Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tear Down This Fence

41st Street at Bryant Park

A couple weeks ago, I noticed something while walking by Bryant Park. There were people hanging out on 40th Street. That was different. It took a moment to realize what had changed. The fence was gone.

Initially, I thought it was a deliberate decision to activate the edge of the park. The Parks Commissioner had spoken about integrating parks better with their surrounding streets:



It turns out the fence was only temporarily removed while it is being restored:

This seems unfortunate. Each time I walk by the park, I see people using the walls as an enjoyable space that improves the sociability of the streets. On 40th Street, which has typically looked more like a service alley than an enjoyable place, the open park makes the sidewalk a much more enjoyable place. Meanwhile, on busy 42nd Street, the walls are providing a more comfortable place for people to stop for a moment or wait while meeting their friends.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Only Place Where New York Is Still New York

There is a quiet, residual space tucked under some of the city's infrastructure that I visit from time to time. It is a forgotten place, sometimes inhabited by a few of the city's dispossessed and occasionally transited by a curiosity seeker. The gradually deteriorating infrastructure above forms an interesting architectural space. Social commentary has been tagged onto the base of its structures.

Social commentary was written on this space over a decade ago:
THIS MIGHT BE THE ONLY PLACE WHERE NEW YORK IS STILL NEW YORK


The same graffiti is still there today, with little change in the space over the years


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

"The Great Garage Rescue"

The other morning, I was watching an episode of Handy Manny with my favorite three-year-old. It occurred to me that maybe planners should watch more kids' cartoons.

Handy Manny is a Disney Junior show about a handyman and his talking tools, who always help the residents in their diverse urban neighborhood. The episode that caught my attention was a special titled "The Great Garage Rescue." In it, Manny's older brother has an auto repair garage, which is being threatened with an urban renewal scheme. The City is going to build a "mini-mall" in the name of progress, destroying a family business that is part of the local community in the process. Community members rally around the garage and save it in the end.

The storyline about local businesses standing in the way of urban renewal bulldozers has been well worn for decades. It is easy to use the notion of a modern "mini-mall" as a convenient foil, too. What is interesting, though, is the idea that an auto repair garage would be a valued part of a community worth saving. It's an idea that does not occur to urban planners often enough.



Far too often, these types of businesses are labeled as "nuisances," and targeted in rezoning efforts. Affordable housing or mixed-use development is a more likely candidate to displace the repair shop in current schemes by planners and public officials, but the lack of understanding and sensitivity to the needs of the workers and patrons of these businesses is the same. It takes a change in perspective; instead of seeing places with auto repair shops as leftover areas passed over by development, planners need to learn to recognize the valuable community assets that are there and create solutions that embrace them.

Shows like Handy Manny that recognize and celebrate the value of these places of work can help. And hopefully more planners will catch the message when they're home watching cartoons with the family on their day off.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Where Do Nuisances Go?

This weekend, I walked by a home in a residential district that has been illegally converted into a security system business. The side yard is now a poorly designed parking lot for commercial vehicles. As far as non-conforming uses go, it is relatively benign. It's visually obtrusive, and contributes a little extra noise, but otherwise has little tangible impact. Its illegal status contributes to a sense of disorder, though, and this would never be allowed in "better" neighborhoods.


Although this particular business has relatively little impact, many other uses encroaching on residential neighborhoods are greater nuisances. A couple weeks ago, I passed a vacant lot that has been used as a junk yard for an auto shop for decades.
 

When repair businesses are forced out of manufacturing areas that are rezoned to open them up for residential development, the activity often finds new illicit locations in disadvantaged communities. There is a certain irony in efforts to provide more affordable housing as part of a progressive agenda focused on social equity resulting in environmental impacts in disadvantaged communities.

With the longtime trend of declining urban manufacturing, areas zoned for industrial uses have been coming under pressure for conversion for residential development as city populations have started increasing again. As light-industrial businesses are cleared out, there are ever fewer places for them to relocate. Pressure mounts for the support services that underpin the city's economy to crowd into working-class and low-income neighborhoods. Illegal commercial uses gain a foothold for two reasons: they have less influence and they're somewhat sympathetic toward the workers. These are communities that do not have the influence and power to ensure a Department of Buildings that is not fully competent (and questionably honest) actually address problems in their neighborhoods. And the residents aren't always so sure they want the codes enforced. Their friends or neighbors may depend on the jobs, or they may simply feel that the interest of the workers to earn a living is more important than the problems the businesses bring with them.

These outcomes are not inevitable. Increasing the supply of housing is critical, but it is also important to accommodate the support functions that keep the city running in a manner that is efficient, sustainable, and equitable. As we continue to ignore these marginalized jobs and fail to provide for them intelligently and with dignity, they are forced into marginalized communities, along with their impacts.

What we have now is the gentrification of blue collar job sites and passive environmental injustice by turning a blind eye toward the displacement of nuisances into less affluent neighborhoods. What we need is progressive, comprehensive planning that looks at more than numerical housing targets.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Emerging from Residual Space - Bikes in Battery Park City

A couple recent lunchtime walks through the older corner of Battery Park City illustrated the rich interactions between residual space and emerging uses. Where bicycles were once tucked away into back corners, they are now poised to redefine the cityscape.

Battery Park City is an interesting neighborhood enclave for myriad reasons. Its character as an enclave results in part from its origins as a recent, master-planned community controlled by a State authority. Yet this character is due even more to its separation from the rest of Lower Manhattan and access to the subway system by the West Side Highway (aka West Street and Route 9A). Yet while this highway isolates or insulates (depending on perspective), it also adds another layer of transportation that helps to shape the character of Battery Park City. The Hudson River Greenway runs along the West Side Highway and connects directly into Battery Park City, providing residents and workers quick and easy bicycle access to much of Manhattan.

Gateway Plaza is the oldest apartment complex in Battery Park City. The brutalist architecture and organization around a parking garage and interior access street predate the reorientation toward more traditional urban form under the Cooper Eckstut design guidelines. A central space encircled by the access street provides a landscaped pedestrian area. As demand for bicycle parking has grown, this central feature has been preserved by maintaining it off-limits for bicycle parking, while the less significant scraps of space have overgrown.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Tremont Crash Zone

A passenger waits for the bus at a stop where the sign has
been wiped out by an out-of-control vehicle. Apparently
crashes are so common here, extra protection has been
added around the posts for the traffic signals
When New York City reduced the citywide speed limit from 30 to 25 mph, some arterial streets kept the higher speed limits. Among those was a portion of East Tremont Avenue. On recent visits, it looks like an outright crash zone. An entire stretch of the street east of Morris Park Avenue has been rendered a sprawling residual space by the combined impacts of out-of-control cars, shallow properties bordering the railroad, and the proliferation of auto-related land uses. Given the conditions confronting pedestrians, the speed limit warrants a revisit.
This sign encourages higher speeds 
when driving past the bus stop

Monday, March 2, 2015

Oliver Place - From Neglected Lot to Playground?

Piles of trash, and various other forms of refuse are routinely dumped into the abandoned space that is Oliver Place. By appearance a vacant lot, it is space acquired by the City of New York for a street that was never fully built. The community has repeatedly tried for decades to integrate this residual space into the fabric of the neighborhood, yet marginal activities and the City's bureaucracy have both proven resistant to the efforts. Fortunately, there are people who still have not given up.




















This is a relatively dense residential area that is underserved by playgrounds. While much of the northern Bronx is well covered with parkland, this pocket of Bedford Park has long walks to take children to a play where they can play.

Underserved areas were identified in PlaNYC 2011 report

Title to Oliver Place was vested on September 6, 1897, yet after all this time, a large portion between Decatur and Marion Avenues has never been put to any positive use. The vacant lot is just one portion of the short two block length of Oliver Place, but it bisects it and sets the tone of neglect for the whole area.

Oliver Place is an "extra" street in the grid, filling in between East 198th and East 199th Streets. This unique position makes it more prominent, with a tendency to characterize the surrounding portion of the neighborhood.

In the midst of its neglect, Oliver Place is a fascinating place. It varies considerably within this short area: historic, relatively ornate paving; the vacant space; a sidewalk/alleyway; and a sort of dead end lined with garden beds.