Greater Greater Washington

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Public Spaces


The blank wall today

We can at least excuse the awful blank street-facing blank walls of New York buildings like Manhattan Plaza or the Atlantic Center mall because, when these buildings were built in the 1970s, nobody knew better.

But why would anyone build this in a busy Brooklyn neighborhood today? And will someone in the NYC government please stop disasters like this? As with the buildings from the '70s, we'll be stuck with them for a long time.


(Gowanus Lounge via Streetsblog)

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Development


Is Red Hook de-gentrifying?

SoHo, Alphabet City, Cobble Hill, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick. One after another, New York neighborhoods full of gritty industrial buildings and unsafe streets have turned into yuppie meccas. Red Hook was next... but then it wasn't, argues an article in New York Magazine. Despite a Fairway and beautiful riverfront views of Manhattan, would-be gentrifiers have been moving out, leaving the neighborhood still a "run-down fishing village" with more storefront vacancies than chic bars.

What's going on? asks the article. It posits many theories, though no academic experts or scientific evidence. Has gentrification run out of steam in New York? Is Red Hook just too far from the subway (Across the Park thinks this is the reason), too edgy, the buildings too ugly? Is gentrification "a self-extinguishing phenomenon?" Or is it just a matter of time before Red Hook looks like Fort Greene?

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Public Spaces


Brooklyn puts retail in municipal building

"From the street, [Brooklyn's Municipal Building] looks like 'dead space,'" writes the Brooklyn Paper. "'People have just accepted that government buildings are only for government,'" says Joe Chan of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. Downtown DC is even worse, with back to back Federal buildings each of which presents iron fences and blank walls to the street while Federal employees toil away. It leaves downtown nearly deserted in the middle of a weekday.

Brooklyn is changing this. According to the article, the building's ground floor could become retail. If Brooklyn can do it, why not the Federal government? If the EPA building, across Constitution Avenue from the Smithsonian Museum of American History, had even a little cafe fronting the street, the Mall could be such a more welcoming public space.

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Roads


Grander Army Plaza

Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza could be a terrific public square. Qt the northern end of Prospect Park, it was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to be a gateway to Prospect Park, and features a beautiful arch modeled on Paris's Arc de Triomphe.

Instead, it is a crowded traffic circle where pedestrians dart across multiple lanes of traffic on short-duration walk signals. It evolved into its current state under decades of management by traffic engineers who see moving the maximum number of cars per hour as the primary goal. Project for Public Spaces lists it in their New York City Hall of Shame.


Source: Grand Army Plaza coalition (PDF)

But a coalition of local residents want to fix that. They have a series of short-term improvement suggestions, from converting some of the large empty asphalt areas into landscaped, raised pedestrian islands, building a bike lane from the park across the busy traffic intersection to the quiet outer ring of the plaza, and adding many new crosswalks. Some, including trimming a traffic lane on Eastern Parkway, have already been endorsed by the newly-progressive NYC DOT.

Their long-term vision significantly reclaims space in the plaza for park use, and rebalancing the plaza between pedestrians, bicycles, and cars instead of its overwhelmingly car-centric current layout. Instead of a large traffic circle, the plaza could be two two-way streets, Flatbush Avenue and another connecting Vanderbilt to Prospect Park West, making the plaza's signature arch and fountain part of Prospect Park and making the plaza fulfill its potential as a lively public square in the center of Brooklyn.


Source: Grand Army Plaza coalition (PDF)

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Sustainability


America's melting pot

New York City was once the world's melting pot; today that lives on primarily in Brooklyn, once of the most multicultural cities in America. Many neighborhoods still represent a microcosm of the planet, with many ethnic groups living side by side, working, practicing their traditions, and sharing a neighborhood, usually peacefully.

I took the N train down to Bensonhurst in search of good dim sum, rivaling the quality of that found in the Bay Area with its large Chinese population. On the way back, it being a nice Saturday afternoon, my friend and I decided to walk northward, which took us through Borough Park and Kensington.

Along the streets people of all colors walk and play; we passed a park where a group of people were playing handball. They were white, black, Asian, and Hispanic, and made occasional reference to such in their trash talking, but always in the lighthearted way that comes with everyday contact. The orthodox Jews, a large group in this area, have some beautiful and expensive houses and some less so. It was the period between om Kippur and Sukkot, so they had large sukkahs outside the synagogues. And it being a Saturday, they couldn't watch TV or take the subway to Manhattan or do a variety of other things, so many of them were out walking around the neighborhood. And in a sight seldom seen in cities or in suburbs, the kids were walking around on their own, in pairs (single sex of course) and small groups. Residential, commercial, and light industrial development make this a true mixed use community.

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Public Spaces


New York public spaces good and bad

Speaking of public space, the Project for Public Spaces has put together a detailed commentary on New York's public space - the good spaces, the terrible ones, and the opportunities for the future.

Their list of great public spaces covers a wide variety of spaces, from architectural masterpieces like the steps of the Metropolitan Museum to Grand Central Terminal, parks that have truly created usable and welcoming spaces for the public like Bryant Park, Central Park, Prospect Park, and Washington Square Park, and mixed-use streets from the public Bleecker Street to the fairly astounding private space of Rockefeller Center where, PPS writes,

"Thirty-five years ago, this complex was insular and almost privatized. ... PPS was asked what kind of spikes would be appropriate to keep people off of the yews. Instead, we suggested politely, 'Try benches.' This was a revelation ... after which they began to see the potential of inviting people into the Plaza, accommodating them, and eventually entertaining them."
New York has some wonderful public spaces, but also some disasters. There are the large expanses of asphalt where traffic engineers cleared an area of people to encourage the fast movement of traffic, as at Astor Place, Central Park South, or Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. And there are the buildings designed as "blank walls" to isolate rather than engage pedestrians, such as Rockefeller Center West, Grace Plaza, the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem, or many of the buildings around City Hall. I'm not very familiar with many of these, but can think of plenty of other examples: the back of Manhattan Plaza on 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, or the entire Lincoln Center complex. Worst of all, planners and architects still haven't learned - just look at the Atlantic Yards proposal, which combines many of the biggest urban design mistakes into one tidy package.

Never one to pass judgment without a variety of specific recommendations, PPS identifies a list of opportunities for spaces that could be so much more than they are. In addition to the aforementioned Atlantic Yards and Lincoln Center (whose "abundant parking" is where I park my car), they identify and give quality recommendations for Broadway, Fifth and Madison Avenues, Times Square, Union Square, 125th Street, Allen and Pike Streets, Battery Park City, and Brooklyn Bridge Park.

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Development


A picture is worth a thousand activists

Aaron Naparstek discusses a few reasons for the momentum shifting away from Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards proposal: New York losing the 2012 Olympic bid, the Extell competing bid, but most interesting of all, a suggestion that showing a picture of the bizarre looking buildings in the New York times galvanized previously unconcerned citizens into opposition:

Ratner has long been criticized for the cheap, fortress-like architecture of his other Brooklyn projects. Gehry, the celebrity architect renowned for designing buildings that look like crumpled balls of tinfoil, was brought aboard to neutralize that critique and provide the developer with aesthetic cover. Yet, Gehry’s designs did what months of petitioning, protesting and public meetings couldn’t. They got “sensible,” well-heeled, politically connected Brooklynites pissed off, paying attention and preparing to fight. For neighborhood advocates who have been working diligently to get an apathetic public to pay attention to the travesty underway at Atlantic Yards, Gehry’s architectural models were a gift.
But Aaron Donovan, in the comments, makes a point I wholeheartedly agree with:
More important is that Ratner's plan would create 6,000 homes, while the Extell plan creates only 1,940. All across the U.S. northeast, cities are atrophied, hollow-eyed versions of their once great selves -- New Haven, Hartford, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Cincinnati. These cities suffer from decades of disinvestment, white flight and planned shrinkage continues. Small pedestrian friendly towns have suffered the same fate as businesses have fled to the suburban rings. Beyond the northeast, "cities" are merely agglomerations of auto-dependent suburbs -- Atlanta, Phoenix, etc.

New York stands along as the only walkable, pedestrian- and transit-friendly city that is gaining traction as we proceed further into the 21st century. More people want to live in Brooklyn and Manhattan than there is space to house them all. This leads to prohibitively expensive real estate, deferred dreams and untold economic opportunity lost to other communities that make it easier to build housing. It also fosters ever greater dependency on the car as would-be New Yorkers are forced to live in suburbia.

The Atlantic Yards, right on top of a subway and regional rail hub, are a very appropriate place for dense residential living. Dense residential living doesn't have to entail height, a stadium, bad architecture, or my personal pet peeve, street demapping. The Ratner plan has all four of these thing, but I like it better than Extell's plan because it makes for better use of centrally located urban land.

I wouldn't say New York is the only "walkable, pedestrian- and transit-friendly city that is gaining traction" - Boston and Washington DC, while much smaller, still have great urban centers that don't require owning a car, and are even "If we wanted Manhattan, we'd live there. Many people do want Manhattan, but can't afford to live there. Whose needs matter more? That's a very tough question.
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Development


Get yer community plans here - maybe

Theresa Toro points out the Greenpoint/Williamsburg community plan, whose difficulty of finding Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn has about 30 links and PDFs about how bad Ratner's plan is - "Anatomy of a Sweetheart Deal", "Boondoggle Basics", and various position statements. Then, somewhere below the fold, buried on the right sidebar, is a tiny "alternative plans" section with one link, the UNITY Development Plan. I wish a group called Develop Don't Destroy spent a little more of its ink talking about its vision for the Develop part, and a little less than the current 99% on the Don't Destroy part.

The UNITY plan looks nice to me, with a couple of elements I really like, such as adding more street connections (rather than taking them away - superblocks are already an awful feature of the crap that's there now, like the Atlantic Center mall), and a mix of parks, retail, and residential. That document still spends several pages criticizing the Ratner proposal BEFORE it talks about its own ideas, however.

Now the opponents of the Atlantic Yards plan have scored a big win as Extell Development Company submitted a competing proposal that would develop the railyards without destroying existing buildings. So wouldn't it be nice if Develop Don't Destroy or any of the other sites put that plan online? All I can find is a few concept sketches, but only by searching Google, not from the DDDB site.

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