Urban Condo Developers Enlisting Renowned Architects

Sat September 24, 2005 - Midwest Edition
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CINCINNATI (AP) Condominium developers anxious to capitalize on a growing appeal of downtown living are turning to celebrated architects often known more for their work on museums and other public buildings.

The brand-name architects are creating luxury condominiums with curving lines, glass enclosed elevated walkways, glass expanses and other flourishes that in previous decades were reserved for office towers. Some in the architectural community see the burst of creativity as a renaissance in urban residential building.

“I think there is a new awareness in this 21st century that design is as important to where and how we live as it is for museums, concert halls and civic buildings,” said Daniel Libeskind, who is among the architects enlisted to design high-rise condos around the country over the past five years.

Libeskind designed the landmark Jewish Museum in Berlin and won the competition to create the master plan for the new World Trade Center in New York City. Now he has designed a crescent-shaped, 21-story condominium complex that will give the appearance of sweeping upward in a flourishing curve of mirrored glass against the backdrop of the Cincinnati skyline.

Construction, which is expected to top $40 million, is to begin this year on The Ascent at Roebling’s Bridge along the Ohio River in Covington, KY.

Urban condo design traditionally has been more sedate, creating block buildings often hard to tell apart.

“There was no heart or soul to it,” said Ronnette Riley, chairwoman of the Committee on Design of the American Institute of Architects. “But in the last few years there has been a shift with residents taking as much pride in the outside of buildings as in the inside.”

The demand for high-rise condominiums has increased as land becomes scarce and property values rise, and developers are looking for ways to make their buildings stand out in the urban residential market.

“Our region has come to grips with the future,” said Gary Stonehouse, planning director for Sacramento, CA, where a 38-story condominium is to be built three blocks from the state Capitol. “We either could continue suburban sprawl or focus on more intense urban development. Eventually you run out of land and freeway lanes.”

Condo developers also are counting on the names behind what they hope will be eye-catching, finger-pointing designs: Michael Graves, who designed Disney headquarters in Burbank, CA; Richard Meier, known for the Getty Center; and Ralph Johnson, whose resume includes the Boeing World Headquarters.

“Having a noteworthy architect’s name on a project also makes it unique and individual, so that if the market goes bad or softens up, we will be a notch above competitors,” said Craig Nassi, president of the Denver-based BCN Development LLC, which is building the Aura in Sacramento.

“Every condo has a gym and a pool, but not every one is designed by someone like Daniel Libeskind,” Nassi added.

Johnson was the architect chosen to design Signature Place, a 35-story complex of residential units and office and retail space to be built for $125 million in St. Petersburg, FL.

“St. Petersburg was a fairly sleepy city until the last few years when condos starting popping up, but they were cookie-cutter buildings that all looked alike,” said project developer Joel Cantor, president and CEO of Cantor Communities, based in Tampa, FL.

The glass residential tower resembling a huge sail will soar above an attached five-story parking garage. The garage is topped by a landscaped park bigger than a football field and a pool that will create the illusion of a waterfall cascading down the side of the garage to a commons area below.

Prices will range from around $350,000 to more than $4 million for the grand penthouse.

At The Ascent, prices will go from about $395,000 for a single-bedroom condo to approximately $1.5 million for the penthouse, said Debbie Vicchiarelli, senior vice president of the developer, Covington-based Corporex Cos.

The costs don’t seem to be keeping people away.

In Denver, at least 75 percent of the units in the Libeskind-designed Museum Residences were sold before construction began. In two Meier-designed condominium towers in New York, units are now resold for millions of dollars.

The projects are aimed especially at single professionals and baby boomers whose children have grown.

Steve and Nancy Frank, of Cincinnati, are considering moving into the Covington complex since their son has graduated from college.

“We no longer need a big house and the burden of maintaining it and a yard,” said Steve Frank. “At The Ascent, we would be within minutes of the symphony, art galleries, great restaurants and my office.”

He also is attracted to Libeskind’s design for the five-sided building. The roof will slant upward, visually linking lower residential buildings on the east with the taller commercial buildings to the west. Trees and flowers will reach through the roof, and the mirrored glass exterior will provide views of the cityscape while reflecting the sky and river.

Kevin Matthews, editor in chief of ArchitectureWeek magazine, and others acknowledge that more experimental styles and the higher costs of using big-name architects could be risky if buildings go too far outside the mainstream or don’t mesh with their surroundings. But Matthews doesn’t think that will be a problem, especially in the luxury market.

“I really see a tremendous upside to architects taking more artistic license and developing new styles,” he said. “I think the U.S. culture finally is catching up with the architectural sophistication that has existed in Europe for some time.”

Jay Chatterjee, professor of architecture and planning at the University of Cincinnati, believes the trend is positive.

“Materials and our ideas of space are changing, and our taste is changing,” he said. “People are tired of the traditional box-type buildings.”