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FCR's Gilmartin at Summit for NYC: "To my mind the modern redux of Jane Jacobs" = modular buildings for Atlantic Yards (!), plus tale of "massive blight" (video)

Development boosters like to claim a purported synthesis of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, with even a priority to the former. "We plan on a Robert Moses sort of scale, at least a number of these rezonings," claimed City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden in July 2010, "but we judge ourselves by a Jane Jacobs scale."

“It may surprise some given my developer DNA, that I identify more with Jane Jacobs than Robert Moses,” declared Forest City Ratner CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin last May.

However, Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, has warned that Moses's "ends justify the means" philosophy was fundamentally antithetical to Jacobs's respect for process, and that it's impossible to merge the two.

So it was astounding to hear Gilmartin--one of the two developers on Mayor Bill de Blasio's transition team--claim, as described below, that building modular apartments in the Atlantic Yards project somehow represents "the modern redux of Jane Jacobs."

Gilmartin delivered her talk, titled "Cracking the Code: Modular Construction and Urban Development," at the Municipal Art Society's 10/17/13 Summit for NYC.

Crain's in June judged her the city's 16th most powerful woman, but with de Blasio in office, I think her stock rises, especially since Forest City's modular method, assuming it's successful, might ramp up significantly and get a mayoral spotlight.

That doesn't make it Jacobsian.

Summit for NYC sponsors
The significant innovations involved in Forest City's modular housing project should not mislead observers, especially since Gilmartin in the same speech dubiously claimed that Atlantic Yards was a response to "massive blight" and Forest City's first stacking of mods for the B2 tower last month was mostly a media event.

It's a reminder of critic Paul Goldberger's observation that it's "common today to see large projects presented as if they epitomized the small-scale, naturally occurring urban values Jacobs espoused."

"So if there is any way to follow Jane Jacobs," he advised, "it is to think of her as showing us not a physical model for city form but rather a perceptual model for skepticism."

A welcoming introduction

Municipal Art Society (MAS) President Vin Cipolla offered a very welcoming introduction, as shown in the video below:
I'm so pleased to introduce our next MAS SmartTalk presenter, MaryAnne Gilmartin, president and Chief Executive Officer of Forest City Ratner Companies. MaryAnne's visionary work is on display throughout the city. Named one of Crain's 50 Most Powerful Women in New York, she has worked with some of the pre-eminent architects of our time, from Frank Gehry to Renzo Piano. We've heard a lot today about the bold ideas that have the potential to shape New York in the years to come. And MaryAnne's work at Forest City Ratner comprises some of the most dramatic developments in our cityscape, from the Times Building to 8 Spruce Street to the Barclays Center to now pioneering the use of modular innovation and construction in the city. Developing innovative approaches to providing a range of building options is a crucial step in ensuring a more livable New York for all. And I am so pleased that MaryAnne could be with us today to offer us a glimpse into what modular could mean for New York. Please join me in welcoming the wonderful MaryAnne Gilmartin.
Some gush is par for the course, but that sounded on par with academic/author/SHoP partner Vishaan Chakrabarti hailing developers at a dinner as "heroes, heroes." Gilmartin deserves a forum, but not an uncritical one.

Could it have had anything to do with Forest City's role among the (many) sponsors of the Summit, as indicated above right?

From Central Park to affordable housing

Gilmartin began:
Good afternoon. What a spectacular location to discuss innovation and real estate. And I can't imagine a more innovative idea than Central Park. Not only does it continue to soothe us 157 years after it opened, it stands also as a reminder of our impact on the work that we have on future generations. In the history of Central Park, and the vision that gave birth to Central Park, we can look to the city's future.
As we look to the city's future, it matters all the more. New York City's population is expected to reach over 9 million in the next 30 years. We will, and I say this hopefully, remain a magnet for immigrants, artists, and young people who are seeking the vitality of the world's greatest city to ignite their careers and imaginations.
We must create an infrastructure to support this growth, and one that embraces our history but also embraces new technologies and innovations that allow for smarter, greener, and less disruptive buildings.

The Jacobs connection

Gilmartin continued:
It needs to be highly affordable, and it needs to be part of a large mixed-use development. As Central Park reminds us, along with other great urban spaces, including Jane Jacobs' beloved Hudson Street, it is the diversity of a city experience that creates the great urban ballet.
To my mind, the modern redux of Jane Jacobs is to do this with well-designed, intelligent, mixed-use buildings--buildings that no only reach higher into the sky but deeper into our imaginations.
Hyperdense mixed-use places, if designed properly, with generous public spaces, proximities to parks, schools, and a wide range for retail and entertainment does not make for a Blade Runner city.
True, but that doesn't make it Jacobsian.

As Gratz pointed out, Jacobs also cared about process, and Atlantic Yards is nothing else if not a tale of sketchy process, a criticism validated by court rulings that not only required an (ongoing, much-delayed) Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement but also forced the state to pay $300,000 in attorney's fees.

If "generous public spaces" refers to the arena plaza, saluted by Chakrabarti as part of the "high-low city," well, remember that the plaza's an accident, a perhaps permanent placeholder for the unbuilt high-rise office building that was supposed to contain jobs.

Proximities to parks? There are no "parks" within the Atlantic Yards project, and the open space has been criticized for being too little to serve the new population and not designed to welcome the surrounding community.

The Jacobs reference raised a few eyebrows among those watching Gilmartin's speech, as noted on Twitter:
I pointed not only how the narrative of innovation nudged aside questions about housing and jobs, but also the rather questionable--and not so Jacobsian--backstory behind Forest City's modular plan.

Atlantic Yards = "massive blight"?

Gilmartin continued:
Let's consider Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. Decades of costly infrastructure needs, important mass transit upgrades and massive blight translated into decades of inertia.
(Emphasis added)

Credit Forest City for being smart enough to get a private rezoning for an area that city and state planners didn't yet recognize could be valuable on the open market. The "important mass transit upgrades"--i.e., a new subway entrance--substantially serve the arena.

Massive blight? Consider Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's opinion in the November 2009 decision in the Atlantic Yards eminent domain case:
The land use improvement plan at issue is not directed at the wholesale eradication of slums, but rather at alleviating relatively mild conditions of urban blight principally attributable to a large and, of course, uninhabited subgrade rail cut.
(Emphasis added)

A "stress-tested successful public private partnership"

Gilmartin continued:
After toiling away for almost nine years, a stress-tested successful public private partnership has finally kicked off and celebrated one of the most transit-oriented, highly sustainable, large scale, density-driven developments in the city's history.
She might have mentioned how the state had lost the lawsuit that required the Supplementary EIS. (The decision on attorneys' fees came in November.)

Threading the needle, and building a "super nice VW"

Gilmartin continued:
High-rise living need not be synonymous with high-end living. Density can help with affordable housing too, to create housing for people of diverse means living in close proximity and near the urban core. It is to honor our city's great ethos, even when there is the give and take of gentrification.
It saves money, but then again it should maintain profits. As Gilmartin told investment analysts in November 2012: "We believe if we go modular, it would be invisible to the consumer. This building should perform at the level of finish, fit and feel commensurate with a conventional building, so it is priced accordingly."

Expect to hear more about living "near the urban core," since Forest City and its backers have a strong point to make: it may be more expensive to build subsidized housing where land is more expensive, but it's important to build it beyond the fringes of the city.

Gothamist last month provided some context:
People sometimes get the idea that modular housing looks cheap, said Gregg Pasquarelli, of SHoP architects, which co-designed the units. But dwelling on the building's prefab construction misses the point. "You can make a Hyundai on an assembly line, you can make a Rolls Royce on an assembly line," he said, adding that in those terms, B2 would be the equivalent of "a super nice Volkswagen, or an entry level Audi."
The costs of the project: land, materials, labor

Gilmartin continued:
There's been a lot written about Barclays Center since it opened just over a year ago, most of it very positive, I'm pleased to say, but it is the housing that will be truly revolutionary.
Every city developer, especially those building affordable housing know, that there are three hard truths about the things that plague our work: the high cost of land, the high cost of materials, and the high cost of labor.
For Atlantic Yards, we add to those costs the need to build a platform, a railyard, and a variety of other transit and infrastructure improvements.
All those numbers are rather opaque, since Forest City also got a suite of special benefits: an override of zoning, direct subsidies and tax breaks, the benefit of eminent domain, and an extended schedule with gentle penalties.

Even if the developer miscalculated, as the latest deal with Chinese investor Greenland Group suggests, it's hard to consider Forest City a victim.

What they're building

Gilmartin continued:
All of this will support 8 million square feet of development which includes an arena and 6430 units of housing, within 15 residential buildings.
The level of affordability, coupled with a massive and ever growing infrastructure cost, presented many economic challenges. We had to rethink how we might achieve our goals, while improving efficiency and cost effectiveness, and reducing community impact.
We needed a game changer. We opted for a radical intervention. Following extraordinary R&D, we identified a modern means of construction without compromising the integrity of the building, namely high-rise modular.
As noted, the backstory of that R&D is also extraordinary.

Transforming housing, fewer jobs
Just as the elevator transformed the skyline, we hope modular will change the way we build housing, with greater savings and dramatically less impact on the community and the environment.
And here's how we're doing it. In Brooklyn, at the Navy Yard, we have 100-plus union workers, protected from the elements, in a safe, clean, productive work environment.
As of October, they had 72 workers, according to one report. Either way, it seems highly unlikely that Atlantic Yards will feature the 15,000 construction job-years that Forest City steadily touted.

Forest City's breakthroughs

Gilmartin continued:
We've identified five major breakthroughs. Prefabrication to the extreme. Our mods leave the fabrication facility fully fitted out with all final apartment finishes. Imagine like a shrink-wrapped apartment.
Self-healing facades. Our facades, including the windows, are installed and attached to the mods at the factory. Once the modules are trucked to the building location and hoisted into place by a crane, adjacent mods have facade panels that interlock using gasket technology. No welding, no concrete, no pipe sweating--many of the issues that drive costs for high-rise construction are both time-consuming and risky. All the connections are bolted, or use a press fit.
Pre-cutting and pre-kitting for the factory and field. 4-D computer modeling allows for a process and innovation that changes the way materials are prepared for assembly in the fabrication facility and in the field.
Our high rise structural solution is our final innovation. Our modules are fabricated using structural steel. This is a residential building, using structural steel, rather than wood frames or standard steel frames.
The savings generated in this process will significantly help with the development of affordable housing throughout the city. The added benefit is that modular construction produces 70 to 90% less waste than traditional building methods and can reduce energy consumption by almost 70%.
Atlantic Yards is one of a number of very exciting projects in the city, the country, and the world that I hope will hope will go a long way toward encouraging policy makers, developers, architects, designers, and academics to recognize that we can make a radical shift in how we build, to celebrate how we really want to live, and how we must live, in our great cities. Thank you.
Maybe this will be a game-changer for the developer, and Forest City will develop a whole new business line.

But there was no environmental review for this construction method, all the claims come from the developer, and some in the construction field--albeit with competing interests--have suggested reasons for doubt.

Whatever the result, some continued Jacobsian skepticism is in order.


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