Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s Marilyn J. Taylor on Design in the City

Marilyn J. Taylor is from a small town in Iowa “with a population of 1,432.” Perhaps it is her Midwestern roots that allow her to remain upbeat and positive as two of her current planning projects—Columbia University’s campus expansion in West Harlem and Solow’s redevelopment of the Con Edison site in Murray Hill—plod their way through the City’s land use review process amidst political controversy.

Taylor is partner to Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s Urban Design & Planning and Airports & Transportation practice groups. She has represented SOM on such local projects as the Pennsylvania/ Moynihan Station expansion and redevelopment, John F. Kennedy and Newark International Airport terminal expansion, and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center redevelopment. Her practice is not limited to New York, however, and often includes projects in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East.

“The most amazing place to live and practice.” Taylor entered Radcliffe College at Harvard University with the intention of eventually becoming a lawyer, but abandoned those plans after taking an elective course in design. Taylor then went on to pursue architecture degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkeley.

In 1985, she moved to New York to head up SOM’s growing Urban Design practice and has stayed here ever since. Her infectious passion for the City provides the motivation for her involvement in various local civic affairs. Taylor was Chairman of the New York City Building Congress, Co-Chair of the New York City Infrastructure Task Force and Founding Member of New York New Visions, a group formed to restore and rebuild Lower Manhattan. Currently, she holds key positions with the Association for a Better New York, Downtown Alliance, and Forum for Urban Design.

The day after the first snow storm of the season, Taylor warmly welcomed CityLand into her Wall Street office to share her perspectives on the role design should play in urban affairs.

“There are no Thomas Jeffersons in the 21st century.” Taylor seems to relish the challenges associated with the City’s land use review procedure. She finds that the procedure subjects a development proposal to “a high level of critical thinking,” which “requires a strong idea based on well-grounded principles.” According to Taylor, the process “validates the kind of work” that urban planners strive for and produces development proposals that address a myriad of issues ranging from transportation to sustainability to affordable housing.

Taylor believes that a successful, large-scale development proposal needs to be informed by “multiple points-ofview” and warns that “architects cannot just talk to other architects.” The City’s review procedure, she argues, is one way to ensure architects, planners, lawyers, unions, and developers talk to each other to formulate a more complete development proposal that “moves the City in the right direction.”

The devil is in the details. When Solow purchased the former Con Edison site, it was a tract of publicly inaccessible industrial land. Taylor believes the over $100 million spent on remediation to prepare the site for mixed-use, the publicly accessible open space, and the diverse economic opportunities that Solow proposes would “fulfill an important function for the City” and ensure its competitiveness in the global marketplace. Taylor feels that there is a general agreement on most of the Solow proposal, and confines the disagreements to details such as mapped streets and zoning bonuses. She also emphasizes that she has the utmost respect for the opposition and believes “there are no good guys or bad guys” when it comes to the Solow proposal.

“Architecture matters, design matters.” Taylor laments, however, that some may not recognize the “value of visionary architecture,” which can serve as an “important economic development tool” in an increasingly competitive and inter-connected global marketplace. She faults architects and urban planners for not having “a strong enough voice” on land use issues and feels they should be more active participants in the land use discussion because they can “animate the City and the public realm” in ways that lawyers, engineers, and public officials cannot.

When asked if she contemplated public office as a way to bolster this voice, Taylor laughed and quickly answered, “I love my job and can’t imagine leaving it anytime soon.” — Sami Y. Naim

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