You might be surprised to know that the use of the “salt sheds” tag on this post marks the inaugural mention of that particular structure here at gbNYC. You might be, but if you live in New York City and have ever seen one of the city’s salt sheds — ungainly, humpbacked domes generally plunked down on some of the city’s least appealing real estate and filled with spectacularly unappealing, surprisingly toxic and way overused rock salt — you’re probably not surprised that it hasn’t come up here. It’s not just that salt sheds aren’t especially good looking — they’re not, that’s not their purpose. It’s just that the idea of a salt shed being more or less sustainable than any other shed never really came up — although now that it has, I guess most sheds are net zero buildings more or less by default, given that you don’t need much of a HVAC system for a structure used to house hardier-than-average inanimate objects. Anyway, all of this is to say that the 425,000-square-foot salt shed designed by Dattner Architects and slated to be built at a cost of $10.25 million on Canal Street, near the mouth of the Holland Tunnel, is not your ordinary shed. Both because it’s going to be pursuing LEED Silver certification and because… well, look at it. That’s it right there, on this post. Doesn’t look much like a shed, does it?
That was a rhetorical question, because obviously no, it doesn’t look like a shed, at least not relative to, like, actual sheds. Actual sheds don’t have green roofs, for instance, whereas the Dattner salt shed does. Actual sheds are also generally available for less than $10.25 million, of course, but the city decided that this uniquely public salt shed should be a uniquely good-looking public salt shed. Between its SoHo location and pressure from Community Board 2′s landmarks committee — people for whom, it can be assumed, the ideal salt shed is located in a different neighborhood, borough or state — the city agreed to spend more time and money on this shed’s design and construction than usual. The result is what happens when a respected architecture firm is tasked with designing one of architectures least-respected structures. The renderings on display at Curbed suggest that Dattner more or less nailed it. If this design doesn’t work for Community Board 2 it’s hard to imagine what possibly could.
But while the Dattner salt shed is a pretty striking success on its own aesthetic terms, and worth celebrating as another impressive green building project funded by the city, it’s… well, it was funded by the city. And while New York City’s infrastructure is obviously one of the least-objectionable things on which to spend taxpayer dollars, it’s worth noting again just how much money was spent on this particular structure. And while the design and construction price tag on the Dattner shed is hefty enough on its own, but it’s a rounding error when compared to the nine-figure price tag of the land on which it is slated to stand, which the city bought from UPS. The latter can be chalked up to the cost of doing business in SoHo — more specifically, the portion of SoHo that we are now supposed to (but will not) call Hudson Square — but the former, that rounding error with the fairly magnificent building attached, is actually the one with which it’s easier to take issue.
That the Bloomberg Administration favors mega-developers and well-heeled communities over other constituencies isn’t exactly a new — or, really, debatable — point. For all the extraordinary green building success stories — and extraordinary green buildings — in New York City, the city government’s embarrassing eagerness to compromise on behalf of mega-developers and their mega-developments has already having a negative impact on the city itself, and diverting taxpayer funds from more practical, more easily justified and more plain-old-just ends. The Dattner shed is not a part of that negative impact, on its own — it looks great, and will be the rare salt shed to actually improve its neighborhood’s aesthetics if it is actually built as designed.
But while the city is seemingly set to get it’s dollar’s worth in this instance, and the Dattner shed is a design worth celebrating, it’s also worth thinking about in context — as another reflection of the Bloomberg administration’s unashamed and seemingly bottomless willingness to flatter the wishes and ignore the misbehavior of its better-heeled constituents, be they developers or Community Board types in an affluent neighborhood. Is this project a community-screwing blunder on the order of the New Domino mega-botch? No, obviously not. Anywhere in the same universe as the epic full-spectrum disgrace that is Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project? Of course it isn’t. But the Dattner shed’s ambition and price tag reflect the same fundamental faults in the way city government spends both its taxpayer funds and political capital, and that makes the green roof that much harder to appreciate. I hope the Dattner shed gets built, and I hope it looks great. But I hope, too, that we can eventually get less-predictable and less-disheartening answers from City Hall to the sort of sadly rhetorical questions I’ve thus far avoided for fear of (further) shrillness. Those questions being, in no particular order: How many of those disappeared affordable housing vouchers would $10.25 million buy? What kind of salt shed would Prospect Heights or South Williamsburg have received? And how does one get to be the seller’s agent on a land deal with the city?