Home Improvement

How Do You Chop 20 Stories Off a Too-Tall Building?

Now that the 52-story tower at 200 Amsterdam Avenue is almost done, it may soon have to be partly undone, like a construction film running in reverse. If the appeals court that will hear the case starting Wednesday upholds More »
Home Improvement

Memo Admonishes 30 Park Place Residents Not to Be “Less Than Kind” When Asked to Mask Up

A high rise in Manhattan at 30 Park Place, with blue sky in the background and trees framing the photo. Nicole Beauchamp/Flickr

Some Four Seasons apartment-dwellers have reportedly been giving the staff a hard time.

The Four Seasons Private Residences at 30 Park Place is one of the swankiest condo residences downtown. The 82nd-floor, 4,538-square-foot apartment that has claimed to be the highest terraced penthouse in all of Manhattan was originally listed at $30 million. In September, a four-bedroom on the 56th floor sold for $6.65 million, and a three-bedroom on the 51st floor sold for $5.45 million, according to city records. But the international buyers and finance bros who live in these apartments don’t like being told what to do — especially, say, Mask up, please! Cover your nose, too — and, judging by a recent memo, they have been taking it out on the staff.

On September 7, the management sent an email to all residents, warning them that their access privileges to the 38th-floor gym would be temporarily revoked if they failed to abide by new COVID safety protocols. “We have had a couple of instances in the past week where patrons have had to be reminded by our team of the rules (especially the Masks and Screening) and the response has been less than kind,” the email, obtained by Curbed, reads. “I would like to ask everyone to please be respectful to our team members, and to each other.”

The email also reminded residents that, due to a five-person-occupancy limit, personal trainers and guests are not allowed in the gym. “The team is there for your health and safety and are responsible for helping to ensure that we are in full compliance with the current guidelines,” it continues. “We ask that you please follow them for the benefit of everyone in the Community. Individuals who continue to disregard the rules may have their access privileges temporarily removed.”

On Thursday — a few hours after 100 protesters clustered on the corner of Broadway and Park Place to demand a blanket eviction moratorium — three residents of 30 Park Place confirmed to Curbed that they had received the email. All said that most occupants have been observing mask rules, but one told us on condition of anonymity that there are still some who outright refuse or wear them slung under their chins and generally seem to have no “regard for anyone but themselves.”

“I hadn’t seen anything since they sent the email,” the resident said. “Then today, I was walking in behind another guy who wasn’t wearing one, and the doorman basically begged him to put one on, and he flicked him away dismissively.” Curbed saw dozens of people enter and exit the building over the course of about three hours on Thursday, and all of them were masked except for one, who walked directly into a waiting Town Car.

Home Improvement

The Secret to Year-Round Streeteries? What Greenhouses Can Teach Us

A snowy image of a plywood outdoor restaurant built on a parking spaceThe architecture firms Woods Bagot and ARUP designed a prefabricated, flat-pack, all-season outdoor restaurant design. | Courtesy Woods Bagot

An alternative to those “space bubbles.”

After Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that outdoor dining could continue year-round, there was a cheer — and then worry about a chill. Just how practical can eating in streeteries be when winter sets in?

One attempted solution is the so-called “space bubbles” an Upper West Side café is trying out. But a new concept from the architecture firm Woods Bagot and ARUP might be more scalable and pleasant: a prefabricated, modular restaurant made of plywood, with a simple canopy that could be fitted with vinyl or polycarbonate during the winter, like a greenhouse, or with a shade-giving material in the summer, like a cabana.

Aside from the wood canopy, the streetery concept looks like many of the other plywood enclosures that have popped up across the city already. But the secret sauce is all in how it’s put together.

Woods Bagot and ARUP prioritized designing something that someone could build quickly — important given that construction in the street is challenging and restaurants do not have time for a lengthy build-out — and for not a lot of money. They began by basing the measurements on standard sizes of hardware-store plywood sheets and beams. Next, they used a type of joinery that slots together so that restaurants could assemble them without needing a lot of tools. And importantly: If they decide not to stay open year-round, they can disassemble them and put the parts in storage for use next year.

 Courtesy Woods Bagot and ARUP
During warm weather, the protective materials can be removed.

“You’re putting it together like a 3D puzzle,” says David Brown, an architect at Woods Bagot. He estimates that, once everything is cut, it will only take a couple of hours to assemble. “We’re trying to make it simple so people without construction experience can put it together. We’ve all been stuck with Ikea furniture and an Allen wrench and totally lost, so this has as few mechanical fasteners as possible.”

Restaurants could then either double wrap the streetery with vinyl film — an inexpensive yet effective form of insulation, which is often used on drafty windows — or screw on polycarbonate panels. If a restaurant does have a budget for heaters, the design is flexible enough to accommodate freestanding or ceiling-mounted options. The estimated cost to build one of these? Less than $1,000 for materials. (Heaters not included.)

The concept is one of many from Neighborhoods Now, an initiative from the Urban Design Forum and the Van Alen Institute that explored ways design could help with reopening challenges across the city. Woods Bagot and ARUP collaborated with the Community League of the Heights (CLOTH) on specific ideas for Washington Heights, but the ideas could work across the city.

 Courtesy Woods Bagot and ARUP
The outdoor restaurants comes together like a 3D puzzle. The architects call this a “plug and play” design, which means that depending on the season, restaurants can cover the wood frame with whatever material is most appropriate. Something that offers shade in the summer, and something that lets the sun’s rays warm it in the winter.

While ARUP, Woods Bagot, and CLOTH spoke to businesses in Washington Heights while they were developing the concept, they haven’t yet gotten any bites to actually build one.

“There was some concern about the length of time these could be up,” Brown says. “Now that it’s been announced that open restaurants are permanent, we’re reaching back out. That the design has built-in winterizing would hopefully be more appealing.”

Home Improvement

Why Is Ex–Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh Buying Houses En Masse in Utah?

Peter Bohler/Redux

Hsieh has purchased 71 bathrooms in less than three months.

Ex–Zappos chief Tony Hsieh is buying up millions of dollars’ worth of real estate in the small ski town of Park City, Utah, and no one quite knows why. After two decades as CEO, Hsieh quietly stepped down from the online shoe retailer this past August without a formal announcement. His retirement present to himself? Tens of millions of dollars in Utah homes.

Park City knows wealth: It’s the site of the Sundance Film Festival, and Michael Jordan and Will Smith, as well as the festival’s co-founder Robert Redford, own houses there. But according to public records in Summit County, Utah, the scale and timeframe of Hsieh’s purchases is likely unprecedented; after buying a 4,395-square-foot home on Empire Avenue in March, he bought three more houses and a vacant lot in July, and four more homes in August. All of this — worth at least an estimated $39 million— was purchased through a Nevada entity called Pickled Investments, which Hsieh manages.

Since then, the almost billionaire has closed on three more homes, each purchased using different LLCs that all list Hsieh’s original Empire Avenue house as the registered address. And he’s reportedly under contract on three more properties that will close this month. Altogether, over the past 11 weeks, he’s got himself 57 bedrooms, 71.5 bathrooms, and 68,169 square feet. Throw in the two vacant lots and his retirement buying spree has cost a total market value of around $56 million.

Clearly, one man cannot occupy all this real estate. (Hsieh memorably lives in a trailer park most of the time.) Is he buying up homes so that all of his friends can come quarantine in Park City? (Seven of the properties are on the same street, Aspen Springs Drive, and four are on Empire Avenue.) Is this, as friends say, a digital detox helping the ex-CEO to “disconnect”? Is he going into the renovate-and-flip business? Is he aiming to become the next Property Brother? Does he just like talking to salesmen?

An August report by Eater Vegas stated that local chef Dan Krohmer is going to work for Hsieh in Park City to “bring more arts, culture, and food to the city.” Curbed reached out to Hsieh multiple times for comment on his plans and hasn’t received a response. But this isn’t the first time Hsieh has gone all-in on a town. In 2013, he relocated his Amazon-owned shoe company to Las Vegas’s downtown district, investing roughly $350 million of his own capital to turn the rundown area north of the Strip into a hot spot with shipping-container buildings, pyrotechnic sculptures, and a llama-themed Airstream trailer park.

The most important question remains: If Hsieh has indeed moved out of his 240-square-foot trailer in Vegas and into any one of his 15 new Park City homes, did Marley and Triton, his pet alpacas, join him? Or did they get their own place down the block?

Home Improvement

Can Balconies, Bigger Lobbies, and Package Rooms Help Save Public Housing?

A rendering of a renovated New York City Housing Authority mid-rise masonry tower with new balconies, a rooftop canopy, and infill units.A new concept from the Regional Plan Association and Peterson Rich Office proposes renovating and expanding NYCHA buildings. | Courtesy Peterson Rich Office

Peterson Rich Office walks us through an idea, developed with the Regional Plan Association, that calls for adaptive reuse and infill on NYCHA campuses.

Everyone can agree that something has to be done about the chronic problems facing public housing in New York, with its $32 billion maintenance backlog — elevators out, heat and hot water out, toxic mold, pest and vermin infestations, and fiscal mismanagement, to start — and, in a city where the working class is priced out of the market — and a 160,000-person waiting list. But politicians, residents, and advocates don’t always see eye to eye on what to do about it.

Now the Regional Plan Association (RPA), which for decades has developed big-think ideas for how to improve life in the New York area, has a few suggestions. For the past year, it has been working with the New York–based architecture firm Peterson Rich Office (PRO), whose co-founders had been named the Richard Kaplan Chairs for Urban Design as part of a newly established fellowship position, to create design solutions for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

A rendering of an NYCHA building showing infill development that bumps out of existing buildings.
Infill proposals typically call for new freestanding buildings, but PRO and the RPA’s concept essentially adds wings to existing structures. Part of the reasoning is that expanding buildings outward could better integrate NYCHA campuses with neighborhoods. These expanded sections include lobbies that are closer to the street and additional units.

While PRO is best known for its upscale residential and arts and culture work (the firm recently renovated Galerie Perrotin and is working on the Hudson Valley Museum of Contemporary Art), it also has an interest in urban design. Miriam Peterson, who co-founded the firm with her partner, Nathan Rich, is from New York City and studied urban economics before going to architecture school. Rich was a teacher at Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he researched rapid urbanization in Asia.

Over the past few years, the firm has published conceptual projects that show how design could help address NYCHA’s maintenance challenges and the city’s affordable-housing shortage. 9×18 — a conceptual project from when Peterson, Rich, and urban planner Sagi Golan were fellows at the Institute for Public Architecture — proposed building new affordable-housing units on NYCHA surface-parking lots. Roof by Roof explored how to build new affordable housing on top of existing NYCHA buildings.

In the absence of adequate public funding for housing — and a federal policy that says there cannot be a net increase in the number of public-housing units — city leaders have turned to private development. The Bloomberg administration, which heavily promoted so-called public-private partnerships, floated the idea of leasing NYCHA open-space land (including its surprisingly extensive stock of surface parking) to private developers, who would then build mixed-income housing. The idea was that the leasing fees collected would help fund the maintenance and repairs to existing buildings and that developers would have to build an 80:20 ratio of market rate to affordable units. However, many City Council members, housing advocates, and tenants denounced the idea as a land grab that is privatizing resources that should remain public.

Of course, private capital isn’t the only way to fund the maintenance backlog NYCHA faces, but it is one of the most readily available sources. In its 2015 NextGeneration NYCHA plan and 2018 NYCHA 2.0 plan, the de Blasio administration looked to the Obama-era Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD) — which allows public-housing agencies to switch how they receive federal funds, from Section 9 (how NYCHA is typically funded) to Section 8 (the voucher program to private landlords) — as a way to fund infill development and transfer management of public housing to private entities. These policies have resulted in unpopular proposals to demolish existing housing in order to build new, privately managed buildings.

Meanwhile, the Green New Deal for Public Housing bill, sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, calls for $180 billion of investment in public housing across the country, including NYCHA, to fund repairs, maintenance, and retrofits; however, broad political support for enacting such a bill is absent.

Last month, the RPA and PRO released their report, “Scalable Design Solutions for NYCHA,” which proposes ways in which existing buildings could be retrofitted and expanded to help meet the needs of current residents and also make room for more people. It knits together many of the ideas that have come before: infill, replacing outdated systems with more energy-efficient decentralized ones, better integrating NYCHA campuses with their neighborhoods, and restoring public housing to a dignified place to live.

The heart of the plan? Retrofitting existing towers and expanding them. PRO proposes adding private balconies to each unit, which would hold individually controllable heating and cooling equipment; layering on a secondary roof structure, which would help with leaks and also provide space for solar panels; and expanding the buildings outward to make space for more units, to integrate campuses with their surrounding neighborhoods, and to create more accessible and welcoming lobbies.

The report shows how these proposals could work in a case-study location, the Cooper Park Houses, located in East Williamsburg. This NYCHA campus currently has $120 million in unmet capital needs. Under existing zoning regulations, Cooper Park only has half of its as-of-right floor area constructed and could support an additional 550,836 square feet of development. PRO isn’t the first entity to recognize this. Cooper Park was to be the site of a NextGen infill development, which recently stalled due to pushback from residents and local officials.

Peterson and Rich walk us through their concept.

What did you find out about the architectural problems and challenges with NYCHA?

Nathan Rich: There are a number. There are architectural challenges and then there are maintenance challenges. And to some extent, they’re not separated from each other, but I would start with the maintenance ones. They’re maybe a little less sexy, but they’re the ones that impact residents on a daily basis.

The steam-boiler systems are failing; residents regularly lose heat and don’t have individual control over the heat. The systems are also leaking and causing mold to build up in a lot of the older buildings. It’s a huge public-health issue.

Most NYCHA buildings are masonry, and they’re built without insulation. They have old windows, so they’re extremely leaky and energy inefficient. They’re a major cost, and resident comfort issues come along with that. These are real nuts-and-bolts issues with the building, and architectural solutions to those issues are what we’re trying to propose.

Miriam Peterson: One of the things that is typical to many NYCHA buildings is that the ground floor is sort of part above and part below grade, so what it means is that there’s a big volume of space that’s at street level that’s not occupied. Some of it is mechanical space or maintenance offices. But that also means that there’s an accessibility issue with getting into the building. Many lobbies are up a set of steps. Then the lobbies themselves are very small and have poor access to natural light.

NR: NYCHA developments are based on a post-WWII vision of the nuclear family, so there are a lot of two-bedroom and four-bedroom apartments. NYCHA’s resident data analysis shows that there is a huge need for one-bedroom and studio apartments. [Editor’s note: NYCHA estimates that 40 percent of households are living in units that aren’t the right size for their families: 44,663 households are living in underoccupied units; 11,403 are living in what the agency calls “extremely underoccupied” units; and at least 15,103 are living in overcrowded units.]

Walk us through how the Scalable Design Solutions solve some of NYCHA’s problems.

NR: We have an index of all the campuses around the city and picked Cooper Park [as a case study on how these solutions could work] because, in some ways, it’s the most quintessential type of campus. You have these mid-rise buildings separated from one another by significant distances on a superblock site. It’s also in [East Williamsburg], a neighborhood that has a fairly high density and is developing quickly.

MP: There are some specific reasons why comprehensive infill [on NYCHA sites] tends to be really challenging. One is a new building would require access, and so you often find one at the edge of a cul-de-sac or a parking lot. Two is a kind of nerdy building-code regulation: For habitable spaces, which all residential spaces need to be, you need to have proper light and air circulation. Windows have to be a certain distance away from other habitable spaces. So you typically see a 30-foot setback and what that means then is 90 feet between window to window on a NYCHA infill project. This limits where new buildings can go.

An aerial view of the building footprints and setbacks.
Another reason for the expansion approach? Building setbacks, as mandated by zoning codes. At Cooper Park, the case-study campus, the only areas that could accommodate new structures were in the center of the campuses or on recreation space.

In thinking about that distance limitation, we started to rethink infill from the perspective of a horizontal extension of existing buildings [instead of building a separate new building]. This means that upgrades to the existing buildings are not only important but are inextricable in executing a new build. So we feel like there is a great opportunity for showing residents right away that priority one is fixing your building, your physical space, your needs.

NR: Infill can be a completely separate building, and there have been a number of infill proposals that residents have managed to stop because they weren’t seeing any direct benefit to the existing buildings. You have to improve the existing building with an extension.

MP: This development strategy acts on the existing building, and that opens up opportunities for rethinking ground floors, for providing specific amenities people come to expect in residential architecture today, which really weren’t part of the plan of these buildings when they were constructed in the 1930s to 1970s and 1980s, like mail and package rooms or trash and recycling collection.

Extension-based infill [brings the entrances of buildings closer to the street] and provides opportunities for residents to enter directly off of the sidewalk. We also use the extension as an opportunity to make smaller ADA-accessible units that could be an opportunity for relocating or rightsizing elderly residents into units that aren’t only better at meeting their needs at this stage in their life but also closer to the lobby. This could open up [existing] bigger apartments to families.

Part of the extension plan is to build balconies onto every existing unit. Why?

NR: The balconies do three things. The first is a quality-of-life benefit. During COVID, it’s become much more apparent that having privately accessible outdoor space is just a huge benefit to quality of life in New York City. Most NYCHA residents don’t have direct access to outdoor space from their units.

The second thing this does is the balcony provides a place to put a condenser for new mechanical systems. We’re proposing split systems be installed, which means there’s a condenser that sits on the balcony, and there are small air handlers that can blow both heat and cool air into the units. Residents could have individual control over the temperature in their units. [Editor’s note: Heat and hot water are included in the rent NYCHA residents pay. Out of NYCHA’s 328 developments, 257 are master-metered for electricity, which means individual units are not metered, and the Authority pays for electricity for the whole campus’ consumption. PRO did not analyze what impact this new system would have on resident expenses.]

MP: Air-conditioning units tend to stay in the windows all year round. So when you have a leaky building that’s not performing well from an energy perspective, and you have a big hole in your window with a big AC unit in it, it sort of layers problems on top of problems.

NR: The third thing balconies can do is become a general cladding strategy on the building. NYCHA is interested in recladding its buildings and balconies, which could include both open and semi-enclosed spaces [as] part of that strategy.

A cutaway rendering showing how a balcony could be added to an existing unit
The plan proposes new balconies for every unit. These additions would provide private outdoor space for existing units and also hold energy-efficient and modernized heating and cooling equipment.

Have you thought of the actual numbers involved in developing this concept?

MP: We were advised by the RPA to not go down that path too far.

We, and the RPA, intentionally wanted the primary focus of the work to be about how the architectural and urban-design strategies could be the first step in a wider-reaching participatory design process that would engage multiple stakeholders. For that reason, we steered clear of addressing questions of both construction costs and funding streams, as that could immediately get into the territory of asking “for whom” and “by whom,” which we felt would shift the focus entirely on what affordability mix could be proposed.

The big bottom line is: Where does the money come from to actually implement things? And that, in my opinion, is the biggest hurdle to change, and a solution that architects and architecture — we’re not necessarily equipped with the tools to come up with complicated financial modeling or dealing with funding sources for projects like this.

The elephant in the room with many of the proposals and ideas for NYCHA is the privatization of public goods. What do you say to those concerns?

NR: It’s all about how you’ve established revenue streams in order to fund the repairs and improve the existing buildings. And the money has to come from somewhere. It requires creativity, and private development is not the only way to do it. But there is a lot of land available on NYCHA sites, so it’s one strategy that NYCHA has worked with in the past as a way of generating income. You have to forefront resident needs in the existing buildings in order to have that conversation.

I think sometimes the conversations between public versus private, and the sort of politics around that, are a distraction from the core issue, which is that there are 450,000 people who live in these buildings that are falling apart, and we need to figure out how to fix them.

NYCHA has released quite a few design guidelines over the past few years — everything from codifying the best practices for rehabilitating buildings to setting a vision for the future, like the Connected Communities Guidebook. How does your work with this report build on what has come before? And how do you view the role of this document?

NR: All of those documents — Connected Communities, NextGen NYCHA, the Sustainability Agenda — were sort of our up-front due diligence: understanding them, reading through them, and taking them into consideration. And the RPA itself also did a year of work, before we came onboard to generate the policy recommendations and reports to City Council, to get resident input. There’s a tremendous amount of information-gathering up front to make sure we were making good choices.

One of the tools that architects have that many other professionals don’t is visualization. And so when we draw through things, and we diagram things, it creates a platform for conversion in a way that text and policy don’t. It can make things suddenly more real. It gives you something to sketch on top of. Our hope is that it can be a tool for doing that and for communicating with different stakeholders.

Then there are very specific recommendations in [our report] that I think just make sense. We didn’t come up with those on our own. NYCHA is already considering replacing the steam systems with split systems, but we’ve tried to create some specific architectural solutions for implementing those things.

So what happens next?

MP: There are several actionable proposals and elements of the proposal that are thoroughly thought through and within reach. The process of getting there could be started by involving all the residents and relevant communities. Our hope is to work with the housing authority to find opportunities for piloting those ideas.

NR: This study was really meant to be a case study and a series of recommendations and concepts for the beginning of a conversation. Now that it’s out there, I’m looking forward to engaging with a wider range of community groups and resident groups to start to implement their perspectives as well. Now that the report is in the public, there are more opportunities for collaboration.