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New York by Gehry: deconstructing the tallest residential structure in the West

In February, the New York by Gehry building finally opened its doors to occupants. Years in the making, this 76 story, 870 foot tall skyscraper in Manhattan is now the tallest residential building in the Western hemisphere.
With 903 apartments, this new structure's total occupancy will be greater than many depopulated rustbelt cities (like Braddock Pennsylvania). With a structure of such significant scale, it's valuable to take a look at the physical, social, economic and environmental effects this building will have on the people and places it will impact. What aspects of the building deserve kudos, and what is worth learning from?

Physical merits: the architectural design receives a "thumbs up"
The New York by Gehry building (formerly called Beekman Tower and then 8 Spruce Street) is located in Manhattan's Financial District. It is now the (big) baby brother to the iconic Woolworth building.
The famous architect Frank Gehry designed an undulating façade of billowing, rippling stainless steel for developer Bruce Ratner, chairman and CEO of Forest City Ratner Companies. For Gehry, winner of the 1989 Pritzker Architecture Prize honoring "significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture," New York is his first commissioned residential building in New York City.  
Reviews of the building's design have been largely favorable. Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for The New York Times calls it "the finest skyscraper to rise in New York since Eero Saarinen's CBS building went up 46 years ago." The New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger calls it "the first big apartment house worth talking about in more than a generation."
A few criticisms have been leveled against the structural design: one is that the undulating folds, which catch the sun at different angles throughout the day, were only chosen for three sides of the building. The structure's South side is flat, and some suggest it looks as though the building "presents its backside" to Wall Street. Others, like James Gardner of the Real Deal, say that this building doesn't measure up to the hype, and that the unique exterior design doesn't translate into the apartments themselves.
"Like all of Gehry's work, the building is conceived in the Deconstructivist style, which presumes to disrupt and disturb traditional architectural forms. But it just doesn't have the feeling, the conviction, the antic sense of fun that this style is supposed to have, and that Gehry's earlier projects certainly did. That may be because the implementation of the style is only skin-deep. The metallic cladding of 8 Spruce Street, which seems to be slipping off the surface like grease that puckers, puddles and undulates in its descent, comes off as little more than a big gimmick. Underneath it is a rather orthodox box."
Though Gehry maintains that the outer folds create unique bay windows and apartments with over 200 different layouts, Gardner claims that the interior is as hum-drum as any New York high-rise.
In terms of bigger-picture contribution, most agree that the building at 8 Spruce Street adds new vitality, uniqueness and dramatic flair to lower Manhattan's skyline. This will soon be further enhanced by the memorial structure being built next door, on the former World Trade Center's location.
Environmental impact: sustainability barely mentioned
New York by Gehry is not LEED certified. In fact, Frank Gehry made quite a stir last year when he stated that "a lot of LEED is given for bogus stuff" and that the costs were not always worth it. He later clarified his views in an interview on PBS, elaborating that he is, in fact, in favor of innovative practices to make environmentally sustainable building choices even if they are not included in LEED's process. Gehry feels the road to furthering environmental sustainability is a political one, citing his recent work in Switzerland:
 It seems that New York does have some environmentally friendly features such as "low-e windows, Energy Star appliances and a greywater filtration system," though it's incredibly surprising that these features are not highlighted (or even mentioned) on the building's official website.
"They don't use the LEED program over there, the government just says this is what you can and can't do, and things have to be built in a sustainable way. So really it's a political thing: People taking responsibility on an individual level combined with government programs that give mandates that say 'this is how we're going to require people to build.'"
The New York could easily have taken a page from neighboring Battery Park City's recent and significant progress towards creating best practices in environmentally friendly, low carbon residential high-rises. Just take a look at the Solaire, a LEED Gold building designated in 2004. The Solaire lowers energy demand by utilizing about 450 solar panels, built into the building's façade, as well as greywater filtration to supply water to the building's toilets and rooftop garden. The Visionaire and Tribeca Green have platinum and gold LEED ratings, respectively. These "green" buildings exist here because the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), designated in 1968 to redevelop Battery Park, adopted a policy that requires developers to build environmentally-sustainable apartments that address enhanced indoor air quality, water conservation and purification, energy efficiency, recycling construction waste and the use of recycled building materials, and commissioning to ensure building performance.
BPCA has even created a user-friendly best practices document which detailed the ways in which they have successfully integrated sustainable measures into their residential buildings, something I hope developers of the New York reviewed prior to construction. With structures of the magnitude of the new New York, the potential impact of instituting efficient, forward-looking building and living practices is meaningful and should not be easily glossed over.
Social and economic impacts: it's simply another luxury high-rise
Let's just get it out there: all 903 dwellings in the building are luxury apartments, and every effort has been made to market them as just that. These apartments are being rented at current market rates: Studios start at $2,630-per-month, one-bedrooms are $3,580 and two-bedrooms $5,945. None of the units are for sale. It looks as though their bread and butter residents will be 20-something investment bankers who want to live close to where they work and empty-nesters from Midtown or the Upper East/West Side who don't happen to own their own place.
This wasn't always going to be the case. The building was built with $203.9 million in tax-free financing from the New York Liberty Bond Program, a pool of funding that was made available after the events of September 11, 2001 to help finance the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan. The project also secured $476 million in taxable debt from a group of six banks.
A stipulation of receiving a 20-year tax abatement for the property is either to allocate 20 percent of the units as low-income affordable housing, or for three percent of the financing to be granted to the New York City Housing and Urban Development Council (NYHDC). In 2007, according to an article by the New York Observer, it looked as though Ratner's plans were to provide 20 percent affordable housing in the building.
By 2008 however, reports show that he decided not to furnish the building with affordable housing units, opting instead to pay the 3 percent affordable housing fee (approximately $6 million). The NYHDC seems satisfied by this. Though by using their numbers, it seems that if one is concerned with maximizing affordable housing in New York City this option achieves poorer results. NYHDC states proudly that "to date, HDC has constructed 467 affordable housing units using approximately $31.4 million in fees derived from previous Liberty Bond transactions." This equates to a cost of $67,237 per unit of affordable housing. Forest City Ratner's $6 million therefore bankrolls 89 affordable housing units. By contrast, 20 percent of 903 units would have made 180 units available. Perhaps Gehry's musings on how political requirements most easily force positive chance should be applied here. We could be better off as a society if we lived in mixed-income environments rather than segregating properties into "luxury high-rises" and "the projects.""
"One portion—presumably the top—would be entirely market-rate rentals and could be financed with Liberty Bonds, which continue to be reserved for the project. The middle portion would consist of mixed-income rentals, 20 percent of which would be priced for low-income households."
In a further twist, it seems as though the market-rate apartments in the New York will actually be rent stabilized for the next 20 years. Because the building was financed in part by government dollars and was eligible for a 20 year 421-a tax abatement (which Forest City Ratner scrambled for just before the rules changed in June 2008), all of New York's units must be rent stabilized. The rents of stabilized buildings are reviewed by the Rent Guidelines Board, and increases of 2-3 percent have been the ceiling in recent years. Though I'm sure the investment banker tenants will be happy their $3,500 per month 1-bedroom will be limited to a 3 percent rent increase at the end of their term, rent stabilization applied in this way seems a far cry from what the program was initially intended to accomplish.

Spacial considerations: it's a town-in-a-building
The New York building isn't entirely residential: its lowest six floors will house public amenities, including a five floor K-8 public school financed with public dollars (which had hoped to open in 2008 but was delayed for three years due to delays in overall building financing and construction), and one floor for the New York Downtown Hospital.
And what of the building's massive scale and number of total occupants? How will the existence of 76 floors of over 900 units impact the lives of those who actually live in the building? The amenities (50-foot swimming pool, gigantic fitness center and spa, grilling terrace, game room, Drawing Room with grand piano, a chef's demonstration and catering kitchen, library, "tweens den," children's playroom, screening room with amphitheater-style seats) rounded out with "comprehensive concierge and lifestyle services" sound great. But was any research conducted into the social impacts of so many people living under the same roof, and ways to minimize negative consequences?
The building is designed to exude an element of upper-class luxury, and this extends to the ground level where "residents will enter through a covered drive that cuts through the block along the building's western side. Framed by massive brick pillars and a glass-enclosed lobby, the space's generous proportions will accommodate taxis and limousines ferrying people in and out of the building, making it feel more like a luxury hotel than a classic Manhattan apartment building" (The New York Times). This, therefore, means the building's entrance is completely closed off from the street, and thus the rest of the neighborhood.
Though not well integrated with the neighborhood at ground level, the mere presence of the building is making additional impacts on the physical area. It was announced in 2010 that a roughly 13,000 square foot plaza would be built immediately next to the building from Beekman Street to Spruce Street (with a much smaller second plaza on the building's other side). Though this announcement spurred concerns that the plazas will serve as a magnet for "homeless people and drunken Pace University students at night," the open space will should hopefully benefit the community as a whole.
So what are the final marks for New York? Its architecture and contribution to the New York City skyline and to Lower Manhattan are a plus. It succeeded in beating Donald Trump's Trump Tower by roughly 10-15 feet and 4 floors. And it helped to bring renewed interest to Lower Manhattan. It missed an opportunity, however, to contribute meaningfully to environmental and social solutions of our time. With enough space to house a small city, it's a shame that the residents will end up to be a population of rather monochromatic, upper income residents occupying a building that doesn't push the ball of environmental and social sustainability forward.

Photos by flickr contributors Structures:NYC, emmett.hume, Alex Terzich, Atomische • Tom Giebel, jikatu and onesevenone.