Adaptive Reuse Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern Midtown New York City

New York Project Suggests Direction for Hotel on Forest Park

by Michael R. Allen

Today The Architect’s Newspaper carried a story that poses a suggestion to St. Louis, by way of New York. In “Tower Twists and Preservationists Shout”, Alan G. Brake tells the tale of a proposed design by architect Morris Adjmi in the Gansevoort Market Historic District on Manhattan.

Taconic Investments hired Adjmi to design a seven-story condominium-and-retail structure placed on top of an art moderne market building. The building, dating to 1938 and enjoying no singular official distinction, is at 13th and Washington inside of a local historic district. Hence, Adjmi’s plan for a slightly twisted tower with sloped grid walls had to be approved by the Landmark Preservation Commission last month. The Commission debated the proposal but failed to find a majority for or against the plan.

What was reassuring was that the Commission spent time debating how appropriate the tower was to the area, which is a former meat market district with mostly low-rise buildings (except for the tower straddling the High Line across the street, outside of the historic district boundary). This is why I thought about St. Louis as I read the article.

Twice in the last two years, our Preservation Board considered the demolition of a simple two-story art moderne building, the old Raiffie Vending Building at 3663 Forest Park Boulevard in Midtown. The two-story building dates to 1948 and has a handsome, plain buff brick face. The building is a fine contributing player in the industrial district of Forest Park Boulevard west of Grand, but it has little individual historic or architectural distinction.

The Sask Corporation has owned the building for several years and bought it to build a chain motel on the site. In August 2009, the Sasak Corporation proposed the design shown above to the Preservation Board ( see “More Urban Is Not Always Better”, August 11, 2009). The Board denied demolition on a preliminary basis. While the Raiffie building is not in any historic districts, it is in a Preservation Review area, the 17th Ward.

In September 2010, Sasak Corporation came back to the Preservation Board with an even less inspired plan, shown above. The Best Western had “better” materials than the 2009 plan, although its red brick panels, stucco corner and strange stone base were a regression from the previous rendering.  The Preservation Board approved demolition contingent on Sasak securing a building permit for the Best Western.  That has not happened, although Sasak applied for a demolition permit on November 15th.

Morris Adjmi may have to tone down his Manhattan design, but he would be welcome to try it at 3663 Forest Park in St. Louis. Here we have a building without singular significance outside of a local historic district that has already been approved for demolition. What a great candidate it would be for a thoughtful, provocative building rising from its center or rear. Midtown has a small skyline of tall buildings in which a new high-rise would not be inappropriate. In the case of the Best Western, the most elegant and expensive-looking front — cost of the hotel has been a concern among Midtown players — is the building that is already there. The hotel developers could very well use it, and do something imaginative above.

A parting thought on the subject: The Moonrise Hotel on Delmar already attempted to use an existing facade to hide a rather programmatic hotel high-rise from a smaller-scaled business district. This was not a very successful endeavor. The hotel and the old Ronald L. Jones Funeral Home building have little real relationship, and besides, the funeral home itself was actually demolished and imprecisely reconstructed. The reconstruction shows, and something modern would have been better.

On Forest Park, a modern high-rise addition to the old Raiffie Vending building could avoid the mistakes of the Moonrise by leaving whatever part of the building to be retained in place, to keep its historic character as best as possible. If New York turns down Morris Adjmi, maybe St. Louis would welcome his work here — or elsewhere.

Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern New Orleans New York City

Sunday Morning Reading

by Michael R. Allen

Francine Stock’s excellent Regional Modernism reports that St. Louis is not the only city taking aim at the work of New Orleans modernist Charles Colbert. Colbert’s hometown wants to level the playing field: the Recovery School District wants to demolish Colbert’s Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School (1955) as well as Curtis & Davis’s Thomy Lafron Elementary School (1954), also a modern landmark.

The New York Times reports on one man’s grassroots effort to save Admiral Row in Brooklyn, a row of stately 19th century houses once occupied by the Navy Yard’s highest-ranking officers. Architect Scott Witter’s crusade involves a curious home-grown museum, Brooklyn’s Other Museum of Brooklyn, which has found one of the best uses for blue painter’s tape that I’ve seen.

New York City Planning St. Louis Board of Aldermen

Can St. Louis Lure Small Businesses?

by Michael R. Allen

This week New Geography published an interesting article by Steve Null entitled “New York City Closes Shop”. The article reports that under the anti-small business policies of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, over 83,000 small businesses have been forced to close since 2001. That astounding figure represents just the recent effort to “crack down” on commerce that predecessors Rudy Giuliani, David Dinkins and Ed Koch all enforced as well.

Has this trend pushed small business out of the Big Apple? If so, what can smaller cities do to lure some of the entrepreneurs that might end up looking for a more encouraging urban business environment?

While Chicago has been a beneficiary of New York’s terrible policies, St. Louis could lure some of the business. St. Louis has an abundance of historic commercial districts, where old buildings offer cheap rents and low purchase prices. Small business owners can afford to rent a small space in New York and maybe an entire building in Chicago. In St. Louis, they can buy a building — or two. The low cost of living is a base incentive.

The 8200 block of North Broadway in the Baden neighborhood, 2006.
However, St. Louis needs more than a low cost of living and old buildings to draw businesses from larger cities. We need better urban planning policies to promote commercial districts by retaining storefront buildings and keeping out fast food, drug stores and other uses that break up urban streetscapes needed to draw shoppers. We need public sector investment in infrastructure like sidewalks, alleys and lighting. The business license fees and sales tax rates in the city are too high, especially on food and drink. Most of all, we need to break down the ward-by-ward differences in business and license policy with strict citywide standards that make sense to people from the outside world.

I’m not suggesting that a wave of would-be New Yorkers are coming. In fact, many of the small business owners we need to attract are those who chose Clayton, St. Charles or Belleville — or Memphis, Cleveland or Kansas City — over the city proper. The bottom line is that we have to create a city that not only has sensible small business policy but actively encourages small business to keep our neighborhood commercial districts thriving.

I would be very interested in comments from city small business owners.

New York City North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Planning

From Done Deal to Dead Deal?

by Michael R. Allen

Next American City has an article by Katherine Mella entitled “Atlantic Yards: A Crash Course” that provides a great overview of Forest City Ratner’s controversial Brooklyn mega-project centered around a new sports arena.

The supposedly “done deal” project was pushed through at the state rather than local level to head off opposition. Aggressive agents made over-market-value offers to secure control of key property around desired public land (underused Metropolitan Transit Authority rail yards). Atlantic Yards bolstered political support by lining up labor leaders, clergy and others who typically might oppose a large project and mass use of eminent domain. To woo the urbanist community, Forest City Ratner hired superstar architect Frank Gehry to design the complex. Residents who would be pushed out by the project have always had an uphill struggle.

There are many parallels to the NorthSide project. However, one thing about Atlantic Yards that we have not seen with NorthSide is a political swing in favor of opposition. Mella’s article concludes by noting that Atlantic Yards has lost much of its initial advantages:

Being able to borrow money and raise capital in this fiscal climate has placed the project at a severe disadvantage. And with a less than exciting main attraction, resolute local opposition, and legal and financial hurdles, it is hard to say if Ratner’s Atlantic Yards will ever — or even ought to — come to fruition.

I suppose the perils of large-scale development have never been as clear as now. Atlantic Yards may have killed itself through sheer folly of its ambitious scope and clumsy execution. The development team behind NorthSide should take heed.