Time Warner Building, 2 years later and the state of local retail

Not my view - image by jamesedmunds

I spent some time today at the Time Warner building. Mostly, I was curious about how the building was doing and wanted to try out the Thomas Keller Bouchon Bakery, and used the opportunity to catch up with a friend. We ordered from the takeaway section and sat at a dining bar that was seated away from the foot traffic and overlooked the atrium, but not the part with a view of Central Park (or of the giant Samsung sign). I had a view of Emporio Armani instead.

How do these businesses succeed when it was so tiresome to be inside the building? Usually my friend and I spend hours catching up; today, we finished our coffee and called it a date. We could have been sitting in any upscale mall in America, and it didn't seem to match the quality of the pastry being served. I wondered last year about the experience of a vertical mall in New York City when the street is infinitely more interesting, and I still contend that it is a shame that the Time Warner Building didn't work harder to get a local entrepreneur into the building. I tried shopping, even bought a housewarming gift at Borders, but I breathed a sigh of relief when I finally worked my way outside where it was immediately more fun to speculate about who were the people sitting on the stool-high metal bollards at the curb.

Fresh from my urban mall experience, I attended a panel at the Municipal Art Society tonight on local retail and how it was holding up against big boxes making their moves into New York. The audience primarily sympathized with local businessowners though the panel was a good mix of commercial developers and brokers as well as independent "alternative" developers lika Irwin Cohen, the developer of Chelsea Market.

Whoever they were working for, everyone agreed that local retail was vital to the success of a development, on all fronts. It's important to developers who want to command high residential rents, since it seems that people will pay to be in a specific neighborhood, and that property values disappear when the eclectic local retail "shifts." Diverse retail is important for existing communities, and for workforce development.

So why isn't preservation or encouragement of local retail more prevalent? One thing that everyone mentioned is the "4-corner bank" syndrome. Typically, no single property owner will sacrifice the rent for a corporate giant just to maintain the ambience of a neighborhood, especially if its competition at the other three corners is reaping the benefits of NOT doing so. Interestingly, most people in the audience seemed to live in or at least be aware of the Upper East Side, where the Duane Reade and bank syndrome is in full force.

A couple panelists advocated letting the private sector come up with creative solutions to fit the urban context, and came out against regulation. A couple of other developers said that it takes a commitment of risk on the developers part, and a partnership with the entrepreneur to come up with a plan that will fit the business and the building. Only two people, Irwin Cohen and Victor Dadras, who works for NYC's Department of Small Business Services on something called the Storefront Improvement Program (here's an example), thought that the city could encourage better private sector coordination to maintain a local retail and neighborhood flavor.

I left before the bitter end of the Q&A, so I remain puzzled: what is going on with the development community and the Planning Department that major mixed-use developments like Atlantic Yards, Flatbush Nostrand Junction, East River Plaza, and Bronx Terminal Market continue to prefer non-New York-based chains when everyone seems to like local? It seems that private and public sectors want local to stay - so is the City's rich retail fabric being unravelled by free market weavers?

Samsung sign with Christos Gates in background, image by la madrugada



A few links have been made known to me. Most likely they're not new to anyone but me since I've been out of things, but they're worth your attention.

Built Environment
- (via Polis) I agree with Lisa Chamberlain's assessment of this one. And I have a feeling I have met this fellow a couple years ago. Very thoughtful blog (and author).

Claiming Public Space
- A robust web site with articles, resources and community from the Hamer Center for Community Design at Penn State. I didn't sign up to access the community part (which I find suspect on most web sites) but I share the vision of the site. What do you think?

City Project - Un-New York related, I just received an announcement that CLIPI (Center for Law in Public Interest) is closing! Very sad, as it has been a revolutionary organization, especially for Los Angeles. Its executive director, Robert Garcia, will instead be heading something called the City Project, which has been a program area at CLIPI. Though not based in New York, CLIPI was providing a service akin to urban space advocacy groups in NYC, and with more legal muscle and a greater social justice bent, combining land-use/urban design decisions with community development. I'd love to see a CLIPI-type group in NYC - not just a think tank or policy engine, which New York has aplenty. The City Project site is not up, yet - I hope.


Agora, Take II in the McCarren Pool

Noemie Lafrance brings Agora II back to McCarren Pool this month. If you went last year and wished that you could have gotten in there and run around with the dancers, this year you can, and this is the last weekend to do so.

The brief:

Inspired by the "agora," the center of town or marketplace in ancient Greece, AGORA II investigates the role of public space in contemporary urban life. Performed beyond the theater walls, this work challenges the interactionss between public space, performance and audience.
Where: McCarren Park Pool, Greenpoint/Williamsburg
Main Arch (Lorimer St. between Driggs & Bayard Ave.)
When: September 13 - 30 2006, Wednesday - http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifSaturday, 8:00 PM

Of course, Agora II, this summer's McCarren Pool festivities - from the Sunday Pool party to the expensive Clear Channel Communications concerts, beg the larger question about the future of the pool.

For public space advocates who oppose most of Robert Moses's decisions, Moses himself was an advocate of large-scale neighborhood swimming pools to provide healthy recreation for the working class in New York. McCarren Pool was a product of the Works Progress Administration (more on the history of WPA-era swimming pools here.) and sadly, is the only one of 11 pools opened under the WPA that is not open. It was closed in 1984 for reasons unknown though much speculated.

When I worked in affordable housing in Williamsburg, there was a community rumor that there was an opportunity to rehabilitate the pool structure in 2000-2001, but the funding was lost because no overarching plan could be agreed upon. But a less dramatic reality might be that funding was lost due to post-9/11 consequences.

It seems that the Pool has another chance at a second life. Sens production (Noemie Lafrance's dance company) is quite active in securing that life. So is Clear Channel, I would guess. Unfortunately, the mega-media corporation's participation is obscuring the many other community groups like Pool Aid, that have had a hand in keeping the community vision for the pool alive, even overshadowing Sens productions.

As I looked around the pool on a sunny afternoon this past summer, the potential for an amazing, vibrant readaptation of the pool is startling clear. Within the open structure, and even without water, there were plenty of different places to hang out and relax around and in the pool. People were lounging, sitting, standing, watching, playing games, dancing and sleeping. Some families had brought their young children for a day in the sun, complete with wading in kiddie pools.

However, families were scarce compared to the hundreds of hipsters milling around. I'd like to see some plans that showed how this piece of history could accommodate performances, screenings - along with something for the kids and seniors. Given the numerous luxury condos going up in the neighborhood, especially around McCarren Park, it seems that any effort in the direction of anchoring the existing diverse community, instead of tilting it in favor of a higher per capita income level, would help stabilize the neighborhood. It isn't outrageous to pay to see a concert - but it is if the public space has only paid events to offer at the moment.

At this point in the (in)decision process, I think anyone can put on an event in McCarren Pool. And did I hear that a temporary ice rink will be put in this winter?

I've been jumping on the news bandwagon late this entire summer - this and more have been covered already:

Queens Ledger/Greenpoint Star
Brooklyn Rail
NY Times


Take back the street - the fun way

Image by Arthur Leipzig, "Stickball, 1950"

Come Out and Play is this weekend! Hosted by Eyebeam. Sign up for games now!

New nest

As some of you may already know, I have started a new job, helping a major architecture firm start its New York City office. More details to come, but I'm excited by this blend of cities, design, start-up, and management, which covers all that I enjoy about work.

I'll be out of town again this week, but hope to post more regularly next week.

Rudy Bruner Award

The 2007 Rudy Bruner Award is now accepting submissions.

The Rudy Bruner Award is a search for examples of this often overlooked excellence, and a celebration of their contribution to the richness and diversity of the urban experience. Often these places transcend the boundaries between architecture, urban design, and planning. They are born through processes of transformation -- the renewal of something old, or the creation of something new that resonates in the history of community life.
I checked out the 2005 winners and I think that this description of the award's aspirations is very apt.

Poured Lines covering Bankside, London

When I was in graduate school, I lived in Camberwell, in South London. Many Sundays started with coffee, a croissant and then lunch at Borough Market, and fortified, the day usually then led to a meandering through South neighborhoods - Borough, Bankside, Bermondsey. Ignorance can be such a wonderful thing. Most of my friends, who lived in North London were horrified that I would be wandering through Bermondsey, but quite honestly, these areas along the river were where old industrial London could still be detected - not unlike the Dumbo waterfront. And it was quite beautiful with the old Victorian structures.

Because I have this appreciation of the bones of the neighborhood, I was pleased to see that Southwark Council, the local authority, has commissioned a public art piece - Poured Lines by Ian Davenport, Turner Prize recipient in 1991 - that will span 165 feet (50 meters) long under a noisy railway bridge. One might think that 300,000 pounds could best be spent elsewhere. Perhaps, but beautifing the thoroughfares beneath these bridges will do a lot to connect the disparate communities in South London. Like most underserved communities, it is easiest to travel by foot, bike or bus here, no Underground.

the artist's blow-by-blow of this ambitious piece

Evening Standard

London Times on other closeby South London design happenings

All via Archinect


Upcoming (quite shortly!)

Via Polis, I heard about a couple cool events happening this week. Tomorrow, the Socrates Sculpture Park's anniversary party - noon to 6 PM, and hopefully it's going to be another beautiful day!

Then, next Thursday is the inaugural Pecha Kucha New York event. According to the parent organization, Pecha Kucha was conceived as a place for young designers to meet, network, and show their work in public. New York's will be at the Bohemian Beer Garden.

I'll be out of town for Pecha Kucha, but maybe I'll catch some of you at the Anniversary Party.