BIG News: Planning Commission Approves Durst’s 57th Street Pyramid Apartments

A tweaked north side for Durst Fetner's 625 West 57th Street. (Durst/Fetner)

A tweaked north side for Durst/Fetner’s 625 West 57th Street. (Durst/Fetner)

Big, pointy apartments. (Durst/Fetner)

Big, pointy apartments. (Durst/Fetner)

When Douglas Durst began deciding, yet again, what to do with the almost block-long property he owns at 57th Street and the Hudson River, City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden urged the developer to think big. A high-tech data center, a school and a hotel had all fallen through, so Mr. Durst had fallen back on that most reliable form of New York City development: housing.

Ms. Burden wanted something iconic, especially for a project on such a prominent street at such a prominent location right on the waterfront. With Hudson River Park right there, it ought to be iconic. Mr. Durst delivered something BIG indeed, hiring the Danish wunderkinds at Bjarke Ingles Group to design his project.

Yesterday, Ms. Burden got to put her official stamp on the project, when she and the rest of the City Planning Commission approved Durst/Fetner’s BIG pyramid. It was the second-to-last step in the arduous months-long public review process, in many ways made all the easier by a dynamic design that has made this arguably the most unusual apartment building in the city.

“Our approval will facilitate development of a significant new building with a distinctive pyramid-like shaped design and thoughtful site plan that integrates the full block site into the evolving residential, institutional, and commercial neighborhood surrounding it,” Ms. Burden said before voting in favor of the project.

Contained within the striking design are 753 apartments in a building that tapers from CKCKthree stories along the river up to a pinnacle of CKCK38 stories. It has an unusual sloping aspect (technically a tetrahedron, not a pyramid) with a massive courtyard cut into the middle that is almost the site of a football field. The cutout also affords every apartment with an outdoor terrace, a feature that was especially important to Mr. Ingels.

The commission required a few modifications to the project, dealing primarily with how it is experienced from the street. There is a limit on the amount of signage and obstructions that can go in the windows of the retail lining 57th Street and the West Side Highway, to ensure transparency and a sense of activity that does not obscure what is going on inside. The fear is a blank wall would deaden the street life, as has happened ion places like Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn.

The developer has made similar gestures on 58th Street to ensure vibrancy on what is otherwise a block-long stretch of almost blank building. Retail wraps the corners of the building, but otherwise, there is a lobby and a loading dock and little else.

Part of the reason for this is the building is located in the 100-year-flood plane, so the Con Ed substation cannot go in the basement but instead by located above-grade. The utility needs access to the facilities at all times, so they have to be on the street, and cannot go higher up in the building. The developer also argued that there is barely any retail on 58th Street as is, so forcing it into the northern side of the building would be impractical and difficult to lease.

The solution was to establish a retail space within the lobby located in that section of the building, and to also install glass vitrines along the blank parts of the façade that could feature plants or sculptures on a rotating basis, creating a more engaging streetscape.

“It’s an important approval, and we’re pleased with her support and input,” Mr. Durst said in an interview.

Previously, the developer agreed to additional modifications when the project received approvals two months ago from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. That included widening the sidewalks and narrowing the driveway between 57th and 58th streets located in the middle of the block at the main entrance to the building. Durst/Fetner will also provide seating and landscaping in the space. The developer also agreed to improve a connection to Hudson River Park at 59th Street, a block north of the development. The connection currently passes under an overpass of West Side Highway, and the developers will work with the city and state departments of transportation to spruce up the space.

“In all, this is an exciting project on a pivotal site that will benefit its occupants, the neighborhood and the city as a whole,” Ms. Burden said.

One aspect of the project that has yet to be addressed is how long the affordable units in the building will remain affordable. The development is being built through the city’s 80/20 program, which means 20 percent of apartments will be reserved for low- and moderate-income families, while the remaining number will be market rate.

Currently, those units will only be eligible for less well-off families for 35 years. The community board desperately wants permanent affordability, but Durst/Fetner insists it cannot agree to such an arrangement because they do not own the land. The developers themselves are leasing it from a family that has owned the land for more than a century, and is now comprised of some 100 trustees Durst/Fetner must negotiate with about extending the affordability window.

But local Councilwoman Gail Brewer has insisted the developers had better get negotiating, because she is willing to torpedo the project at the City Council—the final step in the public review process, where Ms. Brewer will have almost total say over the project—if her constituents do not get what they want.