Out goes manufacturing, in comes...housing?

This NYTimes article about new luxury housing development along the Hudson River, just outside of New York City, sheds some light on all the calls we've been getting from developers to work on new town centers and mixed-use development (mostly in California and Florida). Seems like many are grappling with how to create instantaneous, vibrant places, and wanting immediate benefits (profit).

At least there's greater appreciation for the small things that make a place work (see the last sentence in the article), but the harried way at which they are arrived, to support or block the development proposal, is not reassuring. We've been brought in a few times already to "save" a mixed-use master plan, where we have limited effect. In some cases, we're even brought in at the beginning, before any design, only to have the architects and master planners ignore it anyway. Argh. It looks like changing this process will take more effort upfront and for much longer and deeper, and require more than changing the design process - it's also changing decision making processes in leadership. As the adage goes, anything worth doing is worth doing well, and one thing that few are doing is taking time in the beginning to understand all the small, critical elements that go into making a place great.


Automobile apartheid

Do you think the U.S. discriminates against people who don't own cars?

(I do.)


Finalists for the Vendy Awards

To satiate your hankering for that awesome chicken rice plate or a homemade dosa, here are the finalists for the Vendy Awards next week.

Thiru "Dosa Man" Kumar

Tony "the Dragon" Dragonas

Rolf “Hallo Berlin” Babiel

"The Best Halal" Team (Mustafa, Mohammed, Islam, Sam)

Visit the Urban Justice site for descriptions of their delicious yet accessible meals and unique service.

Wiley Wal-Mart

Honesty is usually a virtue, yet in this case, Wal-Mart's brutal honesty towards their "associates" (wage-based employees) benefits leaves me feeling dirty. Pointing fingers abound, especially about health care. The government thinks the private sector should take care of healthcare; employers, specifically very large employers, think healthcare has gotten so expensive it's no longer worth keeping as a benefit even if it means a healthier workforce.

And why am I getting all bothered about Wal-Mart's management policies? This business model is brutal not only to the employees, but to the environment that their employees must traverse and work in. I'm not totally opposed to all big box stores, but if a business is going to deliberately destroy local economies (from mom-and-pop stores to the local professionals like doctors, dentists, etc, essentially, the community) and then not take care of those very people whose communities have disintegrated, this qualifies as close to evil as anything else might.

Also noted is the open admission that employees are working longer with Wal-Mart, thereby costing the company more. There was some talk of Wal-Mart trying to force out seniors earlier, because they do cost so much in terms of healthcare. So, who is Wal-Mart going to off next?

For more, Robert Greenwald's new movie "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" opens in New York next Tuesday, at the Union Square Theater.

The memo (pdf) that got the tongues wagging.

Finally, for an illumination of the grind of today's working class, Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America."


The old street corner

Look at how much we have given over to our cars in New York! Read more about this at Starts and Fits.


I've been so completely delinquent with writing this week, but a quick check-in at The Dirt was reassuring. They have some great stories there this week - so go check it out!


Creating a market for home estates...

[update: I've been thinking about this article a lot, and I wish I called it "Stealing the American Dream..."]

The NYTimes Magazine covers the incredible growth of the Toll Brothers, one of the largest "home estate" (McMansion) home building companies in the country. One of the executives reported being impatient with the crticism that these types of developments cause sprawl and claims the company's only responding to market forces.

OK, Toll Brothers, you have no choice? But does the Toll Brothers have some hand in creating the market and therefore demand? Another executive chuckles, "we're like a marketing company that happens to build houses." Ah, the dirtiness of cashing in on the American Dream.

It's true, many people picture a large single-family home to call their own, a large backyard their kids can play in, the next-door neighbor, a street in front that isn't congested with traffic. The cul-de-sac developments do have that. But in choosing to live in these developments, families give up so many other aspects of the American Dream. They give up having schools nearby that their kids could bike or walk to, knowing people other than the neighbors that abut their properties, and supporting independent small businesses that invest in the town. Perhaps most importantly, they give up time which could be better spent in their lovely home with their family but is instead wasted on commuting to their job or being stuck in traffic running errands.

I'm all for development, and it's true that if the Toll Brothers didn't build on available land, some other developer would. And the Toll Brothers claim to be open to mixed-use. But it's like the West Windsor mayor, Shing-Fu Hsueh, says,

What's regrettable...was not that Toll was allowed by the courts to develop 290 acres or even that it will ultimately build more than a thousand homes here, but that the town didn't work with the company to create more of a mixed-use area - one where offices, stores and homes commingle, for example, or one where a different configuration allows more open land to be preserved.

"If I had the opportunity to see it done over again... I would have loved to see that."


Don't call it Astro-Turf!

I just LOVE this Washington Post article about Silver Spring, MD, where an innovative Public Works and Transportation employee suggested putting in a temporary grass surface over the site of a demolished parking lot so that people could use space instead of letting it lie fallow. According to the article, it's a tremendous success! I'm pretty sure that the original parking garage was strategically sited there, because it is in a central location in the middle of diverse activity. Now it's a park - what a great swap.

Next spring, when County officials may decide to seed the space with real grass, they'll peel off the artificial grass and try it out on other parking lots that aren't getting much use. Fantastic.

My office got a lot of fire for proposing the same type of solution for Occidental Park in Seattle as just one of many short-term solutions. We recommended a temporary surface that could be easily dressed up as a fun public space so people could imagine what having a good, functional park would be like in its historical downtown area. (It has been mostly taken over by homeless people witnessed during my visit there). It didn't have to be Astro-Turf, but we thought that the fake green grass and its fun texture would be great as a temporary installation.

Well. Never mind. People just hated the idea, however temporary. This just makes me all the more appreciative of the risk-taking and ingenuity of Silver Spring, MD.

Thanks Patee!


Presenting...the Vendy Awards

Photo credit

Finally, one group of unsung heros of the New York City street life experience get a chance in the limelight. Vendy Awards - it's about time!

November 10, 7-10:30PM, 27 East 4th Street in Manhattan.
Buy tix here.

hmmm...just thinking about chicken rice with salad...

Libraries we love

Berkshire Publishing is sponsoring a competition to find the best-loved, community libraries across the country. The top 75 will make it into a beautiful coffee table book. Check it out and nominate your favorite library.

Big Box stores adopting urban formats

They're getting better and better at infiltrating the urban environment. The stores have figured out a format to be profitable because though start-up costs are much higher, urban stores generate more revenue.

Actually, I wouldn't mind if traditional big boxes fit their aesthetics to be less intrusive in urban settings. What I worry about is that corporations say that they have community benefits in mind, but then get away with not doing so, and that they displace local merchants. What if there are no local merchants? It takes a pretty savvy and persistent city manager to be close to the project to make sure the aesthetic, functional, and economic benefits are fulfilled.

(A City planning in White Plains, NY, once told me that the developers of a mall near the train station had originally proposed pedestrian accessibility, but in fact, he has to enter the mall through the parking garage. There's actually no other obvious outlet from the street, and especially from the train station.)

Charrette for the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Veritas photo from outside the hotel where the charrette is being held

A national perspective on the charrette, and John Massengale offers a blow-by-blow account on his blog Veritas et Venustas.


I've never heard such stringent anti-growth as from this little town that imposed a moratorium on new water meters since 1970, and whose residents have been tearing down highway signs that point to the town. Don't worry, I won't release your name over the Internet either.

Private investment for public infrastructure

Another comment on urban infrastructure. If we're unable to fund it, Christopher Hume at the Toronto Star offers a solution to get that critical urban infrastructure built - by the private sector. Mr. Hume cites examples in the UK, but my sense is that success depends largely on the cultural relationship between, and public perception of, the government and the private sector. Success varies across the board, from the Scandinavias, the US, to Eastern Europe, China and Southeast Asia.


So smart

I'm a bit late on the draw, but this is such a smart Polis comment about a NYTimes article that I wanted to share. I've thought a lot about the Bilbao effect and Guggenheim economics and with both, we ignore fundamentals of our cities.

The culture of SUVs

In China, 84 cities have banned small cars from downtowns, (favoring SUVs?). In France, the Paris mayor is considering a ban on SUVs while a citizen's activist group wages a quiet guerilla war, deflating SUV tires and muddying the doors. Hm.


Getting close to the community on bikes

Bikes in Copenhagen, from PPS image archive

How cool is this? Aurora, IL city inspectors have traded in cars for bikes, saying that on bikes they are able to identify violations more easily and appear more approachable to the community. And the bonus, cutting back on emissions and saving money on gas!


East Aurora - bucking the upstate New York trend

Vidler's five and dime in East Aurora, from America 24/7

I loved this article from the Buffalo, New York area. Upstate New York experiences very little economic vitality, especially compared to New York City. However, one small town outside of Buffalo, East Aurora, finds its own strengths and builds on them.

As the Village Trustee, Elizabeth Cheteny says,

"All too often, developers want to impose faceless, nameless architecture anywhere. They hit a wall here. We don't want to be anywhere; we want to be East Aurora."
So far, East Aurora has successfully kept out Wal-Mart, even beloved upstate grocery chain Wegmans, and most recently banned drive-through restaurants in its main street corridor. And,
"Talk of the drive-through restriction sparked immediate results, even before the Village Board enacted it. Starbucks Coffee and Dunkin' Donuts revised their plans, eliminating drive-throughs after the village initially rejected their proposals."
The community has been key in guiding development in a way that suits their vision for their hometown, forming a citizen's committee to define its goals while other surrounding villages were being swallowed up by generic development.
"I don't think it's a matter of development or no development, but development that's shaped for the community," Cheteny said. "A village's character erodes slowly, and you don't realize it right away. It's rarely one project. It's a series of small decisions - a gradual erosion of what makes a place special."


McCarren pool alive

I'm so glad we went to Sens Productions last performance of Agora. The line stretched from the Pool entrance to Driggs when I got there. A lot of my pre-show anticipation was wondering why it was called Agora, but what better way to convey the spirit of community in a site-specific piece than through a public market? We loved it.


The iconic awnings from a French site

A couple weeks ago, on a school night, a friend lured me to CBGBs late to see what she promised would be a HUGE band. Well, the back-up band to a really huge band did show up, but I was happy to go, check out CBs one last time and firmly putting my late-night-music-outings life in the past.

The debate about its landmark status is interesting, mostly because it is fairly unremarkable on the outside, but is chock full with incredible, tangible layers of history on the inside. Everyone recognized the iconic awnings, but other than that, the building is unremarkable. The interior is amazing however. It would spill out of the club if not for the bustle and almost-arrival of the Bowery. The NYTimes notes the richness of CBGBs lavatories (did I just write that?), but the whole club does give you that feeling of entering another period of time. It's a remarkable feeling, actually.

from a Southern Illionis alternative rock station...?

I'm split on whether or not CBs should stay (the Bowery Resident's Committee shouldn't have tried to evict it the way it did, but does it have legitimate reasons to take over space because it wants to expand its programs? if so, negotiate terms BRC and CBs can be happy with), but whatever happens, the interiors should remain intact, which would be an architectural challenge whether it stays or goes.