Tag Archives: High Line

The big city

Yard of dreams

This post looks at last week’s trip to New York, focused on midtown and financial district locales. After many years of waiting, the Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project on midtown’s far west side at the Hudson River is underway (above at 10th Avenue and 3oth Street), with developers working on a first phase of mixed-use office, housing, and retail constructed in leased air rights over MTA‘s vast rail yards.  This ambitious plan includes an extension of the “7” subway train, thousands of new housing units, and large amounts of public space. A virtual no-man’s land (perhaps the last such area in Manhattan) promises to be completely transformed. You can see the development proposal here.

All about the brand

A few blocks north the same developer (Related Companies) is already leasing their MiMA building (above on the corner of 10th Avenue looking east along 42nd Street). Their marketing campaign for this high-end building (originally slated for condos before the recent economic downturn) was so clever that many New Yorkers have started referring to this far west section of midtown as “MiMA”–which means “Middle of Manhattan”. Perhaps a bit wishful to think of 10th Avenue as the “middle;” but with the massive Hudson Yards project underway, the center of gravity will shift somewhat, making this moniker more plausible.

A contrast in scale

The more well-known midtown includes 6th Avenue (above, at 49th Street) where massive towers were set back from the street back in the 1960’s as a result of new zoning laws that allowed greater heights if the developer provided “public space” along the street. The famously bleak, wind-swept plazas that resulted were, at least in the location above, a little less bleak due to fountains, benches, and landscaping making the best of a very anti-urban condition.

A little world of its own

Pocket parks are scattered across Midtown–many again a result of zoning compromises that allowed developers certain concessions in return for providing public amenities. The one above provides a passage between 49th and 48th Street a block west of the 6th Avenue plaza shown previously. In many cases, pocket parks can be underused; pedestrian traffic patterns, adjacent uses, and other factors aren’t studied properly before locations are selected. In Manhattan, given the high density and almost constant foot traffic on countless blocks, these spaces have a better chance of success.

Hey, the taxpayer didn’t fund it

Above is the entrance to this pocket park from 48th Street–sort of Chinese garden gateway reinterpreted. You pass under a thick transparent tube inserted through a concrete wall with water rushing down the full length of the wall, splashing the ceiling above you, and falling into a trough below. It’s a wonderful effect–you really feel like you’re passing from one realm into another. The expense of this sort of feature makes one reflect on the “only in New York” budgets these spaces can have.

Welcome back, downtown skyline

All the way downtown in the Financial District, One World Trade Center (above) is finally nearing completion. It’s an understatement to say the downtown skyline has been missing an anchor since the September 11, 2001 tragedy; this new tower is a welcome symbol of New York’s resilience. It comes at a time when lots of other things are happening in this oldest part of Manhattan, whose vibrant, mixed-use streets of 200 years ago became dominated by finance, banking, and law firms (at the expense of shipping, housing, and saloons). In the last 10 years, however, more and more office buildings have been converted to residences, new apartments have been constructed, there are more restaurants, schools, and groceries—and many thousands more people are living here and walking the streets (about 56,000 compared to 15,000 at the time of the attack).

Occupying the park

Partly as a result of the influx of new residents, the area’s parks have been renovated: people from neighborhoods further north flock south with their kids to enjoy the Financial District–an activity that would have been unheard of 10 years ago. Above is City Hall Park, which at 9 AM Thursday was filled with office workers, mothers with strollers (and a few nannies), and tourists.

The proportion of foot to auto traffic is remarkable

Compared to the relatively new (1811) street grid further north, the older street pattern in this neighborhood is full of curves and diagonals, with narrow roadbed widths (above is Fulton Street looking east from Nassau Street). This tends to confine auto traffic to certain widened arteries, with pedestrians often having free reign in the streets retaining original dimensions.

A colorful concession to the public realm

Across from the new One World Trade Center is 200 West Street, the global headquarters for Goldman Sachs. Choosing this location in part to demonstrate strong commitment to the World Trade Center area after the tragedy, the 43-story building opened in 2009 and was designed by Pei Cobb Fried with other design firms handling different portions of the interiors. Huge murals were commissioned for the numerous lobby spaces, designed for the enjoyment of passerby, including “Sunrise, Sunset” by Franz Ackerman above (you can read a New Yorker review of 200 West here).

Serving titans of finance, among others

One of the most interesting features of 200 West is the adjacent Conrad Hotel linked to the office tower by a promenade (above). Goldman acquired the former Embassy Suites, renovated it into a sleek, contemporary hotel more in keeping with their own image and clientele, and created the promenade. The Applebee’s lease was not renewed; several Danny Meyer restaurants were brought in. Both office workers and nearby residents are delighted. It’s an urban amenity win for everyone.

Yes please

Note the new apartment towers directly across from the promenade (and Shake Shack) above. This neighborhood is becoming very interesting. And tastier.


While Goldman Sachs famously has no corporate logos or company signage of any kind on its building–even the security guards wear anonymous black suits–100 Gold street, a bland 1970’s building a few blocks away, had an image problem. The wrapped address signage (above) does a good job announcing the building to the public, without distracting from the lines of the original design. This is a simple, but sophisticated addition.

Is this for real?

Finally, no trip to New York is complete without visiting the High Line park–shown above around 22nd Street looking north. On a picture-perfect Friday lunchtime, families are playing in the grass, locals and tourists are eating sandwiches, an artist is painting at an easel—and new office and apartment towers frame the stunning views. It’s an urban vision that’s so beautiful, it’s hard to believe it was an abandoned, weedy, rusty set of tracks just a few years ago. Railroad Park, anyone?

Mapping the future (2)

How green grows my city

In the last post we celebrated the birthday of the Randel map that introduced the modern street grid to Manhattan. That initial map didn’t include Central Park; it was some time later that city leaders realized the potential of a vast new park and ordered Olmsted and Vaux to design it.

Likewise, in Birmingham there was no large central park designed in the initial grid of the city; only smaller parks (such as Linn Park). Large amounts of land were set aside at the railroad tracks as a “Railroad Reservation” for industrial use. Part of that Reservation is now Railroad Park, which is vying for the title of Best New Park for 2011 in the Daily Green‘s online Heart of Green awards: vote for it here.

We are up against some pretty big competitors, including the fantastic (and about to expand) High Line in New York City, so spread the word about this vote! Go parks!

Checking in?

Essential urbanity

By one definition, cities are fundamentally places where strangers can meet to exchange ideas. The urban sociologist Richard Sennett writes extensively on the public space of cities, and how crucial public space is to the exchange of ideas. Public space means not just streets and parks, but cafés, coffee shops, bars, theaters, cyberspace–and hotels.

Hotels are so fundamental to experiencing a city that we tend to take them for granted. I have been an obsessed student of hotel history and design since I was a kid, fascinated by the layers of public/private spaces, and the mix of people found in these spaces. And I have been unhappy with Birmingham’s lack of a truly great hotel since I was aware of the term. Birmingham’s full-service hotels used to all be located downtown, and all within an easy walk of Terminal Station. The Tutwiler, Redmont, Dixie-Carlton, Thomas Jefferson, Molton and Bankhead were among the best known.

Today, the Tutwiler (in another building) and the Redmont remain, both considerable shadows of their former selves (pleasant enough, but lacking the amenities and vitality these hotels were once known for). The rest have disappeared. There is no longer a true 4-star hotel downtown (much less a 5-star), or anywhere nearby. Which is troubling for the state’s economic and population center, to say the least.

Hotels, in their best urban roles, facilitate the exchange of ideas through a very porous interface with the street. Lobbies, restaurants, bars, lounges, meeting rooms, ballrooms–these are often favorite places to rendezvous, and the multiple entrances facilitate easy access to visitors.  The streets around hotels are typically animated with people coming and going. A busy, bustling hotel signifies a busy, bustling city. Think about the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel in New York, where you can enter the lobby, ballrooms, various restaurants and bars all through multiple entrances.

Porosity on the street

Now back to Birmingham and our dilemma. Over the last decade, there have been numerous studies conducted that show the need for more high quality hotel space in the City Center, and several unrealized proposals. My own office worked on a proposal from Rubell Hotels out of Miami to convert the Thomas Jefferson into a 5-star, independent boutique hotel back in 2000; more recently the Regions Plaza Building was to have converted into a 4-star Marriott Renaissance brand.

If we did have more hotel options, what should they be? The currently proposed Westin Hotel at the BJCC is disappointing for several reasons. It’s location is BJCC-specific and less central than one would like; its ambition is to add room capacity for conventions, rather than to increase street life and provide multiple destination points for urban dwellers. Equally disappointing is the bland aesthetic of the building, which is described over on heaviestcorner.

Westin BJCC: where's the urbanity?

To judge from the rendering, this is a slightly more upscale (and full-service) version of the limited-service Courtyard, Hyatt Place, and Residence Inn hotels that have opened downtown recently–welcome expansions of our options, but hardly more than clean, efficient places to lay one’s head. Similarly, this Westin appears to have no aspiration to capture the soul of a community, inspire visitors, and lure citizens and travelers alike to linger in its public spaces. The Westin proposal–while satisfying the need for more hotel rooms for users of the BJCC–is not the type of hotel that integrates into the larger urban fabric, with diverse appeal and street porosity that create public interaction.

When we think of certain cities, iconic hotels which seem to embody the city’s soul come to mind. Think of Paris–gorgeous, sophisticated, elegant Paris, whose ancien regime glamor can be summed up by the Hotel Crillon, perhaps the world’s first true luxury hotel (and a favorite haunt of Marie Antoinette).

The Hotel Crillon personifies Paris

All marble, gilt, and tapestries, the Crillon exemplifies Paris, and has served as a model for countless grand luxury hotels to follow, from the Willard in Washington, DC, to the Plaza in New York City. When in the Crillon, you have no doubt where you are; there is no generic corporate color scheme or bland, universal detailing to make you think otherwise. It’s all very haute couture. Very Paris.

Hotels don’t have to be 250 years old (or just look that way) in order to become iconic. Take the Delano hotel in Miami Beach. While other boutique hotels (such as the Albion) were the first to renovate delapidated, boarded-up hotels into chic new playgrounds for a resurgent Miami Beach, the Delano was the first to really do it on a grand scale. Suddenly everyone wanted to be at the Delano, and it was the model for many subsequent hotel renovations in the area. It also helped designer Phillippe Starck become the mega-star he is today. The Delano became the “see-and-be-seen” venue for Miami Beach, perfectly capturing the feel of a breezy, celebrity and image- conscious contemporary city.

The Delano public spaces mirror the city beyond

Where does this leave Birmingham? While all those chains are a necessary part of the corporate travel world today, we are missing that one place that you’ve got to go to–whether reserving a room, meeting friends in the bar, having a special dinner, or just people-watching in the lobby. It should be somewhere special that both reflects local culture, but also rises above mere reflection to become inspiration.

Over in Louisville, KY, two local art collectors helped finance the 21c Museum Hotel in 2006 due in part to frustration that the city lacked an inspired hotel. Just a few years later this hotel won Conde Nast’s Reader’s Choice Award for best hotel in the US, and 6th best in the world—no small feat considering Louisville is not on the tip of everyone’s tongue as a destination.

21c: stylish and local

Adjacent historic buildings downtown were renovated (design: Deborah Berke, one of my favorite architects in NYC) with open, crisp modern spaces inside, lots and lots of contemporary art, and a super-stylish restaurant called Proof on Main adding vibrancy to the street. This has not only become a favorite meeting spot for locals and visitors alike, but plans have been made for extending the brand into other cities that would benefit from having a non-corporate hotel, which is dedicated to helping revitalize the city through contemporary art.  We’ve got an amazing Museum of Art and wonderful private collectors here. It’s worked well in Louisville–why not Birmingham?

Art + Hotel = rejuvenation

I will leave you with this quote from Michael Bonadies, CEO of 21c, upon winning the Conde Nast award:

“Too often today, hotels are bland, isolated oases within cities that provide accommodations and dining but are removed from the city’s character and residents.

Thanks to 21c’s accessibility and social vibrancy, our guests have the opportunity to gain a real sense of the people and culture of Louisville as well as contemporary art from around the world. We are honored to be recognized as a destination for this great city and for travelers from around the country and the world.”

Yes, sometimes it takes a great hotel to not just help rejuvenate a city, but to put it on the map.

Integrating into the fabric

(PS: I couldn’t resist this pic of the new Standard hotel in NYC, hovering over the new High Line park in Chelsea. It brings interaction with the public realm into a whole new dimension.)

[thanks to tristan appleby for the neon pic; wallyg for the Waldorf; Concorde Hotels for the Crillon; saracino for the Delano; stlbites for 21c Restaurant; Conde Nast for the 21c exterior; Photogrammaton for Standard NY]