Uttering the D-Word

There was a strange moment in 1999 when Joseph B. Rose, the chairman of New York’s Planning Commission, invited developers, civic leaders, architects, and the press to City Hall. He gave a speech outlining his vision for the future of New York’s zoning, an approach that would introduce height restrictions. However, he suggested that the city could permit certain buildings to rise higher than the rules allowed. Officials, he said, “should be able to grant waivers from some regulations on the basis of exceptional design.” Then, in a turn of phrase that was astonishing to hear inside City Hall, especially during the Giuliani years, Rose declared: “Let us instill the quest for beauty into the powerful economic drive of this city’s real estate entrepreneurs.”

No surprise: Rose’s speech was largely ignored. It’s hard to imagine how the concept of beauty could have gained any traction in the Giuliani administration, which is remembered now for its generalized tone of ugliness. But the incongruity made his initiative that much more memorable (for me, at least). Rose had envisioned a panel like the Landmarks Preservation Commission (operating without the benefit of hindsight), judging the qualitative value of architects’ renderings. This august body could waive height limits for a project deemed “beautiful.” Can you imagine a meeting of that commission? It would be like an endless David Mamet play, without the whip-like repartee. Would Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street have survived the Beauty Panel? Or SOM’s 1 World Trade Center? How about Gary Handel’s Trump Soho? As admirable as it might seem to embed the notion of beauty in the zoning code, it would be a lot like planting a landmine.

Which is why I found it so amazing to stumble on similar wording buried (on page 60 of 79) in the East Midtown Study, released in July by the Department of City Planning. It’s an attempt to encourage development by rezoning the blocks surrounding Grand Central Terminal, from 39th St. to 57th St. The area includes the period-defining stretch of midcentury office buildings along Park Avenue, along with less distinctive stretches on Madison and Lexington Avenues. The main story that’s been reported about this planning proposal is: Upzoning! “It is big. No, really big. Bigger than almost anything the city has ever seen. Empire State Building big,” the New York Observer’s Matthew Chaban wrote breathlessly.

Yes, it is big, but it’s more complicated than that. City Planning’s stated intention is to incentivize developers to replace outdated office buildings with bigger towers. But the Floor Area Ratio (FAR)—the measurement that determines the permitted bulk of a building—will only be increased when developers agree to fund improvements in pedestrian infrastructure or buy up unused air rights from landmark buildings, especially Grand Central Terminal. The current FAR is 15, meaning a building can have a total floor area that’s 15 times the size of the lot on which it stands. This can be a lot-filling 15-story box, or taller if the building steps back and becomes more slender as it rises. Under the proposed changes, the FAR would be boosted to 24, which has the potential, given a large enough lot, to generate something the size of the 1,200-foot tall Bank of America tower at Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street.

Deep in the presentation, I came across an intriguing twist. There was a section entitled “Global Distinction,” illustrated with photos of London’s new 1,017-foot tall Shard by Renzo Piano and Barcelona’s 474-foot tall Torre Agbar by Jean Nouvel. The following page showed some of New York’s cherished icons: the Chrysler Building, the Seagram Building, and Lever House. This gallery of noteworthy buildings represented the Planning Department’s desire “to allow extraordinary buildings at key sites,” [all italics added] and to reward those special buildings with up to 30 FAR. (Never mind that Lever House is extraordinary precisely because the architect didn’t build it as big as the zoning allowed.) The version of the study I downloaded from City Planning’s Web site also detailed: “Proposals must exhibit superior design relative to both the sidewalk and the skyline.”

While the Bloomberg administration is famous for its kindness to developers, planning director Amanda Burden has built a strong reputation in the design world, winning awards like the 2012 President’s Medal from the Architectural League of New York for “creatively and effectively” using zoning. Unlike Joe Rose, she could conceivably get away with a “quest for beauty.” So I was eager to find out what the authors of the East Midtown Study meant when they talked about “extraordinary buildings” and “superior design.”

Reading through that first draft of the East Midtown Study, I detected the faint whiff of visionary zeal. Nowadays, the world’s tallest buildings tend to be located in cities—Dubai, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur—where no one much cares how they the connect to the sidewalk. Midtown Manhattan, by contrast, is a place where we could someday build a new generation of tall towers that were also good neighbors at street level. I had hoped that the East Midtown Study wasn’t a parting gift from Mayor Bloomberg (who leaves office in January 2014) to the development community, but the beginning of a serious conversation about the next generation of urban towers. In a city where the developer has always been the most powerful shaper of built form, could city government finally be tipping the balance toward the architect?

Sadly, no. By early September, when I finally caught up with Burden, she informed me, “We didn’t actually use the word ‘design.’ ” I pointed out that it was right there in the document. Burden insisted, “We never talk about design. We have never talked about design. Never. Ever. Ever.”

Indeed, I discovered that sometime in the weeks since I’d made my initial inquiry, a revised East Midtown Study had been placed on the Web site. There was still mention of “extraordinary buildings,” but the paragraph that discussed “superior design” had been redacted and replaced with one that instead talked about a “superior relationship to other buildings in the skyline,” and, “a superior site plan and massing.” So perhaps that was the answer to my question.

Still, I found it strange that the planning commissioner seemed almost scandalized by my questions about the inclusion of “design” in the zoning proposal, as if I’d accused her of tweeting photos of herself in her underwear. “It really can’t be subjective according to somebody’s taste or whim,” she argued. “This is too important to the city’s future, too important to the skyline.”

Part of Burden’s vehemence, as it turns out, is the outgrowth of her predecessor’s quest for beauty. Burden was on the planning commission in 1999 when Rose’s proposal was booted. “We really discussed how impossible it was to measure [beauty],” she recalls. Burden instead envisions a process in which developers who want to erect Empire State Building-scaled towers in the vicinity of Grand Central Terminal would be subject to a rules-based assessment by the local community board, the planning commission, and the city council. Each body would judge the building on its contribution to the pedestrian realm, public amenities, its relationship with neighboring buildings, and massing. All these things, Burden insisted, can be measured objectively. If a proposal gets a “perfect score,” she says, “that has to be quite an extraordinary development.”

Except that the planning process is not as objective as that; subjective language is already part of the process. The Planning Commission, chaired by Burden, routinely issues reports in which it evaluates buildings that require zoning variances. In its report on 15 Penn Plaza—the chunky tower that threatens to crowd the Empire State Building’s spot on the skyline—the commission commended “the design of the building for its responsiveness to its surroundings and the elegance of its tapered form.”

At the same time she denies that the word “design” has a place in the East Midtown Study, Burden says that the proposed zoning is intended to incentivize “great new iconic structures.” But you can’t achieve icon status by adhering to a checklist. Generally, what you get is a tall, fat building with a novel spire on top and a spiffy subway entrance at the base. I thought introducing a squishy, qualitative notion like “superior design” was a good idea, quixotic for sure, but also kind of brilliant. I had hoped—naively, as it turns out—that the city was emitting a signal (like a dog whistle that could be heard only by architects), saying there was room for genius in its plans.

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