A Conversation with Raquel Ramati

Raquel Ramati is an architect and urbanist who began her career at the Urban Design Group, an influential body of architects and designers that worked within the Department of City Planning (DCP) from 1967 to 1980. Prior to the Group’s founding by Mayor Lindsay, urban design considerations were not explicitly addressed by government. Its members – who included Alexander Cooper, Jaquelin Robertson, Jonathan Barnett, Myles Weintraub and Richard Weinstein – resisted a principal tactic of the previous generation’s urban planning regime: the wholesale clearance of buildings or neighborhoods. Instead, they sought to manipulate laws and create policies to further design goals. Often the policy instruments they used relied on incentivizing the real estate market to provide public goods. In the interview below, Raquel Ramati reflects on some aspects of a diverse career in urbanism, including her evolving views on the relationship between public and private interests when it comes promoting good urban design.

Among the major initiatives spearheaded by the Urban Design Group was a rethinking of density bonuses for the provision of public space, the so-called plaza bonuses. As a result, in New York, privately owned public space has become a category of place unto itself, so much so that Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design worked with the Municipal Art Society and DCP to to catalogue the sites in his book Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience (Wiley, 2000). Kayden profiled 503 POPS — outdoor seating areas, through-block arcades, interior plazas and other pedestrian spaces across Manhattan. His findings revealed the inconsistent quality of execution and maintenance of these public spaces, and DCP used his analysis to develop new design standards adopted in 2007, with further amendments added in 2009.

Next week, Urban Omnibus and the Design Trust for Public Space are offering an opportunity for you to come check out one of these privately-owned public spaces for yourself, and continue this conversation. For more information about our April 7th Public Space Potluck at the IBM Atrium, click here.

40 West 57th Street through-block arcade
Urban Omnibus (UO):

What do you do?

Raquel Ramati (RR):

My company, Raquel Ramati Associates, works on urban design, planning, development and consulting projects. Much of our work concerns site feasibility, primarily in New York. And the rest of the work is master planning projects around the world. Most of my consulting work deals with partnerships between the public and private sectors. I also teach in the real estate programs at NYU and Columbia.

In both of these roles, consulting and teaching, I am a great believer that we have to bridge the interests of those of us who are concerned with urbanism and architecture with the interests of real estate developers. Because too often there is a tension between architecture and real estate development. I think it’s crucial to understand and to respect the needs of the client. The best projects that we see are those with good clients who understand what makes architecture, what makes urban design.

UO:

How did your thoughts on the relationship between the public sector, the private sector and design form?

RR:

I started my career at the Urban Design Group. When I started, I was very junior on the staff, doing the Zip-a-Tone and Xeroxing. At that point in time, I’d say real estate developers were vastly uninterested in architectural quality. And as architects, we felt that real estate developers were “the bad guys” and that we had to educate them. At the time, architecture and developers working together effectively was a rare occurrence. Even today, it still amazes me to see an article in the Times that mentions who the architect of a project is. Of course, these days architecture is branding, and the architect is one of the most important marketing tools real estate developers have. But when it came to urban design, our interest at the Urban Design Group was in how we could affect the city, not necessarily by dictating architecture or attracting a brand-name architect, but by creating rules and objectives with a cohesive vision. The Urban Design Group started with the approach that unless you involve the real estate developers, the city will continue to be built without any thought towards urban design whatsoever. As a result, there were two or three major interventions that I think were very important.

General Motors Building Plaza, 5th Avenue at 59th Street
RR:

One was special districts. Lincoln Center, the Theater District and Fifth Avenue are some early examples of how the Urban Design Group was able to create master plans of these distinctive areas. On Fifth Avenue, the goal was to push back against the fact that the avenue was starting to be a street only of banks and travel agencies by mandating the inclusion of other kinds of stores that bring life into the city. In the Theater District, there was a danger of the theaters themselves disappearing, so the master plan included the transfer of air rights to ensure that certain kinds of buildings, certain kinds of uses, were retained.

Another significant initiative was plaza bonuses. Previously, density bonuses for public space had been mostly unsuccessful. We sought to translate the idea into a more organized, comprehensive urban design plan.

Of course, incentive zoning really started earlier on, when the influence of the International School and Le Corbusier influenced the city to develop “towers-in-the-park.” The term “Towers-in-the-park” refers to the inclusion of open space around a high-rise building to create access to air and light. In order to accomplish that, you allow the developer to increase the density of the high-rise by 20%. The idea was that these open spaces would be provided for public use and enjoyment, with landscaped areas and so forth.

Citigroup Center sunken plaza, Lexington Avenue at 53rd Street
RR:

But the language was written in a way — “you create the open space, and we will give you the 20% density bonus” – that never really defined what this open space should be or how it should work. Developers, of course, will want to build 20% more because, since the buildings already have foundations, it’s much less expensive to build more, and the units you build at the top of the building become the most valuable space.

But ultimately, developers didn’t really want to provide amenities for the general public. Instead, those mandated open spaces often became dead areas, sometimes consciously designed to discourage anyone sitting on anything. And sometimes the plazas were sunken, which were even less attractive. A lot of these plazas had blank walls with no retail, because the idea of having retail in a corporate or residential building was not what the developer was looking for. Even when well-designed public space was promised, there was no way to enforce its implementation. Developers would bring plans for beautiful plazas, filled with trees and flowers, to the Department of City Planning, but once approved they were never built that way. The way the plaza bonuses were implemented turned a good initial idea into spaces that were quite anti-city, actually.

When the plaza legislation was changed in the early ‘70s, the rules became very strict. William H. Whyte had been analyzing pedestrian activity in the plazas and his results greatly influenced these revised mandates [see video excerpt above]. The plaza’s location relative to the sun was specified, as was the maximum amount (3 feet) it could be above or below street level, and the need for retail and for easy access (it could not be fenced). In every plaza there was a plaque that said exactly how many trees, how many seating areas, and what kind of amenities must be provided. And if the public space was not being maintained the way it was supposed to be, there was a bond that said that if, let’s say, trees die, then the developer has to replace them.

General Motors Building Plaza, 5th Avenue at 59th Street
RR:

The City also introduced other pedestrian amenities. Legislation was implemented for covered pedestrian space, which you see in the old IBM building on Madison Avenue; through-block arcades, which you see in the Sony building; and sidewalk cafes, to increase street life in the city – today sidewalk cafes are all over the city, but when we started, I think there was only one, on Central Park South, and it completely changed the life of the surrounding area. Then we also legislated subway easements, which required certain developments to incorporate transit access into the building, so that the entrance is in sight and not just a hole in the sidewalk.

Advancing interest in the street — in the continuity of street walls and in creating public spaces that are usable — is a major part of what the Urban Design Group accomplished. Looking back on this period, I think it was really the approach of public-private partnerships that was key to the creation and refining of these spaces so that they work.

590 Madison (IBM Building) atrium, Madison Avenue at 57th Street
RR:

For example, I think the covered pedestrian space and through-block in the IBM building (now owned by E.J. Minskoff) are extraordinary. If you go to that space, you will see that it’s a very big accomplishment and it works very nicely. Most cities don’t have the financial resources to purchase that kind of central real estate to use for public space. There’s no way. It would cost them millions of dollars. Public-private partnerships are the only way to do it and I think it has worked well.

But I have mixed feelings about it today. On one hand, I think that having green, open space in the city is a very important thing. But on the other hand, I see the problem of having plazas that don’t really work. Contextual zoning has changed a lot over the years. It’s difficult to legislate how often public spaces should occur along a particular street because the city is not owned by one person. It is a living thing, and it grows organically, and not necessarily the way that you want it to grow.

UO:

Have your thoughts on what makes for “good” urban space evolved over the years?

RR:

Now more than ever, I believe in opening up the waterfront – I always have, but I see now, on the Upper West Side for example, the influx of young people moving there because of the public space improvements on the West side, the pedestrian pier and so forth.

I still like interventions of open space and public spaces. Of course, everybody talks about the High Line, which is one way of intervening to create a public space. But there are many strategies. I hear people say things like “Oh, I love Manhattan! I just walked 20 blocks and it was so great!” as if the excitement of walking through Manhattan was the result of ad hoc activities rather than the result of coordinated plans and policies.

For me, urban space is like an urban room. It needs to have some borders or some enclosures in order to work. And it needs to have some life! Whether that life comes exclusively from retail or not, I don’t know. But I do think that when it is all open, without borders of any kind, then it doesn’t work as effectively.

UO:

It seems like a big principle that you’ve been trying to enact in a number of ways has been street life and pedestrian life. So how do you feel about some of the more recent interventions, like the pedestrianization of Broadway?

RR:

I like the idea, but I’m not sure I like the execution. Instead of closing the middle of the street, I would have liked to see widening the sidewalks while creating lanes for buses. Which they did very, very well in Barcelona. There is something very strange about having Times Square a little closed and a little open. It looks temporary. I like the idea of people having the space – the pedestrian as king — but I’m not sure I love the way it’s done. I’m not a great believer in closing streets to cars altogether. I can see the benefits of how it has been done in Europe, like in Rome, where the city center is closed to private cars, but buses, taxis and people who live in the area are still allowed.

UO:

What other things have you seen from your work abroad? How are other countries and cities thinking about some of the issues we’ve been talking about: public-private partnership, street life, ways to use public policy as an instrument of good design principles?  Have you seen any lessons? Or cautionary tales?

RR:

New York is a pioneer, in a way. A lot of cities have copied us. Not design-wise, not architecture-wise, but urban-design-wise, in the sense of getting developers to engage in certain ways. The problem in other places that I’ve found, like in Israel for example, is that urban design is done on a lot-by-lot basis. And that doesn’t work. That’s how it was in New York before we started thinking about urban design systematically, through policy.

Rockefeller Plaza
RR:

One thing that worries me is the branding of architecture, in the interest of getting all these great architects to work here. For some of them — I won’t say all of them, but some of them — urban design is secondary in their thinking, and the architectural form is predominant. And that’s not limited to New York City, it’s all over the world, because developers want an icon, a signature building. Therefore, if the city doesn’t create linkages between the buildings, or pay attention to the linkages between the buildings, then the city is going to be like a cocktail party full of women wearing different hats.

UO:

How would you characterize what urban design is?

RR:

Urban design, to me, is the connectivity between buildings and places. It could be the subway or a building, but it’s those places that connect, whether vertically or horizontally. And it’s not just in urban centers. If you look at villages around the world, I think what makes a good rural or suburban public place is the relationship between the village and the natural environment. In cities, I think the relationships between open spaces and buildings is what makes more “urban-ness.” It’s like a necklace — if you don’t have the string that threads in between, the necklace falls apart.

All photos by Jessica Cronstein.

Raquel Ramati, architect and urban designer, is president of Raquel Ramati Associates Inc. She has earned an international reputation as an urban designer and planner, first in New York City’s government, and later as a private consultant working with developers, government agencies, not-for-profit organizations and community groups. The author of a signature planning book How to Save Your Own Street, she is presently teaching at the Real Estate Graduate Program at the Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Comments

Bernard Marson FAIA March 30, 2011

A great interview! Challenging, informative, thought-provoking and a wonderful view of
a major career accomplishment.

John Baymiller, Urban designer April 2, 2011

I have known and worked as a colleague with Raquel Ramati, with her projects, for 22 years. She is truly gifted, and practices urban design in a “grand, classic manner”, yet
always is an inventor of another way to “design it better to perform.” She has taught
me so much, as I worked at [our drawing boards], under her watchful stewardship of
our profession. Congrat’s to “RR” for an outstanding career and decades of design
leadership. Hopefully, developers will listen to her credo more carefully when taking
on a project, because most of those relate to a street, enclose an important space, and
involve pedestrian activity which needs to thrive to make all the pieces come together.