Editorial: Delivering Value

Perkins+Will's design for a residential district in downtown Saskatoon includes a park bridging over a working rail corridor. Perkins+Will
Perkins+Will’s design for a residential district in downtown Saskatoon includes a park bridging over a working rail corridor. Perkins+Will

The fundamental service that architects provide is to add value to places. The question of how that value is measured–and how it can be monetized–was at the core of several presentations at this year’s Banff Session, a conference run by the Alberta Association of Architects.

Jared Della Valle, an architect-turned-developer based in New York City, inspired a good deal of after-talk buzz. Della Valle founded Alloy Developments nine years ago, after realizing that as an architect, he was involved in creating much of the value in commercial projects but reaping little of the reward. “I was sick of being made to feel ‘lucky’ to get work as an architect,” he recalls.

The 17 employees in his firm are all trained as architects, although each has another skill set–from financing to construction. They’ve taken a one-project-at-a-time approach, carefully vetting hundreds of sites to find the ones that require an inventive architectural solution. “We find the worst sites, because they’re the ones that developers overlook, while we can see the potential,” he explains.

The firm’s first project was a residential condominium on an unusually shallow lot at 459 West 18th Street. In another savvy move, Alloy snapped up three parcels in the Hudson Yards before the large-scale redevelopment of the area was launched (they eventually sold the site). Alloy was also one of the first to go through approvals for a development adjacent to the Manhattan High Line. These calculated risks paid off with revenue of $90 million in less than a decade–dividends that now allow Della Valle to act philanthropically, donating program space to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in his current project within Brooklyn Bridge Park.

In Canadian cities, architects are also adding value to overlooked sites. That premise is central to Vancouver House, a project presented at the conference by Kai Uwe Bergmann of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). BIG is currently designing the project with DIALOG. Vancouver House utilizes a triangular parcel of land at the foot of the Granville Island Bridge. In order to maximize use of the residual plot with its numerous setback restrictions, BIG and DIALOG proposed twisting, widening and cantilevering the building as it rises. This unconventional strategy will cost about 20% more in construction–it’s economically advantageous that the developer, Westbank, owns two concrete subcontractors–but in return will result in approximately 50% more units than with a conventional tower.

Although space may appear to be limitless in the Canadian Prairies, its booming cities are also looking to remediate and redevelop inner-city urban sites. Joyce Drohan of Perkins+Will’s Vancouver office presented her firm’s plan for the North Downtown district of Saskatoon, a 240-acre brownfield site bisected by a working railway corridor. To create a continuous mixed-use development across the site, Perkins+Will is proposing a central park with flanking roadways, bridging across the Canadian Pacific rail lines. The park boasts a gentle 5.5% slope (gradual enough that “you can cycle up it with your grandmother,” according to Drohan). Underneath it, in addition to the operating railway, is parking for the new development and for the adjacent downtown business areas.

The phasing of the development has been carefully considered with Jeanna South, the client representative for the City. A portion of the park is among the first places slated for completion, which South anticipates will provide an exceptional amenity for the area as well as sparking public interest to sustain the development. “Social capital and infrastructure are essential to make brownfield redevelopment attractive and meaningful,” says South. Both she and Drohan aim to present the final master plan to City Council for ratification this fall. As it materializes, they hope it will demonstrate how infill growth can be balanced with suburban growth, mitigating the long-term costs associated with greenfield developments.

All three cases–in New York, Vancouver and Saskatoon–point to architects taking on a triple-bottom-line strategy, producing buildings and public spaces with economic, environmental and social benefits. These projects show that inventive spatial strategies can do more than simply dazzle–they deliver tangible value to the benefit of clients and residents alike.

Elsa Lam elam@canadianarchitect.com