Architecture
February 16, 2021

The Good/Bad of Supertalls~Shangri-La Tower & 432 Park Avenue NYC~David Grigg Responds

This week I wrote about Vancouver’s Shangri-La  Tower which at 201 meters is the tallest tower in Vancouver. A “supertall” tower is classified as any tower over 300 meters high. With additional height comes additional costs when something goes wrong. In the case of the Shangri-La tower there is a defect in the windows which means they may shatter.

The cost for replacement is in the 60 million dollar range, and a trial of over three months is scheduled this Fall in court to figure out who is going to pay for what. In the interim, the two stratas in the building are pretty unhappy, and the limbo of such a huge bill may cloud any real estate sale or purchase.

I also outlined what has transpired with New York City’s 423 meter supertall tower at  432 Park Avenue, which got extra floors to maximize the view. This was done by taking advantage of a loophole to build  mechanical room floors in the sky. Those  are not counted as part of  floor space ratio.

The 432 Park Avenue tower sways, whistles wind, spits and groans. An assessment found that “73 percent of mechanical, electrical and plumbing components observed failed to conform with the developers’ drawings, and that almost a quarter “presented actual life safety issues.”

One of our readers, engineer and planner David Grigg has written succinctly about Vancouver’s supertall and starchitect phenomenon:

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Vancouver is soon to have a new edition of the starchitect interpretation of building with London England’s  Heatherwick Studio’s proposed towers at 1728 Alberni Street and 735 Bidwell Street. The Heatherwick Studio realized  that there might be a bit of a shock value to the proposal of two popsicle lump towers  that look like inverted spark plugs. They cleverly have gone  into “the best defense is a great offense” mode by putting down  all the rest of Vancouver’s architecture to make theirs appear, well, more attractive.

Susan Lazaruk has written about this potential application in the Vancouver Sun. As Ms. Lazaruk writes, the architects find Vancouver design “sterile and boring” and their winding buildings are to emulate trees, connecting the public at ground level to the top of the towers. You can read through the  over 300 page application here.

Wry commenters have already mentioned that the song “99 Luft Balloons” would be a suitable theme for the building, and that probably should be piped as  elevator muzak in the reception area.

The Heatherwick Studio are the same folks that built “The Vessel” in New York City which I wrote about earlier.That 15 storey public art installation with 2,500 stairs and 80 landings cost the developers of Hudson Yards 200 million dollars (that’s US dollars) and provides ” a vertical climbing experience” and has “Vessel Ambassadors” to serve as onsite assistants. Don’t ask if it is fully accessible. It’s not.

The Vessel has  already been pretty well dissed by architectural critics and some of the public as being an expensive confection that is just not that practical.

One architectural  writer went one step further, calling The Vessel “a piece of urban costume jewellery, a gawdy bauble without purpose beyond shallow adornment” and ” a billionaire’s fantasy of the future of city life”. It’s no surprise that  Heatherwick Studio took exception, and you can read some of their  responses here on Dezeen.

But back to Vancouver and the Heatherwick proposal of 401 condominium units in two towers on a base.

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Yesterday, Michael Alexander told the story of New York City’s fabulous (and fabulously expensive) new Moynihan Train Hall, and the less happy history of Penn Station, which it serves. Today: what are their lessons for Vancouver? And what are Vancouver’s public transit opportunities (and the region’s) for the coming decades? 

Like the glorious original Beaux-Arts Penn Station, historic Waterfront Station is privately owned by a large developer. And as in New York, that private developer wants to maximize its profits. In New York, the result was to bury most of Penn Station in the basement of Madison Square Garden. Here, developer Cadillac Fairview plans a private, ultramodern 26-storey office tower on a wedge of parking lot next to the station. It was quickly nicknamed The Ice Pick.

Nearly 13 million riders pass through Waterfront Station each year, about five million more than users of the next busiest Translink station. As the pandemic wanes, ridership will increase. The historic 1914 building is protected by heritage regulations, and serves as a stunning public entry and meeting hall.

The actual transit facilities are underground, or in a shabby shed attached to the building’s north side, a construction mirroring the tawdry underground Penn Station that New Yorkers and visitors have suffered since 1968.

Connections are so poorly designed that to transfer between Skytrain lines, you go up two flights, through fare gates, down two flights, and through another set of fare gates.

Translink rents this space and office space in the upper floors from the developer, Cadillac Fairview.

That’s not the way it has to be, or the way the city has said it wants it. Since 2009, the city has had preliminary plans which include a great, glassy public hall, a transit and visitor entry to Vancouver, with views of water and mountains, transportation and history, urban commerce and pleasurable public space. Something like this:

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From Friend of PT, Michael Alexander:

Earlier this month, New York City opened its new train station. The Moynihan Train Hall, built inside an elegant and gigantic former post office building, is fabulous.

It also cost one point six billion U.S. dollars. It also serves only half the train lines of its predecessor, and it will cost another billion to restore all the service New Yorkers, commuters and visitors once enjoyed. Therein lies a cautionary tale…

In the first half of the 20th century, long trips in North America were mostly by train. Railroads were private businesses, which built stations sized to the communities they served.

The Canadian Pacific Railroad built Vancouver’s Waterfront Station in 1914, replacing an earlier station and hotel on the Burrard Inlet shore. In New York City four years earlier, the Pennsylvania Railroad had built Penn Station on the west side of Manhattan. Both were imposing structures, but Penn Station was spectacular: it was designed by the august architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, and was considered a Beaux-Arts masterpiece.

By the mid-1940s, Penn Station served more than 100 million passengers a year, commuters and intercity. But starting a decade later, air and interstate highway travel led to dramatic rail passenger declines. Looking to improve its bottom line, in 1962 the Pennsylvania Railroad sold the station’s air rights to a private developer, to build the Madison Square Garden sports complex (MSG). In exchange, the railroad got a 25% stake in MSG, and a no-cost, smaller underground station in the MSG basement. It wasn’t… elegant:

The demolition of the McKim, Mead and White building, and its sad replacement, caused an international uproar. “One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat,” the architectural historian Vincent Scully famously wrote in the New York Times. Public outrage catalyzed the architectural preservation movement in the U.S., new laws were passed to restrict such demolition, and landmark preservation was upheld by the courts in 1978, after the private Penn Central RR tried to demolish New York’s other great railroad treasure, Grand Central Station.

Today, Penn Station serves more than 600,000 commuter rail and Amtrak passengers on an average weekday, and arrivals and departures have doubled since the 1970s.

So why is this a caution for Vancouver? Tune in tomorrow.

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There’s a Vancouver real estate marketing YouTube video making the rounds of social media that describes a “different way of life” that is “elegantly removed from the hectic pace of downtown”.

You can watch the video below with that calm hushed voice describing the Arbutus Greenway as “one of the longest linear parks in the world” (no mention that it is a rail-right-of-way) and compares it with New York City’s Highline, Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, Avenue Montaigne in Paris and Mayfair and Chelsea in London. The whole point is that you  can live in a “stately greenside manor” “poised in the most distinguished part of the Arbutus greenway”.

This is really selling  the redevelopment of the Kerrisdale Lumber and hardware store in the 6100 block of West Boulevard by Gryphon Developments. This is a five storey mixed use building with 64 units with size ranges from around 800 to 1,300 square feet. There are one to three bedroom units as well as 19,000 square feet of retail for shops and services. The architect is Taizo Yamamoto and you can take a look at the submission to the Urban Design Panel here.

You can also take a look at the heritage designation of the eastern side of the facade here.

The elevations for the building appear relatively unremarkable and similar to other  types of residential development in the city.  There is the retention of the 1930’s facade north of the much loved hardware store.

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