Soapbox: Expecting better for the One Monument Square redevelopment

A rendering of the proposed project, from the river side.

By Duncan Crary

Earlier this month the city of Troy announced that it had selected a redevelopment plan for the vacant Monument Square lot, the site of the former city hall. It's a prime piece of land offering a lot of possibilities. But Duncan Crary -- a Troy resident and urban design observer -- argues the current proposal could be a lot better.

Most developers can only dream of having the chance to shape a site like One Monument Square. The team chosen for this endeavor has the potential to create an enduring expression of our generation's best values and optimism, at the heart of our city. This is a legacy building commission, here.

So why, then, is this crew proposing to cram the worst architectural elements of the worst structures around into a couple of soulless boxes in the dead center of our charming 19th century downtown?

It seems completely at odds with what's happening here in Troy, and what's really behind the renaissance in this place "Where the Finest Antiques Can't Be Bought," and where "A wave of renovation is... (opening) ... the way for new urban economy and culture."

People actually travel here to admire our wealth of historic architecture and experience how it relates to the streets and blocks. Some stay, and become the characters who enliven this place.

But they don't come for the modern abominations in our built environment. They don't come to fawn over the Bell Atlantic switch building with its blank fortified walls, or the Troy Medical Plaza sheathed in black reflective glass.

I just don't get why anyone would want to replicate those loathsome styles at the focal point of our city, where beautiful architecture is our greatest asset.

Good urbanism isn't enough

It's evident in the released project renderings that the principles of the New Urbanism -- i.e., good urban design -- are present.

monument square redev 2014 massing diagram closeup

Both proposed buildings -- Monument North and Monument South -- relate well to the street, and conform to the "build-to" lines and heights of neighboring structures. They respect the various sight lines and terminating vistas deliberately created by the "pattern language" that exists. They are to include street-level retail and some mixture of living/office space in the upper floors. Parking accommodations for up to 175 vehicles are located in the rear, unobtrusively.

That's all good! But all of these thoughtful design components were required in the city's "Request for Qualifications with Proposal." And they were laid out in detail in a 2010 Troy City Hall Redevelopment Plan.

What that shows me is that the city of Troy can actually get from new developers the respectful urban design it deserves. Clearly, this team followed the instructions given to them. So maybe it's time we create some architectural design standards for them to follow, too. Because good urban design alone is not enough for this site. We also need buildings that are worthy of this location and worthy of our affection.

Setting the tone, architecturally

We are going to have to look at, live with, and engage these buildings for the rest of our lives. Do you want to do that with the abstractions proposed here? Do you want visitors looking at these structures while they're still forming their first impression of this place?

What gets built on this site will set the tone for how we infill other parts our city for decades to come. Do you want to see more of this stuff elsewhere in town? I don't. And I'm not alone in that sentiment.

Now, I have been told -- by our planning officials and by one of the developers -- that these are only conceptual renderings. That a lengthy review process with public input awaits. Well I've seen buildings that look exactly like these get built after a lengthy review process. But OK. Then what "concepts" are we starting with?

Look both ways before you build

Monument North Crary critique

Monument North is designed to be a three-sided building that will face River Street, First Street and the Hudson. We have seen no renderings showing the building face that will greet Monument Square, which is a grand "outdoor public room" formed by a graceful ensemble of buildings. We have only a peek at the First Street face. And then there's the side facing the river.

I asked James Howard Kunstler (author of The Geography of Nowhere, and The City in Mind) for his thoughts on the western front:

"The windows look like Mondrian paintings of mere geometrical re-arrangements of orthogonal shapes. They're boring. They're monotonous... mechanical and industrial," he said. "They literally look like the balconies of the classic prison cell blocks.... The iron grillwork looks like it came out of Riot in Cellblock D. There is zero ornament. This is not good enough."

I agree. These buildings show little generosity to the people who will experience them from below. Instead, the emphasis is on the private viewshed, looking out. There is no artistry. These architectural UFOs have no stylistic references to the context and heritage of the location where they'll land (and never fly away).

Now look at the great balconies and verandas of New Orleans' French Quarter! Those are worth looking up to. We should not try to replicate them here. But we should consider their concept and delivery -- how they function in their climate, how they foster a rewarding two-way interaction with the street, how they use ironwork and ornamentation. (Troy has a heritage of ornate ironwork, by the way.)

Fill in the blanks

Monument South Crary critique

I can only hope the other building, Monument South, as shown is an incomplete "placeholder" in these renderings. Its main portion is just a blank wall of glass (will it be tinted?), interrupted randomly by what almost looks likes bricked-over windows. The front portion looks like they forgot to erase the entrance to Troy's former city hall, that brute we vanquished years ago.

Neither structure has any transition where the top of the building meets the sky. Yet, every other building within one block has some type of ornament to celebrate its "capitol" -- cornices, mansard roofs, balustrades... on other blocks: spires, clock towers and domes, etc.

"He's got... lifeless eyes, black eyes."

The windows on both proposed structures are unadorned holes in the walls, while the windows of every neighboring building are framed by lintels or other embellishing devices. These are the "eyes" of the buildings that reflect our human form. Human eyes have lids and lashes. What primal response does the unflinching gaze of a shark evoke in humans? How does it feel to stare into those lifeless, black, unframed holes? Is that the reaction we want to elicit here?

The presumption of traditionalism

Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies by Matt Wade
The Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. photo: Matt Wade (cc)

These discussions often devolve into arguments about how we cannot reproduce traditional architecture today without "Disneyfied" results. That simply isn't the case. Here in Troy, Joseph's House (streetview) deploys a traditional architectural style that tastefully blends almost seamlessly in its context. The 15th Street side of the new Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies is even better, and looks like it's always been there. To the contrary, it is our modern-style buildings in Troy that look like cartoons!

Architecture in a historic district should begin with the "presumption of traditionalism" because traditional architecture uses time-tested and proven elements. That does not mean we have to mimic our older, beloved buildings in Troy -- in style, or materials -- but our architects should be taking inspiration from them. The designers of the previously accepted Monument Square proposal left a few things wanting in style, but it was apparent they were paying attention to these issues.

Beware of greenwashing

Probably the most exciting aspect of this new proposal is its programming, and its promise of providing a permanent, year-round home for our once-per-week Troy Waterfront Farmers' Market. And it's hard not to get carried away imagining a miniature Faneuil Hall or Pike Place Market scene happening right here in the Collar City.

I would love to see that happen. But there's still a good chance it may not, for a bajillion financial and practical reasons. And I don't want the farmers' market idea to "greenwash" our attention away from where the real "magic" has to occur: the physical structures. Do these renderings look anything like the buildings that house those magnificent public markets in Boston or Seattle?

Back to the drawing board

Thumbnail image for monument square site 2014-02-03 empty

It's time for this development team to go back to the drawing board. I'd like to see them out with sketchpads taking note of the architectural elements they appreciate in this neighborhood. I'd like to see them interacting with the passionate and intelligent people who live in this place. Ask us why we choose to be here. Ask us about specific buildings -- why we love them, what we don't like about them, what elements and concepts we want to see expressed in new buildings.

I happen to think the columns of cargo doors on the adjacent buildings along River Street have an interesting visual motif that could be carried over to this project, perhaps on the river-facing side. And though nothing from the Rice Building could ever be repeated, these new buildings could do more than just reflect its image in their glass walls -- they could subtly echo, in their own design, the shapes and forms found in that neo-Romanesque masterpiece. A grand window, in the style of the one that graces the Rensselaer County Chamber of Commerce building, might be fitting for the First Street face of this new building. And so on.

It is an honor to be chosen to develop this site. This team has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create an exuberant centerpiece for our city. To send the world the message that Troy is, was, and will be a place of greatness. Let's see something worthy of that in the next round.

Otherwise, we may have a Riot in Cellblock D! on our hands.

Duncan Crary is an author and podcaster who lives, works and plays in downtown Troy, New York. The Wall Street Journal recently described him as a "Troy tub-thumper."

architectural renderings: Kirchhoff Properties, Sequence Development, CSArch


Nice try Duncan, but many Troy residents believe that architecture should be of its own time, and that rich urban environments result when buildings of many styles and eras survive to be a part of that fabric. It cannot be reduced to comparisons of individual elements or categorization as ornamental or not. Those cargo doors you love so much (and so do I) have more in common with a cell block than they do with your favorite style. You're arguing not against this development strategy - but for a fixation on a particular historical fashion because that's what you like to look at. I'll be at the Confectionary later if you want to duke it out.

I couldn't agree more. The renderings that were presented are completely unsuitable for the surrounding architecture. If this isn't changed, Troy will have replaced one eye sore with another.

Couldn't agree more. It's bad enough we still have to live with some of the horrific modernist buildings built in the middle of the 20th century, but to keep building them is absolute insanity. That blank wall, in addition to being a lifeless eyesore in itself, is a giant blank canvas to any graffiti artist.

Well done Duncan. Modern architecture does not have to look like urban constipation as this does. However this is what you get when you design from "Planning for Dummies," and a CAD program that has not idea what curves are for. Monument Square unfortunately has become the center of Troy (because they tore down the real center in the 70s). It didn't ask for it but the new buildings must pay homage to it.

I'm unimpressed with the renderings pictured here. I sincerely hope that Troy doesn't replace the eye sore that was City Hall with an equally unpleasant cacophony of concrete and glass. The goal should be architecture that blends in and compliments the existing architecture surrounding Monument Square.

While I'm happy the architect is trying (one need not look further than "Albany Med City" to see the drivel pumped out by Columbia) it's just not a good visual fit.

This is eyewash. At its worst. In good eyewash for these developer-type projects one would carefully construct appealing views that get folks excited. Evidently we are dealing with unimaginative designers, who seem inexperienced in this type of work, trying to excite an audience that has eaten it up. I guess there's no need to aim higher if you don't have to. Good eyewash would select a view that inspires, and work on it until it's absolutely convincing. In the perspective street-level view I cannot believe that the great passage to the Riverfront is being handled in such a lazy fashion. It's all but disregarded. The corners of 2 buildings crash unforgivingly into the ground at a pinch-point. Nothing about this says "here is our wonderful waterfront and isn't it a special place?!" Nothing. It's extruded boxes that have no regard for human scale or the experience of being there - or walking between them - aside from "there's a Market." It's so uninspired that (as a designer) - it's insulting. Articulate something for crap's sake. Spend more time putting yourself on the site, spend more time looking at how buildings meet the ground in an urban environment. Spend more time designing and less time extruding and rendering. This could be in Colonie, Malta, Bumble-eff. Having a market and having balconies are programmatic elements, not responsive design. Please get down and dirty and make this feel more urban.

A swing and a miss. Imagine how absurd the 19th century buildings of Troy would be if the builders of that time were guided by the "wisdom" of a 19th century reactionary like Duncan Crary whose "presumption of traditionalism" mandated that they build as if they were in the 17th. Have a look at sites in Germany, Austria, and France to see how contemporary architecture can be beautifully combined with old buildings. Ironically, the biggest disservice to Troy's gorgeous 19th century heritage is to mar it with buildings that feature faux-19th-century architectural detailing. Troy's true spirit has always been one of innovation and creativity. That leaves no room for architectural reactionaries.

He's a tradionalist and he didn't get his preferred style. Had the renderings shown traditionalist architecture you could have easily gotten a modernist to write a big rant piece. He's not right in what he's saying, he's just offering an opinion, of which there are many. He must hate all of the new buildings that have sprung up in NYC over the last 10 years.

I'm rather gobsmacked that professional architects don't seem to understand the word "context" when it comes to their projects. These renderings indicate they not only don't understand context, they don't understand Troy. Don't walk, RUN!! from these architects. They will ruin this beautiful gem of a 19th century city.

As JHK said in his TED talk presentation about the Saratoga Springs police station (specifically the Maple Ave. side), you can envision the final words that were uttered at the design meeting the night before presenting these plans to the city. Those final words were "F--k it." Perhaps it's not all the designer's fault, it seems as though much of their work portfolio involves government, educational and non-profit facilities where your goal is not to inspire, but to do what's most palatable for all parties, and to do it for the least amount of money possible.

I won't be happy with anything less than this:

I share the general sentiment that the renderings shown fall well below hope and/or expectation of what "could be" in a space like that.

Duncan is right to pick apart the design. However, I'd further (or simplify) his point by saying that it's not that the proposed concept renderings don't meet the style HE prefers, it's just poor design in general. If you want to be modern - go for it, but do it right/well. If you want a more traditional look - have at it, but don't cheap out on the materials so it ends up looking silly. This design feels like it is trapped in a purgatory ruled by client checklists, budget restrictions and timid design.

Bottom line - the design fell short of expectations on many levels, but it's not too late to change (just expensive).

I would have to disagree with this article. I think that designing the new buildings with considerations to the architecture of the neighboring buildings, should be done. However, saying that there is no place for modern design in Troy is really disappointing. With that said, I also think that this rendering is not very well done, and looks flat. I would hope that it looks better with real materials, and not repeating blocks of images from the design library. I would actually prefer it to look more modern. Imagine how this would look with glass facades and the sun setting over the Hudson.

Many instances of modern blending with traditional architecture abound in cities in Europe. I can think of Vienna, Copenhagen, and London where it has been done and looks great. Here are some examples of such design in NYC. You have your opinion, as I have my own, both of which are valid, but I would agree with the first comment: let the architecture be of its own time.

Greenwich Village, NYC

Meatpacking District, NYC

The sketch is ugly, so I'm hoping it won't come to fruition. More importantly, I cannot imagine that the proposed project can be built for the stated sum of $27 million. The parking garage alone will run $3-4 million of that. So who's going to provide the missing money to actually build this?

See you all next year when they issue yet another RFP.

"Have a look at sites in Germany, Austria, and France to see how contemporary architecture can be beautifully combined with old buildings."

Having lived in France and Switzerland for over a decade I can tell you that, yes, this is possible, but for the most part it fails beyond miserably. Geneva is a wonderful example of horrific soviet style architecture put up in place of whatever was there before. That kind of eye-pollution in France and Germany you can say: Well, there was a big bad war and stuff got blown up. But the Genevois had no war. They did it themselves. Troy does the same. Given what has been done to Troy so far, you can't blame for people expecting the worse, though they will probably get even worse than that. There is very little sign of intelligence when it comes to planning in Troy. Most of the planning board would probably love to have a Dunkin Donuts on every single block and turn the library into a Subway.

Oooops. AOA., I just noticed: the Street View targeted address for the Joseph's House building I'm referring to is incorrect (that's a different building owned by Joseph's House). The building I'm referring to is located at 202 4th Street. I guess it's called Joseph's House & Shelter's Hill Street Inn. Here's a photo of it in The Record:

Editors: Fixed.

Haters gonna hate. More EMPACs, less nerds blabbering about their preferred style of architecture

Interesting to see the reactions here. To those who think that a building sheathed in glass or blank walls is beautiful I would like you to reflect and get out more and see how things were built pre-WW2. We are told we are far more wealthy today than 50 or 100 years ago, but somehow it is not worth spending any money on making buildings fit their environment. Key buildings in town and cities must do more than serve those who work/live inside it. They are a key part of the fabric of the places they exists in. The outside must connect with the rest of the built and natural environment in a way that actually comforts and not confounds the humans whose life is spent in their vicinity. This is NOT a question of personal "taste" but about universal desire that the built environment should be created for humans who live in and around it.

Instead of being like Kunstler, somebody who builds nothing and complains about everything, Crary should have put a bid in to redevelop the parcels, like Nardacci, another communications specialist from Troy.

There are a number of grand old buildings in some stage of rehabilitation in Troy at the moment. The few "modern" buildings that have been thrown up downtown (I am not in Troy as much as I would like, but my best examples are that multiuse building where they have the winter farmer's market, and the parking structure around the corner) are pedestrian and very out of place in their surroundings.

Given all this, it would be "safer" to propose a building that looks like the RPI example--modern engineering, but with a design that fits in with classical structures. This is going to be the centerpiece of Troy for half a century. Don't blow it, guys.

Can ANYONE explain to me with all of our technology and brains and computers....why do we build things worse than they were in the 16th century? Why with all of our guidelines, and rules, and zoning laws do our cities LOOK LIKE CRAP when compared to Paris or London of the 18-19th century. And why doesn't anybody care? Why do we build the domes in Houston, Seatlle, and Minnesota only to realize after 30 years that they are pieces of crap and must be torn down? Why do we build brutalist city hall buildings like Troy and Boston and then realize they look like crap 30 years later and tear them down? Why can't we somehow put our brains together and come up with something that we will BE SAD about tearing down in the future. Is it all about the initial investment trying to be as low as possible with the long term cost not even considered. Is it because we have insane scaffolding laws and government over reach? Got to agree with Duncan on this one!!!!!!!!!! Can hardly wait to shop in the new Price Chopper in Watervalet, that stupid church was preventing "progre$$"!

Duncan is right to oppose these renderings. They include modernist elements for a classical city, right in the heart of the city. It's not good planning. Modernism is a style that is decades old, and trendy, whereas classical design has been around and enduring for centuries. We do not want to waste this opportunity going with trendy here.

That said...there are modernist and iconoclastic buildings in cities around the world, and I love looking at them. The Guggenheim in NYC, the Fred and Ginger building in Prague, the sparkling modernist department stores on the Champs Elysees, they're all wonderful. But it's because they are surrounded by beautiful, classical buildings that they work. These are not the centerpieces, rather they are the accent pieces. The centerpieces of these cities are ornate, classic, and fitting.

Now now, Parma Ham, one needn't get all 'love or leave it' or 'love it or fix it yourself' with this proposal. That's a devise to diminish someone's opinion, and it is the responsibility of thinking citizens to have opinions on major changes to their backyards.

Lastly, I wish developers would internalize the reality that each project they build is a physical advertisement of their firms skills. I wish this were in the forefront of their minds when they were devising their initial renderings.

There is a City Council meeting tentatively planned for Sept 17 to review the redesign of One Monument Square:

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