Half a century ago, similar upheavals resulted from urban-renewal campaigns and social housing planted on the scale of midwestern corn. This time the boom has happened lot by lot. I see single-family houses on Staten Island and a vertical metropolis at Columbus Circle, juice-carton towers and displays of virtuoso design. In some cases, the same architects have built for sybarites (Polshek Partnership’s Standard Hotel, which stands, Colossus-like, astride the High Line) and for the low-income, elderly, and disabled (Polshek’s Schermerhorn House in Brooklyn). I hear the wails of those who mourn the city they knew decades, years, or weeks ago, but I come away satisfied that the boom has left us a better town.
While only two of the 54 views are of Brooklyn (80 Metropolitan in Williamsburg and the J Condo in Dumbo), but the glass has already come to Brooklyn--and surely much more will arrive, as the before and after renderings (left and below) from the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership show.
Beyond those images of Flatbush Avenue, let's assume there would be much more glass going east from Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, whether Frank Gehry's Atlantic Yards (Phase 1 below) gets built or something else is constructed at the Vanderbilt Yard.
Davidson writes about the mixed bag of gentrification:
Urban nostalgists reserve their greatest animus for gentrification, which is a stark word for a complicated phenomenon. It does not describe only the relentless territorial expansion of the rich at the expense of everybody else: Gentrification eddies across the city, polishing formerly middle-class enclaves to an affluent shine, prettying up once-decrepit neighborhoods for new middle-class arrivals, and making awful slums habitable.
In the intricate ecology of New York, each current triggers a dizzying series of countercurrents. Low crime rates make city life more desirable, so fewer middle-class families feel like they are being forced to flee to the suburbs. That causes real-estate prices to climb, which forces out some of those same middle-class families. Rising housing costs in low-income areas require the poor to spend a growing slice of their income on rent but also make it financially feasible for developers to build affordable housing.
The way to deal with this tangle of paradoxes is not to rail against gentrification or lunge to halt it but to mitigate its impact on the poor through activism, governance, and good design. New York has the country’s largest municipal affordable-housing program, not just now but ever. It doesn’t manifest itself in jerry-built towers of despair, because below-market housing is often mixed with the expensive kind; a quarter of the apartments in the Avalon complex are reserved for low-income families. That kind of housing, too, can rescue a neighborhood. The needle-strewn South Bronx seemed beyond redemption until a collective of developers, nonprofits, and city agencies built Melrose Commons, a low-rise, low-income housing complex that is safe, durable, and appealing. That, too, is gentrification.
OK, but the largest municipal affordable-housing program has been well behind the need. The city, for example, upzoned Fourth Avenue in Park Slope, giving a windfall to property owners, without requiring affordable housing as a tradeoff, as advocates wisely suggested. The city was way late in reforming the 421-a law, which for years subsidized market-rate units in thriving neighborhoods.
So people cram into in apartments that violate zoning rules or commute from as far away as the Poconos. The solutions are multiple, including allowing more density and investing in transit. But the "activism, governance, and good design" Davidson cites has hardly been commensurate with the luxury units.
Making good design
As an architecture critic, not a policy analyst, Davidson is a more concerned with design issues:
We might wish that an aesthetically enlightened branch of government would commission masterpieces and mandate design standards for everyone else, but this is New York, where an adversarial system bludgeons designs into a collection of compromises. Craving a visionary government with the leeway to reshape large swaths of the city means forgetting a time when bureaucrats and politicians garlanded the Lower East Side with grim brown housing projects and Robert Moses smashed neighborhoods to ram highways through. To give officials such Sim City powers again would violate the spirit of New York, which since the days of the Dutch East India Company has evolved a sophisticated mechanism of controlled venality: Government sets the terms; developers take the risks. This partnership between public and private spheres is ancient and, for all its flaws, corruption, and obstacles to excellence, has nevertheless built a very fine city. The great advantage to top-down planning is that it can hatch and act on a Big Idea. It was not government alone, however, that brought Times Square back to life in the nineties; it was a convergence of planning, zoning, architecture, politics, entertainment, finance, commerce, preservation, and pure civic ambition.
If we don’t want a New York frozen in recollection, and we don’t really want politicians with the clout to strew masterpieces, then we must welcome a certain amount—okay, a large amount—of bland architecture.
Davidson suggests that the only constant is change:
So even here, standing before an icon of discontent, I am not inclined to inhale the nostalgia that thickens an atmosphere already dense with concrete dust. I am convinced that the boom has left New York better off: stronger, suppler, safer, better integrated, and better looking. Yes, it’s grown stands of interchangeable rental towers, but it’s also given Crown Heights prettier, more livable streets. The wealthy have their decorative bouquets of Tribeca condos; the commuting throngs benefit from an airy new subway terminal in Coney Island. In the rush to satisfy the voracious demand for square footage, the city has also rediscovered the pleasures of good architecture, an art that for years it had written off as a costly frill. We need new buildings just as much as we need the old. I hear in the cacophonic symphony of construction the sound of a still vigorous and hungry city. I see in all that moving of dirt and hoisting of concrete panels the New York I’ve always known: unsentimental and steadfast in its refusal to stay the same, yet vigilantly proud of its past.
On the radio
On September 18, Davidson appeared on WNYC radio's Brian Lehrer Show to discuss his article. All six of the buildings discussed in the accompanying slide show were from Manhattan.
Davidson told Lehrer that architecture in New York was driven by what was, until now, "a very hot condo market" in which owners seek "the wraparound view."
Lehrer asked about the impact of new large buildings on a neighborhood. "It really depends on the neighborhood," Davidson responded. "And I think sometimes you get some surprising effects... If you go back up to where the Lyric is [at 94th Street and Broadway, encompassing Symphony Space].... two thin towers [Ariel East and West] that face each other across Broadway that were hated when they were first proposed, in fact they started going up even before anyone realized that’s what was going up on those sites."
Such buildings, he noted, were constructed "as of right" and did not require a rezoning or a zoning override, as with Atlantic Yards. "Now that they’re up and they’re much taller than anything immediately adjacent, I think they’ve actually been absorbed into the neighborhood quite easily," he suggested. (Not everyone agrees. Note that the photo can't capture their height.) "And they had contradictory effects. On the one hand, they raised the skyline right there in this abrupt spiky way. On the other, because there was this outcry, there was pressure to change the zoning and they have now choked off the possibility in that area for any more towers." (The City Council last year passed a rezoning on the Upper West Side.)
He observed somewhat wryly, "The main thing is you have to think about views in New York City the way you think about your health. It’s great as long as you’ve got it, but it’s not necessarily going to be there forever."
That certainly has been an issue regarding Atlantic Yards--especially given the potential impact of shadows.
What are the incentives?
Davidson offered a partial explanation for the building boom: "When you lower crime and raise property values, part of what you do is create incentives for building."
Lehrer asked, "Is any one person behind this, is there a Robert Moses of the building boom or the glass boom, is it deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff?"
Davidson responded, "This is happening in the fine old tradition of New York, lot by lot development."
Well, not quite, given that it depends significantly on rezonings.
But Davidson's follow-up comment was a warning for projects like Atlantic Yards: "If it were master-planned, it would probably be a disaster."
Adaptation of a historic structure
Lehrer asked his guest about Porter House in Chelsea, at 15th Street and 9th Avenue, which "seems like a perfect marriage of old and new."
"New York does not have a great tradition of adaptive reuse," Davidson allowed, "which means taking an old building and finding new ways to deal with it or growing on top of it. A lot of other cities do, especially in Europe. We tend to kind of knock things down and put up something new. This to me is a great example of taking an old building, repurposing it, respecting its original profile by setting back the new addition away from the street, and complementing it, in a way that’s very creative, very respectful, and modern."
The solution in Chelsea was a solution bypassed on Pacific Street in Brooklyn, where Forest City Ratner is demolishing the Ward Bakery, a candidate for a similar type of melding of old and new. The Empire State Development Corporation claimed it would be too expensive, though, arguably, the cost increase has since been eclipsed by inflation in construction costs imposed by delays in the project. Also note that FCR's parent company, Forest City Enterprises, does have a history of adapting historic buildings, as in Richmond, VA.
A comment on energy
On Lehrer's web site, Brooklyn architect Ryan Enschede made an interesting comment on energy efficiency: I don't see any mention of an important point here - all-glass facades are a step BACKWARDS in energy efficiency. The modern glazing used in these buildings is a poor insulator relative to any opaque wall, and all-glass facades create tremendous solar heat gains which must be mechanically removed, far outweighing any modest reduction in lighting demand.