On FDR, East River developments and Ousourroff...

I'm just catching up with the writing now...really, great discussion from John Massengale who writes about the suburbanization of NYC and removing the blight that is FDR and Miss Representation on trying to uncover the "true" design intent behind the East River development.

Beyond Jacobs

We had a bit of a debate this morning over yesterday's Ouroussoff NYTimes article about the East River waterfront proposal. There are some who go back to the (now) tired old argument that design critics are too aesthetically-driven, leaving the function and use of the space untended to. OK, we've heard that song before. The rest of us (me included) were simply puzzled by Ouroussoff's writing.

Let's really think about this: isn't Ouroussoff setting up a false truth? A Jacobian legacy doesn't immediately connote sentimentality and nostalgia. She was an activist in her day, and she didn't necessarily prefer one design to another. Mostly, she worried that neighborhoods were not being thought about with the lense of people and the attendent uses, comfort, sociability, etc were being forgone in the name of what her opponents called "modern."

What Ouroussoff wrote in complimenting the proposal was completely in line with Jacobs:

"Even as it celebrates the city's underbelly, it weaves it into the surrounding neighborhoods with remarkable sensitivity. The plan shows how a series of small interventions, when thoughtfully conceived, can have a more meaningful impact on daily life than an unwieldy urban development scheme."
If Ourossoff wanted people to stop paying attention to sentimentality, why continue to evoke an outdated notion about Jacobs? Come on - of course young designers have innovative ideas about what it takes to make a city great, and they're best suited to come up with small interventions rather than large civic projects. After all, they're used to making a lot out of not very much at all.

Jacobs ideas were about innovation and change, not accepting the status quo destruction that was so quickly happening around her. We can continue to live that legacy of embracing change and imbue that mentality with a humanist perspective, only we've got to move beyond the false duality of to preserve or not. There is no time to argue about sentimentality - can we just talk about what works?

See PPS for the official opinion, where you can comment too. Or comments welcome here!


The north end of Union Square

Photo by www.laneyb.com

I guess I've been doing a bit of NYC focused things lately. I went to the Union Square BID annual meeting a couple mornings ago, and there, heard mentioned off-handedly that Van Valkenburgh Associates is working on tweaking their design of the north side of the Square (which will not be shown to the community board?!). Iris Weinshall, Commissioner of NYCDOT was also there, and she mentioned that DOT was doing a study on the transportation of the site. (Kudos to Union Square by the way - it's come a LONG way. Some of the statistics they flashed were amazing - over 1.1 million people use the transit station underground each week; 30,000 people walk through the south side of the square each day; and 100,000 people visit Whole Foods every week, advance apologizes if I'm missing a digit or two, it was kind of early.)

At no time did either party say that they were aware of the other's study, or that they were interested in collaborating with each other. Am I missing something, or does it seem obvious that they should?

The Fear Factor

"Given the slippery nature of the threat, the security debate at the Freedom Tower should move beyond architectural design."
Yes. True of all buildings beyond the Freedom Tower.

NYC: Incapable of "big projects"?

A journalist tried to provoke me the other day by suggesting that New York City didn't have the conviction, determination, savvy, smarts, and even guts to push through a "big project." By big project, he meant a stadium, or a modern architectural wonder, anything, anything, dear god, that would show the world once and for all that New York City, the city of big egos, can build something as big as it talks. There is definitely an undertone among architectural circles that there isn't any "good" new architecture in New York City.

We have to get away from this big mentality. What's so great with always shooting for the big? The big projects take the largest amount of resources for the smallest amount of immediate, and in many cases, long term, gratification and benefits. Given the long length of time that they require for the building process, they tend to fall short of meeting the needs of realities in the future year when they are finally realized.

Regardless, I think NYC has succeeded at things bigger than big projects. Big projects tend to serve the interests of a narrow band of privileged people. I think the bigger challenges are to serve more people with fewer resources, something NYC has been successful at doing.

As a city of small cities, towns, villages and neighborhoods, NYC has improved the ability of the smallest micro-neighborhoods to succeed and become destinations in their own right. Crime rates are down, schools are undergoing an experiment in improvement, property values are going up, and people are investing in the city economically and socially. There are more people coming to the city now who stay in the city because it is a good place to live. I have spoken to countless taxi drivers who thought they would leave once they made their foundation, only to find themselves being able to carve out a good life in the city. Check out the Mayor's Management Report. (Sure, it's election year, so all the more reason to find out what he's trying to sell.)

Eminent domain reigns preeminent

Devastating ruling from the Supreme Court on a case from Connecticut. The Court ruled that local governments have the right to seize private property to make room for any development even if it does not have a clear public goal. Sandra Day O'Connor in her dissent:

"Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random," she wrote. "The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms."


Twilight becomes night

I'd like to see this. Sounds like a thoughtful production.

Gentrification vs reinvestment from CNU

Gentrification is a complicated issue: definitions abound and the topic is one that brings out the most impassioned diatribes about how neighborhoods should develop. Discussions easily lead to polarizaion. Here's CNU president John Norquist's perspective.

The thing is, gentrification as used to denote the outpacing of neighborhood improvements against conservation of existing positive aspects of the neighborhood, bears the blame for too many other broken social systems. (Gentrification is also over-used to generalize, which is really the point of Norquist's op-ed.) Improvement efforts that occur with enlightened developers, through asset-based community development, through collaborative city agencies, through a partnership between the neighborhood and the city, are typically perceived as the exception to the norm. There isn't a comprehensive system to recognize indigenous neighborhood assets, to protect, integrate and utilize those assets for positive improvement. But there isn't one single way that a neighborhood should be improved either.

Gehry garners CNU award for Urban Design

(Thank you John Massengale for the very appropriate image!)


Read all about it at City Comforts.


The High Cost of Low Price

Robert Greenwald (producer/director of Outfoxed and Uncovered) will release a new documentary, The High Cost of Low Price, on Wal-Mart's far-reaching negative impact on communities throughout the world. Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher with the New Rules Project writes:

"Local and state governments have provided billions of dollars in tax breaks to fund big box development. Tax policies in many states allow national retailers to avoid paying much of their income tax, while local businesses must shoulder their full share. Wal-Mart and other chains have also benefited enomously ... from a host of policies that subsidize sprawl at the expense of older business districts."
From Lisa Smithkline, an organizer working with Brave New Films, Greenwald's production company:
"The issues aren't right or left -- they cross all the usual barriers, uniting communities that simply ask Wal-Mart to respect their residents and businesses. From gasoline retailers who ask Wal-Mart to play fair without using predatory pricing practices, to family business owners who ask for cities to provide the same tax incentives and a fair playing field. Workers, teachers, mothers, students, independent newspapers, manufacturers, and members of every faith tradition have united in an unprecedented and creative campaign to offer Wal-Mart the opportunity to negotiate a fair place in their communities."
Turning up the heat on Wal-Mart - AlterNet
Taking On a Giant (Whistleblowers Welcome) - NY Times
Wal-Mart Focus of Documentary-Cum-Indictment - theboxtank


Chasing the American dream

There's a facsinating NY Times series on class running right now. Yesterday's article highlights upper-middle class "relocation specialists" - people who move for the sake of the job and lifestyle, people who seem to have it all, yet still remain dissatisfied. Of the family profiled,

"The Links are the first to say they have not really found a way to make their Alpharetta life work. They found good schools, safe streets, neighbors they like and a big house and a yard. But they did not count on the grueling traffic, on how far away everything seems, on how much is asked of volunteers to sustain the community, or on the stresses of a breadwinner's travels. They have no deep connections here, no old friends, no parents to sit for their children."
What's interesting to me is how the physical characteristics of their daily lifestyle - suburb of Atlanta, suburban housing developments - has inhibited their ability to build meaningful social capital.

I'm not talking about the mere act of relocating. I'm thinking about what happens when these people move, what they have to do when they get there. I'm thinking about the milk run, the school run, the soccer run, the bible study run, the tennis club run - all those daily little trips that this family has to make. Fundamentally, it seems that these relos are placeless though they try desperately to root themselves to whatever community they live in. Our transportation and land use decisions have become barriers to the Links' ability to fulfill, in its entirety, the life that they seek.