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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Dashed Expectations

Occasionally, a building defies your expectations. This is something we celebrate when the architect's craft creates an unexpected sensation that delights or provokes us. When it appears to be accidental, we tend to just shrug and shuffle along. Yet there may still be an opportunity to consider the possibilities created by our false expectations.


Friday, November 4, 2016

Chronicles of Stolen Space - Department of Buildings

This is the second in a series of posts about the failures of city agencies to protect New York City's public spaces, using the example of the Millenium Hilton. This post examines the role of the Department of Buildings (DOB).


DOB is the primary agency responsible for protecting the public's interest in Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS). A POPS is created when a developer dedicates space for permanent public use in exchange for extra development rights. The City Planning Commission issues a Special Permit, which is enforced by DOB. Signs denoting the status of the public space are supposed to be installed, and they inform people that complaints about the space can be directed to the Department of City Planning or DOB.


Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Dystopia of Parking Automated Cars

The future of parking is very much an open question, given the uncertain, diverging possibilities of automated vehicles. Ultimately, the future will be whichever dystopia we create through our collective decisions. Last night, I had a glimpse into one of the cities we may create.

There were neighborhoods with beautiful streets. The sidewalks were wide, well landscaped with rain gardens, and uninterrupted by driveways. The houses and apartment buildings were free of blank garage doors and the local retail had outdoor seating areas instead of parking lots. Occasionally, people walked out to cars that quickly and quietly whisked them away, or they were dropped off near their houses before the cars pulled away and disappeared.

But out of sight were the poor neighborhoods, places where the affluent and middle-class residents rarely had reason to venture. As always, the houses were not as well maintained. The streetscapes were nothing like the more affluent areas. Less City funding had been invested in either paving materials or landscaping when widening the sidewalks, and they did not enjoy the additional street furniture and maintenance available with the resources of private associations. But what really stood out were the driveways up and down the streets. They interrupted the street trees and the scrubby landscaping, and especially in the early morning and later evening, a steady stream of empty vehicles cut across the sidewalks and filled the streets. Needless to say, there were few retail areas with people enjoying themselves outside. The parking facilities for automated vehicles dominated the streets.

This dreadful image followed yesterday's discussion about automated vehicles in the Transportation Committee of the New York City Council. As part of the discussion, the New York City Department of Transportation suggested automated vehicles could reduce demand for parking and open opportunities to convert space to other uses. An optimistic takeaway was picked up in a tweet by the committee chair:

Monday, September 26, 2016

Chronicles of Stolen Space - New York Police Department

This is the first in a series of posts about the failures of city agencies to protect New York City's public spaces, using the example of the Millenium Hilton. This post examines the role of the New York Police Department (NYPD).

The NYPD was ok with the parking garage taking over a busy sidewalk


In New York City, as in any other civilized city, it is illegal to drive or park on a sidewalk. It is the responsibility of the NYPD to enforce these laws, which were enacted by our elected representatives to protect the safety and convenience of pedestrians. Title 34, Chapter 4, Rules of the City of New York is quite clear:

Friday, September 23, 2016

Into the Dead End

There is a path to nowhere along the Bronx River. It is a place I investigate from time to time, keenly aware that I tread there only due to my male privilege.

A wide, well constructed walkway passes under an arch of the Gun Hill Road bridge. After passing through the arch, it becomes narrower. It is somewhat overgrown, but well worn. It runs along the base of the retaining wall supporting the street above, which follows the bend in the river. When it reaches Bronx Boulevard, the retaining wall for the street above creates a dead end. I have never understood the purpose of this engineered walkway.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Little Houses on Charlotte Street

Charlotte Street in The Bronx has a mythic place in the history of The Bronx, and it continues to grow as the borough recovers from its period of neglect and abandonment. As the mythology grows, Charlotte Street becomes increasingly symbolic. Yet it remains a place where real families live and build dreams for their future.

As with any other symbolic place, people impose their own agendas onto its history and argue about its meaning. Its history becomes contested through competing efforts to use its lessons to shape the future. Attention to Charlotte Street will only mount going into next year, the 40th Anniversary of the Blackout and The Bronx Is Burning. Quality discussions that hear and consider different perspectives will be invaluable.

Interest in Charlotte Street has already percolated for much of this year. It bubbled up when Bernie Sanders held his massive rally at St. Mary's Park in the South Bronx in April, and it has boiled over since Netflix released its new series The Get Down. As we approach the 40th anniversary new year of "The Bronx is Burning," attention is likely to grow.

The Sanders rally naturally led to a round of discussions about historic presidential visits to The Bronx. None are more mythologized than the pair of stops at Charlotte Street by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

President Carter visited the area in 1977. His suggestion was to "See which areas can still be salvaged." Mere weeks later, televisions viewers watching a Yankees game were told a massive fire was in the same area (it was actually a mile and a half away in Melrose). That moment, paraphrased as "The Bronx is burning," became permanently branded on the borough's image. While the specific fire seen on television that night was not actually on Charlotte Street, it was an apt enough depiction of the arson that left nothing but debris of former homes in its wake. In 1980, local activists staged a People's Convention on the site of Carter's visit during the Democratic Convention to draw attention to broken promises. Later that year, Reagan stole their idea and visited the site to try emphasizing his opponent's failures.

Ultimately, planners and developers led by Ed Logue finally rebuilt Charlotte Street and the surrounding blocks. What they created looked like the image of the prototypical American suburb had literally been xeroxed right into the middle of the least likely inner city neighborhood. A small handful of streets were lined with cheerful little ranch houses. They have hardly changed today. Each has its own little fenced yard. You can hear the birds singing when you stroll down the sidewalk.


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fantastical Streetscape

A miniature palisade suddenly rises. Natural wooden hues thrust upward from the sidewalk, warmly reflecting the summer sun. A few days later, it will be gone. This will once again be a regular stretch of sidewalk; the concrete will just be a little lighter gray.

Infrastructure projects often give rise to temporary streetscapes that can be as fantastical as they are disruptive. Consider this excavation site to repair an old pipe.


The design is entirely utilitarian. At the same time, it is coherent and creates a level of visual interest. The vertical lines of the rough-cut planks with irregular heights catch the eye and draw it down. 


The orange and white construction barriers, of various sorts, step out at a lower level, creating a layered space. It is reminiscent of a base or outer rampart. Constraining the sidewalk width accentuates the height of the planks.



On the intersection side, there is a plywood sheet that is slipped in and out to gain access to the pit. The taller passersby who are curious can get a view of the hole that has been dug out on the other side.




Within is a fleeting glimpse of a large, time-encrusted pipe. This is just one of innumerable pieces of infrastructure that have been invisibly running below our feet since long before we were born. All the busy activities we see in our daily lives share the street with these massive public works below. It makes you wonder about the possibilities of adding a little design effort to these temporary sites.