Monday, October 24, 2011

Gilmartin, at MAS Summit; touts Gehry tower; Forest City signs on as sponsor; was summit about livability or competitive advantage?

Forest City Ratner's Frank Gehry-designed 8 Spruce Street, aka Beekman Tower, is truly a trophy for the developer--especially when there's no time for pesky questions.

n a five-minute presentation October 13 at the second annual Municipal Art Society Summit for New York City, Forest City Ratner Executive VP MaryAnne Gilmartin offered "Observations on the Making of a New York City Skyscraper." The blurb:
MaryAnne Gilmartin, executive vice president of commercial and residential development for Forest City Ratner Enterprises, will share with us the story of how the tallest residential tower in the western hemisphere came to be. Designed by Frank Gehry, 8 Spruce Street is a singular addition to the iconic New York City skyline and tells a rich story of design and development.
It does present a rich story, and Gilmartin used her brief time effectively, but she also left some things out, as I suggest in my annotations below. Her presentation begins at about 16:40 of the video embedded below, which mostly features an interesting presentation by Anthony Malkin about renovating and greening the Empire State Building.



Great site, great architect

The first of seven ingredients, Gilmartin said, was a great site. "Real estate: location, location, location. One acre site, purchased from the New York Downtown Hospital," she said. "Over 800,000 square feet of zoning, no height restriction, great mass transit. Great location. First and foremost, the most critical thing to a development project: great location."

That echoed the famous statement by Chuck Ratner, CEO of parent Forest City Enterprises that the Atlantic Yards site was "a great piece of real estate."

The second ingredient: "A great architect. Perhaps one of the world's great architects alive today, Frank Gehry is the genius behind our little tower. I can say that he is a man who possesses a great creative genius. the ability to think big and to think bold, at the same time fully aware of the constraints, the pressures and the realities of a private developer. And it is a great partnership, and the building in some ways symbolizes that great partnership between architect and builder."

In some ways, however, it's not. Gilmartin explained in October 2008 how Forest City at times had to rein Gehry in, and also to assign another architect the interiors.

Great public use?

The third element: "A great public use." As Gilmartin stated, "Our vertical city... started as a truly private tower... We then along the way came to know that a the city was in need of a school in Downtown in the area of TriBeca.. And that by putting the first public school on private land... we could create something well beyond a private residence... It is truly in some ways an important civic project for downtown, and we have two great plazas designed by Field Operations that, again, contribute to the civic nature of 8 Spruce Street."

That sounds a little like Bruce Ratner calling the purchase of the Nets a "civic venture."

As it happens, the public use aspect of the tower generated the some skepticism in New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff's laudatory 2/10/11 review:
Mr. Gehry’s design is least successful at the bottom, where he was forced to plant his tower on top of a six-story base that will house a new public grammar school and one floor of hospital services — an odd coupling of private and public interests that was a result of political horse trading rather than any obvious benefit that would be gained from so close a relationship between the two.
Also, unmentioned is that the building took advantage of triple tax-exempt Liberty Bonds--federal subsidies--without delivering any subsidized housing in return.

The recession

Gilmartin, with some but not complete candor, also cited the effects of a "a great recession."

"Every project has a moment of truth." This project, she said, faced its moment of truth in the first quarter of 2009. "The world was coming undone. The financing of the building was at $680 million. Six lenders, 903 rental units. Purchased at the very height of the market in the construction industry in New York--a very scary prospect, not just for ourselves, as a public company. but for all of the lenders held the underlying mortgage."

What did they do? "We had to reconnect with the purpose of the building, with the stakeholders of the building, and the architect of the building and obviously, decapitating a great tower was obviously something you don’t want to discuss with a great architect like Frank Gehry."

"So we were at one point considering ceasing construction and capping it out at the 38th floor," she said. "And in May, just two months after we pondered that reality, we decided to move forward with the project. And it was a great moment not just for the building, but I think for Lower Manhattan, a sign yet again of its great resilience."

Well, "pondering that reality" meant they managed to wring concessions from the unions, which she didn't say, but the graphic she showed indicates.

Design, buzz, review

As the fifth element, Gilmartin cited the building's great design: "a beautiful skin, great finishes, wonderful nooks and crannies, and a beautiful skyline view, all sky, water, air, and light."

The sixth ingredient, she said, was "a great buzz," and played a brief but loud video commercial for the building.

"And finally, a great city," she said. "The New York Times proclaimed that this building was perhaps the greatest skyscraper to be built in half a century."

Well, let's assume she implied "in this city," because that's what Ouroussoff wrote:
Only now, as the building nears completion, is it possible to appreciate what Mr. Gehry has accomplished: the finest skyscraper to rise in New York since Eero Saarinen's CBS building went up 46 years ago.
She closed--cut off in the video--by saying that more than 500 units have been leased, "and we're very hopeful and optimistic that the evolving story of 8 Spruce will continue to be as dramatic and positive as it has been today."

There was no opportunity for questions. While the session was billed as lasting 15 minutes, the day's schedule was already behind, and this event  took five minutes.

FCR support for the summit

While Forest City Ratner was not a sponsor the first summit in 2010, it was among the sponsors this year, as indicated in the graphic at right. Representatives of the sponsors frequently participated by introducing programs or moderating them.

However, other than a representative of the Rockefeller Foundation, the lead funder, and a welcome from the developer of the building where the summit was held, I don't think any other sponsor got the spotlight the way Gilmartin did.

Was Ratner's sponsorship connected to Gilmartin's appearance? Correlation is not causation. But Forest City often wants value for its promotional spending.

Issues of livability--or competitive advantage?

The MAS Summit was aimed to "provide a platform for the leaders behind New York City’s physical, economic and social landscape to debate the major opportunities and challenges affecting New York City’s livability today."

Yes, 8 Spruce Street is an impressive building and a contributor to the "iconic New York City skyline." However, it contributes mainly to the livability of people like the couple featured in a recent Time Out New York item on the building: a hedge fund trader and a PR/marketing consultant, paying $6,045 a month.

Then again, as the correspondent for Untapped New York observed, "the [summit] proceedings shifted the Summit’s central theme from livability to the necessity of reestablishing New York’s competitive economic advantage." Maybe 8 Spruce Street fits in there.

If next year's summit consistently focuses on livability, and offers a few five-minute slots, why not invite the people behind Atlantic Yards Watch, a new citizen-driven effort aimed at enhancing livability?

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