Boutique Hotel?

October 18, 2007


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):


Burnt Sugar

January 13, 2007


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.


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


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


December 1, 2006


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


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.

Stuy Town Sale Going South?

November 16, 2006

stuyvesant.jpgCrain’s is reporting that the largest real estate deal in American history is headed for an iceberg. Last month MetLife agreed to sell Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village to the highest bidder, Tishman Speyer, for $5.4 billion. It was supposed to close this week. The 110 building complex on First Ave. between 14th and 23rd Streets, was built by MetLife for returning veterans from World War II. Since then, generations of middle class and working people have lived and raised families there, as the rents are significantly below market rate as a result of stabilization laws.

Now Crain’s is reporting on a long-forgotten agreement dating back to 1942 between the City of New York and MetLife that the company would not make more than a 6 percent annual profit on the development in exchange for a 25 year tax break. Presumably this referred to the rent collected from tenants, but a lawyer representing the tenants, who only recently discovered this agreement, is making the argument that it applies to the sale of the property as well, and that all profits above 6 percent from the sale should go to the city. Needless to say, Tishman Speyer probably wouldn’t be down with that.

Is this a last minute “desperate” effort to derail the deal? Of course! Is it also a legitimate claim based on a binding legal agreement? Depends on the judge. And you can take it to the bank that a judge will be getting involved.

Flushing, New York

November 15, 2006


While New York lags behind other global cities in providing safe and clean public bathrooms, leave it to the private sector to step in and fill the void (at least temporarily). In an absolutely brilliant public relations move, Charmin is going to open a public restroom in Times Square, which will be stocked not only with TP but human attendants through Dec. 31. And of course, there is a screaming billboard telling the 15 million tourists who come to New York over the holidays where they can “Go In Style.” According to the Times article:

“Let’s face it — there aren’t a lot of environments where a bathroom tissue message is relevant,” said Dennis Legault, brand manager for Charmin. “But the message is very relevant when people really need to go.”

So true! I was wondering where I would take my dad and his wife when they visit for the hollidays, and now I’ve got the perfect spot: The 20-stall public restroom at 1540 Broadway, between 45th and 46th Streets, which — in addition to the billboard — will be advertised by people walking around Times Square dressed as toilets.

Happy flushing, New York.



It seems I’m not the only one who recognized what a brilliant PR campaign this has been for Charmin. From a story in today’s Times covering the ceremonial first flush yesterday:

“The mind boggles,” [Mayor Michael R.] Bloomberg said when asked about the Times Square event during a news conference in the Bronx. “The person that sold that is somebody I’d love to have come to work for my company.”

Tim Tompkins, the president of the Times Square Alliance, the business group that, among other things, organizes the city’s New Years Eve celebration, said, “I’ve never seen so many television cameras in my life, not even on New Year’s.”

Each bathroom has its own sink, original decor, baby-changing tables, and of course rolls of Charmin.

Coney Island, Holy S**t

November 14, 2006


Thor Equities has been planning a Coney Island redo for a long time now, and The New York Sun comes through with a nice article about the latest plans, a $1.5 billion mega-project. Not much can be added to the renderings, except to say that I don’t see a whole lot left of the freakshows. Other than a nod to Nathan’s, there’s absolutely nothing here to reassure people that Thor will respect the history of Coney Island. One can only hope that the collapse of the real estate market will seriously scale these plans back to a more subtle version of Las Vegas. (For a slideshow I took last year of real-life people who actually go to Coney Island, click on over to Photo Essays at the top of the page and scroll down.)


Two more renderings, by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects, after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

Updating the High Line

November 7, 2006


At a luncheon today hosted by AREW (Association of Real Estate Women), the topic was the High Line, an old elevated railroad on the far west side of Manhattan. Even though I’ve written about the plans (click here for a pdf) to turn it into one of the most unique greenway spaces in New York, if not the entire United States, I still learned a few things while eating a really bad chicken breast lunch. First of all, I was unaware of the fact that the elevated greenway design only recently got funding for phase 2 from EDC (NYC economic development corporation), and that the design as it currently stands does not extend all the way up to the Hudson rail yards. Friends of the High Line (check out their website for tons of great images) still needs to raise $40 million, and designs have not been totally finalized (they’ll be on display next summer at an exhibit at Grand Central Station). The designs by Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro that have been widely circulated and approved of are more or less schematic in nature. Of course, this is about as far along as one could possibly hope at this point, but the High Line seems to be a bit more in flux than I thought, especially considering how fast the buildings all around it are coming up. The Caledonia at W. 17th — a massive 540,000 square-foot residential building with 190 condos (60 percent sold) and 288 rental units — broke ground four months ago and will begin rising out of the ground shortly, according to Charles Bendit, principal of Taconic Investment Partners. So it seems that the development frenzy kicked off by the High Line will surge ahead of the High Line itself.

Photo by Joel Sternfeld, who has a whole show of High Line photos opening tonight at the Caledonia sales office at 111 8th Avenue, Suite 516 (through Dec. 15).

Unsafe House

October 24, 2006

The New Yorker’s financial writer, James Surowiecki, has a really good piece in this week’s issue about the real estate market. The main questions he answers are, if there’s an oversupply of housing, how come the median sale price has not dropped, and is it true that home prices have not fallen for a full year since the depression?

People have been building bigger homes—the typical new home is about twenty-five per cent bigger than it was twenty years ago—and putting money into improvements like central air-conditioning, home theatres, and pools. And the impact of quality adjustments isn’t trivial; a study of home prices between 1977 and 2003 found that adjusting for quality reduced the return to homeowners by forty per cent. As for the much vaunted statistic about housing prices never falling for a full year since the Depression? That’s true only if you forget about inflation.

To read the whole article, click here.

Stuy Town/Cooper Village Sold

October 17, 2006

The Times is reporting that Stuy Town and Peter Cooper Village have been sold to the highest bidder, Tishman Speyer, for $5.4 billion. With more than half of the apartments rent stabilized, the 110 building complex on First Ave. between 14th and 23rd Streets, is one of the last bastions of middle class housing in Manhattan, where teachers, nurses and police officers have lived for decades. It’s a sad day for affordable housing in New York, and even more troubling that Mayor Bloomberg “stood on the sidelines” while tenants tried to put together a package to buy the complex themselves. The complex was built by MetLife (which is the seller in this transaction) for returning veterans from World War II. There’s simply no question that Tishman Speyer will be doing everything it can to de-regulate the apartments as quickly as possible to recoup its investment.

120 St. Marks Update

October 12, 2006


An afternoon stroll on this beautiful day took me past 120 St. Marks Place, the last known squat on this storied street. The building, known as The Cave, is where the well known Mosaic Man, aka Jim Power, lived for years before being evicted (a situation I wrote about extensively on my previous Polis site over at Blogger, click here for the original post). In fact, Mosaic Man continued to live in a make-shift shack out front of 120 St. Marks for months while demolition of the building was underway. Now it seems to be only a matter of weeks before the building will be all but ready for occupation. No word yet on the management’s website of whether it will be apartments or condos, but either way, there’s no doubt it will be expensive. I haven’t seen Mosaic Man lately, but I know he’s still around the nabe from seeing sidewalk chalk promos for his website,

Housing Crash

October 12, 2006


Regular readers of Polis know that I report about real estate for The New York Times, which I often do outside of the city and therefore don’t say much about it here. But in reading an article about a rather dire housing market forecast from Moody’s, I was struck by this graph:

The second biggest decline is projected to occur in the Fort Myers, Fla., area, a fall of 18.6 percent from the peak in the final three months of last year to a low-point for prices that is projected to occur in the second quarter of 2007.

I just so happens that one of the pieces I wrote for the Times earlier this year reported on the insane condo building boom going on in Ft. Myers, and cast a skeptical eye on whether or not this was going to be a successful strategy for turning the downtown around, which is very pretty but virtually empty (I took the above pic in February, the height of tourist season). Apparently, skepticism was in short supply when all these condos were approved by the city — something like thirteen high-rise towers in a year and a half, if memory serves. Click here for a PDF of the Times article.