Olympics Land Grab Leaves Architect High and Dry

article financial schuerman Olympics Land Grab Leaves Architect High and DryThe
so-called bad boy of modern architecture, Thomas Mayne, has got reason to be a
bit mad this week also.

When
New York lost its chance at hosting the 2012 Olympics on July 6, Mr. Mayne’s
suburban, space-age design for the athlete apartments in Long Island City,
Queens, lost too.

But
the announcement has also led the city’s major developers to take a second look
at the 36 acres of waterfront with stunning views of Manhattan—and while they
aren’t diving in yet, they’re at least trying to remember where they last put
their swimming trunks. That land will still end up as apartments, even without
the Olympics paving the way.

Although the Olympic Village design conceived by Mr. Mayne’s Santa Monica firm,
Morphosis, received mixed reviews, it couldn’t have been that bad: It won out
over 131 other designs, and this March Mr. Mayne won the Pritzker Architecture
Prize, the highest prize in the land—so high that an American usually doesn’t
get it.

This
is the guy who designed the Los Angeles district headquarters of the California
Department of Transportation (commonly known as the “CalTrans building”) and
who, as is the case with the best architects, has never built in New York.

That
will change with an engineering building for Cooper Union, scheduled for next
year. And it was to change even more with Mr. Mayne’s Olympic Village design:
“ribbons” of low-rise buildings spliced by U.N.-like prisms, all set in enough
greenery to make a golf course blush.

When
told on the telephone Tuesday that development officials wouldn’t be following
the Morphosis plan, Mr. Mayne couldn’t believe it. In fact, he still doesn’t.

“I
was told very recently that this thing was going to be built no matter what, so
it would be a surprise to me,” he told The
Observer
Tuesday. “In fact, I don’t think that is the case.”

It
has got to hurt, as an architect, to hear that something you labored over for
months will turn out to be as ephemeral as the tracing paper it was written
upon. Architects get judged on what they get built, not on their conceptual
drawings.

“What
will happen next, I’m not sure,” Mr. Mayne said. “I expect I’ll be getting a
call from someone. It literally just took place.”

Had
New York won the Olympics, the Queens West Development Corporation would have
asked developers to come and bid and build, more or less, according to the
Morphosis design. After the Olympics, the developers would have turned the
complex into 4,400 apartments—and maybe convert the cafeteria and other
Olympic-centric buildings into community buildings of some sort.

As
Mr. Mayne talked, though, the plan he considered to be his own began to morph
from the ribbony carnival that shows up in the Olympic bid books into a set of
abstract principles. He would still consider the developers to be following the
Olympic plan as long as they massed the housing together in the middle of a
park. The low-rises, for instance, wouldn’t necessarily need to curve.

“The
ribbons, that’s a suggestion,” he said. “The urban scheme is really the massing
and the broader idea, the low buildings versus the high buildings, the
landscape, the programming of the park itself. It’s not really about
architecture—but finally you have to show something and it has to look like
architecture.”

But
NYC2012 clearly billed the competition as one for a design, and Alexander
Garvin, the bid committee’s lead planner, told The Observer this week that the curved ribbons were clearly one
reason the jury chose Morphosis.

“I’m
quite hopeful that many of the design ideas laid out there will continue to be
the case,” Mr. Garvin said. “We had a park-centered design, and the buildings
that Thom designed were, I thought, particularly appropriate to a waterfront
site as well, with a waterfront esplanade that was an extension of the Queens
West esplanade, but different in character. We, I think, substantially improved
the site plan for Queens West with this design.”

Queens West, a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation, still plans to
turn the 36 acres of land over to developers—primarily, or exclusively, for
housing. In a statement, Charles A. Gargano, chairman of both Queens West and
the ESDC, said: “At Queens West, we now have an opportunity to move ahead with
providing housing in Queens, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The
development corporation’s first order of business is to change its general
project plan, a dusty Cuomo-era document that still calls for half of the
vacant land to be turned into offices. That revision will begin later this
summer when a consultant’s study is due.

The
new specs won’t necessarily include any of the Morphosis design at all,
according to an informed source. With the Olympics out of the picture, the
complex no longer needs to be divided almost exclusively into two-bedroom
units, which were intended to house double-bunking athletes. Nor would the
design need to emphasize low-rises—a touch meant to appease Olympic judges, who
don’t like their athletes taking elevators.

The
possibility that the Morphosis plan will change is good news to developers.
Steve Spinola, the president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said that
while several developers had been willing to build the Olympic Village, some
elements of the design are impractical for normal, everyday people.

“You
had to build a cafeteria for 5,000 people, and then there’s the question of
what you’re going to do with that space after the Olympics,” Mr. Spinola said.
“The two-bedroom layout is also an issue. Depending on the developer, they tend
to have preferences for the makeup of their buildings.”

K.
Thomas Elghanayan, president of Rockrose Development, said that he’d be
interested in bidding on the land, but that he wouldn’t follow the Morphosis
plan, at least not to the letter.

“The
Morphosis plan was beautiful but impractical,” he said. “It would have been so
expensive.”

Of
course, there’s an outside chance that Queens West might hold out until someone
figures out whether New York will go for the 2016 games. Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff,
father of the 2012 bid, hasn’t sounded too chipper about another lap, but since
he sits on the agency’s board, his sentiments mean a lot. A rival 2016 Olympics
committee is being formed by Dave Oats, a Forest Hills resident, who had pushed
for the proposed Olympic stadium to move to Flushing Meadows long before the
Mayor relented. He says he would put athlete housing closer to the stadium
site, in Willets Point.

It’s
too early to determine how many developers will bid on the site, but for Mr.
Elghanayan, whose company is constructing 3,000 units in seven towers on the
northern half of Queens West, it’s a question of clout.

“Because
I am doing so much out there anyway, I am eager to build up even more,” he
said. “I know how politics enters into development, and I see how difficult it
is to coordinate between agencies—so the more land I have, the faster I can do
things.”

He
continued, “My view is, Long Island City has the same potential as
Williamsburg. Me, I’m an old person, and it was a real eye-opener for me to go
over there and see what had happened to farshtinkener
Brooklyn. Long Island City is in an even better position, just one stop from
Grand Central.”

Fred
Harris, senior vice president at Avalon Bay, which has a tower erected on
Queens West land to the north, would also consider bidding on the new site. He
said the design competition for the athletes’ village would have a favorable
effect on the future of the site.

Earlier
design guidelines from the Queens West Development Corporation—which applied to
the phases of land awarded to Rockrose and Avalon Bay—required architects to
plan traditionally urban, rectangular buildings with a street wall of a certain
height, Mr. Harris said. But the Morphosis design is so different—its sweeping
curves make it look like something on a beach in Brazil—that its influence may
result in looser design specs.

But
losing the Olympics probably means Long Island City—or Hunters Point, as the
southwesternmost tip is commonly called—will take longer to develop. The former
industrial property will have to be cleaned up, and the Queens West agency
isn’t known for being swift of foot. While a subsidiary of the Empire State
Development Corporation, Queens West is also controlled by the Port Authority
of New York and New Jersey and the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

“Had we gotten the Olympics, it would have been a very quick-start development,” Mr.
Elghanayan said.

However,
it would also have meant 4,400 apartments being dumped on the market at the
same time once the Games were over. And despite these developers’ enthusiasm
for the neighborhood, buildings have gone up there gingerly—because of
environmental cleanup and the negotiations between Queens West and the land’s
industrial owners. Avalon Bay’s first building opened in April 2002, and it has
yet to begin on its second; Rockrose was chosen as the developer of its land in
February 2001 and is just now building the first tower.

Joshua
Muss, the head of Muss Development Company, which is building a retail-and-residential
complex on a former brownfield in Flushing, said that he’d also be interested
in developing on the land. Mr. Muss added that he thought the Olympic rejection
would delay development, but he cited market demand instead of the
environmental cleanup as the main issue.

“Most
locations are a bit of a reach from the subway,” he said. “Long Island City is
still a project in the works; it is by no means a finished community. It will
take a number of years before that is the case.”