The latest news on New York architecture.

  • Old Post Office to Become 250-Room Trump Hotel

    Jonathan O'Connell reports for The Washington Post  Old Post Office by Carol M. Highsmith_larger The General Services Administration has selected a proposal from Trump Hotel Collection, the lodging brand that bears the name of the New York real estate magnate, to turn the historic Old Post Office pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue into a luxury hotel with at least 250 rooms, conference facilities, a spa and restaurants. Robert Peck, GSA’s Commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, issued a statement saying Trump was selected to save taxpayers money and take better advantage of the historic property. “Deciding to move forward with redeveloping this iconic property will save millions in taxpayer dollars each year. The tremendous response from the private sector allowed us to select a proposal that will provide a consistent revenue stream for the Federal Government and better utilize a historic property on our nation’s Main Street,” Peck said in a statement. “The Trump Organization plan will preserve the historic nature of the building and improve the vitality of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Peck added. “This redevelopment represents good business sense on behalf of the American taxpayer, the Federal Government and the District of Columbia.” Ivanka M. Trump, Donald Trump’s daughter and executive vice president of development and acquisitions for the Trump Organization, told the Post in July that the company held the building’s historic nature in high regard. “Preserving the architectural integrity of this great asset should be fundamental to all plans presented to the GSA,” she said then. Though listed on the National Register of Historic Places and located on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol, the Old Post Office has been deemed under-utilized by the government. The General Services Administration began soliciting redevelop the property in March. Trump bested number of other high-profile suitors for the property, including one from Hilton Worldwide to turn the property into a Waldorf Astoria. The Trump Organization, along with California private equity firm Colony Capital, plans to invest $200 million into acquiring the property and redeveloping it. In a Tuesday interview shortly after GSA’s announcement, Ivanka Trump said the existing hotel that best compares with what she plans for Washington is the Plaza Hotel in New York City. The new hotel will be called Trump International Hotel, Old Post Office, Washington, D.C. “The Trump Organization is committed to making this the finest luxury hotel in the world and we think the building’s location and historic nature will allow us to do that,” she said. The Trump Hotel Collection already operates luxury hotels in Chicago; New York; Las Vegas; Waikiki, Hawaii; and Panama, where the Trump Ocean Club became the tallest building in Latin America in July. Its newest hotel opened in Toronto earlier this year. How prominent will the famous and controversial Trump name be on Pennsylvania Avenue? Ivanka Trump said the company would take great care to preserve the building’s exterior while incorporating its brand into the redevelopment. “I think the historic facade of the building will be the greatest signage of all,” Trump said. Built in the 1890s, the Old Post Office is a national historic landmark and one of the tallest buildings in the city. The property underwent a makeover in the 1980s that failed to revive its fortunes. Now home to a smattering of federal offices and tourist-oriented retail and restaurants, the building loses more than $6 million annually and the annex is empty and in disrepair, with broken tiles, exposed beams and unfinished storefronts prevalent despite its enjoying one of Washington’s most prestigious locations, on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. The government and Trump still must come to terms on a final financial agreement, one that also governs usage of the building and preservation of its historic aspects. The GSA needs to relocate government agencies that are still operating inside the building, including the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. If negotiations proceed as expected, the GSA said that redevelopment could begin in 2014 and the hotel could be ready for occupancy in 2016. Among other respondents to the GSA’s solicitation for development partners were organizers of a National Museum of the Jewish People, which submitted a detailed proposal for a museum of Jewish heritage on the lower levels and a Park Hyatt Hotel above. Local firms the JBG Cos. of Chevy Chase and Monument of the District also made submissions. Members of Congress, particularly House Republicans, have sharply criticized the GSA in recent years for not doing more to use vacant or under-utilized real estate, taking particular aim at the Old Post Office. The House subcommittee that oversees the GSA plans to hold a hearing Thursday at the Old Post Office and earlier Tuesday, the House passed a bill that would create a new process for selling under-used federal buildings.

  • A new report could uncouple environmental sustainability and historic preservation

    Should NYC Raze Its Wasteful Modernist Skyscrapers to Go Green? nyc-skyline-1 Kelly Chan investigates for Blouin Artinfo Last year marked the first year New York City’s commercial buildings were mandated to publicly disclose their energy usage levels, and with that, some of the city’s most esteemed works of architecture were subjected to a new wave of scrutiny. While the recently completed 7 World Trade Center clocked in with an admirable score of 74, the much-admired 1958 Seagram Building scored an abysmal 3, casting midcentury design in a troubling new light. Could certain icons of the built environment be too harmful for the natural environment? Last month, a research and consulting firm known as Terrapin Bright Green addressed this exact query. With their recently published report “Midcentury (Un)Modern: An Environmental Analysis of the 1958-73 Manhattan Office Building,” the group brought two ethical debates in the field to a head by articulating the long-term environmental benefits of demolishing and replacing the city’s first wave of glass curtain wall office towers — the architectural cohort of Seagram. If the conclusion of the report is accepted, it could uncouple what the it terms the “sister ethics” of environmental sustainability and historic preservation and justify potentially invasive development in some of Manhattan’s most iconic neighborhoods. For the authors of the report, the initiative most closely linked to the new research is PlaNYC, a Bloomberg administration agenda that lists a 30 percent reduction in the city’s carbon footprint by 2030 among its many long-term goals. “We realized that in 2030, 85 percent of the buildings that will exist then are already here,” Bob Fox of COOKFOX Architects, a design firm deeply involved with Terrapin’s research, explained to ARTINFO. “So if all the new buildings had no carbon footprint, we still couldn’t reach the goal without either seriously retrofitting or dealing with the existing buildings in New York City in a very serious way.” With this challenge in mind, Terrapin Bright Green identified the first generation modern office tower, a typological mainstay in midtown and parts of lower Manhattan, as a candidate for serious reevaluation. For Terrapin, these iconic buildings provided multiple opportunities for improved energy efficiency. The group, which has historically advocated for the retrofitting of buildings such as the White House, the Pentagon, and the Empire State Building to reach new sustainability goals, concluded that retrofitting the midcentury skyscrapers in question could yield an impressive 44 percent reduction in energy usage. But the report also goes on to explore a second avenue, arguing the advantages of demolishing and replacing midcentury towers with brand new high-performance buildings. There is no disputing that New York’s midcentury office towers cannot compete with most new constructions on the energy savings front. Terrapin’s case studies suggest that even while considering the energy required to raze an existing building and construct a new one, the energy savings of a new skyscraper — if designed properly — could compensate for its initial negative impact on the environment in 16 to 28 years. What is open to debate, however, is how Terrapin links the two halves of their analysis. “Midcentury (Un)Modern” hangs its argument on several key assumptions that get buried in the stream of charts, graphs, and bullet points: The report prematurely concludes that, under current conditions, deep retrofitting is an impractical option because owners of these office towers have little economic incentive to invest in extensive renovation: The tight column spacing, low ceiling heights, and inefficient structural organizations of these buildings make for undesirable workspaces by contemporary standards, problems no retrofit can resolve. With no potential to increase rent or occupancy, the retrofitting option emerges as a poor investment. In fact, William Browning, a primary author of Terrapin’s report, believes such buildings have not already been replaced because many of them are “overbuilt,” meaning their developers exploited a short-term loophole to construct these buildings in greater bulk — and thus with more rentable floor area — than current zoning will allow. These assumed economic impediments to retrofitting set the stage for counterarguments to Terrapin’s analysis. For Simeon Bankoff, director of New York City’s Historic Districts Council, another Bloomberg initiative — one that falls outside of PlaNYC’s eco-friendly agenda — paints Terrapin’s rhetoric in a darker way: the proposed rezoning of Midtown East, which offers, as Bankoff explained ARTINFO, to “up-zone the entire area in order to encourage ‘signature architecture’ and to revitalize what has been described by proponents of the plan as obsolete or underperforming buildings. With the emergence of this plan, it became evident that the ground had shifted, and that 17-story buildings could be replaced with 30-story buildings.” Bankoff points out that by the same logic Terrapin introduces in its report to say that retrofitting is impractical, the high-performance replacement buildings being recommended would have to be significantly larger — exceeding zoning regulations as they stand now — and have significantly more rentable floor area to incentivize developers to invest in razing and rebuilding office towers. “They were taking as one of their principles that they would be able to build much, much bigger,” Bankoff explained. This supposition is based on yet another assumption: that New York needs bigger and more high-profile office towers. “They’re premising what businesses will need in five years based on what businesses needed in hindsight five years ago,” Bankoff added. The takeaway, then, is that the green element of “Midcentury (Un)Modern” is premised not only on hard-and-fast facts about the environment but also on predictions about something mercurial and manmade: the market economy. Whether or not it is the intent of the report to exploit current environmental concerns to green-light private development, as Bankoff implies, if its research is misinterpreted, it could potentially rationalize the aggressive reorganization of Manhattan at the expense of some important rudiments of the city’s architectural heritage. While Terrapin is not encouraging the complete erasure of this chapter of architectural history — the Seagram Building, the U.N. Building, and the Lever House are exempt, for instance — authors Browning and Fox have stressed that the towers the report addresses were actually not built to last: “They were all cost-driven. Speed of construction was very important,” Fox said, speaking from his experience as a practitioner during the midcentury era. “I don’t think anyone who was building them then envisioned that they would still be here — we thought they would last for 20 years.” This brings up a new question of whether or not the intent of an architectural design dictates the fate of the architecture once it is realized. But for Bankoff, the architecture has taken on a life of its own. “Those buildings were mostly built under old zoning,” he explained. “From an urban design and art perspective, it’s a very interesting response to the confines of zoning using modern materials.” He stressed how these provisional solutions have become a part of the enduring imagery of the city, how the signature zigzagging setbacks of these glass-and-steel towers provided the backdrop for countless television shows and movies, becoming an iconic milieu that could stand to disappear if not properly safeguarded. “They were incredibly evocative of what America was doing at the time,” he said, speaking of an era that is slowly gaining currency in contemporary historiographies. “Those buildings are the natural environment of Don Draper.”