Sunday, August 31, 2008

Putting the "Suburban" in "Urban" (Wait, That Doesn't Fit)

I almost fell off my chair after coming across this article in today's New York Times. Partly because I only live about 8 blocks away from the building and have not noticed this construction happening at all and partly because suburban homes are being built on top of a 7-story prewar Upper West Side apartment building. What? Gabled roofs? Decks? ATTICS? WHAT?!

OK, the units are cute. And most certainly original for the area. But doesn't context matter? Doesn't it? And isn't this type of dwelling something that most New Yorkers are trying to escape by living in Manhattan?

If only all mid size apartment buildings in Manhattan started having these types of rooftop additions, then maybe instead of heading out to New Jersey, Long Island, or Westchester after having children, New Yorkers could just move up to Manhattan's "higher elevation," if you will. No, really, we could connect the tops of buildings with windy, tree-lined roads where SUVs go unjudged and children can ride their bikes and sell lemonade. My definition of suburbia is apparently very limited, but I think you get my point.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Cupcake Challenge

Last night I had five lovely ladies over to find out, once and for all, which bakery makes the best cupcake on the Upper West Side. The bakeries represented: Crumbs (75th and Amsterdam), Buttercup (72nd Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam), Soutine (70th and Columbus), and Magnolia (69th and Columbus). Now that I realize all of these places are within six blocks of each other, I will start refering to this area of Manhattan as The Cupcake District. Spread the word.

The cupcakes were numbered so that none of the taste-testers went into the experiment with name biases, and each person was provided with an evaluation sheet created by yours truly:

To make things fair, I bought two vanilla cake/chocolate frosting cupcakes and two chocolate cake/vanilla frosting cupcakes from each place. I realize some places have insanely creative recipes, but simplicity can sometimes be the most difficult thing to master.

So the results are in, and the winner for the best overall cupcake (judged on icing, cake, combination of icing & cake, and appearance) is Crumbs. Yes, ladies and gentlemen - after years and years of saying,"Crumbs is so much better than Magnolia; go to Crumbs," I now have evidential proof that I am always right.

More interesting stuff: Buttercup came in last place, Magnolia had the most aesthetically pleasing cupcakes, and Soutine's chocolate cake/vanilla icing cupcake came the closest to beating out Crumbs. The cheapest cupcakes were from Buttercup, and the most expensive were from Crumbs. Apparently you get what you pay for.

Comments from the test group:

BUTTERCUP: Most complained of a coffee flavor in the chocolate icing, which Kiera pointed out as most likely cocoa powder. Tsk, tsk for not hiding your ingredients well enough, BC. The taste testers also felt that the vanilla icing tasted more like cream cheese icing.

CRUMBS: More positive reaction from the crew, but Kiera at this point decides she hates cupcakes. Sad news.

MAGNOLIA: Not one, but TWO people described the icing as "lobster-y." Well, I don't know about you, but I'm never buying cupcakes from there again.

SOUTINE: Vanilla cake had no taste and the vanilla icing, while it had the texture of whipped cream (which is a positive, I think?), there was not enough sugar in the mix.

There you go, kids. Use this scientific study wisely for your future cupcake endeavors on the Upper West Side.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

CSI and BSA: A Love Story

After over five years of public hearings and community meetings and seemingly endless paperwork, the Board of Standards and Appeals has finally approved 7 special variances so that Congregation Shearith Israel can build a luxury condo-filled monstrosity behind its 1897, doubly-landmarked* structure.

Rendering by

The purpose of the new structure? To raise funds for the struggling non-profit religious institution, of course. But one has to wonder: will the expectedly super-high rents for these new condos ever make up for the past five years of paying lawyers and architects and [cough] theboardofstandardsandappeals [cough]? Just kidding about that last one. But seriously, one question should come to mind when non-profit institutions start considering luxury condos as a remedy for their financial difficulties: is it worth it? The legal fees alone (not to mention being despised by the surrounding community) would make me think no. More wine and cheese fundraisers, it is.

I won't consider this controversy over until construction begins, but I worry that granting seven special variances to one non-profit will mean granting who-knows-how-many special variances to other non-profits. Churches and synagogues and museums and historical societies will be shadowed (literally) by their own special glass towers.

For more information on the saga, visit

*Congregation Shearith Israel (The Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue) is both part of the Upper West Side/Central Park West historic district and an individual landmark.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Yogurtland: The New Frontier in Fro-Yo

OK, maybe Yogurtland isn't so much a New York City secret anymore, but I am on a crusade against Pinkberry until they lower their prices. So be prepared for Frozen Yogurt That Is Not Pinkberry entries. I am convinced that my endorsements of other plain, tart yogurt around the city will get a medium original at Pinkberry under $6 again.

Yogurtland, unlike That Other Frozen Yogurt Place That Shall Not Be Named, only has one location in the city that sits in the heart of Greenwich Village (267 Bleecker Street, to be exact). The greatest part about Yogurtland is that it's serve-self. This not only lets you get creative with flavors and toppings, but it will also give you a new appreciation for employees who can operate soft-serve machines without making a mess.

There are over ten flavors at Yogurtland, including things like New York Cheesecake, Espresso, Banana Tart, and my personal favorite: Taro (a tropical plant, it seems?). I also prefer their Plain Tart frozen yogurt over You Know Who's, but this is primarily because it has an icier texture (which I find most people actually do not like - be warned, creamy fro-yo lovers).

The toppings also kick You Know Who's butt by having a greater variety of fresh fruit AND stuff that is really bad for you. Why not pair those blueberries and sliced mangos with some gummi bears and Butterfingers?

You'll find yourself pleasantly surprised when you checkout. Thirty-nine cents an ounce is even more awesome than it sounds, and creations that look (and taste) like they should be the $6+ PBerry standard end up being much less than you imagined (sometimes).

Friday, August 22, 2008

The New 2 Columbus Circle

The new 2 Columbus Circle was unveiled to the public a few months ago. Since then, articles have been popping up occasionally about the new design and how it kind of, well, sucks. Paul Goldberger's most recent article in The New Yorker is a tad more sympathetic, yes, but I am most curious about what Nicolai Ouroussoff will have to say. Hear that Nicolai? I am waiting for your review with bated breath.

In the meantime, I will put in my two cents. Well, maybe not. Quite frankly, I have difficulty looking at this building objectively because it was one of the great preservation losses of the 21st century. While the new building's architect, Brad Cloepfil, may have chosen to put the original "lollipops" at the base of the building behind glass to preserve the memory of the Edward Durell Stone 2 Columbus Circle, it feels more like an intentional reminder of how a long and hard-fought battle was lost.

Interestingly enough, the friends that I've spoken to about the new building seem to really like it. After strolling around Columbus Circle a few times, I have finally discovered why: it's really shiny. Yes, apparently we cannot avoid that basic part of human nature even when it comes to architecture.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Coffee Pick of the Month

And the winner is: Trader Joe's French Roast Coffee

While I am a little biased because my father has been brewing this blend since I was a wee child, I do believe TJ's hits the mark in creating a wonderful, strong, not-overly-bitter coffee that puts a smile on my face nearly every morning. What's even better is that about $5 worth will last at least a couple of weeks, thus keeping your wallet full and your serotonin levels up. Do note that adding milk and/or sugar to a cup of this coffee is, in fact, a crime against humanity. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Institutional Preservation in Buffalo

Just returned from Buffalo, so it seems fitting to start this blog with a project that was brought to my attention by an architectural insider based in the Buffalo community. Believe it or not, ladies and gentlemen, Buffalo does have some lovely architectural gems from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of which is its Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, now referred to as the Henry Hobson Richardson Complex (Buffalo's attempt to downplay that it has crazy people, while simultaneously showing off that famous architects once paid attention to Western New York).
Built between the years of of 1870-1890, the now Henry Hobson Richardson Complex was designed by H.H. Richardson (just in case that wasn't obvious enough) and Frederick Law Olmsted (in charge of landscape - you may also know him as That Guy Who Designed Central Park). Unfortunately, many parts of the complex are now in deplorable condition due to neglect. Thankfully, the Richardson Center Corporation has taken on a "rehabilitation" project for the complex that will restore both the historic structure and landscape. They are also in the process of creating an Architecture and Visitor Center, which I wholeheartedly support. Education is awesome.

However (!), such a major renovation with as much funding as it's receiving will, of course, find ways of making the property more profitable to the city by "reusing" the area. The list of ideas currently being thrown around are as follows: "a hotel, conference center, parking structure, high end condominiums, artist studios, townhouses and academic space for Buffalo State College." Three of these ideas make me extremely nervous (I made them bold, and thus more threatening so that you, the reader, will emphathize with me). The others have the possibility of also being an eyesore, but I will have to wait until the plans are public before curling up with a box of tissues and a pint of Ben & Jerry's Mood Magic flavor for bad architecture and site planning. Click here to read more about the project.