Longtime readers of The Architect’s Newspaper, or anybody who follows architecture and real estate development in New York City, may have experienced an acute case of déjà vu when perusing the cover of this issue. Three of the four front-page stories are about high-profile projects, the designs of which were released to the public years ago only to be put on hold for a variety of reasons that have, to varying extents, now been resolved.
The Steven Holl–designed Queens Library at Hunters Point, which was first unveiled in 2010, broke ground in mid-May. The project originally hit the rocks due to a lack of monetary resources. Even a cost-cutting redesign that swapped the initially proposed aluminum paneled facade for “aluminum painted” concrete, setting the estimated overall price at around $39 million, didn’t bring the building within the budget. In spite of a $7 million shortfall, the Queens Library leadership decided to start construction anyway, figuring that somebody—namely Mayor Bill de Blasio—won’t let the much-needed public amenity (not to mention aesthetic relief from the glass high-rise monotony of the Long Island City waterfront) stall out once the cranes and union labor are busy on site.
The Queens Library’s confidence in a deus ex machina ending, with the mayor swooping in to the rescue with a fist full of emergency allocations, isn’t without precedent. De Blasio just peeled off $74 million in city funds, payable over several years, to restart the Fashion Institute of Technology’s SHoP-designed C2 building. The allotment, which matched a 2009 appropriation by New York State, has put SHoP back to work finalizing the designs. We’ll see if the high-tech, vertical circulation–animated facade comes out as advertised in the glistening renderings the architects originally released. By SHoP’s reluctance to re-release those images to AN for this story, however, chances are we’ll see something a little more down to earth, a little more brutal in detail, a little more akin to the state school’s existing facilities.
These cash-strapped, publicly funded projects aren’t the only buildings where we’re seeing a dampening of design aspirations. Even in the supposedly no-limit world of super-luxury Manhattan condominiums, boasting Pritzker Prize–winning architects no less, dreams have been blunted. Such is the case with Jean Nouvel’s 53 W 53. First unveiled in 2006, it was brought to heal in 2009 during the depths of the recession by the NYC Planning Commission, which demanded that the tower be shortened 200 feet, from 1,250 to 1,050. As then-planning director Amanda Burden told The New York Times, “The development team had to show us that they were creating something as great or even greater than the Empire State Building and the design they showed us was unresolved.” How quickly things change. A few years after dealing this blow, the commission went on to approve a slew of supertall, super skinny residential towers on 57th Street, whose designs are certainly no more resolved to the standard of the Empire State than Nouvel’s. But that’s what you get for showing up early to the party.
Hines, 53 W 53’s developer, is taking it in stride. Now with $1 billion in financing in hand from Asian sources, and no doubt eager to cash in on the seemingly endless font of real estate investment money coming from foreign billionaires before the next recession begins, it has called out the construction crews and work is underway on the shortened tower. (It’s worth noting that the project’s duplex penthouse is on the market for $70 million, almost the cost of two Steven Holl–designed Hunters Point libraries, but by no means high in the context of today’s Manhattan luxury market. There is reportedly a 21,504-square-foot penthouse in the Sony Building that is going for a flabbergasting $150 million.)
In the unbridled thrust of today’s New York City real estate market there are important lessons to be learned from these false starts that made good, more or less. One, you should never say never. The winds of change are ever blowing and even apparently dead dogs can claw their way to new life. Two, if anything, the fondest hopes of designers will suffer the most in these Lazarus-like tales of development—“aluminum painted” for aluminum, a diminished place in the pantheon of the skyline. For the oligarchs and tycoons who buy into 53 W 53 it’s no big deal. At least they won’t be living there. As for the students who will animate C2’s facade and the youngsters who may get their first taste of the effects of explorative architecture in Hunters Point, will they ever know the dreams that became compromises for them to be there?