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.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Stolen Space and Leftover Space

The 52nd Precinct steals space from the community every single day. The inconvenience and the perception that the police lack respect for the law create an ongoing source of tension with the community the NYPD is supposed to serve. A review of the conditions surrounding the precinct demonstrates that parking could, in fact, be managed satisfactorily with a little professional attention and a basic level of discipline. The parking is, in fact, illegal, and the NYPD has an obligation to restore order both to maintain its own integrity and to relieve the burden on the community that hosts the station house.

Unlike many station houses in New York City, the 52nd Precinct has its own off-street parking lot. This is not a cheap piece of infrastructure, either, since it is largely on a deck over the MetroNorth Railroad. Additional exclusive parking has been created with parking regulations that dedicate the curb lane on the east side of Webster Avenue to the precinct. Yet this is not enough to keep the East Coast Greenway clear of parked cars.

These cars are parked on a shared-use path
that is part of the East Coast Greenway
Over the years, every commanding officer and the Community Relations officers have consistently said they plan to repave and stripe the parking lot to increase the amount of parking by reducing the space generally lost to an inefficient ad hoc layout, as well as drivers supposedly trying to avoid mud puddles. Yet after years, there has been no change. The only maintenance ever performed on the lot is to periodically fix the fence posts when drivers have damaged it again (a sign that is not particularly encouraging about the driving abilities of the officers who cruise the neighborhood all day long).

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Poor Scoping Leaves Residual Space

It is encouraging to see New York City developing more sustainable stormwater management. Unfortunately, the recent bioswale constructed on Bronx Park East at Pelham Parkway earns a grade of "D" as an urban infrastructure project. Poorly scoping the project left residual spaces and diminished functionality, which will ultimately be more expensive and disruptive to address later.

The bioswale detains storm water that would otherwise increase combined sewer overflows
The hatched area to the right probably could have been unpaved as well

The hatched area at this end is also useless, leftover space
It should be an active space as a refuge island as part of the greenway connection


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dirty Heat and Ugly Streetscapes

In a city with transportation as efficient as New York City, much of the energy use and air pollution comes from building systems. The old, decrepit heating systems in many of the city's aging apartment buildings is a particular problem.

Many community activists focus their energy on trucks. The impacts of heavy vehicles traveling on streets with children is undeniable, and smart campaigns to improve the routing and safety of large vehicles need all the support they can get. The fixation on trucks to address asthma problems, on the other hand, seems largely misplaced. Refocusing some of that energy and attention on heating systems would do more to combat asthma, improve quality of life for lower-income residents, and reduce energy consumption.

Combating truck use is largely a futile effort, since many of these trips are necessary and relatively efficient. Companies have already done a great deal to optimize routing in the interest of cutting costs to improve their own profits. Federal regulations have already vastly improved emissions in recent years. There are certain investments that could make rail alternatives more competitive, and I do not mean to discount them. Yet these are mostly changes on the margin and require major investment. The benefits that would ultimately reach disadvantaged communities would be small and diffuse.

Rather than pouring all the energy into the invisible remaining emissions from the tailpipes of trucks supporting working-class jobs, it's time to focus on the buildings belching big black clouds of smoke over low-income and working-class neighborhoods. Targeted support to improve heating systems in old apartment buildings could be implemented more quickly and continued on an ongoing basis, with much better results. Every time one of these buildings is improved, the quality of life would directly benefit the residents, mostly lower-income, who have had to suffer from poor heating for countless winters.

As it stands now, many heating units actually fail in these buildings. Then an emergency mobile boiler is brought in, parked on the street, and connected into the building. The residents who suffer from the lack of heat are far more impacted than anybody else, not only by suffering through the cold by also by the way they are marked with a sign of poverty. You truly have a "poor door" when there's an emergency boiler sitting outside the entrance to your apartment building.

The emergency boilers have negative effects for others in the neighborhood, too. When an emergency boiler gets plopped down, the deterioration of the building starts to erode the public space in the neighborhood. These boilers contribute to poor air quality, remove parking spaces from use, disrupt street cleaning during alternate side parking, and create an unattractive space that may even feel unsafe for pedestrians walking down the sidewalk between the building and the boiler.






Addressing these building systems really should be priority repairs. Although far too slowly, there has been some progress, primarily by converting the buildings to natural gas. Not only are the new systems cleaner and more efficient, supplying them with fuel is less disruptive.