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Charles Lauster Architect, P.C.

THE FUTURE OF NYCHA

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on February 13, 2014

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THE FUTURE OF NYCHA

 

By Charles Lauster                                                                                                                           February 2014 

CLAblogA challenge facing Bill de Blasio is how to best to make a major impact on providing affordable housing with the city’s meager funding options.  One possible route would be to rebuild the New York City Housing Authority into the greatest public housing agency in the country. It was great once. In a nation that is increasingly turning its back on public housing, it could be again. No matter what city housing policy he chooses, the city will have to fund the maintenance of its public housing stock. It can do this in the lackadaisical manner of the past decade or it can make its public housing a model to be followed by building owners throughout the city.

There are two aspects to this challenge – the managerial and the technical. As an snow-storm-360x461organization, NYCHA been has allowed to drift into dysfunction. Repairs have not been made to apartments. Purchasing has been uncoordinated. Building modernization has not gone well.  The leadership has been more focused on financial deals than on running the operation. The residents are in near rebellion over their perception of being ignored.  The new commissioner, Shola Olatoye, will have her hands full. If, however, she is recognized as leading a major strategy for rebuilding affordable housing in New York, her hand to reorganize and reform NYCHA would be immeasurably strengthened. She will need serious mayoral backing to reshape the NYCHA bureaucracy into an operation capable getting its money’s worth from the funding that it has. If she succeeds, it will be a triumph in itself.

The technical challenges are of a different sort. Since 1935 when its first buildings came on line in Lower East Side, NYCHA has built simple, un-insulated masonry enclosed structures. In the last 19 years NYCHA has spent about $6 billion in refurbishing its 2,600 buildings and 178,800 apartments. That comes to about $1,800 per apartment per year.  Most of this work, not surprisingly, is consistent with the technology with which these buildings were originally built. Separate contracts are let to do specific tasks. Leaking brick walls get repointed. Aging elevators get modernized. A roofer comes in.

An alternative approach would be to take an entire building and renovate it for the twenty first century.  Temporarily housing the residents elsewhere, the building’s exterior walls would be insulated and it’s plumbing and heating system replaced. The elevator would be modernized and its electrical system upgraded to current codes. While the layout of rooms would be much the same, the finished building would be performing to the highest standards. Even only a few buildings are done a year, a rate well within its budget, such comprehensive rebuilding would demonstrate to its residents and the city at large NYCHA’s determination to confront affordability and sustainability.

As hundreds of buildings get this treatment over the years, the construction industry in the city will develop a skill sets to remake the non-publically owned housing stock. NYCHA could be the laboratory for sustainable energy retro-fits on a citywide scale. NYCHA will be spending money. Can it build for the future instead of merely trying to catch up with the backlog from the past?

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A New Mayor/ A New Era for Child Care

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on October 24, 2013

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A NEW MAYOR/A NEW ERA IN CHILD CARE

 

CLAblogBy Charles Lauster                                                                                                                     October 2013

Bill de Blasio is making universal pre-kindergarten classes a major component of his campaign for mayor. As public policy, pre-K education is a great help in boosting children’s education and in assisting working parents. A universal program was passed by the City Council in 1998 but it was inadequately funded. Tens of thousand of children could not be accommodated.

One of the cost issues in dealing with children four years old and younger is the facility itself. Children younger than four are really in child care for which the city has comprehensive requirements. These include toilet rooms for small children only, an adult toilet room, a pantry or kitchen, square footage minimums for classroom space and more. The result is that a “classroom” for children is much more expensive, on a square foot basis, than a regular school classroom.

CDBChildCareWebThen there is the issue of active play. While a good portion of the day is taken up with teaching, kids need to burn off energy in play. This is the biggest problem in New York City facilities. Real play requires real space. Space to run, jump and climb on things. The classrooms are full of instructional items; vigorous play in there is asking for trouble. Yet a nice, big space could be another classroom serving yet more children. Since the financial feasibility of a center is tied to the number of kids served, classrooms almost always take precedence over indoor play space. Outdoor play space, the best solution for active exercise, is very difficult find. Moving the children to a playground or park near the center is a complex undertaking. Try getting thirty three year olds out of the building, across the street and down the block to a park; it is a big deal. To make matters worse, many of the spaces in New York that might work as a center are no where near outdoor space appropriate for young children. Some buildings have roof space that can be made into successful play grounds but again the cost is significant.

In figuring out the funding of true, universal pre-K, the new administration is going to have to confront the funding of more facilities for children two and up to four years old. Considering the crowded conditions in most schools and the inadvisability of mixing young children with regular school age children the city’s schools are probably not part of the solution.

Many of the city’s public housing projects have wonderful child care facilities with directly accessed playgrounds. Those centers are obviously already full.  Yet they do represent a good model for a new generation of centers if the funds to build them can be found. The infrastructure aspect of the pre-K program is vital if the universality goal is to be realized. Construction on that scale encourages a creative reconsideration of design for young children. There may be land use regulation changes that could promote play space. There may be changes in the Department of Health rules that make more indoor play space possible. The Department of Buildings and the Fire Department might take a new look on restrictions on siting facilities for children. If a large number of new slots (an odd word for a child) are to be created and a large amount of money spent, this may be the time for a fresh approach to child care facilities in New York City.

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East Midtown Zoning: A Plan Half Done

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on September 27, 2013

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East Midtown Zoning: A Plan Half Done

CLAblogBy Charles Lauster                                                                                                                     August 2013

The City Planning Commission proposal to reinvigorate east midtown’s aging commercial real estate is only half of a potentially effective plan. It solves for the creation of more modern office space where there is little existing developable space available but it does little to ensure that the space will be successful. There is no urbanity in this scheme. From Gramercy Park to Central Park to the Highline, thriving real estate development has combined increased density with public amenity. The second half of the plan has to answer the question of what can be done in an area of Manhattan uniquely lacking in such amenities to make a serious increase in commercial density tolerable?

240px-Walter_Gropius_photo_MetLife_Building_fassade_New_York_USA_2005-10-03First some background. The East Midtown Rezoning recognizes that much of the office space east of Madison Avenue, south of the 57th Street and north of 39th street is over 70 years old and unsuitable for modern Class A use. For instance, the ceilings are too low (think ducts, lighting and cabling) and there are too many columns for open plan offices and flexibility. The Commission proposes that owners of lots over 25,000 square feet be permitted to buy from the city additional build-able square footage that substantially exceeds the current zoning limit. In other words, owners of older, large buildings would be allowed to tear them down and build much taller buildings that meet modern needs.

Needless to say the idea is meeting a lot of resistance. Many say there is too much density already and the area’s infrastructure is inadequate. Let’s examine those charges. Pedestrian counts on the east and west sides of midtown are similar and among the highest in Manhattan. Times Square over on the west side, however, has the highest counts in the city. It is certainly true that the 4,5, and 6 subway lines are packed but the Second Avenue line will open in the next few years. Opponents also complain of lost light and air. That complaint is harder to justify; the potential sites for taller buildings in the district are already occupied by tall buildings. No existing open space will be lost because East Midtown does not really have any public open space. The median strip in Park Avenue is about the best the district has to offer. That is the problem. In midtown east of 5th Avenue there are no major parks, no major squares, nothing to interrupt the march of the grid. While it has many fine buildings, its urban fabric is featureless. One finds it hard to form a mental map of the east side because of the spatial uniformity of the district.

The similarly dense Midtown West is full of memorable open spaces. There is Bryant Park to the south and Central Park to the north. Times Square and Rockefeller Center are at the center. Finally, Broadway blows off the grid altogether. All these interventions into the grid create mental markers that provide locations with identities. Much as Kevin Lynch, a revered urban planner at M.I.T., described the elements in the mental maps people form of their surroundings, Midtown West provides a lively “language of city patterns.” Midtown East is comparatively mute.

Midtown East does have one great public space but it is indoors — Grand Central Terminal. Interestingly, the Planning Commission proposal sets its focus for higher structures around the fabled station. In many ways this makes sense. It is a transit hub and 42nd Street is the most used east/west corridor in midtown. If any place can handle increased density it is the area around Grand Central. Unfortunately there is a problem with this location. The MetLife Building, even without increased building height around it, is a black hole of urban energy. It interrupts the grid not as an enlivening, Lynchian marker but more like an overturned bus. At the sidewalk level it is an obstacle course with heavy security.

The point is not whether MetLife is an attractive building. It is in the wrong place if the buildings immediately around it are to be greatly increased in size. One of the magical aspects of the grid is its capacity to accommodate many very large buildings without overpowering the cityscape. Consider the contrast between the Financial District and midtown in terms of physical and visual movement. Compared to the dim maze downtown, the uptown grid promotes spatial orientation and more light to the street. That movement stops at the MetLife Building. By being off the grid it crowds and blocks people, space and light. Its off-grid stance amid a cluster of new, tall, on-grid buildings will create an anomaly in midtown — downtown type canyons. Narrow Vanderbilt Avenue will become Exchange Place.

A step to answering this problem would be to take down the MetLife Building and replace it with a park between the old New York Central Building and what is left of Grand Central. Park Avenue, which never had a park, would finally have one, the ramps around the station defining it. The new, substantially taller buildings around Grand Central would occupy their customary places in the Manhattan grid more comfortably. The vista along 44th Street would be open east/west and the New York Central Building would regain its majesty on Park Avenue. The public open space gained by removing the MetLife Building, would begin to offset the perceived burden of more building bulk in the neighborhood. That, in fact, would be the deal: more open public space on the ground for more commercial space in the sky. The revenue from the sale of increased square footage could be dedicated to the purchase of parkland.

Taking down a building of this size, 58 stores in over 800 feet, is well within the capabilities on the New York construction industry. An objection might be that we would be taking down a Class A building when we are trying to increase the amount of Class A space. But is MetLife really Class A? Some very old space is Class A. 30 Rockefeller Plaza, for instance, is 80 years old but with the very best cachet. The MetLife Building is 50 years old, an awkward age. While it is superbly sited for access to Grand Central (after all it landed on top of it) there is nothing up-to-date in its spaces, systems or functional options. It is merely a well-maintained, older building attached to a world famous train station.

MetLife has 3,077,671 square feet. The Commission’s proposal is to replace 10 million square feet of out-of-date space and add another 4.5 million additional square feet. In total they are proposing 14.5 million square feet in new construction. Turning MetLife into a park would reduce the district’s office space of all sorts slightly but not reduce the new space at all. If the loss of 3 million square feet of fifty year old space is a problem, the eastern border of East Midtown, which moves between Second and Third Avenues, could be tweaked to pick up a few more sites or the new buildings could go higher.

To complete its plan for more modern commercial space in east midtown, the city should provide a level of urbanity, of memorable public space, to offset the increased density. The revenue from the sale of building rights will be inadequate for a subway or most serious infrastructure but it might go a long way with parks. East Midtown, in any case, should be in better balance with West Midtown in terms of parks. It will be competing with Hudson Yards for tenants and that district will have a variety of outdoor spaces and the Hudson River, Lynchian markers galore. If the city wants to increase the density around Grand Central, it needs a similar level of urban amenity. The equivalent of a Highline but lower, a park on the roof of a railroad, a park on Park Avenue.

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Midtown Study “The Flip”

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on August 26, 2013

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Midtown Study "The Flip" New York City 2006

The State of New York proposed expanding the existing convention center north, blocking a total of seven blocks of Hudson riverfront.

CLA, working with the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute at Baruch College and Robert Geddes, proposed building a much larger convention center east west over the open railroad yards of Penn Station from Ninth Ave. to Twelfth Ave. “Flipping” the convention center would open up Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood to the Hudson.

A structural “Landbridge” would lift the convention center over the rebuilt street grid of retail and entertainment uses. The rail yard would continue to function below this street level deck. One of the city’s largest parks would sit atop the Landbridge. Additional commercial and residential buildings could also be built at the park level. A monorail would connect the Seventh Avenue subways at Penn Station to the entire complex.

Once this new complex is complete, the old convention center could be torn down and the land devoted to residential development. Over 14,000 units could be built, 4,000 of them affordable housing. Evelyn Kalka assisted on this study.

Midtown Study "The Flip" New York City 2006
The State of New York proposed expanding the existing convention center north, blocking a total of seven blocks of Hudson riverfront.

Willets Point

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on August 20, 2013

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Willets Point
Queens, NY 2005

Willets Point is bordered by Flushing Bay, Flushing Creek and MTA rail yards. Within this area there is a #7 subway station, Mets Stadium, a parking lot and a cluster of auto parts shops on unpaved streets. This void is at the center of the densest population in Queens and next to the fourth largest central business district in New York City, Flushing.

The Queens Chamber of Commerce asked the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute, with which CLA collaborates, to devise a master plan for development. The Newman/CLA team proposed extending Flushing Meadow Park north and over the rail yards to form the base for a regional shopping complex with a small exposition center and hotel. Several levels of commercial space could be built over the retail spine. Parking would be built on decks below the retail. This spine would run across Willets Point from Flushing to the Corona end where a new Mets stadium would be built. Evelyn Kalka assisted on this study.


Williamsburgh Terrace

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on August 23, 2010

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Williamsburgh Terrace
Brooklyn, NY 2010

CLA was the concept architect for this 86,000 square foot above grade residential project.

The site is half of a central Williamsburg block in Brooklyn. At both ends there are five story apartment buildings with retail at the first floor. In between are eleven three story townhouses. The entire site is excavated to two stories below grade for 60,000 square feet of retail and a parking lot.

The 86,000 square foot project is as-of-right. The developer is working with the city to provide substantially more “affordable housing” for more buildable area. In that case a tower would occupy one corner.


HERE Arts New York, NY 2009

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on November 26, 2009

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HERE Arts
New York, NY 2009

HERE Arts is an off Broadway theater complex that presents some of New York’s most “daring new hybrid art.” It is housed in the first floor and cellar of a former manufacturing building in Soho. The upper floor has a large theater, the lobby and a café that is open to both the theater and the sidewalk. The lower floor has a second theater and the organization’s offices.

HERE’s website quotes the New York Times as saying HERE has “one of the most unusual arts spaces in New York and possibly the model for the cutting-edge arts spaces of tomorrow.” Charles Lauster Architect collaborated with Harry Gaveras, the design architect on this project.


LEED vs Green

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on October 21, 2009

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LEED vs Green

CLAblogBy Peter Kincl

What, exactly, does it mean to be Green? And why does it matter? Consider these statistics: buildings consume about 40% of all energy in the United States. Of that, 84% is used in heating, cooling, hot water, electricity, lighting, etc. Only 12% is embedded in construction. 16% if you add maintenance and renovation. That’s it, 16%, which includes manufacturing all the materials used and then transporting them to the building site. Now I’m not claiming this 16% is an insignificant number – it isn’t. But compared to the 84%, it is. If we want to make a significant reduction in energy use, we need to tackle the 84%.

For the foreseeable future energy conservation will be the single most important aspect of being Green. Water conservation is important, but water shortage problems, although serious in some parts of the west, are, right now, not as potentially devastating as the economic and political disruptions that could be precipitated by declining oil and global warming. Besides, buildings account for only 11% of all water usage, so the potential to make a significant difference is small. Similarly, recycling, renewable resources and conservation matter, but energy shortage and carbon dioxide emissions are much more pressing problems.

Which brings me to LEED and why I believe that in some ways it is more a problem, in terms of making a real Green difference, than a solution. Too many LEED buildings either save no energy or actually use more. This, although maybe on the face of it astonishing, should come as no surprise. It is entirely possible for a building to acquire enough points to become LEED certified without doing anything to limit energy use. LEED is a collection of points which a project accumulates for satisfying certain conditions, and the vast majority of these are unrelated to energy use.

For example, I am amazed that an all glass building can even qualify for LEED certification, let alone actually get it. A basic knowledge of thermal conductivity, thermal bridging and solar heat gain is sufficient to understand why an all glass building can never be energy efficient. And yet it seems quite clear (given how many of these things keep going up) that this is not common knowledge, not even, it seems, amongst building professionals. Either that, or it is knowledge being willfully ignored for the sake of marketing and/or aesthetics. Either way, it is the equivalent of building big gas guzzling SUVs. There is no way to call an all glass building Green. And yet the USGBC doesn’t seem to mind. The certificates keep coming.

There are alternatives to LEED, real alternatives that actually make a real difference. All of them have one important thing in common: a metric. In other words, they have a goal that can be measured. The measuring can be done in Btus used or carbon emissions or whatever units, but the goal has to be measurable and verifiable. Put simply, what, at the end of the day, is the utility bill?

One such alternative is the Passive House concept. The point of Passive House is to construct a building that uses only 4.7 kBtu/sq.ft./yr. for heating and cooling, and it keeps primary energy use equal to or less than 38 kBtu/sq.ft./yr. To one unfamiliar with the jargon, these numbers mean absolutely nothing. But the numbers are important because they are numbers, and because, if one is familiar with such numbers, they are incredibly low (up to ten times more efficient than an average building). To achieve such an ultra-low energy performance is admittedly not simple, but it is very much doable. There is an up-front price premium (which can be offset in the long run with savings on energy consumption). But as we build more and more super-efficient buildings, the industry will become familiar with the construction methods required, and products, such as super insulated windows, will hopefully be made in the USA and their price will come down (the windows, and pretty much all high efficiency Passive House components, are currently German).

I would suggest that being Green means a credible and quantifiable drop in energy use. It means a real reduction in carbon emissions. It means, in the building industry, dealing in a serious way with the 84%. It does not mean papering over inaction by awarding relatively inconsequential points. Olympic inspired ratings don’t mean anything. A significant carbon footprint reduction does.

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Light At Grade

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on October 19, 2009

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Light At Grade

CLAblogThe current show of the photographs by Robert Frank at the Metropolitan in New York is provocative on many levels. One is how dark and dreary New York and most other cities looked at the sidewalk level in the 1950s and 60s. Recent viewings of The French Connection (1972) and Seven Ups (1973), with its 13 minute car chase through the streets of Manhattan and past my subway stop, show an equally dim first story. Admittedly, Frank had a somber viewpoint (no one smiles) and the cop movies were celebrating gritty. Still the 9th Avenue and West 96th Streets shown in the Seven Ups is not even remotely like the ones we have today.

Personally, I remember those streets. In the early seventies I used to marvel at how old and closed in the shops on upper Broadway were. Some actually sold lace. Others, I don’t know what they sold. Shop windows were often very fly blown. There was retail but not much selling. Naturally the midtown shopping avenues were glittering but outside those relatively limited areas the retail bulb dimmed way down. Retail and commerce on cross town streets were even more withdrawn, even mysterious, to the outsider.

Something changed and it probably happened in the 1980s. Retail activity south of 96th Street started to grow in intensity. A local avenue like Columbus suddenly became hot. Rents increased, old shops disappeared and new ones took over. The change was so abrupt that many feared for the city. Commercial rent control was proposed by the Borough President. It never went anywhere. Protecting mom and pop lace shops in the mid-80s didn’t seem convincing.

With the greater retail vigor came expanded shop windows and more lighting. Stores were reaching out to the passersby. The parochial shops of the closed neighborhoods were replaced by stores that would take anybody’s money. Yes, the mallification of Manhattan was worrisome but it seemed that New York suddenly had more neighborhoods of interest to explore.

Today the avenues and retail cross streets teem with life and light. Retail has been hard hit by the recession but it is finding its way to struggle back. Some stores are empty but they come back surprisingly fast. So what happened? An explosion in U.S. consumer spending that began in the 80s is partly the answer. The other is New York’s expanding population. Increased density and sheer numbers supported more stores, restaurants and entertainment. Competition spurred the hard sell and, often, excitement and light in the street.

Robert Frank and the cop films saw a low energy city outside its famed core. That was then this is now. Try to get through the evening crowds on Ninth Avenue today.

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Greenwich South — A Neighborhood Rejoins the City

by Charles Lauster Architect, P.C. on September 30, 2009

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Greenwich South — A Neighborhood Rejoins the City

CLAblogThis month the Downtown Alliance revealed a conceptual plan for reestablishing Greenwich Street in the World Trade Center site, thus reconnecting Battery Park and the West Side up to the Meat Packing District. The twin towers plaza interrupted Greenwich Street for over thirty years, isolating the blocks south of it. The focus of the study is on those blocks which they call Greenwich South. (The Alliance’s excellent web site http://www.downtownny.com/greenwichsouth packs a lot of history and urban planning ideas into a well organized package.)

The basic notion is that Greenwich Street string together the Meat Packing District, the West Village, Hudson Square, Tribeca, Greenwich South and Battery Park into a continuous Lower West Side. Moreover, new east/west connections would bring Battery Park City into the 24/7 life of a revitalized Greenwich South. By facilitating easy connections between areas of urban vitality and Downtown, normal incremental development should spread in underused areas . This is not a bold construction proposal but rather a simple planning move that lets the process that succeeded so well north of the WTC site flow to the south. Architecture Research Office, which organized the study, did propose some stunning structures but it is the simple street restoration that makes the planning work.

While the agonizingly slow return of the WTC site has been a trial, there are benefits to getting perspective on how west side development is unfolding. In 2001 the nature of the Meat Packing District and the fate of the High Line were not at all clear. Indeed, Tribeca was viewed with doom and gloom. Most of the planning impulses then were in response to the destruction and not on how to use the Lower West Side as leverage to enliven Downtown.

These last eight years have shown that almost all neighborhoods in Manhattan are experiencing more intense use and more energy. Most of this change has been block by block advancement of mixed uses. Greenwich South’s attachment to the Lower West Side will promote similar development. It has taken a long time, but a piece of the city is being fit back into place.

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