A Conversation with FAR ROC Juror Holly Leicht

Thursday, November 07, 2013

NY4P Executive Director Holly Leicht recently served on the jury of the FAR ROC (For a Resilient Rockaway) design competition, which challenged architects and planners to develop designs for a resilient and sustainable mixed-use development at Arverne East, an 80-acre, beachfront public site on the Rockaway Peninsula. The competition was sponsored by the City's Department of Housing and Preservation Development (HPD), the American Institute of Architects' New York Chapter, and the development team of L+M Development Partners and the Bluestone Organization, which was selected by HPD several years ago.

FAR ROC was born after Hurricane Sandy made the site's original development plan obsolete. Its purpose was to solicit creative ideas for resilient development strategies that can be implemented not only in the Rockaways but also throughout New York City and in vulnerable communities everywhere. Along with Leicht, the 11-person jury comprised representatives from the public and private sectors and academia, with expertise ranging from architecture and urban planning to engineering to affordable housing. The winner – White Arkitekter, from Sweden – was announced on October 23.

Following the announcement, and to mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Leicht reflected on the jury experience and the winning proposal.

NY4P: You’ve participated in multiple design competitions – as a jury member here, and as staff at HPD, where you led the New Housing New York competition that led to the Via Verde affordable housing development in the South Bronx. Because of what the Rockaways has endured over the past year, did that lend a different feel to this one?
HL: I think it affected the jury dynamic in that there was particular deference to the community representatives on account of all that they and their community have been through. Everyone felt like the outcome of this process needed to be something the community could get behind and feel good about.
NY4P: There were two local representatives on the jury – City Council District 31 Member Donovan Richards, Jr., and Delores Orr, Chair of Queens Community Board 14. How did community sentiment play a role in the judging process?
HL: Community sentiment was one of the critical deciding factors in our choice. The winning team spent a significant amount of time in the Rockaways, but the community representatives on the jury cautioned that more guidance from people living there would be needed to tailor the final plan. The White Arkitekter team was completely cognizant that their initial outreach wouldn’t be sufficient, but they did spend a great deal of time observing the area and talking to people – from the hipster surfer community to longtime residents. And they took great efforts to incorporate elements that the community wanted. For example, the team heard significant feedback about including a central commercial area that could house specific retail amenities – a sort of town square - and the design does that. They were very open-minded about the process going forward, and they knew the plan they submitted would be the basis for what gets built but wouldn't be the be-all-end-all. That sensitivity convinced both the developers and the community that this was a team they could work with. They were also less focused on the details of the architecture and more focused on a master plan. The winners had a practical approach; they knew they were putting together a framework that would then need to be vetted with the community, and so they weren’t trying to presuppose what all the answers were.
NY4P: You were supportive of the winning design in deliberations. What about it convinced you it would be right to meet the needs of this area specifically?
HL: The major reason why I supported this proposal versus the other finalists was because I really thought it was a design that could get built within the constraints of this development project. To go forward, it had to be a plan the designated developer would feel was reasonable and economically viable. And it had to be a plan the City – because they’re helping fund it – felt would fit within their financing programs. To me, buildability was critical, because this wasn't just an ideas competition for the sake of generating innovative concepts; it was meant to create something that will actually be implemented – and if the developers or the City walked away from the winning design as being too impractical, it could make the community cynical and lead to mistrust of the design community, mistrust of government. And those entities should be serving them, not thwarting their recovery. So to me, having this competition result in a built project was essential.
NY4P: So you really feel that this will be built?
HL: It’s a viable master plan. It's comparable to large-scale developments HPD has done in other neighborhoods, and is the kind of site plan that would work and be economically feasible. Some of the other finalists were really, really exciting from an innovation standpoint and from a resiliency and environmental standpoint, but they’d be much, much more expensive and difficult to build. This one is also interesting from a resiliency perspective, but the site plan is much more feasible within the parameters of City financing programs. And there’s more room to work out the architecture as the process goes on.
NY4P: Does the winning proposal impressively integrate parks and open space?
HL: Yes, I think so. There was a third design we considered that the community also liked for the amenities it proposed, but the open space was poorly conceived. The nature preserve – a requirement of the competition – was a single swath right next to a huge parking lot and retail, so to me that didn’t feel like a successful open space. There wasn’t open space integrated with the housing, and the preserve didn’t feel like it would be a really meaningful place for the community. It felt like an afterthought. The winner did a much better job of creating a tranquil, separate preserve, and also a series of diagonal parks that connect the community north of the site and bring them down into the beach area through the site, without creating a lot of foot traffic through the main residential streets. The method of using these connector parks was a good way of making the site's amenities and the beach publicly accessible while preserving some intimacy within the residential part of the neighborhood for those who live there.
NY4P: What are the next steps?
HL: The developers were pleased with the choice, and they're going to get started working with the winning team and hopefully will bring them on board as part of the development team.
NY4P: In the end, did this process give you faith in using this type of initiative in response to a pressing need in a community?
HL: I think this was an appropriate response on a number of levels. First, it shed light on the recovery needs of this community. Because of the diffuse impact of Sandy – some parts of the city were unscathed while others were devastated – it was important for this competition, and other efforts like it, to bring international visibility to hard-hit areas. Even for those teams that didn't win, hopefully it will have a lasting effect in encouraging people to engage in helping communities in need. Second, this is bringing in the community and giving them access to resources they may not otherwise have – like environmental professionals – so they have all this expertise at their disposal to help them think about not just this site, but how to plan for recovery and for the future more broadly.
NY4P: So it brought a sort of counterbalance to the potential for designers to see the Rockaways as simply a design laboratory for experimenting with new kinds of resilient design?
HL: I think it goes both ways. It does create a design lab to some degree – which isn’t all bad, because you don’t want communities to feel abandoned and isolated at their moment of greatest need. But because community involvement played such a significant role, it keeps the process grounded in the realities of those living there.  A lot of the debate the jury had revolved around the tension between these two components. But having that debate wasn’t a bad thing. I think everyone learned something, and we came to a middle ground that is good – both for the project at hand and in general. Both through observing the Via Verde jury process and being part of this one, I’ve learned important lessons about how you balance those tensions to come up with not only an ambitious project but one that people will want to live in and one they’ll feel is connected how they live. There is certainly a temptation following a tragedy for many to want to make their mark. The key question is: how do you both encourage that sort of response but temper it by remembering that this can't be viewed by them just as an opportunity – this is where people live, and they are attached to this place as their home. It's not just a carte blanche that can be designed by someone halfway across the world without understanding who that design will affect every day. Finding that middle ground – even if there’s tension reaching it – is an important discipline for designers. And it’s also important for the community to push the envelope a little and be willing to think about things differently. In this case, people in the Rockaways have realized that they can’t just do things the same as before, and that was their tension. The outcome of bridging those tensions in both directions was a good one. FAR ROC generated big ideas and visibility, but the jury also never lost sight of the fact that this is where people live and have lost a lot.

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