Tag Archive for 'urban planning'

The New New Times Square

The New New Times Square

Looking north at 42nd Street, in Times Square.

A few colleagues and I walked over to Times Square at lunch to check out the new Broadway—now shut off to cars, it’s another attempt by the city and the Bloomberg administration to reclaim the streets for pedestrians.

The Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff says:

Now, standing in the middle of Broadway, you have the sense of being in a big public room, the towering billboards and digital screens pressing in on all sides.

This adds to the intimacy of the plaza itself, which, however undefined, can now function as a genuine social space: people can mill around, ogle one another and gaze up at the city around them without the fear of being caught under the wheels of a cab.

There’s a couple of great slideshows, too. And, don’t miss Michael Crowley’s New York Magazine profile of the woman behind it all, NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Basketcase City

Here is an interesting item in the Buffalo News… it seems former mayor James D. “Jimmy” Griffin is starting a “grass-roots” campaign to recall his successor, Mayor Masiello. Just as Buffalo is starting to do the right things it needs to do to get out of financial chaos, past specters responsible for the mess the city finds itself in are in are resurfacing to reassert their influence.

There is no money in the city coffers, and NY State is occupied with rebuilding NY City… yet Griffin finds it necessary to stir up populist anger at the mayor’s insistence that a city of 290,000 cannot afford 2-man police cars.

Now, I’m supportive of unions, and labor in general. But, they’ve got the city hijacked—it’s just not the city of half-million that it was in 1905. My suburban childhood town, Amherst, probably has more class-A office space that 10 Buffalos… the reigning culture there is one of the automobile.

If You Build it, They Will Come
The State built the new campus of the University at Buffalo—on undeveloped land in Amherst in the 60s—in such a way as to confuse pedestrians. The parking lots and mega-steel-and-glass-box buildings are on a scale unfathomable to the pedestrian. It could take you thirty minutes to walk from the dormitories to class, and the only thing that separates you are vast parking lots and curving 8-lane roads. This sort of destructive and unprecedented planning will make an agoraphobe out of anyone that isn’t high on something… There is no urban fabric—you can’t comfortably walk down a block and buy a coke at the news stand on the way to statistics. The street isn’t lined with a buffer of parked cars or trees to insulate the pedestrian from the street. No. This would be the traditional way of planning. Are the streets planned at all?

The fact is, the only way the University at Buffalo makes any coherent sense is from 75 mph out your car window on Interstate-990, (incidentally a useless, sprawl-inducing highway built to link yet-to-be-built shoddy cul-de-sacs north of the city, to the new campus). And from a reactionary administrative point of view, this kind of building assures total control over the “streets”, a worry of these types in the turbulent 1960s.

A Culture of Dashboards
Where was I? Oh yes. The automobile. The Culture in Buffalo. It must be changed. Or at least modified, and we’ve got to for once put an end to people like Jimmy Griffin. Irish politicians, generally speaking, have a particular knack for killing cities for their own personal gain. In my mind, James D. Griffin was the most corrupt city mayor of the past 25 years, eclipsed recently only by Buddy Cianci in Providence. His neighborhood cronies ran the city into the ground, going so far as to poison the man-made lake in Delaware Park, by dumping chemicals such that it wouldn’t freeze for ice-skaters. No, Griffin is only interested in taking care of his clan in South Buffalo, and the whole damn rest of you can go fuck yourselves.

Speaking of his Irish clan, always mindful to underline their white, and therefore privileged status, the Irish politicians identify status symbols that might hide the otherwise sad state of the city. The car, and suburban development in general, are precisely their chosen symbols. They can’t necessarily move into a 4 bed-room McMansion in Amherst, however they can afford a five-year old Chevy or Ford—and avoid taking the subway or, god-forbid, the bus system (which are primarily employed by the African-American population). They envy the new suburban, car-oriented development of strip malls and parking lots, and politician like Griffin decided that this was precisely the kind of construction needed in the city. What resulted, was a mess. Drive down main street from the 198 to downtown to see what i mean. You can literally drive through there without seeing people on the street for blocks—and this is a 4-lane road

Cities should be organized to facilitate suburbanite commuters. Right? Well, this kind of thing isn’t going to be sustainable in Miami, Las Vegas, Philadelphia or Detroit—much less Buffalo. In fact, the financial realities that are starting to surface in less-off places like Buffalo should be a kind of warning. We won’t always have cheap oil, and it should be evident that cities actually offer a healthy way of life. Walk to work. Ride a subway car with people from different clans than you. Preserve our historical buildings, because they were built better than any building in the past 50 years.

The Restoration
Walk to work? These sort of ideas belong to elites, and that explains why the Irish politicians (and others like James Pitts, the African-American Common Council President), resist efforts in this direction. They’re too caught up in what they perceive to be status symbols, i.e., cars, krispy kremes, that they don’t realize that the health of the city and region depends on the health of its neighborhoods. And, yes Mr. Pitts, we will have to invest in the minority neighborhoods. But until we put some money in the coffers, and work on eroding the perception that cities are for non-car driving public-housing types. It’s a mania that cannot sustain itself.

Convert, don’t Build

Anyone following the Adelphia bid to build a huge skyscraper on the Buffalo waterfront, has to laugh at the company’s determination to get it done. The company is having Enron-like financial woes, yet still wants to build this tower in a city that has commercial vacancy rates that rival occupancy rates. I’m not saying the Adelphia project is a mistake, however I think people aren’t focusing properly on how to foster the 24-hour downtown a vibrant city needs.

First, I think, you need to lure people who work in the city to also live in the city. Cities have certain advantages to offer: A concentration of local businesses and services within walking distance (or by train), including restaurants, arts and cultural offerings, and shops. Instead of infilling the city with suburban-type developments (main place mall), or huge gated residential projects, why not play off the strengths of city-living, by revitalizing dense, mixed-use neighborhoods, and provide a housing alternative for people?

I’ve been encouraged to see, as I have pointed out in my blog, that developers in Buffalo are taking interest in converting old commercial and industrial space into residential housing (lofts.) It’s been shown to make money, and I think that might be the catalyst for a true downtown recovery. The kinds of people looking for this kind of housing have been willing to pay upwards of $1000 for a one-bedroom loft—(incidentally, in boston that would be a bargain, but in buffalo! My god, that’s no bargain)—so they must have money, and need services like groceries, restaurants, and bars. Presto!, urban renewal… You don’t need to throw cataclysmic money into develping a new skyscraper, when the marketplace can do you just as good.

Trains are better than Cars

Central Station, Buffalo, NY, circa 1930.

Presley’s sister Kelly was in town this past weekend, and she left yesterday on the Amtrak train from Back Bay Station, which got me thinking about train stations and trains in general. Everyone in these New Urbanist books that I read can’t fathom how America ended up wedded to the automobile, while the Europeans remain contented with trains.

I think it’s a simple answer: after the war, we just could. It was the thing to do, and we had the resources. But, isn’t there something wonderful about trains? And more importantly, big city train stations? Grand Central in Manhattan is gorgeous. Moderinists moan on about how style should be down-played because it is the taste of economic elites, but I don’t care if putting a building like that up was a capitalist show of wealth and power—it had beauty, craftmanship and it was a place where people of all races and incomes passed through. They destroyed Penn Station in the sixties to put up Madison Square Garden. big whoop. If anything, MSG is more capitalist-minded than the building it replaced.

So, it brings me around to Buffalo and Kelly’s departure… Earlier in this century, Buffalo actually was in the top 5 for most railroad track—Buffalo had industry, and it was located on the important route between new york and chicago. The city built some beautiful train stations (subsequently demolished), who’s architecture seems wonderfully as grand as Grand Central itself. The last remaining station, Central Terminal, still stands on the East Side, though it’s falling apart. I wish to God the city could find some new use for the facility—problem is, it is located in the most economically depressed area of the city.

What Buffalo Was, and What it Should Be

If you’ve talked with me in the last few months, you know that I’ve taken an interest in Urban Planning, and more specifically those characteristics that make a good neighborhood and city. I don’t know why this subject has peaked my interest, considering I used to be in awe of places like Epcot and I grew up not far from strip-malls. But, I am deeply concerned about that place where I grew up, because the city of Buffalo is rotting at it’s core, while the endless development of pharmacy mini-malls, parking lots, and cul-de-sacs pushes farther out into the countryside.

It used to be that Transit Road was a marker or sorts—suburban development fell off notably in the town of Clarence. But now, Clarence and Lancaster are becoming the newest sprawl suburbs. Housing development is getting less and less dense, taking up more and more land, and as a result, weakening community ties. The goal in the Buffalo area these days, is to earn enough to “get yours”—which means a big house in the middle of nowhere, with lousy architecture, a big front yard, and curving streets that don’t connect to other developments. You can’t walk to a corner store, much less to work or school.

This, of course, means that cars must be used for anything and everything in Buffalo’s suburbs, and increasingly so in these new suburbs. Growing up, I could walk or ride my bike to a corner store, a supermarket, a pizzeria, a k-mart and a bagel shop. For kids growing up in Loch Lea and other developments further out, this is simply not an option—a ride from mom or dad is required, and an (unhealthy) dependence is born. Also, you spend much of your early teenage years looking for older friends, or pining for that 16th birthday, when mom and dad will provide you with a car. There is a sense of entitlement that comes in such a place.

Buffalo, however, wasn’t always so bleak. The Buffalo of my Grandmother’s youth was a vibrant and busy city. Look at some of these photographs… Streetcars zipped up and down major avenues, automobiles co-existed with pedestrians, commercial streets had first-floor storefronts with apartments above, and you knew your neighbor, butcher and neighborhood cop. I don’t want to sentimentalize what was, but I think people understood that there was an art to building neighborhoods—an art that seems to have been lost in post-war, post-industrial Buffalo. The powerful suburban developers like Ciminelli, don’t build permanent places to live. They think that there is no money to be made in traditional (that is to say, mixed-use) neighborhoods. Everything is this set-back-from-the-street, bastardized modernist, flat-roof, single-floor, horizontal monstrosity, with 5 parking spots out front for every 1 customer.

I know I’m taking hyperbolic license here, but I do it only because the prevailing assumptions are so ingrained and accepted that you almost need to shock people to wake them up.

We’ve been living in the age of the automobile. Traffic engineers say we need to widen roads and intersections to decrease traffic and increase traffic volume. Every major study of roadway “improvements” shows that more lanes = more cars. By widening a road like Transit, you are actually creating more traffic in the long-run. Even Robert Moses realized this in 1939, when traffic congestion cropped up on his highways where there was previously no problem. You induce traffic, by building more lanes. And, these wide intersections you see on Transit and other roads, are less safe than narrower, more traditional intersections. Here in Boston, despite our reputation for crazy driving, there are rarely any accidents at all, due to our small blocks, odd intersections and lack of sprawl.

Still, there is hope. I think the economic pressures that 50 years of this kind of development has wrought on Buffalo is starting to change people’s minds about living and working in close proximity. I hope environmental, and economic realities force the city and it’s county of suburbs to draw a line in the sand (and the geography), and say enough is enough. It’s not about Growth vs. anti-Growth. It’s about Smart Growth. Banks, developers and city & town officials need to be shown that it is preferable to ditch this fast-decaying suburban strip-mall way of doing things. If we are going to do this, the state needs to step in and set up stronger regional government. Many people fear this, as being ‘more government’, when in actuality it could save money by eliminating redundant services.

But there is powerful resistance to any kind of regional planning.

Jane Jacobs Changed My Life… or, Modernists Should Die

What makes a good neighborhood? I’ve started reading everything I can get my hands on regarding urban planning and issues surrounding sprawl, and I think it’s so inspiring that Jane Jacobs had it all figured out in 1961. I think it would not be magnanimous to say that she saved Greenwich Village from becoming another Robert Moses highway. Check out this discussion about Jane’s life and the state of urban planning. (Real Audio)

As a designer, I’ve always loved modernist design — it’s big, it’s humanist in the sense that it is utopian and egalitarian, and it shows off our wonderful technology. Look at Empire Plaza in Albany, NY, and you can’t help but think that we are capable of amazing things. However, this HUGE plaza is mostly useless, except on sunny days during noon and 1pm, when workers might stroll outside for fresh air. Nevermind that there aren’t any delis or convenience stores within a 5 minute walk. Also, think of a place like this in the evening, or at night. Dead. I’ve been there! Probably unsafe. But the 19th century State Capitol is wonderful, and human-scaled. One might imagine shops or restaurants on the surrounding streets. It’s dignified, and worthy of a civic building. I think our post-60s mistrust of government makes us think that spending the money and time to build lasting monuments to public life is somehow wasteful or bad. Albany Dan’s own neighborhood (not far from Empire Plaza) is a testament to How We Used to Do Things. It’s a mishmash of income levels and uses. It’s wonderful too.

Urban renewal is a fucking sham. No news there. Look at Boston’s own place of civic activity, city hall. Modernist architects can argue all they want about the ‘greatness’ of buildings and plazas like this, but I doubt anyone but a few intellectuals actually appreciate it as such. (Myself included) It flies in the face of hundreds of years of precedent and expertise, and yet we call it ‘brilliant’. Listen to the architect’s own words:

“Kallmann: ‘We distrust and have reacted against an architecture that is absolute, uninvolved and abstract. We have moved towards an architecture that is specific and concrete, involving itself with the social and geographic context, the program, and methods of construction, in order to produce a building that exists strongly and irrevocably, rather than an uncommitted abstract structure that could be any place and, therefore, like modern man’ without identity or presence.”

Does the building and plaza create a good urban space? nope. The language itself is specifically crafted to sound unintelligible, and to elevate the architect to the status of some Ayn Randian demi-God. Even the weird geometry of the plaza is psychologically unsettling, not to mention what I feel from the building itself. There is something profoundly anti-social in a building that is set back from the street so far with that much brick. The ‘style’, (if the modernists let you call it that), is Brutalist Modern, for christ’s sake.