Wednesday, September 09, 2009

FAQ: the reason for a new architect; curiously unchanged arena costs; why Gehry was dropped; and "vaportecture"

We now have some clues that suggest answers to some lingering questions

Was new architect SHoP brought on to respond to widespread disapproval of the June Ellerbe Becket arena design that leaked? Yes.

The Observer reports:
SHoP was brought on in June, said principal Gregg Pasquarelli, the same month that saw vitriolic criticism of early arena renderings from government officials and The Times’ architecture critic. Mr. Ratner denied that SHoP—which is known for avant-garde design, along with highly distinctive building skins—was brought on as a response to the criticism, but rather he said he was looking to bring in an additional firm to enhance the design.

That critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, isn't buying it, writing in the Times:
When Bruce Ratner, the project’s developer, fired Frank Gehry last year — after getting city approval on the basis of Mr. Gehry’s design — and replaced him with Ellerbe Becket, a firm known for churning out generic stadiums, it seemed like a cynical double cross...

Chastened, Mr. Ratner quickly hired Shop Architects, a young New York firm, to spiff up the arena...


Ratner had been working with Ellerbe Becket for a while. The designs that emerged looked like an Ellerbe Becket arena. Had the designs not been leaked--allegedly by City Planning Commission Chairperson Amanda Burden--and generated scorn, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Borough President Marty Markowitz, as well as the Empire State Development Corporation, would be praising the arena design.

Is the arena costing much less? No.

Remember, the arena was once supposed to cost $435 million, but escalated last year to $950 million. When the Empire State Development Corporation issued the Modified General Project Plan in June, the arena was to cost $772 million, albeit without financing costs.

In June, the arena was supposed to still be 850,000 square feet--remember, the project is supposed to be essentially unchanged--but now would be 675,000 square feet, without space for a hockey rink.

Even though the arena would be smaller, the savings seem slim. The Observer, which notes that the developer hopes to have $700 million in tax-exempt bonds issued, reports:
Mr. Ratner said the total cost of the arena is between $800 million and $900 million, depending how the costs are counted, apparently leaving Forest City with a gap of up to $200 million to cover on its own, should it be successful in selling the bonds. Mr. Ratner said Forest City would use its own equity to do so, though he acknowledged he is looking for investors to put in new equity.

Apparently it's still expensive to build an arena. But it's more expensive to build an arena and four towers around it in four years.

Was Gehry dropped because his design was impossible? At least in part.

Yes, a marquee architect is the most costly, but, as I wrote in June, the inability to construct Building 1, with the Urban Room, rendered Gehry's design impossible, so the issue went beyond cost. (Indeed, all four arena block buildings were to be integrated into the central structure.)

Ouroussoff agrees:
In Mr. Gehry’s original design, all of the structures were conceived as part of a single cohesive scheme. (All five of the buildings’ foundations, for example, would have to have been built at the same time.) To defer additional costs, Mr. Ratner has divided up the design. The arena will be built first, and then, he says, the foundations for the residential and commercial buildings will be dug, once he is ready to start the next stage of construction.

This risks producing an oddly clunky composition. Although Mr. Ratner says he still plans to build the towers, possibly hiring an architect for the first one by the end of the year, the current design was clearly conceived to be able to stand alone, and it is hard to see how it would be integrated into a larger, convincing urban whole.


In other words, the buildings may be "mirages,", as I described them in today's renderings. Or as Field of Schemes's Neil de Mause put it, "vaportecture."

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