Attending “A Conversation on the MoMA’s Plan for Expansion”

There is no better way to begin a semester of architectural study in New York City that to address head-on the most emotionally and politically charged decision presented, in recent days, to the architectural community: the scheduled demolition of the American Folk Art Museum by The Museum of Modern Art. “A Conversation on The Museum of Modern Art’s Plan for Expansion” was held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on January 28, hosted by The Architectural League of New York, the Municipal Art Society, and the American Institute of Architects NY Chapter. And I was fortunate to be in attendance.

DSC_0065(American Folk Art Museum.  Photo by Luke Erickson)

Touted as a “public” event (for members of the hosting organizations only), it was a somewhat social gathering of the architecture and art communities. And yet a cloud of despair, apprehension, and in some cases, outrage, hung over the group. From the woman whose shirt shouted “NO!” in neatly applied tape lettering to the whispered conversations with tilted heads and emphatic glances, each attendee seemed to understand the significance of this architectural “State of the Union.”

The presentations opened with an overview of the MoMA’s reasons for expansion that was given by Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art. Following that introduction, Liz Diller of Diller Scofidio+Renfro detailed the process and rationale for decisions made by she and her design team and the conclusions they had come to with respect to the fate of the American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams & Billie Tsien (notably not in attendance). A panel of gathered experts took the stage to discuss the responsibilities of MoMA to public interests, and its obligations to preserve and protect architecture. Of the entire group that spoke at the event, these individuals gave the most pointed, blunt, and occasionally emotionally-charged remarks. Everyone had an opinion. Even those whose voices were limited to the question cards passed out prior to the event ensured that their voices were heard with the various factions applauding at opportune moments.

In the end, the final question posed to the panel was perhaps what the entire event should have begun with: Does MoMA consider architecture to be an art? And if so, does it not have a responsibility to safeguard and preserve architecture?

Glenn Lowry responded to the question, stating that the MoMA does not recognize architecture as an art that is to be collected. In his own opinion, he said, architecture is intimately tied to a building’s function, and when that function is no longer supported, the responsibility to preserve it as an object is unreasonable.

On most accounts, I agree with Mr. Lowry’s assessment of architecture. And yet, I can understand the discomfort and unhappiness with the MoMA’s decision. Although the American Folk Art Museum and the MoMA are private entities and can utilize their buildings however they choose, a city feels a familial connection to its museums and cultural institutions. Intentional demolition of such a building is painful and presents all of the largely theoretical but very real questions about architecture. We, as architects, treat buildings as permanent entities. We feel a sense of ownership over our designs. But in reality, we hold no ownership over the physical building that results from our design. Should we collect architecture as we do art? Or better yet, can we call architecture art? We have already begun this collection of architecture through historical preservation and landmarked sites. But what constitutes “historical?” And who is given the final word in determining the cultural and historical value of a building? What is an architecture firm’s responsibility to its client when it disagrees with a planned demolition? And what of its responsibility to architecture? Should Diller Scofidio + Renfro have refused the commission to protest the demolition of the building? Would other firms have taken a similar stand?

As someone still sheltered by the walls of academia, these questions have begun to emerge as I study architectural precedents and visit landmarked buildings. Although I have little ability to engage in the conversations that were held last evening, you can be sure I will be spending time in front of the American Folk Art Museum, pondering these questions and formulating my own opinions and practical beliefs of the profession of Architecture.

A First of its Kind Colloquium Class

(Center to right) Jia Li, Hobum Moon, and Denai Zaire at a weekly professional practice colloquium. Photo: Vicki Long

This semester I participated in a first of its kind course at NYC AAP. The class connected current Masters of Regional Planning (MRP) students directly with alums. The course was titled “Professional Practice Colloquium” and was facilitated by Bob Balder. The course consisted of presentations from NYC based AAP graduates of the Masters of Regional Planning program and the undergraduate Urban and Regional Studies program.

Guests came to AAP NYC’s 17th Street studio on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. Often, visits involved slides combined with casual question and answer sessions. In addition to learning about the myriad of directions the degree can lead, the conversations invariably returned to shared experiences from the halls of West Sibley in Ithaca. In several instances, current MRPs are taking courses with the same professors who inspired the visiting practitioners’ careers.

Here are a few alums we met over the past month:

James Eisenberg (URS ’98 and Baker Real Estate ’02)-

James Eisenberg visits the AAP NYC studio to visit with MRP students. Photo: Vicki Long

With an undergraduate degree in city planning, James took that degree and applied it to the real estate development industry. He currently heads project development for the real estate investment trust (REIT) Urban American. The company was started in 1997 by James’ father, Philip Eisenberg. The company operates with the purpose of acquiring, upgrading, and managing middle income housing in the NYC area. Operating for the past 15 years, the firm now manages up to 14,000 units at any given moment.

During James’ visit we learned about his career background, the operations of Urban American, and the linkages between a planning degree and the real estate world. James sees a strong connection between success in real estate and understanding the rhythm of the broader city. Interpreting neighborhood trends and ensuring communication between residents and property managers are skills he believes he honed while studying planning at Cornell.

An example of how James facilitates better communicate between residents and property management is through design. In his role as head of development and construction he leads a push to relocate management offices to the street front upon Urban American’s purchase of buildings. By inviting communication with residents, he finds that this increases the sense of community, and helps to quickly reveal impending problems.


The Roosevelt Island tram midway between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island.  Photo: Max Taffet

With all of the Cornell focus aimed at Roosevelt Island, it is serendipitous that James’ family-operated REIT also owns the largest complex of residential apartments buildings on Roosevelt Island. The complex called Roosevelt Landings, formerly Eastwood, was designed in the 1970s by José Luis Sert.

Of the many holdings in Urban American’s portfolio, Roosevelt Landing is a particular passion for James. This is due in part to the coming development of the Cornell Tech campus, but also to the building complex’s novel vacuum garbage collection system. Like the vacuum tubes at the bank, which move money and cheques from the car drive-through to bank tellers, the garbage vacuum allows for garbage to be sucked to the far end of the island away from the development. This means that many fewer garbage trucks rumble up and down the single Main Street road that connects the north and south ends of the island.

Beyond garbage, what also excites James about the coming Cornell development is its potential to improve the quality of life on the island. For many years, Roosevelt Island’s residents have existed in something of a food desert. With a population of roughly 14,000 people there were very limited amenities. James explained that part of the reason for the limited amenities is the island’s unusual land lease structure.

Roosevelt Island is owned by New York City, but most all of the land outside of the future Cornell footprint and a hospital on the north end of the island is under a 99 year land lease to the State of New York. The State of New York’s Empire Development Corporation subleases land to private developers like Urban American and Related Companies. However, until recently, the State of New York retained control of leasing all ground floor retail. Over the years, the challenges of the physical form of the ground floor spaces combined with lack of leasing expertise resulted in many vacant storefronts. The arrival of Cornell combined with the State relinquishing control of retail leasing space represent a significant change.


Talking with masters of regional planning students, directly under the flat screen, Julio Peterson ’86. To Julio’s left Bob Balder, Jonathan Tsai, Danai Zaire, and asking question in foreground is Dan Moran.  Photo: Vicki Long

Julio Peterson (URS ’86)- Passing most of his days in Manhattan’s Theater District, Julio’s profession represents an interesting twist on the typical planning career. For the past 13 years he has worked for the largest owner of stage theaters in NYC, the Shubert Organization. His current title is VP of Real Estate and he is also a board member of the Municipal Art Society (a very cool organization I wrote about here).

After graduating from Cornell’s Urban and Regional Studies as an undergraduate, Julio returned to his native New York City where he worked for the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). During his tenure at NYCEDC he focused on work in Harlem where he served as project manager for several large scale projects, among them The Malcolm X Memorial at the Audubon Ballroom and the Julia De Burgos Latino Cultural Center in East Harlem.

Following four years at NYCEDC Julio went onto spend three years as director of the Neighborhood Builders Program, a nonprofit that facilitated minority women and men being involved in the real estate development of distressed neighborhoods. As director, Julio facilitated the investment of $300 million into multi-family homes throughout NYC.

At this point in Julio’s career, he made the decision to return to school for a masters in real estate development from Harvard. Upon graduating he worked a short while for KPMG before moving to his current employer, The Shubert Organization. Julio’s timeline with Shubert aligned perfectly with the rezoning of New York City’s theater district.

First established in 1998, the Theater Subdistrict was created by the New York City Planning Commission in order to protect the “concentration of over 40 Broadway theaters [which] make the Theater District one of the most well-known areas in the world.” A central part of the Theater District’s designation as a subdistrict was the creation and regulation of an air-rights market place. This area covers the blocks between Sixth to Eighth Avenues and 40th to 57th Avenue.

As theaters in this part of midtown Manhattan are not “the highest and best use”, City Planning created an air rights transfer market to encourage the maintenance and reinvestment by property owners into existing theaters. By generating money from the air-rights market, property owners can sell off unbuilt floor area and thereby leave theaters standing. In effect theater properties are able to capitalize on their location through selling unused vertical space. Working for Shubert,  Julio has become an expert in the deal making around transfer development rights (TDRs).

Current member of the Cornell AAP’s Dean’s Advisory Council, Kate Bicknell ’99, presents on her work with Forest City Ratner in developinging the Barclay’s Center.  Photo: Vicki Long

Kate Bicknell (URS ’99)-

Combining an undergraduate degree in planning with a Masters in Business Administration, Kate is in the midst of a fascinating career. Immediately after Cornell she went to work as a legislative aide for Senator Patrick Moynihan. Representing the people of New York State and with a background in Sociology, Senator Moynihan was known for his passion for cities and the built environment. Kate’s planning background from the URS program situated her perfectly to work on Moynihan’s staff.

After Moynihan left the US Senate in 2001, Kate stayed in Washington D.C. working as Federal Policy Director for Smart Growth America. Following four years of government and nonprofit work Kate then transitioned to the pursuit of an MBA at Wharton. While in Philadelphia, Kate had the good fortune of meeting Eileen Weingarten, a Cornell B.Arch alum. In her capacity as a Vice President at Forest City Ratner Companies, Weigarten was giving a guest lecture at Wharton. From this fortuitous connection and a follow-up coffee, on graduating from Wharton in 2005 Kate joined the Commercial & Residential Development division of Forest City.

Since joining Forest City Ratner, Kate has combined her public and private sector knowledge to help in the construction of several high profile developments. One such development is Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn.  In building the Barclay’s Center atop the Atlantic Yards, Kate was central in the negotiations between the City, State of New York and the MTA in expanding the existing subway station beneath the stadium. Barclays Center is the first major new sports and entertainment complex in New York City since 1968. In total the subways system addition cost Forest City more than $70 million.

Barclays Center
South East corner of the Barclays Center. The foundation underway for NYC’s largest ever modular apartment tower. Photo: Max Taffet


While visiting with the MRP students, Kate also shared a great deal about the new construction techniques being used by Forest City Ratner in building the rest of the buildings in the Atlantic Yards complex. One example is in the foreground of the above image which is the base of New York City’s first high rise apartment building to be built wholly out of prefabricated units. In collaboration with Skanska construction, Forest City Ratner established a new business that builds complete apartment units modularly offsite.

Using dockside warehouse facilities in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a new construction entity called FC + Skanska Modular is building complete modular apartments. The idea is that most of the construction may occur in a controlled warehouse environment, essentially creating the Lego blocks that are apartments that will be fit together on site at Atlantic Yards. Once each apartment is constructed and then transported from the Navy Yards to the Barclay’s site, the only thing to do is attach the units. Everything from wiring to the installation of toilet paper dispensers occurs while the modular units are in the warehouse at the Navy Yards. 

As all things Cornell lead to Roosevelt Island these days, it is another coincidence that Kate’s new major duty as a VP at Forest City Ratner is managing the development of Cornell’s first building on the new Cornell Tech campus. In June of 2013, Cornell selected Forest City Ratner as the “master developer” for the new campus. As the campus takes shape it will be great to know an AAP alum is in the middle of it all.

The Best of Brooklyn Tour

Tour de BrooklynAfter a grueling week working on a final project for our urban design course, the masters of city and regional planning students were rewarded with a long awaited blockbuster tour of the Borough of Brooklyn. At the helm guiding the tour was AAP NYC’s executive director (and 18 year resident of Brooklyn) Bob Balder and new Cornell City and Regional Planning professor Tom Campanella (Brooklyn born, raised, and on-going inhabitant). In addition to living in Brooklyn, Tom is a scholar of Brooklyn having written about the city’s history and development.

The tour kicked off at 9AM at the epicenter of the Brooklyn real estate development boom, the Barclays Center; a super-sized infill project. Over the last few years the Barclays stadium has drawn both acclaim and derision.

Located above the Long Island Rail Road’s Atlantic Yards, the stadium required the City of New York to exercise its power of eminent domain in order to create room for the new structure. Built by the developer Forest City Ratner, the building is a bridge between the 1970s aesthetic of reflective glass and rust cladding and 21st century engineering. The rust colored cladding is comprised of custom fabricated sections – each section custom built for its specific location on the building’s curvilinear exterior.

Barclays Center
The class meets up at 9AM in front of the Barclays Center. The temperature is brisk. An digital billboard advertising McDonald’s floats above our heads.

The next stop on our voyage was the Brooklyn Museum and Prospect Park. We began with the grand 1895 beaux art architecture of McKim, Mead, and White. Towering above Frederick Law Olmstead’s Eastern Parkway, McKim, Mead, and White’s Brooklyn Museum is part of a central complex of great public works that convey the power of the late 19th Century independent municipality of Brooklyn.

Bob, who lives across the street, spoke of the social function of the Brooklyn Museum. Specifically, the social impact of the museum’s 2007 remodel of its front entrance. The lobby is now open to the street by way of a glass rotunda that creates a space that is visually penetrated from the street outside. A gesture to the neighborhoods, the remodel coincided with the museum’s increased effort to engage a broader and more diverse audience. The facade now includes exterior steps that allow the public outside to walk over and around a now transparent lobby. There is also a great deal of seating and public space in the plaza in front of the museum. (We are told this plaza is where Bob’s daughter learned to walk).

From the museum and Eastern Parkway we walked into Prospect Park. Professor Campanella, who completed his masters of landscape architecture at Cornell, acquainted us with some of the landscape architecture principles in operation at the park. A paramount concept used by Olmsted is that of landscape compression and expansion. In designing the park, Olmsted tried to construct an impression for visitors who entered that they were leaving the busy city behind. In a transition that suggests passing through the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, Olmsted created narrow funnel entrances into the park that still results in a feeling of bursting into nature.

Building on the funnel concept is the principal of creating a curved open space. The purpose of a bowl-like open space is to seal off the outside world as well as to pull the visitors further into the park. The underlying effect is that there is always another corner to venture around, another site to see.

Yellow arrow follows the curvature of the bowled park space; the pink loop highlights the point where the curvature leads. This point of disappearance draws visitors further into the park by begging the question of what is around the next corner.

Following the park visit, we fast forwarded in history to a renowned piece of 20th century public works, the Brooklyn Esplanade. Built under the reign of Robert Moses, the Esplanade sits atop three levels of stacked roadway. Cantilevered beneath the magnificent public space that is the Esplanade are two roadway trays containing the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE). Then on the very bottom is a local road that used to provide essential access to the working waterfront.

View from the Brooklyn Esplanade
Top left to bottom right: Manhattan skyline, Brooklyn Bridge Park, big box is a ventilation system for a subway line beneath the East River, and railings are the edges of vehicle trays of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.

The esplanade has arguably the best single view of the Lower Manhattan skyline in all of New York. It also provides an excellent perch from which to take in a bevy of new public amenities found in the developing Brooklyn Bridge Park. We learned from Professor Campanella that had many of Brooklyn’s most connected residents not lived in Brooklyn Heights at the time of the BQE’s construction, it is likely that the area would have been wiped from the map. In Moses’ drive to create vehicular routes throughout the city, few things stood in his way. The resultant esplanade represents a far more expensive roadway intervention than occurred in other neighborhoods that were also targeted for expressways.

Continuing the Moses-era tour, we visited Cadman Plaza Park, the site of the Brooklyn War Memorial. The park was designed by a team of architects, landscape architects, and city planners; one of whom was Gilmore Clarke, a Dean of Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning in the 1940s. At the heart of the park is the WWII memorial to the more than 300,000 Brooklynites who served. In viewing the physical landscape, Campanella pointed out the London Plane trees set in a European inspired grid, and the forced perspective of the park’s conical shape. The narrowing of the park and its trees as one nears the far end of the site make the site seem larger than it actually is.

The next stop was the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Most of our visit occurred within the beautiful four story museum, known as BLDG 92. The museum tells the history of the Navy Yard site, which has a long history going all the way back to the original Native American inhabitants and the Dutch settlers. Following the Dutch, it was privately held by ship builders, serving as a mooring site for British prisoner ships during the revolutionary war. At its peak in the early 20th century, the site employed between 60,000 and 70,000 people as a US Navy Yard.  

On top of the museum is a cafe where we had lunch overlooking the entire Navy Yard complex. This locale provided a particularly cool view of the complex’s gritty and multi-use characteristics, in addition to beehives atop several buildings’ rooves. The explanation for the apiary activity is an enormous urban agriculture operation on another one of the rooves in the Navy Yard. As a result, the beehive communities are part of a broader urban food production ecosystem.

Navy Yard Rooftops and apiary operation
Colored boxes are beehives, the skeletal structure spanning the image is a warehouse in the process of being restored. All of the historic cladding was temporarily removed to clean off lead paint. The building is intended to house new tech manufacturers.  

From the Navy Yard we traveled up Kent Avenue through Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Along the way we saw the incredible high rise development that has grown along the waterfront. While cruising by the Greenpoint waterfront we made a quick stop at the WNYC Transmitter Park. This is a particularly special park as it was designed by our urban design professor Adam Lubinsky’s firm WXY Architects. A pleasant feature of the park is a new pier that juts out into the East River. I especially liked the pier’s railing.

WXY Architect's railing at WNYC Transmitter Park

From Greenpoint the next stop was to the southeast into Bushwick. Broadly considered to be the next Williamsburg, Bushwick is where the artists who originally made Williamsburg hip have relocated to. Like many trends in NYC, the flow of artists and galleries is following the path of a subway line. In this case it is the “L”.

Once we arrived, we stopped in with NURTUREart Gallery. This gallery focuses on emerging artists by providing the opportunity for solo and curated group shows, and thus some professional street cred. AAP NYC’s program coordinator, Brooke Moyse, a practicing artist in Bushwick, provided the introduction. Gallery director Marco Antonini provided an insightful perspective on what forces drove artists to Williamsburg and what forces subsequently pushed many artists and galleries to Bushwick. Nuancing his description, Marco explained how changes in zoning in Williamsburg were the primary drivers leading to a shift from artist’s live/work spaces to residential apartments. Antonini hopes the current land use in Bushwick will remain, and for the possibility that Bushwick’s distance from Manhattan will insulate it from the gentrified fate of Williamsburg.

As the afternoon sun lowered, we loaded back onto our bus and made a beeline toward Brooklyn’s south. Along the way, we traveled through the neighborhoods of Bedford Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, and Marine Park, as well as to drive by Tom Campanella’s residence and childhood home in Marine Park.

Ultimately, our tour bus dropped us off in front of Nathan’s World Famous Hotdog Stand in Coney Island. Occupying the length of a block, this is where the internationally renowned hotdog eating competition occurs. More significantly, it is also where Bob Balder helped site NYC’s first minor league baseball stadium when he worked for the New York City Economic Development Corporation. While looking at the stadium, we learned from Bob about all the trials and tribulations involved in siting a major public facility on a short timeline.

A part of a New York City’s history, Coney Island represents an important urban space. Although not all that impressive or energized today, it was once the epicenter of leisure for the New York City middle class.

As the convergence point for four major subway lines (the D, N, F, and Q), Coney Island used to attract millions of people per year. Now the transit system provides significantly more capacity than is needed. Though it is an isolated site of disinvestment, Coney Island may be viewed as sign of larger trends. A shift in demand from residents and the shuttering of its three behemoth amusement parks paralleled the American shift towards the car and the suburbs after WWII.

While Coney Island is a tired-looking place today, there are signs of change.  Bob’s baseball stadium is but one gesture combined with the work of consecutive New York City mayors to leverage investment into the area. As cities return to being the focus of American growth, Coney Island’s prominence will hopefully return too.

After braving the cold on the Coney Island boardwalk we hightailed it to our final stop, an Uyghur restaurant on the main strip of Brighton Beach. With the exception of one student in the MRP program, nobody knew what to expect from Uyghur cuisine.  That student is from northwest China, which is one of the areas of Central Asia where Uyghur people live.  The restaurant is a longtime Campanella  favorite and it lived up to the hype! Lots of lamb, great noodles and dumplings, and spectacular bread.

If only we had time for “best of tours” of the other four boroughs!

Biking through Queens, a History of Brooklyn’s Waterworks

 Left to right the AAP NYC crew- Moon, Bob, Jia, Sangni, and Ashton

Another Saturday, another spectacular opportunity to get out and see urbanity. On offer for the first Saturday of November was a biking tour of Brooklyn’s historic water infrastructure. Although it was a tour of Brooklyn’s infrastructure, the entirety of the tour occurred within the Borough of Queens.

Unlike other tours so far this term, this one was not guided by AAP NYC instead we tagged along with a nonprofit called NYC H2O. Going along with NYC H2O provided the opportunity to ride alongside passionate Brooklynites and gave us access to controlled entry areas of the former Ridgewood Reservoir.

View into former Ridgewood Reservoir bath.

Seeing Brooklyn’s 19th century infrastructure imparted a history of urban growth and spotlighted an epic but little known story of poor urban planning. An enormous amount of the then City of Brooklyn’s mid-19th century financial purse invested in what was ultimately a failed water distribution system. The financial strain of this failure and the need for clean water contributed to Brooklyn’s willingness to participate in the consolidation of great New York City in 1898.

To fully understand the problems with Brooklyn’s historic water supply, we followed its elevation contours for 18 miles. The ride started at the Jamaica, Queens, YMCA, where we met the tour guides Matt Malina of NYC H20 and Michael Miscione, Manhattan’s official Borough Historian. From our meeting point we first pedaled up to the highest elevation of the tour, the historic basins of the Ridgewood reservoir.
Sandborn map depicting the Ridgewood Reservoir basins. Located in the lower right hand corner of the map is the contemporary YMCA, just east of Shepherd St. on Jamaica Ave.

The three tubs seen in the above image were the final destination for a system of pipes, streams, and ponds stretching 25 miles east along Long Island. At the time of the water infrastructure’s construction Brooklyn was its own city. In mid-19th century dollars, the system cost the sizable sum of $20 million. But more significant than what it cost to build, annually at the time it cost $1 million to pump water from lower elevations up to the reservoir baths. This was considered an expensive sum for operation.

Over time, as the population in Queens County grew, in addition to the cost of pumping water to the reservoir, the source water gradually become more and more polluted. Only operating for 40 years, the Brooklyn waterworks system was decommissioned when Brooklyn gained access to Manhattan’s waterworks which drew water from the natural high elevations of the Catskills. The water from the Catskills was and continues to be one of the purest municipal water supplies in the country.


An Inside View of the Lower East Side

On the last sunny Saturday of October the Cornell AAP NYC Masters of Regional Planning students went on an extensive walking tour of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Though it encompasses a small geographic area, the Lower East Side represents an incredibly diverse range of land uses and building typologies. From tenements to towers in the park, the building stock ranges more than two centuries.

The tour kicked-off at Essex Street Market on the northeast corner of Essex Street and Delancey Street. Just inside the market entrance we met Jacob Dugopolski of WXY Studios and Bob Balder, the E.D. of AAP NYC. We kicked things up by fueling ourselves with coffee and fruit purchased at the market – and simultaneously learned about the history of the space from Bob. Built in the 1930s under the direction of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947), the market was originally intended to bring order to the chaotic tenement streets of the Lower East Side.

Heritage Meat Shop

The belief of the administration was that by creating a formal city-controlled indoor space, order would be brought to the street hawkers and pushcart vendors. At the time, the Essex Street Market was just one among a network of such facilities created across the city. For the past seventy plus years this high ceiling-ed concrete structure housed food vendors and served as an indoor community gathering space. In the last ten years, even in the context of rapid neighborhood gentrification, the market continues to serve as a meeting point for the Lower East Side’s diverse socioeconomic. Side by side, it is possible to purchase cans of Goya black beans and an artisanal croissant with espresso.

Stepping out of the market the group first paused on the north side of Houston to learn about the Seward Park Urban Redevelopment Area (SPURA). In 1965 the City of New York acquired 5 parcels to the north and south of East Houston. The purpose was to follow through with a federal initiative to tear down tenement buildings and replace them with low income housing.

However, by 1965 the Robert Moses era of willing projects into existence had already slowed down. From the 1960s through today numerous attempts to work with City Council and community members to identify the right development for the land has failed. One of the more interesting early proposals for the site was that it might be the beginning of a mega building that would span half the width of the island of Manhattan! It’s probably for the best, this did not come to pass.

The most material proposal came in 1989 during Mayor Edward Koch’s administration, however massive community opposition to the plan led to it’s ultimate abandonment. More recently, the winds shifted in October of 2012 when the City Council voted unanimously in favor of a development proposal. It seems the SPURA saga is finally nearing an end.

The current plan is that the new site will be 60 percent residential use and 40 percent commercial. Half of the proposed thousand new apartments are to be permanently affordable, and on top of it all, one of the new buildings will house the Lower East Side’s new Andy Warhol museum. The development will also entail the expansion and redevelopment of the Essex Street Market.

Details on the SPURE development can be found here on the NYC EDC website.  

From the market we wound our way along Norfolk Street towards Orchard Street. Along the way we paused to look at an instance of Transfer Development Rights (TDR). This is where adjacent buildings buy and sell the right to build additional floors. Buildings in different zoning areas a limited to different levels of Floor Area Ratio (FAR). A 1 FAR allows you to build 1 floor across your entire parcel. A 2 FAR allows you to build 2 floors across your entire parcel.

However, TDR allows adjacent buildings to buy and sell FAR within an localized area if buildings have not built their entire allotment.  In the below image, you can see how this occurred between the large blue building in the center of the photo and its neighbors. The building towers over its the buildings on its left and right. This extra large height is allowed because the blue building likely bought its additional height from the low building flanking its right hand side. In such a transaction, the low building sells its future building allowance to its neighboring building. Once that right to build is sold, the lower building owner has sold off the future right to build higher. This transfer of future development rights will hold even if the owner who sold the FAR sells the lot. Making such a transaction allows the low building’s owner to cash-out value from the parcel. 


Ultimately, our group worked our way down Orchard Street and arrived at the Amalgamated Dwellings, Inc. building located on Grand Street between Willett and Columbia Streets. Constructed in the 1930 for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union members, this Art-Deco 236-apartment structure represents one of the district’s many super block apartment buildings.

While from the outside the building aesthetically blends in with the surrounding unremarkable towers, when it was constructed it was built amongst tenement buildings.  It was the original oddball. The architects Springsteen and Goldhammer, were recognized for the elegance of the building’s simplicity. Much of the buildings stylistic inspiration comes from Vienna. Beyond the exterior style, the intent of the building was to create a building that turned away from the street.

2 1930 MNY196394

Historic 1930 photo of the Amalgamated Dwelling Apartment entrance. Source: Cornell’s Catherwood Library, where the Amalgamated Clothing Worker’s archive is held. 


Photo of the same entrance, taken during our visit.

Centered on an expansive courtyard, the original intent of the union workers’ community was to isolate themselves from the chaos of the surrounding streets and create a controlled idyllic world within the building. Bob Balder connected the group with his longtime friend William Rockwell who provided access to the building. A practicing architect and resident of the building, William shared the building’s extensive history and took us on an inside and outside tour of the structure.


Seeing the community theater room and the anti-railroad style of the interior room conveys the original union values. Non-railroading, I learned, means that all of the rooms in each apartment were originally built to be accessed from hallways. So, no access to bedrooms would be the result of having to pass through another room, as they would be in a railroad style apartment. When the co-operative was first built this amenity was considered to be a luxury. Even though the Amalgamated Dwellings units were low cost union apartments, the railroad-free aspect of them represents the union’s priorities of dignity for the individual.

MRP students with William (right), crowded around a dining room table in one of the building’s 236 apartments. 

Shortly after the Amalgamated Dwelling building was constructed the New York City Housing Authority began constructing its first super block apartments. A short walk further down the street visiting NYCHA’s (New York City Housing Authority) Vladeck House, built in 1939, the similarity in scale of the buildings is striking.

See where we were by clicking on the blue bubbles below to see a few more anecdotes from our tour.