Peter Slatin: Developers Embracing Design

It wasn’t long ago – last year, perhaps – that the idea of apartment or condominium architecture in New York City was an oxymoron, as it had been for decades.

High-rise residential design meant a pile of bricks or a sheet of glass and concrete. All the design has historically, and with some justification, focused on the inside, with two goals: realizing the maximum number of units for sale, and using design finishes to elicit the highest price for the intended market.

Suddenly, this longstanding paradigm is being challenged. I believe that challenge will begin to resonate across the country.

In early March, New York contractor-turned-developer Frank Sciame unveiled a condominium building designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Calatrava had just made a huge splash in the city with the unveiling of his plans for the new mass-transit hub at the site of the World Trade Center. The condo design, of twisting, cantilevered individual residential cubes, proposed for a site at the historic heart of Manhattan’s seaport and the financial district – rising to a height of 835 feet – electrified the city’s residential real estate and architecture communities. (Conspiracy numerologists take note: that’s the number of millions that Lloyd Goldman, Joseph Cayre, Joe Chetrit and Stanley Chera are paying for the Sears Tower in Chicago.)

There is much speculation on whether or not the complex project is buildable at an earthbound price; even the most ardent architecture fans are skeptical.

Even before Sciame, developer Forest City Ratner put forward its huge mixed-use development in Brooklyn, master-planned by Los Angeles design guru Frank Gehry, which will include some 2,000 housing units. Another high-rise is also in the works for the financial district, this one designed by acclaimed British architect Sir Norman Foster.

And then, in mid-March, the private-public committee that is boosting New York City’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games unveiled yet another residential stunner: five competing master plans for the Olympic Village, which would house 16,000 athletes during the games and 20,000 residents thereafter. Each plan was prepared by an internationally acclaimed team of architects, with representatives from Copenhagen, Rotterdam, London, New York and Los Angeles.

Each was more inventive, more exciting and more worthwhile than the one before. Each would make an enormous statement about New York’s place in the culture of 21st century America. And each of these diverse projects, whether in downtown or in Queens, will go a long way toward refreshing our lackluster stretches of skyline.

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What’s come over the development community? Are we to believe our eyes and ears? If so, it would seem that developers no longer number architecture among their four-letter words.

There are a few reasons for this new horizon. One is that the return of baby boomers to downtown living across the U.S. has been raising the bar for living standards. Historic buildings are being refurbished, and newer buildings often don’t match up in grandeur and quality, forcing developers to be more creative in their offerings.

There is no denying that design has seeped into the public consciousness as the world has watched the rebuilding debate at Ground Zero, where design – of buildings, memorials, infrastructure and public space – is of critical importance.

This debate has informed all of us about why we care about where we live and what it looks and feels like. Builders have not been immune to that, and as each reaches for a new level, one-upmanship will follow. That’s a good thing.

There is one more driver for this trend, which is not, unfortunately, the fact that developers have suddenly embraced the notion, no matter how true and important, that good design is value added to the nth degree. Rather, the source is one that could easily turn in on itself and choke the pleasing prospect of architecture becoming a staple in the development diet.

What would that driver be? Cheap money. Cheap money makes it so much easier for developers to pay for those extra costs that real design supposedly incurs. After all, the Sciame-Calatrava project may have sky-high construction costs and similarly high condo prices, but only a handful of willing buyers are needed to make it work.

But cheap money can disappear in the blink of a Fed meeting, and no doubt it will. Where will that leave us? Will developers, once impressed with themselves for selecting the right brand-name architect, now be annoyed with themselves for having splurged on such a foolish bauble? Will lenders demand a return to bricks and mortar – or brickface and drywall?

Smart builders and money folk often talk about keeping their powder dry, even when the pickings are plentiful. Now, with design in fashion, it’s time to show that it’s not just about spending money, and not just about making money. Instead, it’s about making choices that will enable all participants, from builder to user and everyone in between, to maintain the new urban benchmark even when design has again become a bad habit rather than a good idea.

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Peter Slatin is the founder and editor of TheSlatinReport.com, a Web-based commercial real estate newsletter.