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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Chronicles of Stolen Space: Department of City Planning

This is a series of posts about the failures of each of the various agencies that had a responsibility to stop illegal parking on public space at the Millenium Hilton and ensure it was properly built out as a seating area. Today we are looking at the Department of City Planning (DCP).

DCP is the agency responsible for setting the requirements for Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS). It is DCP's job to set design parameters to ensure these spaces actually provide public benefits, and this is a role it has taken seriously. What it has not done is follow up with real consequences when developers have not built out spaces according to those designs. The Millenium Hilton is a glaring example of the lack of follow through.

At the Millenium Hilton, the original Special Permit was issued to create a sidewalk widening. Using the space for parking under that original status was an egregious violation that never should have been tolerated. Instead of improving the sidewalk, the result was narrowing the sidewalk as the cars extended beyond the property line. Worse, the sidewalk was further degraded into a poorly configured driveway with the parking garage attendants using cars to force pedestrians out of their way.

Yet for some unknown reason, it seems DCP swept these abuses under the rug when it undertook its landmark study of all the POPS spaces in New York City back in 2000. They must have been painfully aware of the valet parking operation, yet the only indication of any problem was generically classifying the space as "marginal."

It is not clear if there was even any informal discussion between DCP staff and the building owners at the time. Perhaps that was part of the background for what came next. Whatever the case, the problems only became more indefensible.

In 2005, the Millenium Hilton applied to the City Planning Commission for a new Special Permit so that it could pursue additional retail opportunities. As part of its application, it promised to upgrade the space along Fulton Street from a empty sidewalk widening to an attractively designed seating area. The application went through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which entailed hearings at the local Community Board, which enthusiastically endorsed the improvements to its public space. The City Planning Commission approved the new Special Permit, with explicit references to specific drawings that clearly show improvements, such as curved benches, to make the space inviting and useful for its public users.

As part of this process, a Restrictive Declaration was recorded on the property binding the owner to building out the public seating area it had promised. The inescapable obligation to construct the space for the enjoyment of the public could not be any more clearly established:

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Split in the Stairs

It had been a while since I took the stairs going up to the Morris Park subway station.

Sometimes you notice something new when you revisit a place you used to frequent often. This time, the split in the stairs caught my attention.

Even with its basic, undecorated design, I suspect there was still a Beaux Arts sensibility with a desire for symmetry. I am not so sure the double stairs with a shared landing were based on a functional program.

If there were a functional consideration, it was most likely the convenience of providing the most direct route for all paths of travel. It is possible the designers may also have recognized some benefits for long-term maintenance. The redundancy does provide the ability to keep one side open while while repairing or replacing the steps on the other side. Such long-term considerations do not seem to have been common in that era.

However, it wasn't the idea of keeping the stairs functional while keeping them in good repair that caught my attention. It was the ability to choose a different side if you didn't like the looks of somebody on the stairs. It probably makes little real difference if there is a determined mugger, but the greater feeling of openness and escape routes relieves the feeling of being trapped that typically makes stairs like these feel so sketchy.

Whether intended as anything more than attractive symmetry, there are some clear benefits to this split double stair. It is likely to be a more expensive solution; it requires more space and additional construction, but these are tradeoffs worth weighing for future projects.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Rainy Spaces

The city is different on rainy days, sometimes in surprising ways we don't always notice. Light and shadows change their shape. Subway stairs become even more congested than usual as passengers break stride to fight with their umbrellas. Outdoor seating empties out and the doorways in public buildings bustle a bit more.

On first glance, the empty seats in public plazas make these public spaces appear lifeless. It may seem their functions have all been suspended, awaiting the return of better weather. Plazas probably look like fairweather places.

But if you stop for a moment, as you stand in the rain you will see many plazas still serve some use. More often than not, the spaces they form cut corners off the street grid. For everyone rushing to get out of the rain, the plaza is the direct route. Steady streams of fast moving pedestrians course through the plazas.

Of course, as they grip their umbrellas, trying to keep the wind from tearing them inside out, most people hardly notice the shortcut afforded by these little public spaces. They may also be unaware of the effect of the paved surfaces underfoot. Whether they notice or not, the higher quality pavers or flagstones in the plazas provide relief from the drabness of the gray concrete sidewalks, grown darker from soaking in the rain.

On rainy days, plazas do not serve their usual purpose as places to rest or spend time with others. Their aspect changes, but they remain important spaces serving the needs of the public.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Dreams for Abandoned Bathrooms

New York City has a general lack of public restrooms. Our public space was not always so harsh; parks were once much more generously equipped with comfort stations. Many of them became unfortunate casualties of hard times and crime decades ago, and their public service has been slow to return as the City's fortunes have improved. While many of them should be returned to public use, or replaced with modern facilities, to meet public needs, some of them were poorly planned and located in areas with little activity.

On Mosholu Parkway, below the side of Jerome Avenue, in the shadow of the elevated 4 train, there stands an abandoned comfort station that has poor prospects as public restrooms due to a site that has low foot traffic and limited visibility. The roof and odd yard beside it are frequent victims of dumping. Much of the building is sealed, but one of the restrooms is enclosed with an open-air gate. The space appears to be secured for use as storage, although there is no evidence anything has been stored here for quite some time.

A photo posted by Urban Residue (@urban_residue) on

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: