At the Queens West megadevelopment, which had largely languished since a building spree in the late 1990s, half a dozen hulking towers bristling with sharp-edged balconies lurch drunkenly down Center Boulevard. Many of these hit the market in 2013, a year that saw New York City’s residential real-estate market — at least at the high end — become more torrid than the pre-crash mid 2000s.
In architecture, 2013 was the year great wealth transformed the urban landscape. And nowhere was this more true than in New York City.
At Queens West, apartment buildings aren’t designed so much as packaged. Whatever mix of unit types and amenities deemed by marketers as most sellable is jammed in whatever the consequences on the street or for the floor plans.) That’s why the shapes are so clumsy and fail even to optimize views, even though that’s the chief way the identically ungracious floor plans can sell themselves. Unlucky buyers and renters too often must stare at adjacent buildings where the exteriors are differentiated only by tacked on brightwork or accented in garish orange or pink brick.
Ungainly globs of essentially identical towers sprout form the tattered post-industrial waterfront for miles along the Brooklyn and Queens side of the East River. There must be a cabal of architecture-school dropouts pumping out these slum towers of the future that erupt from parking lots in long-neglected parts of Midtown (Herald Square shown below) and in countless neighborhoods outside the protected old-money spheres in Manhattan and inner Brooklyn.
The East River towers have bloated thanks to zoning bonuses and tax breaks that reward developers for including so-called affordable housing. Bonus square footage also helped pay for providing costly waterfront esplanades required by the city. In contrast to the buildings, these are unalloyed gifts to the public. Most are handsomely made, truly public places, opening the long walled-off waterfronts to wondrous views of the river and Manhattan.
Manhattan saw an influx of seemingly impossibly thin, tall,super-luxe towers. The 1,000-foot-high One57 (undistinguished by Christian de Portzamparc) is known mainly for the sale of two apartments for more than $90 million. Perhaps a dozen you-can-never-be-too-thin-or-too-expensive towers are in some stage of design, approval, or construction.
The wildly popular High Line Park, though, is being loved to death by development that threatens to wall it in with buildings by the likes of Jeanne Gang and Zaha Hadid. Only in the Meatpacking district do developers think architecture matters, as if design-minded buyers can only thrive in the same futuristic hothouse. Everywhere else, developers seem to think top-dollar buyers won’t notice the same cookie-cutter junk is being pawned off on them, whether in the form of fake lofts, fake Park Avenue, or dreary glass boxes.
Right now, I pin my hopes on Herzog & de Meuron’s 56 Leonard Street highrise to show the way design talent can create a premium (far from complete, only 10 percent of its units are left). Its floors shift in and out, which should create a richly textured presence on the skyline day or night. It’s the opposite of the opaque, textureless murky glass towers that mindlessly pollute the skyline.
Wealth and the city’s popularity has had palpable and permanent upsides. Vast swaths that had been written off for decades, especially in Brooklyn — Williamsburg, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Fort Greene — blossomed in the 2000s.
A park-building frenzy has transformed many amenity-starved neighborhoods. Landscape architect Thomas Balsley (whose 1998 Gantry State Park has done much to take the sting out of Queens West’s mediocrity) has collaborated on the adjacent Hunters’ Point South Park, that opened this year. Architects Weiss/Manfredi created a magnificent pavilion that ascends in a gorgeous curve around a lawn to frame a stunning Manhattan skyline across the river (below).
Work continued on Michael van Valkenburgh’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, which stretches an extraordinary diversity of grassy hills, magical playgrounds, and whorls of shrubbery along a mile of waterfront below the bridge for which it is named.
The Dutch landscape architect West 8 has turned Governor’s Island from a flat, forgotten plane of dead lawn to a magnetic presence that is a great escape within the city.
The Prospect Park Alliance, working with Tod Williams Billie Tsien, brought one of the most picturesque corners of the Olmsted-designed Prospect Park back to life.
For Part 2, click “next” below.
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