Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}


Don’t Bury Our Cities in Megatowers

Many longtime residents of San Francisco, Miami and other hot U.S. cities complain of “Manhattanization” when developers put up 20- or 30-story apartment complexes. In Portland, Oregon, they’re debating the wisdom of 40 stories.

They should try 100 stories on for size — or not, if they value the amenities of urban life. That’s the height of a megatower proposed for downtown Seattle. It was “downsized” from 102 stories after aviation authorities warned the tower could interfere with air traffic.

Tall buildings don’t normally shock New Yorkers, but many Gothamites are appalled by the growing scourge of “billionaire’s row” on West 57th Street. This is a forest of freakishly high sticks casting shadows on Central Park.

In the sedate residential enclave of Sutton Place to the east, a developer wants to drop an oblong almost as tall as the Empire State Building smack in the middle of narrow 58th Street. Glomming onto the neighborhood’s reputation for quiet elegance, the developer is perversely calling his monstrosity Sutton 58.

What’s so terrible about megatowers? They cause wind tunnels at ground level. They block out the sun, putting huge swaths of city in shadow. They create canyons trapping air pollution and heat in summer. They kill others’ views.

Michael Mehaffy, an architectural critic based in Portland, Oregon, has likened super-tall residential buildings to vertical gated communities cut off from the neighbors far below. Furthermore, the buildings are often half empty.

That’s because these ultra-expensive spaces are being marketed to a global elite seeking a safe place to stash their money. Billions are pouring in from Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Latin America.

Here’s how Alan Kersh, president of the East River Fifties Alliance (a group fighting the Sutton Place megatower), sums up the raw deal: “The neighborhood is being ripped up for foreign owners who may fly in for a couple of days and just want to have a safe deposit box in the sky.”

Seattle’s proposed 4/C megatower — so named for its location at Fourth Avenue and Columbia Street — would be the tallest building on the West Coast. Why would Seattleites want such an outlandishly high structure?

“Vancouver envy,” Mehaffy responds, referring to the tower-crazed Canadian city about 150 miles to the north. “The irony of that is a lot of people there are upset at the development.”

Such discontent may explain one Vancouver developer’s announcement that his project’s $18 million penthouse would be sold only to a local resident.

Much of the money flowing into this super-expensive real estate is dirty — all-cash deals using shell companies. The buyers’ identities are hidden. A concerned U.S. Treasury Department is starting to track these purchasers.

Builders and their pliant mayors try to pass off this luxury construction as a boon to affordable housing — as though adding to the stock of residences selling in the eight figures is somehow going to trickle down to working folks’ rent. The opposite is often the case.

Developers look for “soft” building sites. In older residential areas, such as Sutton Place, that means demolishing the tenements and five-story walkups where people of modest means still live. When the Sutton 58 developer is done, 80 families will be displaced.

The theme this campaign season is ordinary Americans’ wanting their power back. That should extend to politics on the very local level. Residents have a right to determine the destiny of their neighborhoods.

The real estate barons often call the shots in America’s city halls. The people must tell the politicians inside that there will be consequences to ignoring their opinions.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at


Photo: The view from One World Trade Center of Midtown Manhattan. Flickr user Arturo Pardavila III

Two Nights At Frank Lloyd Wright’s Cabin In The Woods

By Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

When the electric sunset broke through the high wraparound windows and surrounding tree canopy, it looked as if pink, orange and green stained-glass panels had suddenly been installed inside the Seth Peterson Cottage. One more reason the place felt more like a cathedral than a small stone cabin in the woods.

Throughout our two-night stay at one of the Upper Midwest’s most unique and historic cabin rentals, I kept thinking of the cottage as a shrine to the two very different men who were behind such a special hideaway — neither of whom lived to see its completion.

One was among America’s most influential architects and Wisconsin’s most famous sons. The other was a modest state government employee who took his own life at 24.

Tucked away into a thickly forested corner of Mirror Lake State Park near Wisconsin Dells in south central Wisconsin, the Peterson Cottage is Frank Lloyd Wright’s last commissioned work in the state he called home. Work began in 1958. It’s also one of the craftsman’s smallest structures anywhere, with only one bedroom and 880 total square feet.

My wife and I rented the cottage this past summer, but we actually made our reservation in October 2013. That’s how far ahead you have to plan if you want to stay there in the warmer months.

We picked up the keys to the cottage in the town of Lake Delton, from Sand County Service Co., a vacation rental company whose offices are lined with pamphlets for all the Dells area’s water, duck and pony shows. That hubbub felt worlds away from where we were headed.

Set only a few hundred yards off a main park road down a gravel driveway, the cabin delivers on seclusion. A sign at the driveway gate warns that the place is off-limits to non-renters except for the second Sunday of each month, when the Seth Peterson Cottage Conservatory hosts tours.

In part because of its modest size, the cottage stands as a major example of how well Wright married his structures to their natural surroundings. And the surroundings in this case are themselves quite spectacular.

Perched atop a hill overlooking the rambling Mirror Lake, the cottage has a sharply angled flying roof and stone walls that make it look like one of the nearby stone bluffs jutting through the treetops. The walls and floor of the cabin are made of Wisconsin sandstone; the wood of the ceilings and sleek detailing also came from the area.

The large windows tie the cottage to the landscape from the inside. I seriously felt more in tune with nature staying in this architectural landmark than I usually do sleeping in a tent in a crowded state park.

On the other hand, there was a certain unnatural quirkiness to spending a few nights in a cabin that has been written about in Architectural Digest.

After we unloaded the car, for instance, I did what every blue-blooded Midwesterner does upon arriving at a cabin: propped the beer cooler upside down outside the front door to let it dry out. Soon, though, I was struck by visions of some uptight architectural society rep showing up and chastising me for ruining the cabin’s visual grace with my ugly blue plastic Igloo.

The cooler got stashed in the car.

In the end, though, our only visitors were the local pack of raccoons, one of whom climbed right up on the stone ledge outside the windows by the dining room as if he wanted to join our Yahtzee game. My daughters, ages 4 and 7, similarly liked scrambling up the sloped stone exterior walls — another reason I was glad no preservationist snobs ever showed up.

Board games, dinner and conversation felt extra special inside the cottage on the angular, Wright-designed furniture, but the most uncommon ordinary experience was sitting around the fireplace. The literal and figurative centerpiece to the cottage lights up the walls and woodwork in magical ways. It works pretty well for s’mores, too.

Come bedtime for the girls, I pulled out the coffee-table booklets by the fire’s glow and read in depth about the cottage’s tragic history.

Thanks to passion, persistence and the fact that even the master architect had a cash-flow problem, Peterson was able to persuade Wright to build the small cottage. The younger Wisconsinite was little more than an architectural fanboy who worked as one of the state’s first computer operators. He planned the cottage as a hideaway for him and his intended bride.

Whatever the early computer job paid, though, it wasn’t enough to cover the construction once it began in 1958. Peterson soon went into debt. His bride-to-be left him. The young idealist killed himself before seeing his dream finished. Wright died shortly after Peterson, in April 1959.

The cottage was completed but somehow never found a rightful owner. In 1966, when Mirror Lake State Park was designated, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources took it over and proceeded to board up the place. That was its sorry fate for decades, until 1989, when — after falling into dire disrepair — the incomparable cabin was saved by Wright enthusiasts. Renovations took three years.

©2015 Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Cliff via Flickr

In A Tehran Without Nightlife, A Bridge Becomes A Gathering Place

By Roy Gutman, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

TEHRAN, Iran – In a city ruled by the automobile, where crossing the street entails risking your life and a real downtown doesn’t exist, there could hardly be a more unusual weekend destination than the newly built Tabiat Bridge – perched over a busy expressway.

Not quite a year after opening to the public, this undulating, multilevel pedestrian bridge, with its curving walkways and sloping ramps, benches and cafes, has become the go-to place for young people on Friday or Saturday evenings. They stroll about with their friends, listening to music and showing the sort the intimacy between the sexes that the Islamic Republic frowns on in public places.

With well-tended parks at either end, the city lights twinkling to the south and traffic moving slowly on the Modarres highway below, the 890-foot-long bridge has become a gathering point for people from all over the city of 8.3 million.

It’s a new symbol for the Iranian capital, its popularity due in no small part to the fact that, in Tehran, there’s nowhere else to go.

“If I had a choice, I’d rather be at a rock concert,” said Soheil, a 20-year-old basketball coach who is getting a bachelor’s degree in physical education and asked to be identified only by his first name. “But the government always bans them.”

Soheil was among the crowd of people who packed the bridge on a Friday evening. In Aab-o-Atash Park, at the bridge’s eastern end, children frolicked in dancing water fountains as families played no-net badminton. In hilly, wooded Taleghani Park at the bridge’s western end, strollers walked along well-landscaped paths.

Gholamhassein Karbaschi, the former Tehran mayor renowned as the master builder of the city’s burgeoning park system, had Iran’s social constraints in mind when he launched the growth of the system, as did the young architect who designed the bridge at age 21.

“We don’t have dance clubs and nightclubs,” said Karabaschi, a reformist who served as mayor from 1991 to 1999 and might have been a candidate for national president until he was jailed on corruption charges in what appeared to be a political frame-up. Parks are “the only place people can go.”

With support from Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the centrist president who recruited him, and from his successor, reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Karabaschi built on a comprehensive urban plan designed before the Islamic revolution. He insisted on the best experts and architects available and rode herd during construction.

“I supervised all the details,” he told McClatchy.

It was thanks to a contest that Leila Araghian, then 26, was able to design the Tabiat Bridge. “They wanted something complex, to give an identity to those areas and become a symbol of Tehran,” she said. But Araghian wanted “something modest, but that has character and is interesting enough to have an identity.”

The result is not a utilitarian passage from one point to another, but a path full of unexpected turns, features and vistas. The bridge curves, blurring the destination, “so you won’t know where it is taking you.”

Having won the competition in 2008, Araghian then went to the University of British Colombia in Vancouver, where she wrote her thesis analyzing her own project. Her theme was “Modesty, Serendipity and Silence.”

It’s a very Iranian approach to design, she said. In Kashan, a city in central Iran, houses all have mud walls and a simple door as the entrance, and the way into the house is through a corridor, which then opens onto a huge garden. But there may also be a hidden private garden, where strangers are not welcome.

“It’s a labyrinthine style of building. You discover it through a continuous journey.” And she discovered that that is what drove her design. “I was not aware that that is how I think,” she said.

“The bridge is a serendipitous space,” she said. “When you hide things, there is a chance of discovering. And the excitement you have when you discover it by yourself is a better feeling than when you are expecting it.”

Photo: Blondinrikard Fröberg via Flickr 

‘Passive House’ Project Is A Living Laboratory For Energy Efficiency

By Rosa Colucci, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

PITTSBURGH — In the Shadyside neighborhood of the city, a large sign declares that a “Passive House” renovation is underway at 5724 Walnut Street.

“When the gentleman who owned 5724 was going into the nursing home, he said, ‘I’d like to sell it to you. I know you do quality work,'” recalled architect Laura Nettleton, one of the principals in the firm Thoughtful Balance Inc. The property is a three-story wood-frame home with four bedrooms, and Nettleton took on the project as a living design laboratory. Ten years ago, she had renovated its twin next door.

She saw the project as a way to compare the energy needs and usage of two similar houses renovated at different times. Her ten-year-old firm has focused on affordable housing and sustainability.

“This was an unusual project for us. I did one of the first LEED Gold Projects in the city. (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design and is certified through the U.S. Green Building Council.) Over time, we were disappointed in the energy performance of that project. LEED predicted great performance, but did not deliver. Then I was introduced to Passive House.”

The term refers to a building standard that features among other things, much more insulation than in a conventionally built house.

“In retrofits, this is not an easy thing to do. You can’t wrap leaky basements in foam. The Walnut Street house is performing really well. With the thermostat set to 57 and just body heat, the indoor temperature was 65. That was pretty cool.”

That is remarkable considering that the house was built in 1890. The renovation is light, bright, and modern compared with other houses of that age. But there are other differences that become apparent. It is ultra-quiet inside and there are no warm or cold spots. Even near a window.

“It has a feeling of luxury, like you are entering a refuge,” Nettleton said.

The windows, which have R-5 or R-7 insulation values, are triple-paned European windows that open in two directions, as casements and awnings. They are outfitted with exterior shades that are operated by a remote.

“This is great for everyday living. You can open windows and have security.”

The home has 3,000 square feet of living space. All of the walls are painted a crisp white and the floors are lightly stained maple. Clean lines run from the open staircase that ascends three levels to the white quartz counter tops in the 15 by 13 foot kitchen.

The dining room is in the front of the home and measures 13 by 13 feet. It has an architectural feature wall and recessed lighting. It is staged with mid-century modern furniture and features a wall cutout that offers views into the kitchen. It has custom-made walnut cabinets made by a local firm which also did the cabinets in the bathrooms.

Stainless steel Bosch appliances are set in a modern configuration with double wall ovens, a dishwasher, and an induction cooktop whose overhead exhaust almost seems to float in midair. The entire house is outfitted with Hans-Grohe Water Sense faucets. Some of the cabinets have frosted glass fronts that reflect more light into the room.

“We chose materials that were as close as we could come to locally sourced and low-VOC for a healthy interior,” Nettleton said. “We used Sherwin-Williams Harmony paint. I like the quartz as a manmade material. It has less impact on the landscape.”

Just beyond, the 19 by 14 foot living room features a large patio door that opens to a deck. A powder room and a bench are bookended by tall cabinet closets.

The master bedroom is on the second floor, in the rear. It measures 13 by 13 feet and opens to a nine by six foot office. The ten 1/2 by seven 1/2 foot bathroom features a quartz vanity top with a raised bowl on walnut cabinets. There is a roomy linen closet, glass enclosed shower, and a separate soaking tub.

Also attached to the bedroom is a ten by five foot walk-in closet and a separate laundry center with Bosch washer and dryer behind closed doors. “The condensing washing and dryer work very well with Passive House because of the intake and exhaust issues with dryers,” Nettleton said.

The second bedroom also measures 13 by 13 feet and has a five by six foot study nook and loft area open to the space below. The floor is also maple.

The third floor has two bedrooms measuring 15 by 12 feet and 12 by 11 feet and features a bank of windows overlooking Walnut Street. They are serviced by a full bathroom with a large skylight. Each bedroom has a full walk-in closet.

The finished basement was excavated and a new slab poured with insulation underneath. The family room measures 21 by 14 feet and has hardwood floors and modern lighting. A full bathroom is off to the left.

The mechanical room has a heat pump that provides heat and air conditioning and the heat recovery ventilator that circulates air in the home, recapturing heat and conditioned air.

“The ventilator cleans and exchanges the air in the home completely every three hours. It removes the outdoor pollutants,” Nettleton said.

The expected energy cost to run this home is about $35 per month. One condition of the sale is that the owner must allow Nettleton to have access to the energy bills so that she can track the performance of the project.

“I am really proud of the design and what it represents. I didn’t want Passive House to hang out in the affordable housing world and only be available for special funding.”

Photo: Larry Roberts via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS