Truth be told, we do take a sort of faint schadenfreude-y pleasure in watching the steroidal mega-developments of the last Manhattan real estate boom get cut down to size. It doesn’t help that the unwarranted grandiosity of those scaled-back projects still yields undistinguished finished products — Downtown Brooklyn’s City Point, we’re looking at you — but there’s a sense of cosmic justice to it, a sort of Flannery O’Connor-ish gravity in evidence, as these oversized ego-blasts are reduced to either mere buildings or forever unbuilt object lessons in overreach. But what really makes us happy, what’s really encouraging, is when a worthy project that appeared dead turns out not to be. And that, it seems, is just what’s happening with Fumihiko Maki’s lovely, LEED Gold-hopeful 13-story mixed-use building at 51 Astor Place.
As you can see above, Maki’s granite-and-glass design is both pretty great looking and pretty easy to cheer for even knowing nothing more about its green building attributes than that they may measure up to LEED Gold standards. And given the bumper crop of impressive-looking buildings around Astor Place — from the graceful grounded spaceship of Cooper Union’s 41 Cooper Square laboratory to the elegant Gwathmey Siegel condo that arrived at the tail end of the real estate boom — it’s hard to argue that Maki’s ultra-contemporary, asymmetrical 440,000-square-foot “jewel box” (the term is developer Edward Minskoff’s) is a sore thumb. There’s a reason why Stephen (and Curbed) were all over the building back in early ’08. Of course, there’s also a reason why no one has much mentioned it since — nothing ever happened on the site.
The gnarlier-than-average Starbucks adjacent to the pedestrian-looking Cooper Union-owned building currently at 51 Astor Place closed, thus depriving the neighborhood of some truly horrifying bathrooms. It later re-opened as the New York Film Academy Cafe, though, and no construction equipment ever made it to the scene. With the economy doing its down-in-the-doldrums thing, it seemed reasonable enough to assume that Maki’s structure — and Minskoff’s deal with a number of rumored 51 Astor tenants — was dying on the vine. And so it would’ve continued to seem, if Minskoff hadn’t mentioned — in a Wall Street Journal piece about Girls Prep Academy relocating to the current 51 Astor Place on a short-term lease — that construction on Maki’s 51 Astor building is slated to begin next year, with a tentative opening sometime in 2013. That’s obviously a bit behind the original 2008 schedule, which had the building welcoming tenants in late 2010. But in this case late is certainly better than never, and the arrival of another distinguished bit of architecture in the East Village is a damn sight better than a cold shot of schadenfreude at another mega-development not happening. This probably shouldn’t qualify as a news flash, but good news feels kind of… good.