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01.14.2013
Pyramid Scheme
Green light nears for BIG's 57th Street "Courtscraper."
Courtesy BIG

The pyramidal “courtscraper” by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), an 870,000-square-foot rental project for Durst Fetner Residential (DFR), is one signoff away. The project, known as West 57, earned the City Planning Commission’s approval in December and goes before City Council in January, aiming for completion in 2015.

Despite West 57’s arresting angles, “it’s not that radical,” says Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a partner at BIG. The design arose from conversations beginning when Douglas Durst described his firm’s success with sustainable towers to a Copenhagen audience and Ingels “heckled from the back row” that better energy performance called for different forms. In subsequent exchanges, Durst offered BIG “a site that’s quite difficult for me to develop,” a sloping plot in flood-evacuation Zone B near Con Ed’s 58th St. McKim Mead & White steam plant, the Sanitation Department’s Pier 97 facility, and the West Side Highway. Sharing its block with DFR’s Helena residential tower to the east, BIG’s design observes Manhattan setback conventions and preserves the Helena’s views, but differs from what Bergmann calls “beefy wedding-cake projects where you don’t bring daylight or fresh air into the interior.” It gives most apartments a terrace, maximizing natural light and ventilation to lower energy use.

 
 

The tetrahedral form marries the European perimeter block, organized around a communal courtyard, with the American skyscraper. BIG traces the evolution of the courtscraper hybrid back to dozens of precedents. Carol Willis, executive director of the Skyscraper Museum, contextualizes it among courtyard structures such as the Parisian hôtel particulier and the “square donut” office buildings built in Chicago from about 1892 until it adopted New York-style zoning in 1924.

Jordan Barowitz, the Durst Organization’s director of external relations, adds that West 57 will share sustainability features with the LEED Gold-rated Helena, including a blackwater recycling system and a compressed-natural-gas shuttle to the Columbus Circle transit hub. The environmental impact statement estimates that West 57 accommodates a two-foot sea-level rise; Barowitz points to its at-grade mechanicals, with no basement on its western side within a flood plain.

 
 

The construction team is largely in place, with Thornton Tomasetti as structural engineer, Starr Whitehouse as landscape architect, and SLCE as architect of record. The courtyard is private for residents but visible from the street, establishing continuity with the park; Bergmann notes that DFR and city officials both favor upgrading the 59th Street highway underpass for safer pedestrian access to the waterfront.

City Council’s Zoning and Franchises subcommittee holds its first public hearing on the project January 17 and Council may vote in early February to approve, modify, or block it. Despite design-community enthusiasm and CPC support, approval is far from certain. Community Board 4 voted against it last September, citing affordable-housing terms and vehicular hazards to pedestrians. DFR addressed many of these concerns, Barowitz said.

Council approval may hinge on the affordable segment. The building is an 80/20, with 150 units designated as affordable, though only for 35 years; tenants will then retain rent-stabilization protection, Barowitz said, but vacancy decontrol will take effect after they leave. The obstacle to permanent affordability is that Durst leases the land from the John Appleby family’s Four Plus Corporation rather than owning it outright. “We can’t encumber the land with permanent affordable housing,” Barowitz said.

Bill Millard