Sunday, February 10, 2013
Quote of the Day: "Why should people get to see plans? This isn't a public project." - developer Bruce Ratner
RATNER was quoted in Crain's New York Business talking about his controversial Atlantic Yards development. According to the Atlantic Yards Report, Ratner's Forest City Ratner has had between $300 million and $2 billion in public subsidies (the latter figure comes from the New York Post).
Saturday, December 29, 2012
Does LEED Lie?
I wrote in the comments,
We can debate the degree to which LEED “lies,” but there is no doubt it can be deceptive. That’s because it uses an additive point system. Add enough bike racks, solar panels, etc. and you can get a LEED Platinum building for something that in reality is not sustainable.
In the case of these glass buildings, there are two major problems. First, the glass is engineered to keep out ultraviolet light, keep heat gain down, have some insulation value, etc. The muti-layer window that results is sophisticated but requires a large amount of embodied energy to produce it. And to add insult to injury, the chemicals wear out over time, so the glass will all have to be replaced after an unknown period (unknown because the current experiments are still early in their life cycle). That’s more wasted energy. The best walls have a high R value, low embedded energy and are like the Energizer Bunny – they last, and last, and last.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
A Main Street Is A Terrible Thing To Waste
I HAVE a guest piece in the Berkshire Record this week on massDOT's $4.8 million Main Street "Reconstruction" in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The article itself is online at Better! Cities & Towns and at Streetsblog Capitol Hill. Here are some extra photos and captions:
A SIDEWALK on the central block in massDOT's Main Street Reconstruction Project in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Studies have shown that mature trees have economic value for the merchants on retail streets, and the book Principles of Urban Retail says storeowners want passersby to pay attention to their shop windows, not the sidewalks. But the massDOT plan will cut down the existing trees and use formulaic changes to make the sidewalks fancier. The result will be a place where fewer people want to walk and stop.
There is a larger copy of the photo here.
A VIEW of the the central block in massDOT's Main Street Reconstruction Project in Great Barrington, Massachusetts while the Bradford Pear trees were in bloom last April. The wide-angle photo highlights the width of the street, although it is less noticeable to drivers and to pedestrians on the sheltered sidewalks. An old photo of Main Street(below) shows trees tall enough to form a canopy over the street. The current trees were chosen by massDOT in the 1960s. The traditional way to introduce new trees would be to phase them in over time, but massDOT and their consultants prefer trees which never grow very large, to be cut down every 20 to 30 years for new street work.
There is a larger copy of the photo here.
AN EXISTING conditions photo of Main Street in Great Barrington, Massachusetts above a CAD rendering showing changes proposed by massDOT as of May 3, 2012. Without the mature trees, the space between the buildings on Main Street is too wide to be a comfortable pedestrian space, and the sidewalks have lost their tree canopy and shelter from the sun. Studies have shown that the brick crosswalks are less visible and therefore more dangerous at night and in the rain than traditional striped crossings. The brick crosswalks and the grass plantings draw attention to themselves rather than the beauty of the street. Another before and after view can be seen on the town website.
AN HISTORIC photo of Main Street in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. There is a larger version here, along with archival information.
After the jump, an historic view of South Main Street and another sidwalk view.
A POSTCARD showing South Main Street before it became a modern auto sewer. There is archival information on Wikipedia.
There is a larger version here.
Thursday, August 04, 2011
THE ALWAYS ERUDITE Calder Loth wrote about Classical examples of the triumphal arch motif on The Classicist Blog. I responded with these notes:
Graduates of the Ecole des Beaux Arts frequently used triple triumphal arches to announce important public buildings. In New York see the Metropolitan Museum, Grand Central Terminal and the main branch of the New York Public Library. Many American cities have examples. In Washington, I think of examples in which the arch was a little more downplayed, as at Union Station and the Pan-American Union.
The Washington Square Arch in New York was originally part of a small tradition of temporary monuments in the city. Built across 5th Avenue 5 blocks north of Washington Square in plaster and wood for the Centennial of President Washington's New York Inauguration, it was so popular that it was rebuilt in marble in the square, which was already named for Washington.
A temporary monument that was not rebuilt was the Dewey Arch. I have a large photo of it online here in a photo that also shows Stanford White's Madison Square Garden in the background. A large photo of the Washington arch, still open to traffic, is online here.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Monday, June 07, 2010
We cannot afford to abandon the cities; it is a course of action that makes no sense either economically, politically, or socially. And if we do not intend to abandon our cities, we must stop acting as if that is what we are going to do. We must learn to restructure cities, to make them economically healthy and desirable places for people to live and work in.
A city is not a fixed object like an individual building. A city is a living entity that is changing all the time. You do not design a city in the way that you design a building; but you can make a city a humane environment, not just in isolated places but continuously, throughout its whole fabric.
My ideas about cities began to expand and change in the mid-1960s, when I made my first journey to Scandinavia. The Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen were a revelation to me. It is, perhaps, the most appealing place that I have seen, the one which people seem to enjoy most. I am sure that this quality is in part a reflection of the Danish people, whom I have found to be unfailingly warm and friendly and who have a great zest for life. When you walk through Tivoli, you see that almost everyone is smiling. I have given much thought to just which ingredients create the magic of the place. It has taught me much about the effect that environment can have on one's feelings.
From Copenhagen I went to Stockholm, where I saw two of the new satellite cities, Vallingby and Farsta. I was struck by something I saw on my way into Vallingby. There is a highway running along the edge of the city center and a pedestrian bridge that goes across it. I saw a woman pushing a baby carriage over this bridge and realized that she was going from her apartment to the town center to do her shopping. Then I noticed that most of the apartment buildings were placed so that you could come right down into the central city through the green areas. I began to see that this is really what it is all about: people walking over from their houses to do their shopping, and their kids coming over, and the freedom of that kind of environment separated from the wheels of the motor car. The highway was there, and rapid transit was available, but you didn't need to use a car every time you had to do a simple errand.
I was not impressed with the buildings, and I did not feel that the city center was executed well from a design point of view; but there was a germ of an idea there, something quite different from the sterile modernism of a place like Brasilia.
This trip also included a visit to Helsinki, where I was greatly impressed by the excellence of the architecture for the satellite community of Tapiola, although I felt that it was too dependent on the automobile. The Tapiola plan is still the old campus plan related to wheels.
The overall experience gained from Tivoli, Vallingby, and Tapiola led me to realize that the way you should go about designing and evolving an environment is by thinking about what people want and need on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps this may not seem a very surprising idea, but it has never been done on a large scale. You can walk up and down Park Avenue in New York and see buildings that hold huge numbers of people, but what thought has been given to these people or to the kind of life that the buildings create? Not very much. Every city is the result of a great many individual decisions, most of them made by government and businesses for their own institutional or corporate reasons. It is incredible how little is done for the good of ordinary people. Every city has to go back and say: "OK, this whole thing is for that little guy who is walking around down there. How can we have this huge mass of density, and profit, and all the rest of it and still create a livable environment?"
I have come to the conclusion that cities ought to be designed in a cellular pattern whose scale is the distance that an individual will walk before he thinks of wheels. What information and observations we have available on this question indicate that the average American is willing to walk from seven to ten minutes without looking for some form of transportation. Using this time-distance factor as a radius gives a surprisingly large area.
If this area is developed into a total environment in which practically all of a person's needs are met, you have what I call a coordinate unit, a village where everything is within reach of the pedestrian. You could walk to work, school, church, recreation, shopping, entertainment, and so on without having to get into a car or any other kind of transit unless you were going outside the cellular unit. What great savings in energy and time, what great convenience such a city design could produce!
Peachtree Center is the beginning of such an urban coordinate unit. We are now building the commercial core and plan to add housing and the other ingredients as time goes on.
For a coordinate unit to succeed, it must lift the human spirit; at the same time it must be economically feasible and follow a sensible, efficient plan. In addition to providing places for work, residence, shopping, and recreation, it must draw on all the elements that I have been discussing: a strong sense of order, complemented by a variety of incident and unexpected change; light and color, nature and water to soften the constructed environment and make it more humane; shared space; and opportunities for people to watch people and all that movement entails. There must be a total life involvement.
The Embarcadero Center in San Francisco is part of something that comes close to the coordinate ideal that I describe, as the adjacent Golden Gateway housing is directly related to the center's offices,, shopping, hotel, and entertainment development. The credit for originating this project mw go to the late Justin Herman, who as head of the San Francisco Redevelopment Authority made a lasting and significant contribution to his city. He was a great public servant and a great man. It takes strong dedication and unyielding perseverance to create meaningful improvements at the scale of a city.
The Embarcadero Center became a reality in large part because of the interest and commitment of David Rockefeller, who wished to create a development of lasting value in a location that was important to the future of San Francisco and who was willing to accept the higher risk and somewhat longer payback period that a project of this kind demands.
The Renaissance Center in Detroit represents an even more important opportunity to build a coordinate unit on a comprehensive scale, but there are serious problems that did not exist in Atlanta or San Francisco. In those two cities, we were building on existing economic strengths and were able to develop one step at a time. If anything were to be done in Detroit, however, it needed to be done in a hurry. The city does not have fifteen years to build up a coordinate unit step by step. We are counteracting weakness, not building on strength. The first stage had to be large enough to justify its own independent existence.
In the same way that David Rockefeller made the future of San Francisco factor in his investment decision, Henry Ford and the other businessmen who are supporting the Renaissance Center are making this commitment because they feel that it is the best alternative for their city. Renaissance Center is a private enterprise contribution to the future of Detroit and its people. The great companies that are participating and investing in the project are not doing it out of the profit motive but for a deep concern for their city. This represents American business and our private enterprise system in one of their most noble and responsive efforts, one that I hope will become a prototype for businesses to follow in other cities.
Our cities are testimony to the fact that private solutions to private problems cannot produce a viable environment of benefit to our society. Private interests must help government maintain the health and vitality of our communities if our way of life with all its freedoms is going to survive.
The corporate business structure of this country must recognize that there is an urgent need for it to take a new position of public responsibility. Some companies have abandoned the cities to get away from all the urban problems. Others have sought the suburbs for trivial reasons, such as greater convenience to executive homes and golf courses. They take their tax base with them, leaving behind the seeds of unemployment, social unrest, and revolution.
In Detroit, under the enlightened leadership of Henry Ford, business has recognized that its public responsibility calls for staying in the city and working for solutions, not for turning its back and running. Business leaders have subordinated company ego, and forgone individual identifying signboards, to build a new kind of urban center for people, a center that could not exist if these businesses were not willing to pool their strengths and go beyond the property lines and corporate objectives. They are seeking a stabilized community, knowing that no business can operate without social stability.
The Renaissance Center also represents a new kind of opportunity for the architect; and if an emerging social consensus creates more design situation at this scale, it is imperative that the architectural profession be prepared to deal with them.
Architects are already trained to take all kinds of different needs and requirements and design structures that will accommodate them all. They are also trained to synthesize the contributions of various specialists—mechanical and structural engineers, landscape designers, lighting consultants, painters, sculptors—and bring all their work together into some kind of harmonious result. They become skilled coordinators of all these interests.
Because architects are accustomed to taking diverse elements and bringing them together into a single solution, I am confident that they have the qualifications to become master coordinators for the physical development of entire cities. Perhaps this sounds like a presumptuous statement. But what is a city? A city is structures that house people. Now what makes the city, the people or the structures? Well, both. But the architect, or physical designer, is the one who creates the environment: the things that we see, and the things that we use, as the city. Isn't it natural that the architect would be the one to prepare to orchestrate the city to the highest possible level, so that it contributes as much as possible to the elevation of human life and the ability of human beings to function within their environment?
Of course, architects have not been asked to do this very often, nor are they at present trained to do so. If architects are to become master coordinator of cities, they must prove that they are able to do the job. First, of course, they must master their trade as architects. Then they must broaden their base to include all the factors that bring a building into being—what I call the building birth cycle.
If architects can anticipate the future by understanding growth patterns, if they understand real estate values, if they understand market conditions an market feasibilities, and if they understand the financial climate that makes it right to do something or not to do something, then they will be able to design the city and not just the individual buildings.
It is not that complicated. Architects must be conversant with the building process, from the germ of an idea being born in somebody's mind until the building is sitting there and operating; but this does not mean that they must be absolute experts in every step along the way. After all, architects are seldom expert in the more complex aspects of mechanical systems or in the calculations for sophisticated structures, but they know enough about them to coordinate the work of consultants and incorporate their results in the final product. In the same way architects can use real estate consultants and the people who study market feasibility. They can also use financial advisers and legal advisers. To coordinate their work, architects must have enough understanding of all these things to put them together, just as they are accustomed to putting a building together.
There are many different ways for architects to play this coordinative role. They can work within government, like my colleague Jonathan Barnett and his fellow urban designers in New York. They could be advisers to insurance companies or other lenders. They could work for a consortium of business interests, as I am doing in Detroit, or from within the real estate development process, as I have done in Atlanta and other cities.
The opportunities are there if architects can learn how to use them. My own experience has led me to believe that it is not all that difficult for architects to expand their base and work to coordinate the physical environment.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Kunstler on Atlanta & CNU 18FOR THE FULL TEXT of James Howard Kunstler's Out of Darkness click here.
MY HOMEYS, the New Urbanists, held their annual meeting at the "downtown" Hilton there this past week -- a most mysterious selection, perhaps due to an x-treme discount on room rates in a time of austerity. The New Urbanists first came together about twenty years ago as a campaign to reform the tragic fiasco of suburbia. By taking this on they were often labeled as enemies of the American Way Of Life and Christian Decency, but they are a valiant band. I'd guess that architects composed about two-thirds of the org and the rest included developers, planning officials, a few college professors and journalists. They were all out of the mainstream, especially of architecture, whose stock-in-trade had become the emperors new clothes.
...The New Urbanists were fiercely opposed, usually for stupid reasons by stupid people, but also by the mandarin architecture establishment, especially in the grad schools, where mysticism supported a set of theological rackets in the service of celebrity cults divorced from the public nature of things that get built. In the local planning boards, the New Urbanists were accused of being communists; in the ivory towers they were accused of being slaves to worn-out traditions -- like walking from home to work. They certainly proved one principle of the human condition: that even the best ideas will generate opposition.
The New Urbanists had to work within this system. They had to find allies among developers who aspired to create better places, and they had to get under the hood of regulatory system to rewrite the laws in thousands of municipalities. They got a lot of projects built, new neighborhoods and even whole new towns. Many of these places came out beautifully. Some of them were badly compromised in the fight to get them built. Some of them were rip-offs that amounted to little more than the usual suburban schlock with a little window-dressing.
It's a bitter irony that the most ambitious New Urbanist projects were made possible within the context of the housing bubble economy. For about a decade money seemed to grow on trees. Most of that money went into conventional suburban crapola and a small percentage of it went into New Urbanist projects, but when the bubble burst, it crushed all the players, regardless of the ultimate social value of what they produced.
I heard a lot of stories during the meeting in Atlanta last week but one really stood out. It was about the money and revealed a lot about what is going on in our banking system these days. A New Urbanist developer had gotten a small project going for a traditional neighborhood. Despite the global financial clusterfuck, the developer was able to meet the payments of his commercial loan. But the FDIC sent bank examiners around America and they told the small regional banks that if they had more than twenty percent of their loans in commercial real estate (CRE) they would be put out of business. The banks were ordered to reduce their loads of CRE by calling in the loans and liquidating the assets. Ironically, the banks only called in their "performing" loans, the ones that were being regularly paid off, because they were ignoring and even concealing the ones that weren't being paid.
The developer in question had his loan called in when the FDIC descended on his bank. He couldn't pay off the $3 million in one lump, of course. The FDIC's agents are going to seize and sell off his project if he can't get it refinanced in short order. He can't get it refinanced because there is now such a shortage of capital in the banking system that no one can get a loan for anything. Also, since it is now well-known that the bank failed, the vultures are circling above his project hoping to buy it for a discount, so even the few private investors who have money won't throw him a lifeline. By the way, the FDIC agents told him they are doing this because they now expect that virtually all commercial real estate loans in the USA will fail in the months ahead. Pretty scary story, huh? And he was one of the good guys.
I suppose it was a tragic thing that the New Urbanists made themselves hostage to the same banking system that was behind suburban sprawl. Apart from the personal stories of misfortune among them, the movement is still alive. In fact, they have emerged the victors in the long contest over how America will build itself, because it is now self-evident that suburban sprawl is an epic failure. Whether Americans like it or not, whether their identity is tied up in the suburban fantasy or not, we are faced with circumstances that now compel us to live differently.