carnegie Hall, it is a blight on the skyline.

By contrast, recent residences for the formerly homeless in Los Angeles and San Francisco have been buildings of architectural distinction — boons to their cities. One of the lessons of Via Verde, a pioneering mixed-income development in the South Bronx, which has thrived since opening last year (I drop in from time to time on the gardening club), is that a modest premium for green design and architectural excellence produces social and economic dividends. A new mayor could encourage more exceptional designs like Via Verde for at least a percentage of subsidized housing projects.

And he could also work with Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development, which helps oversee the New York City Housing Authority, whose residents account for nearly 5 percent of the city’s population. The authority houses many of New York’s poorest citizens in often bleak and marooned projects. Understandably wary of politicians after decades of broken promises, residents view with suspicion any talk about repurposing parking lots for schools or retail. There was a backlash, including from the mayoral candidates, after the Bloomberg administration proposed leasing some public housing land for market-rate development. But these ideas are still worth exploring, if focused on improving and diversifying neighborhoods and knitting them into the fabric of the city — and if done in collaboration with, and to benefit, residents.

The new mayor ought to try to tackle another housing challenge, posed by the city’s changing demographic: there are more single households, thanks to the young urban migration and the silver tsunami, that gathering wave of urban-minded retirees. The city’s current housing stock doesn’t come close to meeting growing needs. Outmoded regulations and onerous state requirements get in the way of addressing this issue, like scores of others. The city’s brick-and-mortar costs are twice as high as Chicago’s. In some parts of town, developers must still add parking for every new housing unit and retail space. It’s time to redo the books and take a hatchet to rules that only make it harder to live here.

Living in the city is one challenge; getting out of it is another. A direct train to and from LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports has long been dreamed about. Other cities around the world have been investing heavily in transportation. London has boomed where it has recently renovated its trains and hubs. All the hoopla about developing East Midtown and Hudson Yards to attract global business assumes a smooth and swift shuttle to the airports.

That’s a joke today. The Shanghai Metro began operations in 1995 and has a network of 300 miles, with more than 300 stations. New York City pondered the Second Avenue subway for decades, poured billions of dollars into constructing the first measly miles, and is still years away from a single functioning station.

The one-seat airport train ride would at least take the city a step into the 21st century, and there happen to be ideas out there about how to get this done and paid for. Like all big, complicated transit projects here, this one would require the new mayor to get the Port Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York state and federal governments on board, which is where courage and guile come in, along with the bully pulpit.

Like pushing for a one-seat ride, fixing Pennsylvania Station means getting the responsible parties — Madison Square Garden, the railroads, city and state agencies, private developers, and, above all, the governor — to sit down at the same table and negotiate, because the mayor’s authority is limited. The governor should have plenty to gain, since the stakes could hardly be higher for the region or the upside greater. It’s the mayor’s role to drive that point home.

One more thing, for the moment. We’ve had a technocrat as mayor who speaks fluent Wall Street. We could use a bard.

I mean someone in tune with what makes the city hum at street level. Brooklyn’s renaissance hasn’t just been about cheaper housing costs. Areas like Williamsburg and Park Slope are every bit as unaffordable to most New Yorkers as SoHo or Chelsea. Brooklyn’s attraction — to residents and start-ups — has to do with its neighborhood feel, characterful architecture, intimate scale and diversity.

Yes, the city benefits from attracting more rich people, but economic diversity is not just a campaign slogan. A big part of what keeps the city competitive has to do with its pedestrian-friendly streets; lively, inspired public spaces; and eclectic neighborhoods and populations.

The threat now is not just that longtime African-American residents are quitting historic areas from Harlem to Fort Greene because New York no longer feels as if it were still their home. It’s also what an executive at a giant bank in Lower Manhattan said after Hurricane Sandy: companies like his weather floods because they’ve got insurance. But the shopkeepers and small businesses, which supply downtown with its lifeblood, struggle to afford the city even when there’s no disaster. If they leave, he told me, the major employers will follow, because the neighborhood will no longer be worth staying in.

So a new administration must protect and promote local merchants, along with residents, in areas where they’re being priced out. New York’s neighborhoods need to remain magnets for young entrepreneurs, workers, artists and dreamers.

That generation moves to the music of the streets.

The next mayor should, too.
Yes, NYC has an affordability problem.

How does that theme fit with "one seat airport train ride" which is mostly a bone thrown to rich business travelers?
I was reading a lengthy discussion about NYC affordability on earlier today and nearly every poster - to a man agreed that NYC had an affordability issue and that it was threatening the health of the city. Nobody offered a solution.

Is there an actual solution here short of governments stepping in and regulating rents/sale prices? Is it a matter of opening the floodgates to new units and depressing property values by providing too much supply? Are developers stupid enough to actually do that kind of over-exhuberent construction?

I'm starting to wonder if there truly is no real, feasible solution to the urban affordability problems of NYC and to a lesser extent, Boston. It seems like this might be an "elephant in the room" that nobody wants to talk about.
Building more supply is part of it. But the real driver of the demand is that there are so few places in the United States that have the urban life that cities like NYC and Boston have. And they're attractive despite all their problems because there's literally no other options.

There's always going to be people who want to move to NYC or Boston. But they don't have to be the only attractive cities in the US, or just some of the few. A resurgence of the smaller cities is important too. Newark, Paterson, Lowell, Providence, etc. And more independent cities like Pittsburgh, Minneapolis/St Paul, Denver too. That's one reason I'm glad for speakers like Jeff Speck and Chuck Marohn who go around to a lot of places and work with the smaller cities and towns around the country.
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^ I tried to write that same sentiment, but couldn't quite capture it succinctly. Well said.

A little competition in choices for great urban living will be a net gain to places like New York and Boston. We'll never be worse off for other cities becoming desirable as well.
Good luck to NYC with their (is it even a contest anymore) new mayor deBlasio. They'll have to get used to seeing him yanking up his shirt and consulting his navel for advice.

You can take the moonbat out of Cambridge...
Chicago has a high level of urbanity but it's much much cheaper (even in the nice parts). Why is that?
Chicago has a high level of urbanity but it's much much cheaper (even in the nice parts). Why is that?

I've heard a couple of theories. The most prevalent one has to do with Chicago not being directly on an ocean. The coasts - both east and west - tend to be inherently more expensive than the central parts of the U.S. For that matter, a lack of direct ocean access may be the reason that a city like Philadelphia - which is far larger than Boston - doesn't seem to have nearly as much economic and cultural power on the region and country. Not to mention, real estate is somewhat cheaper because you can develop on all sides of the city. There isn't a large swath of water due east or west of the city limits.

I also perceive Chicago as being physically larger, flatter, and with more hospitable development conditions than some of the older cities in the east. I'm going there for the first time next weekend, so I'm eager to check that out.
Chicago is completely flat, which is rather remarkable when you're used to hilly cities. Regarding prices, average rent is probably lower because of sprawl in Chicagoland. The brutal winter weather probably "helps" too. But if you want to live in a nice place like Old Town then you'll be looking at Boston-level of prices.
Chicago is completely flat, which is rather remarkable when you're used to hilly cities. Regarding prices, average rent is probably lower because of sprawl in Chicagoland. The brutal winter weather probably "helps" too. But if you want to live in a nice place like Old Town then you'll be looking at Boston-level of prices.

Do "nice places" in Chicago cost "nice place" Boston prices, or average Boston prices?
Well, I haven't looked for housing in the Chicago area. But if I look at the street where my grandmother's family's old glass factory used to be, it's easily $2000/mo for a 1BR. Near shops and the L.

I remember visiting my then-recently married friend in another neighborhood not too far away from there. He was living in a 2BR with his new wife, and also his brother. I'm pretty sure newly married couples are not eager to share their space like that unless they must. And both had good jobs too.

P.S. I guess we need to spinoff a Chicago thread now too.
in lieu of a spinoff thread....

i'm a 10 year boston resident recently turned chicagoan. I've been here 4 months (and occasionally still lurk on archboston, obviously).

It is cheaper here, real estate especially; not quite as much as online cost of living calculators predicted, but i'd say all things total it is about 75-80% of the day to day cost of being a Bostonian. Real estate is lower than that though, anecdotally i'd say 2/3 of the comparable in Boston. We had been in JP the last 5 years, in a nice apartment and our rent had not been raised since we moved in in 2008-- we even negotiated the rent down $50/month. So we were paying below 2008 market rate there, and moved here into an insane rental market. My brother who has lived here for over a decade was blown away by the rents we were encountering. We found a nice apartment in Logan Square, which to my mind is as near comparable to JP as anything here and...... we pay $450/mo less than we did there. We're closer to the el than we were the T, and closer to a boulevard park than we were Jamaica Pond (though there is no comparison there--i miss the pond most of all).

Also we are house hunting now, looking to buy a 3 flat somewhere in a range of neighborhoods that would be equivalent to, say, JP, Somerville, Dorchester, West Roxbury, Brighton..... also for the amount we've been preapproved we could buy a standalone single family bungalow with detached garage, yard, and basement rental unit in this neighborhood if we wanted to go that route. In Boston we would have been condo-bound for probably the next 15 or 20 years with our incomes.

Beyond that, it is difficult to compare the cities. There are just fundamentally different beasts. But I really love it here. The subway line I'm on runs 24/7, the neighborhood is popping at all hours, my toddler has an amazing selection of playgrounds and parks, and people's work and how busy they are seems to be much less discussed at social events. Summer was great--most of you will laugh but the waterfront here is akin to Rio or Barcelona: 18 miles of continous public waterfront (fun fact: Lincoln Park is bigger than Central Park), dozens of beaches full of beautiful people, with an amazing skyline at your back.

The public transit system is expansive and reliable (so far, though I'm waiting for winter to really judge it), bicycle infrastructure is expanding every week it seems. I could go on and on. I love it here. Yes winter will suck, but it sucked in Boston too. The big difference is that it will be grayer here than in Boston-- there's plenty to keep me going until I see the sun again in April though.
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I always wondered how a city with some of the coldest weather in the States managed to keep most of its elevateds. My friend showed me some space heaters at a station, I guess that's part of it.

BTW, you might be interested in what recently transpired with the Iliana Expressway plans.
When I used to take take the Red Line they had overhead space heaters at Charles/MGH at one end of the platform. This precedes the recent renovation so maybe they are no longer there.
I'm not gonna lie, when I first heard about the high line plans I thought it was a hokey idea that was doomed to failure. It's absolutely incredible what it's actually done to that neighborhood, and how popular it is.
Very, very popular, the web site shows a crowd for a music event. It is planned to be extended north from West 30th Street to West 34th Street, curving west around a rail yard and, maybe, close enough to see the Hudson River.
I'm not gonna lie, when I first heard about the high line plans I thought it was a hokey idea that was doomed to failure. It's absolutely incredible what it's actually done to that neighborhood, and how popular it is.

I would reverse the cause and effect... Chelsea has been booming since the late 90s, the High Line is feeding off the gentrification of Chelsea and the crowds already there. Without the surroundings, the High Line would have been much less popular, and probably outright dangerous (as it can be at night).

I try to temper "high line over-enthusiasm" when I can ;) Especially because many people are getting crazy ideas about having "high lines" in various, much more desolated parts of cities, and they somehow magically think it's going to look like "The High Line" when they're done.
The best part of the High Line is that it is almost totally dog free.