In recent years, there has been a curious development in the evolution of New York City: Elements of suburbia have begun filtering into our most urban areas, in the shape of K-Marts, Home Depots, and Whole Foods. And now Wal-Mart is glancing hungrily about for any borough that will have it.
The response to such intrusions has been conspicuously mixed. On the one hand, many natives of Gotham, irrespective of their economic and educational bracket, view these new arrivals as either a neutral or positive development. On the other, many self-made New Yorkers, having adopted the city through conscious acts of auto-assimilation, take a far less charitable view of these interlopers. Having come here precisely to escape suburbia, these newer New Yorkers are dismayed to find it dogging their steps along the very sidewalks they had once thought safe from such annoyances.
And so it is now that Toll Brothers is making its presence known in at least three of the five boroughs, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. Until recently their name had not often been mentioned among the usual ranks of New York City developers. But outside of the city, where their presence approaches ubiquity, they are best known for creating luxury one-family residences.
A Google search of this firm, whose 2005 revenue was nearly $5.5 billion, turns up what amounts to a high-tech, digitized groan. Type in McMansion and chances are you're only a few keystrokes away from a reference to Toll Brothers. They are to houses what Martha Stewart is to interiors — and you know what she's like! Just in case you don't: She endeavors to bring a whiff of spurious style, a soupçon of upwardly aesthetic aspiration, to the newly moneyed middle classes who raid her various ventures to fill their newly minted McMansions. Toll Brothers has been similarly assailed for cheapening the fabric of the hinterlands with the debased simulacra of true taste.
The many antagonists of Toll Brothers will not be gladdened by a visit to the Web site that they have established for their latest venture, at 110 Third Ave., between 13th and 14th streets. Oddly enough, there is nothing here that deals with the building in question. Instead visitors are greeted by the following triumphalist apology: "Due to an overwhelming demand for Toll Brothers City Living's first luxury condominiums to be built in Manhattan, all of these exceptional residences have been SOLD." The site goes on to suggest that "if you are searching for condominium or duplex townhomes in New York City, you may be interested in learning more about the exciting Toll Brothers communities in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Long Island City, Queens." These include three projects, Northside Piers and North8, both in Williamsburg, and 5th Street Lofts, in Long Island City.
One Ten Third is the only project of the four that is nearly complete. From the start it did not endear itself to certain sectors of the downtown crowd because it rose over the ruins of what was once the Variety Arts Theatre, a marqueed 3-story brick building that pre-dated World War I, and was the origin of many off-Broadway hits. As though to rub salt in the wound, Toll Brothers has been marketing the place with the tag, "Where the East Village Meets Union Square." It was not lost on anyone, naturally, that this was a blatant attempt to sell the development on the strength of its bohemian cachet.
As such, it would be pleasant to dismiss the building as worthless and unimaginative, but that, I fear, is not the case. True, a high-rise does not look especially apposite amid the generally lower building-stock. But Third Avenue doesn't look especially good along most points of its career, so this new addition cannot be seen as a major profanation.
One Ten Third is a 21-story curtain-walled tower designed by a relatively little known firm, GreenbergFarrow, that has nevertheless been busy in the city and elsewhere for several years now. They have had a hand in at least two large and largely undistinguished structures in Harlem, the Renaissance, at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue, and the Langston, at 68 Bradhurst Ave., both designed in an idiom of neo-classical contextualism.
On Third Avenue, however, a very different building rises up. This project could easily have become yet another boring, curtain-walled tower, such as abound on Third Avenue and points east. But it has avoided that tedium through two principal means. The first is to interrupt the glass irregularly, with infill in two tones of what looks to be translucent blue glass. More importantly, the integration of the top half of the building with the lower half has been achieved through an irregular and asymmetrical fitting together of the parts, a subtle shifting of abbreviated cantilevers and punctuated recessions that is rather successful on the whole. Clearly there was an intelligent eye at work in the formation of the project's design. I look forward to visiting other Toll Brothers developments, as well as other designs by GreenbergFarrow, when they are a little further along.