Downsizing Demands Heeded

Environmental, aesthetic, and economic considerations prompt more modest approach. NOT-SO-HIGH-RISE CONSTRUCTION

DEVELOPER Donald Trump's name is clearly emblazoned on many of his projects here, but the much-touted Trump City will not be one of them. That proposal, which included plans for the world's tallest building, has been cut back to half its original size and tentatively renamed Riverside South. The change is part of major shift under way in urban development. Public environmental concerns, the overbuilding of the 1980s, and the current recession are combining to persuade both developers and city officials that biggest and tallest are not always best. The tight economic situation makes developers ``far more sensitive to delays that might occur from litigation or community opposition,'' says Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Los Angeles. ``It f orces developers to be more creative and responsive - purely out of self-interest.''

Mr. Reynolds says he knows of a number of urban developments that have been significantly trimmed. He cites a recent plan to convert the Farmers Market, long a major Los Angeles tourist attraction, into a regional shopping mall. The proposal met intense citizen opposition, and the City Council withheld approval until the project was substantially scaled back.

Citizen know-how grows

Part of the change under way is due to increasing citizen sophistication in questioning large projects. ``There's no question but that there's a clash ... which has become extremely active and visible between those who want development at virtually any cost to the public and those who want to balance development with environmental and community needs,'' says Mitchell Bernard, an NRDC attorney in New York who was active in securing the Trump City compromise.

Those who build urban projects say procedural hurdles are increasing. ``Often you've got about four or five agencies looking over your shoulder,'' says Cheryl Harris, executive director of the American Institute of Constructors, a professional association. ``Sometimes it takes $100,000 up front before you start a project to figure out whether you can even build it.''

The downturn in the real estate market is a major factor in the change from the days when developers called most of the shots. The construction industry has been especially hard hit by the recession. The unemployment rate in that field was 14.1 percent in March 1991, compared with 10 percent in March 1990, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

US Census Bureau figures show the amount spent monthly on nonresidential construction (including churches, schools, and commercial buildings) in most major cities has dropped sharply during the last year. In Los Angeles, for instance, such spending fell from $196.6 million in February 1990 to $123 million in February 1991. In Boston the total amount spent dropped from $22 million to $15.4 million in the same period.

Some cities have been little affected. ``There's been a slowdown, but I don't think it's been as severe here as other places,'' says Greg Longhini, a planner in the Chicago Department of City Planning.

One reason construction may take longer than other industries to revive is the energetic surge of nonstop building that went on during the 1980s. Cheryl Harris says office and warehouse vacancy rates are particularly high in areas such as Florida, southern California, and Boston. ``It's fairly cyclical - you overbuild and then you don't do anything for a while and it comes back,'' she says.

Richard Strickland, director of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University, says the current pause in construction offers cities a valuable opportunity to take a long-range look at the kind of development they really want.

Richard Anderson, president of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit planning group concerned with New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, says that cities and planners should try harder to concentrate offices in downtown areas where the economic, social, and environmental advantage is strongest.

Land-use problem

The fact that so much vacant office space, built with ``easy'' savings-and-loan money, is located on the outer fringes of big cities, Mr. Anderson says, will take time to absorb and saddles the nation with a long-term land-use problem.

When the market does improve, experts say, urban development projects are likely to be of a smaller scale.

``I think when the economy picks up again you won't see the kind of large projects anymore that we saw in the '80s,'' says Douglas Durst, vice president of the New York-based Durst Organization Inc.

The recent trim-down of the Trump plan for the old Penn Central railroad yards, the largest undeveloped tract left in Manhattan, occurred in response to a compromise plan drafted by a coalition of civic groups. Instead of Mr. Trump's massive regional shopping mall, 7,300-car parking garage, and the planned 150-story building, the revised plan calls for a largely residential development of lower buildings and includes a 23-acre park along the Hudson River. Trump has said that his crtics helped convince h im to ``do what was right.''

``The ultimate defeat of Trump City really was sealed at the bargaining table with a developer who wanted a project he could build, not one that would be mired in years of controversy,'' says the NRDC's Mitchell Bernard. Essential to such citizen victories, he insists, is the existence of community groups that are ``fierce'' enough in their opposition to outsized development projects and flexible enough in their vision to work out mutually productive agreements. -30-{et

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