Boutique Hotel?

October 18, 2007

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I just noticed that one of the oldest and more important buildings in the East Village is up for sale. The Deutsches Dispensary, which up until very recently was the Stuyvesant Polyclinic, is under construction to become a temporary location site for a TV pilot called “Blue Blood,” a police drama. After that, who knows? I hate to say it, but it would probably be a cool boutique hotel…

The old Dispensary stands next to the slightly shorter and more narrow Freie Bibliotehek, the very first building ever erected in the United States specifically as a library. Both were designed by William Schickel and completed in 1884. The terra cotta facades are decorated with owls, globes and portraits of famous Germans (this used to be Little Deutschland).

These building details are hidden behind the tree in the pic above (click either one to enlarge):

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Burnt Sugar

January 13, 2007

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The Brooklyn Paper has a piece on the dismantling of the Revere Sugar refinery in Red Hook by developer Joe Sitt, who plans to erect six buildings on the site and isn’t saying whether any of the sugar refinery will be saved (same developer for Coney Island). The refinery, including its iconic dome on Brooklyn’s southern waterfront, closed in 1985 and later suffered a fire. The above photo is taken from a flickr set posted by Soupflowers (via Gowanus Lounge).


New Yorbanism*

January 5, 2007

astorthumb.jpegI was talking with a very knowledgeable person recently about what is perhaps the biggest luxury condo failure built in New York during the real estate boom: the “Sculpture for Living” by Charles Gwathmey at Astor Place. We agreed the interiors are great, but otherwise it landed like a spaceship in the East Village, an opinion shared by many people.

But what I didn’t realize is that the base of the building — perhaps the worst part, because there is absolutely no street context and has all the character of big box retail — was not entirely the architect’s fault. It turns out, the blocky base was a compromise to satisfy NYC zoning requirements that all new buildings address the street in an essentially uniform and measured distance. In other words, what we have here is an urban planning theory, a la Jane Jacobs, rigidly applied in the form of zoning, which of course results in the law of unintended consequences. It might not have saved the building from disaster, but how much more interesting the block would be if the undulations came all the way down to the street? Furthermore, if ever there was an example where an architecture team should prod the city to address issues of the surrounding area (i.e. the deadzone that is Astor Square), this is it.

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Which brings me to my real point. Over the holidays when Polis was on break and I was eating and drinking like there’s no tomorrow, I received an email from John Lumea, he of horizonr, a rockin’ new urban planning/architecture blog (the horizonr mission statement: “Practical knowledge about how, exactly, buildings create urban environments must get in the hands of the general urban-dwelling public; and the public must use this information to build better cities”).

He sent an email alerting me to an in-depth, thought-provoking piece he wrote which coins the term “New Yorbanism.” This phrase represents his theory that the last 30 years of bad building in New York is the result of a misinterpretation of Jane Jacobs mashed up with New Urbanism and cemented into untouchable dogma, which then fomented in a real estate feeding frenzy.

One of the interesting points he makes is to challenge the universally accepted idea that the superblock of the World Trade Center site should be broken up and reconnected to the street grid. This was certainly an idea I accepted without question — and that is always where the trouble comes in, no? When a sentence starts with, “Everyone knows that …” Well, how do we know, exactly? That is PRECISELY the default mode of thinking that Jacobs questioned in the first damn place.

wtctowers.jpgMr. Lumea quotes Jacobs in an interview with Adam Gopnik, suggesting that perhaps the street grid at the WTC shouldn’t be restored at all. “I was at a school in Connecticut where the architects watched paths that the children made in the snow all winter, and then when spring came they made those the gravel paths across the green. Why not do the same thing here?” Aside from the fact that we’ll never see snow in New York again, this is SUCH a wonderful Jane Jacobsian statement: beautiful in its simplicity and brilliance.

But then Mr. Lumea adds this: “Jane Jacobs recognized that the [WTC] site itself is a giant X-intersection; that the whole thing is a corner; and that this corner will not be a ‘lively heart’ … if it is choked with streets and real estate — including the memorial — that max out the site too quickly, (1) robbing this heart of the room it needs to expand and (2) making the next World Trade Center a less, not more, hospitable place…”

In other words, the superblock was not the problem, and the street grid will not fix it. Rigidly applied formulas are the problem that get writ large when mixed with greed, grief, and political opportunism. Jane Jacobs is dead. Long live Jane Jacobs.

Read the entire horizonr post here.

 


Last Stand in the E.Vil.

January 2, 2007

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The Times rarely weighs in on neighborhood development fights. But Charlie Bagli has a piece today about one of the last anti-gentrification battles in my nabe over a school that was bought in 1998 and sits in the cross-hairs of development v. anti-development interests in the East Village:

The opponents include not only neighborhood activists but nearly every local elected official, the pro-development Bloomberg administration and the owner of the penthouse next door at the Christadora House, a 1980s symbol of encroaching gentrification where protesters once chanted, “Kill yuppie scum.” …

More than eight years after Mr. Singer bought the building, there is no end in sight. P.S. 64 is a blight even as Tompkins Square Park, the site of a homeless encampment and riot in 1988, has been transformed into a quiet oasis for the white-collar professionals who live nearby.

Keep reading, and one discovers that neighbors have likened a proposed design to a Nazi concentration camp. Dog doodoo is being flung about, literally. The owner has threatened to turn it into a giant homeless shelter (take that, you liberals). Susan Sarandon has even gotten involved. And of course, The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission is being used as a political tool (no big surprise; read a piece by Tom Wolfe eviscerating the Commission here). This is a must-read cautionary tale.

Photo by Marilynn K. Yee


MOOOMA

December 1, 2006

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No sooner had MoMA opened what was thought to be the final wing of its ten year expansion — the learning center, an eight-story building that anchors the eastern end of the sculpture garden — that MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry tantalized reporters with more building news. Apparently, the museum might get fatter by 17,000 square feet on the western side of its building (where people cue up for Free Fridays). According to Bloomberg News, the assembled land was supposed to be held for future needs, but with land prices skyrocketing, the right time might be sooner rather than later. Mr. Lowry “stressed that no decision had been made to go forward, the museum could add income-producing commercial or residential space above more galleries, totaling as much as 210,000 square feet.”

Photo by Fred R. Conrad for the Times.


The Sublet Experiment

November 30, 2006

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Here’s a totally cool concept: A play that moves from apartment to apartment, neighborhood to neighborhood (thanks to Craigslist) rather than being staged in a traditional theater. The Sublet Experiment is described thusly: “A serial sublettor, a reality show reject and the worst bank robbers in history collide. It is a comic thriller about love, identity and identity theft as two young people try to find themselves but end up finding each other.” The play started in Washington Heights on Nov. 13, and moves to the West Village tonight (which is sold out), before moving on to Chelsea and Astoria. You can get on their email list to be alerted for new neighborhood shows.

The playwright, Ethan Youngerman, told Gothamist: “New Yorkers are so obsessed with real estate because where you live has a huge effect on how you live.”


The Green Apple

November 22, 2006

ny_pie.jpgThe Architect’s Newspaper has a series of articles about New York, all trying to answer the question, How Green is The Big Apple? Given the density and the most heavily used public transportation system in the country, NYC consistently ranks high on “sustainability” lists. But for anyone who lives here, this hardly feels like “green” living.

The Architect’s Newspaper offers some pretty comprehensive coverage (some are clickable, others are not):

There’s also really great thumbnail graphs that tell the quick and dirty story (no pun intended), such as how many green buildings New York has compared to other cities (Atlanta was high on the list, a surprise to me), open space, and other “green” criteria. This is a must-read.


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