Far-Reaching Impact: a look back at the Urban Design Group

Far-Reaching Impact: a look back at the Urban Design Group

Jonathan Barnett, Jaquelin Robertson and Richard Weinstein–3 of the 4 founding members of the Urban Design Group–along with Donald Elliot, former chair of the New York City Planning Commission, gathered recently at the GSD to discuss the impact for the city of the policies they developed. Jerold Kayden (professor of urban planning) moderated the panel discussion and prompted the men to share their insights on a significant period in the history of New York.

The Urban Design Group, founded in 1967, began as a task force for Mayor John V. Lindsay, then a young man of Kennedy-esque stature. Elliot remarked, “Lindsay had the imagination to try us out.” The City Planning Commission did not previously have an urban design department nor did it concern itself with the shaping of law, real estate and politics. The young architects from Yale, with gumption backed by the tenacity of Mayor Lindsay, knew no limits to urban design experimentation.

Through the creation of planning and development offices across NYC, the UDG set and established urban design objectives. The group showed foresight in the rezoning of SOHO in 1971 to make renting lofts legal. Weinstein said people living in the area now known as SOHO faced the possibility of eviction due to illegal lodging in space not zoned for residential uses. However, after Elliot saw the buildings were worth saving and that the artists living within these spaces could transform the area, he met with building department personnel and helped to change the zoning code. He believed, “SOHO could be a place in which to live and work.” This mentality manifested itself in other design objectives, such as mixed-use and “triple-use building.”

The Olympic Tower, catalogued in Kayden’s Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, is an example of how the UDG instated retail on the ground floor, followed by offices on the second floor and residential quarters above. This model, Barnett noted, was taken to Europe and spread to other American cities. After SOHO, Weinstein, then in charge of the Lower Manhattan planning and development office, also changed code in Tribeca to accommodate mixed-use zoning. Such changes made possible what we now know as Battery Park City.

Among the more significant pieces of policy legislation was the creation of special zoning districts. This zoning power was used to help preserve Broadway theaters in the late 1960s. Development pressures were encroaching upon the theater district, so the UDG began thinking of ways in which developers could “make money and also provide a public good to New York City.” Developers wanted an enlarged footprint and additional floors; the UDG proposed integrating theaters into the first floor. A compromising deal was struck with “a scotch on the rock and splendid view of Central Park from the developer’s apartment.” Weinstein admitted the UDG members “played politics. ” He said, “school did not at all prepare us for this sort of thing.”

While development pressures were a threat to urban form, racial tensions proved to be more visceral concerns throughout the United States. The UDG members were clearly proud of their leader, Mayor Lindsay, who walked through the streets of Harlem and reached out to the public. One of the zoning practices borne from racial unrest allowed for the creation of vest pocket parks, and in 1965, this typology was born in the Bronx. Additionally, the development of inclusionary zoning practices helped provide affordable housing in the Lincoln Center neighborhood. Incentive zoning and transfer of development rights paved the way for developers to earn profits while simultaneously providing public spaces. While it can be argued that privately owned public spaces are not truly for public benefit, the UDG and Lindsay administration were firm in espousing public design principles.

By establishing comprehensive planning, hiring key players, and setting precedents in zoning code, the Urban Design Group laid the groundwork for NYC to be a model of urban policy and design. Through the UDG’s work, architecture and urbanism became seamlessly intertwined. And though the founders admit, “everything you do in New York City is controversial,” contemporary critics recognize how much the Urban Design Group was an asset for the City of New York.

Photo: Andreas Praefcke

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