Architecture
April 12, 2018

The Tale of Starchitects and "Supertalls" in New York City


As Curbed.com describes it there is a push for “supertalls” in New York City, those buildings that exceed the 984 foot height limit. As they note “These soaring towers aren’t always popular—many have actively fought against the buildings sprouting along 57th Street and Central Park South, worried that they’ll cause shadowing over the storied park—but it’s hard to argue against their status as marvels of engineering.”

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From Park People.ca and Ken Greenberg  comes the video by Garrick Mason  “Something New from Something Old”  describing some unique and some familiar concepts in making great public spaces. Using conversations with urbanists in New York City and in Toronto, the film explores how low density streets can give up much space for the car, but space for humans walking and biking is still a street fight. Opportunities for more green space has come with the “glacial recedence of industrial uses that have revealed new opportunities. Eric Landau with the Brooklyn Trust describes how the area under DUMBO (Down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) has been transformed from industrial to park space. With ten per cent of the area being developed to cover the operational and maintenance costs of the new Brooklyn Park, former five acre industrial docking piers have been transformed into park experiences, each with their own unique purpose and use.
Opening up with music that was first performed by singers on New York City’s Highline, the film discusses the importance of public/private financing, noting that redeveloping green space as amenities creates real estate value for surrounding properties.
As the film maker observes: ” I decided to ask experts, designers, and planners involved in some of the highest profile conversion projects in Toronto and New York City about the rationale behind these conversions, the challenges involved in designing under such novel constraints, and the difficult issues — like funding, accessibility, benefit sharing — that come with them. Their answers were both fascinating and encouraging, pointing to a world in which the development of cities will have more to do with gracefully evolving in place than with spreading outwards to infinity. ”
You can watch the video on Vimeo by clicking on the  blue tab on the “Sorry” link below.
 

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I have just returned from New York City where I spent a day with Mitchell Silver the Park Commissioner for New York City, and Julie Grimson, City Conversations Manager for the City of Sydney Australia. Mitchell is a renown city planner who was the planning director for the City of Raleigh  and was formerly the head of the American Planning Association. He has a wonderful office in the historic Arsenal in Central Park. Robert Moses’ old office adjacent to Mitchell’s is now the board room for staff meetings.

Famed City Master Builder Robert Moses in his office in the Arsenal, Central Park, 1940’s

Mitchell Silver and Julie Grimson in what was Robert Moses’ “closet” in the Arsenal
One of the prime drivers of public space in New York City in Central Park and on the High Line has been the creation of conservancies or public “trusts” that bring in massive donations and bequests to fund the maintenance and improvement of public space. As Christopher Nolan who is the Chief Landscape Architect for Central Park notes, the challenge was incentivizing public space as something that people would leave money to, and to have people see it as important as endowing a building. Today 75 per cent  of the funding  for Central Parks’s 65 million dollar annual budget comes directly from the conservancy. The conservancy also undertakes all the basic care in the 845 acre park.

Chris Nolan, Chief Landscape Architect, Central Park Conservancy
The same approach in forming a conservancy has been taken by the “Friends of  the High Line” originally formed by Joshua David and Robert Hammond. This group raised over 150 million dollars in private and public funds. The High Line was an old abandoned elevated train track that connected several warehouse buildings in the old meatpacking district. Today with an annual operating budget of $11.5 million, the Friends of the High Line maintain and run the daily operations at a cost of $5 million dollars a year.

The High Line is a surprise-it is an elevated wonderland of plants in a pastiche carefully designed and placed by master plantsman Piet Oudolf. The plants themselves are in soil that is only 16 inches deep. There are elevators that go up to the High Line for disabled access, and many volunteers gardening and counting plants along its 2.33 kilometer length. There is an amphitheatre, a water feature for children to play in, lots of public art discoveries, and plenty of people enjoying it. It is already one of the top attractions of things to do in New York City, with over seven million annual visits. Locals  plan their own visits to the High Line around “peak times” on this elevated greenway. As Mitchell Silver notes, the amount of pedestrian traffic suggests that the walkway should have been wider. Cyclists and skateboarders are banned, and there are refreshment locations, benches, and lots of good people watching.

Mitchell Silver describes the High Line as the incubator for the rejuvenation and revitalization of the meatpacking district. The Google Corporation purchased the former Port Authority Building, a massive  fifteen story building in this area in 2010 for  their headquarters.  The Google  building has 2.9 million square feet (the size of two Tsawwassen Mills Malls) in its interior. There is now a hotel and the new Whitney Museum of American Art abutting the High Line. There is no doubt that the renewal of this elevated space has instigated  new interest in the area.

 Public Art installation on High Line by British Columbia Artist Sascha Braunig
 

NYC Park Commissioner Mitchell Silver, Julie Grimson, City of Sydney Australia, and Robert Hammond, Founder of the High Line. Robert is also one of the producers of “Citizen Jane”, the acclaimed documentary on Jane Jacobs.
Alex Washburn who was the Chief Urban Designer for New York City used to say candidly that if projects could be implemented in New York City with the tangle and complexity of public interests and municipal by-laws, that those projects could be considered in any other North American place too. And maybe with the experience of the New York City High Line and  the new High Line like project in Seoul Korea called “Seoullo 7017” (which is reusing an old 1970’s elevated highway as a greenway to make the city more pedestrian friendly)  we should be  rethinking  the potential use of the  Vancouver Georgia Viaducts.

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Besides the High Line in New York City, this report from Wired describes the “Low Line” , the initiative from former Google and NASA employees to build a 450 square meter underground park in an abandoned underground trolley terminal. Expanding on their indoor Lowline Lab which has had nearly 75000 visitors, the new initiative proposes the world’s first underground park, complete with a forest, water features, and plants.

“The Lowline’s skylight system uses external Sun-tracking parabolic dishes to gather and concentrate sunlight to 30 times its regular intensity. Internal optics filter out the hot rays, and the incoming sunlight is then distributed in a modulated way, to suit the vegetation – including exotic plants, mosses and hops. “Tropical species do best, but flowering varieties have also done very well,” says Barasch, one of the founders.

If approved, ten million dollars is needed for the investment and city approval. The goal for opening the world’s first underground park is 2021.

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Pictures of the self-driving free bus that runs around the Confluence district in Lyon…


It putters along the quiet roadway at a speed slightly faster than a wheelchair, making just one turn, and occasionally slamming on its brakes if a pedestrian ambles into its path…

… and has a minder, who also keeps statistics of the passengers. Confluence is the former industrial district in Lyon on the narrow strip of land where the Rhone and Saone rivers meet. It’s rather suburban or “office park” compared with other places in Lyon, and has some dramatic buildings…


Lyon itself is quite flat, with the exception of the Croix-Russes district on the north bank of the Saone, and is dotted with docking stations for the public bike-rent system (Confluence is at the bottom left of the map) …

In Paris, we walked the Promenade Plantée, also known as the Coulée Verte, from Bastille all the way southeasterly to the Bois de Vincennes, about 5 km. Inaugurated in 1993, it is much older and much less well-known than NYC’s HighLine, but an incredible respite from the noise and bustle of Parisian streets…

French towns and cities are still wrestling, if that’s the right word, with the problem of dog shit all over the streets …

… but Paris is much cleaner than it used to be. “Le slalom sur les crottes” is fading into memory.

…and Uber is trying to lure people out of the crowded Metro with the promise, ha ha, that they can smoothly make their way through the uncrowded Paris streets. Ads like this were posted in many Metro stations.
One final shot (only the French would do this, peut-être?) – the terminus of the RER at Paris-CDG. The functioning escalator is descending, forcing passengers to haul their bags up the staircase!

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More images of my October trip to New York.   We’ve walked across Manhattan along 54th Street to the Hudson River where, a few blocks south, one the largest projects in the city’s history is underway – Hudson Yards.

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A massive deck is being built over the train yards that feed Pennsylvania Station.  Cut-glass versions of the 60’s box rise on top.  And on the southern and western most edges, an extension of the upper end of the High Line.

Says Wikipedia of Hudson Yards: “the largest ever of its kind.[4]

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So what’s the second largest?

Apparently, this:

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It’s in downtown Edmonton and it’s called the Ice District.

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Even for those who don’t follow sports, this is what you’ll hear about: Rogers Place  – where it was in construction a month ago. (Local firm Dialog were the architects.)

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Yes, the weather was beautiful. Yes, it was a long weekend.  Yes, this an urbanist must-see in NYC.
But the High Line has become impossibly crowded, certainly too much to enjoy it as originally intended.

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I shuffled along in the line-up, and then took the first exit stairs I could.  Fortunately there is other near-by attraction.  The City itself.

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The High Line offers a constant shifting of views – close, medium and far – especially when the north-south line crosses the east-west streets and the viewer gets a perfect view of life and movement in Manhattan from three storeys up.


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Maybe it was the time of day, but I was struck by how little moving traffic there was – how the streets seemed to be reverting to their pre-Motordom character.


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