Durst Gift Helps Launch New Center for Urban Real Estate

Adam Piore
January 30, 2012

Without real estate, there could be no architecture, no planning, no preservation. Now the graduate school devoted to all those things has launched the University’s first Center for Urban Real Estate, a research group whose mission is to identify solutions for a rapidly urbanizing world.

The center is led by Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect, former city planner and real estate developer, who joined Columbia in 2009 as the Holliday Professor of Real Estate Development and director of the real estate development program in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Chakrabarti’s ambitious goals for the center, established last fall, got a big boost recently when one of New York’s leading real estate families, the Durst Organization, announced a $4 million gift to GSAPP and Columbia Libraries’ Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library.

A quarter of the gift establishes the Durst Fund for Research, which will support research and programming in the real estate development program. Another $1.8 million is designated for a digital research laboratory in the graduate school’s forthcoming Center for Global Design and Development; another $1.2 million will be used to catalog and house the Old York Library Collection in Avery Library, which will be digitized for broader access.

The collection includes books and ephemera, about New York and architectural renderings, plans and photos from the Durst Organization.

“For nearly 100 years, my family has been assembling, building and operating real estate in New York City, and we have accumulated a vast amount of knowledge and information that will be invaluable for anyone interested in New York’s history and real estate,” said Douglas Durst.

Carole Ann Fabian, director of the Avery Library, called the gift “extraordinary and outstanding” in its focus “on all that is New York and all that it takes to build a city like New York.”

The gift will have a “transformative” effect on the real estate program, said Chakrabarti, whose projects include an attention-grabbing proposal to connect lower Manhattan to Governors Island with a land bridge to create 80 million square feet of new development.

“Worldwide growth statistics and those of the New York region show the world is urbanizing at a very rapid rate,” says Chakrabarti. “But the fact is most of it is suburban growth.”

In other words, cities are growing outwards, not upward. If developing nations like China, India and Brazil follow the U.S. pattern and start building suburban office parks and single-family homes, the future costs to the climate are immense, Chakrabarti says.

Even an energy-efficient building in a suburban office park generates more pollution than a 1940s office building in midtown Manhattan, he notes. That’s because new commutes generate new gasoline consumption and a likely mass migration to suburban homes. And that means more home heating oil, lawn irrigation and other energy inefficiencies.

The solution, Chakrabarti argues, is dense, mixed-income urban development, primarily around transit stations.

The New York metropolitan area is an ideal laboratory in which to test solutions. While the Bloomberg administration is forecasting 11 percent population growth in New York City by 2030, or 1 million new people, the Regional Planning Association is projecting 22 percent population growth overall.

“We’re losing our share of growth because the suburbs are more affordable to people and have better schools,” he says. “We think we can address some of those issues by looking at where there is development capacity in New York City.”

Chakrabarti was director of the Manhattan office of the Department of City Planning from 2002 to 2005, playing a key role in the redevelopment of the High Line, the abandoned elevated railway turned into a popular park.

Prior to joining the Office of City Planning, he worked for the design firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and later for the Related Companies, where he remains an adviser on plans to expand Penn Station and redevelop the Hudson Yards.

Before the center opened last October, he and his staff were already working on innovative ideas, one of which was a proposal to create a new neighborhood called Lower Lower Manhattan by placing millions of cubic yards of landfill into the waters between Manhattan and Governors Island.

Another proposal involves changing zoning regulations to tap 4 billion square feet of unused development rights in the city, including air rights above two- three- and four-story buildings. Currently, building owners can sell their air rights—the permission to build upward—only to adjacent property owners. “Cap and trade zoning,” as he calls it, would let them sell to anyone in the same zoning district.

Such development problems are central to the mission of the real estate development program. In April, GSAPP will host a conference on global development made possible by the research and programming fund established by the Durst family.

“We are deeply grateful to the Durst family for this gift,” Chakrabarti said, “and we look forward to a wonderful collaboration to enhance our programs and make our cutting-edge work and research even more accessible to the academic community and beyond.”