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Shimmer on the Waterfront

Shimmer on the Waterfront

The Wall Street Journal 10/24/2011

By ROBBIE WHELAN

Venturing northward from the Vernon Boulevard subway station in Queens toward the Hunters Point waterfront takes the walker through a dramatic range of urban textures.

One minute you’re on what looks like a small-town main street, with shops and restaurants. The next, you’re in a sleepy district of low-rise residential buildings and squalid factories. Then, suddenly, the East River approaches, and you’re surrounded by strapping, aquatic-hued high-rise towers with glassy exteriors and hundreds of balconies. Suddenly, it’s Miami Beach.

The $1 billion-plus East Coast project, a massive, 7-building residential complex that has been two decades in the making, is just past half-done. TF Cornerstone, a development firm run by the Elghanayan brothers, K. Thomas and Frederick, has built two rental towers, a condo building called the View, and a load of infrastructure including eight acres of park space and a public waterfront promenade.

All told, the project is expected to be finished in 2014 and will add some 3,500 units of market-rate housing to Long Island City, a post-industrial waterfront neighborhood that had been dominated by low-slung factory buildings and a scattering of town houses.

In some ways, the Elghanayans have succeeded in building something special at East Coast, a 21-acre parcel owned by the state and approved for some 3 million square feet of development. The plan was tweaked a decade ago to remove roads from around the buildings, and the resulting ample open space on the site will be a huge boon to neighborhood residents. The project will make a bold case for Long Island City’s legitimacy as a residential destination, even in the face of its bigger, badder cousin, the East Side of Manhattan, which gazes down haughtily from across the water.

But in other ways, East Coast is an exercise in taking a neighborhood with very little residential identity or context to build from and building it into an area so grand in scale, so modern and sterile in feel, and so unlike anything that could be said be evocative of New York City, that it is still fumbling to find an identity.

The builders built tall, statement-making buildings on small footprints, surrounded by as much green space as possible, giving the whole community a classic Corbusian feel of towers in parks surrounded by highways (the Queens-Midtown tunnel roars open onto I-495.

The statement is one of underdog, pioneer indignation: There was nothing here, no roadmap to follow and little in the way of traditional context to respect, so we’ve built towers that are just as sleek as the latest glazed-over, thumbshaped behemoths in the city.

“We had a rare opportunity to build an ‘ensemble,’ on a large scale, not unlike Rockefeller Center or the World Financial Center at Battery Park City,” wrote Jon McMillan, director of planning for TF Cornerstone in an email after a tour of the site. “We could have made it look like it was built over time, by different architects and developers, and that it sort of emerged organically like the rest of the city, but there is unquestionably also an opportunity to do the reverse and make a grander impact with a coordinated set of buildings—to be bold.”

A lot of that thinking has to do with marketing and economics. In order to persuade people to move to a new part of the city, TFC felt it needed to “show them that they weren’t going to be all alone—that they were going to be part of a place, a community, and that they wouldn’t be stranded all alone in a sea of taxi repair shops,” Mr. McMillan adds.

Fair point. But the buildings, all but one of them designed by Miami-based condo specialist Arquitectonica, aren’t in their own right bold. They exude, through their rectangular tinted-glass faces, which are cut here and there with ribbons of colored brick and steel girding, a type of nouveau-riche indulgence that privileges functionality and soaring views over exterior glamour, and belongs along the water in a party-happy beach town, not on the shores of the East River.

Arquitectonica, and its founder, Bernardo Fort-Brecia, a rising star who has shown that he can draw designs that are risky and progressive, did a good job of adding variety. The footprints of the buildings are skewed and differentiated in ways that avoid making the effort look monolithic. The rental building at 4705 Center Boulevard has a rippling rhythm to its balconies, while the 345-unit building rising at 4540 Center Boulevard is a rectangular anchor in the middle.

Indeed, there is an admirable mix of products, but they’re all written in the same flashy vocabulary. East Coast’s buildings are grand and urban, but not metropolitan. They will probably lose the staring contest over the river.