If you’re trying to get an ambitious green building project constructed in New York City, here’s what you should do: be a Traveling Wilburys-style supergroup of big-ticket developers or the Rockefeller Group or something. Failing that, you should probably try to be the City of New York itself. If none of that works, you’re — sadly — more or less on your own. As much success as the city has had in making itself both qualitatively and quantitatively greener — qualitatively is a long story; quantitatively, NYC will soon pass Chicago and enter a virtual tie with DC for most LEED-certified buildings — it’s still fairly difficult to get a small-scale green building built in the city. From the morass of certifications and approvals to the sheer financial difficulty of getting even the worthiest and most wisely designed green project built, small green projects don’t have an easy go of it in this particular big city, with the sad case of Red Hook Green standing out as an example of just how rough it can get for a pioneering green development in a city whose development biases increasingly skew towards the mega. But where there are people ambitious enough to want to build net-zero homes in New York City, there will be attempts to build net-zero homes in New York City. This is a good thing.
And, more specifically, where there is a vacant lot at 61 Pitt Street, between Delancey and Rivington Streets on the Lower East Side, there will be an attempt to construct one of the greenest buildings in New York City. Lower East Side news site Lo Down NY reported that, at a recent meeting of the Lower East Side’s Community Board 3, LES-resident Ken Ruck announced a plan to build what amounts to an urban earthship on the 25-foot lot. The lot — which you can see above in all its “seriously, right there” glory — has been vacant for an astonishing 91 years, but the project Ruck proposed is even more surprising than is the fact that anyplace in Manhattan has gone nearly a century without being developed. The six-story structure that Ruck wants to build at 61 Pitt is designed by New Mexico architect Michael Reynolds, who has been in ultra-green building game long enough that his official website is Earthship.org. Those less into gauging credibility by URL may also know Reynolds as the designer of thousands of earthships around the world, and a fascinating character in his own right.
One place that Reynolds’ earthships have not yet landed, though, is in an urban setting. The site at 61 Pitt Street is certainly that — a narrow lot between a pair of ex-tenements zoned for a 12-story structure. Instead, Ruck and Reynolds have proposed an ultra-efficient two-story home that would function entirely on its own power, thanks to what Lo-Down terms “cutting edge solar, wind, water collection and treatment technologies.”
“CB3 members were intrigued by the idea,” Lo Down’s Ed Litvak writes. “The building would obviously not be ‘contextual’ with the tenement buildings that surround it, or with the Gompers public housing development directly across the street. But Ruck said part of his motivation for building the home is to ‘raise awareness and show that you can build without electricity, without putting waste water on the street.’”It’s a noble goal, and while the preliminary renderings are still preliminary enough along to seem fanciful in the extreme, there’s no reason why 61 Pitt Street shouldn’t buck the sad trend that has been set for small-scale green buildings.
Although of course there would be plenty of reason for 61 Pitt to go the way of its green peers, if Ruck didn’t have an ace up his sleeve — his partner in the project is Paul Stallings, who developed the Hotel on Rivington and is a pretty big deal south of Houston Street. Perhaps that would be the last piece of advice for people aspiring to develop a small-scale, super-green project in New York. If you are unlucky enough not to actually be a well-known real estate developer — and honestly, it’s better that you’re not: it’s sort of astonishing that even Bruce Ratner can bear to be Bruce Ratner — you should at least try to have one on your side. We’ll keep an eye on 61 Pitt Street, and wish the project all kinds of good luck.