- See more at: http://www.bloggerhow.com/2012/07/implement-twitter-cards-blogger-blogspot.html/#sthash.DO2JBejM.dpuf

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:

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 Millennium 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 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.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Concrete Marks

The urban ecosystem leaves concrete marks on our built environment. In some cases, the imprints of natural materials brought into the city are a deliberate design feature, like the exposed wood grain textures left by formwork on brutalist architecture. Other times, the flora and fauna that share the streets with us force themselves onto our constructions to leave their marks. These frozen traces of the fleeting nature we often overlook in our bustling lives can make spaces richer, more interesting places. They can make you stop and take notice, if only for a moment.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Angry Mobs

Yesterday evening, there was a loud bang outside our house. By the time my wife made it to the window, several cars were crashed and shouting people were surrounding one of the cars.

By the time I got down the steps, somebody had taken the keys from the driver. A shattered mess of debris had sprayed outward from the crash site. The passenger-side window was broken where a young man smashed it with his fist. It was immediately clear the driver was drunk. 

The drunk driver's car had come to a stop in front of our house, where it had destroyed the back of a double-parked car and crumpled it into a car parked in front of it. Another car with its driver-side mirror was parked behind it. The crowd growing around the car yelled about other cars the driver hit careening from one side to the other as he smashed his way down the street.

A boy and others from the corner showed up with a bent bicycle. Apparently he jumped off before the car crushed his bike down at the intersection.

People were growing increasingly angry. Another driver in particular was ready to drag the drunk out into the street for a public beating. He claimed to own the first car that was struck, and said he had followed the driver all the way from Westchester County, witnessing six or seven collisions along the way. It seemed like an overreaction for a broken mirror, although it was clearly infused with indignation over the state of the driver putting lives at risk on the road. Some of my neighbors were growing angrier as talk swirled about how easily he could have hit a child. The car he crushed where he came to a stop had a child seat in the back (but thankfully no child inside).

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Working the Street

The phrase "working the street" has referred to many things, but the connotations have mostly all been negative: prostitution, selling drugs, policing dangerous neighborhoods. Even after ideas espoused by Jane Jacobs seem to have become unshakable doctrines like "street life," an intractably negative view of the street still remains.

Nonetheless, the first introduction most children have to work and business skills still takes place on the sidewalk. Think lemonade stand. It's great learning experience, exposing them to planning, patience, customer service, and math, among other lessons that will serve them well in life (especially in a capitalist society).

For adult observers, a lemonade stand can also be a lesson in how a neighborhood works. Pedestrian activity and community cohesiveness affect the relative success of these budding ventures. The sheer number of potential customers in denser urban neighborhoods is an obvious advantage. Having more neighbors with a view from their window helps as well, since people often stop by to show their support for kids. Walking speed and face-to-face contact break down the barriers to stopping at a stand that sometimes limit interactions with neighbors driving by in the suburbs, as well.

Kids can get a great start by working the street, and places where people are generally walking by and friendly to one another offer the ingredients for a sweet little sidewalk stand.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Accidental Playspace between the Benches

When kids run and play, they like to experience different types of spaces. One particular place where I see kids playing year after year forms a type of space I rarely see in playground design. There is a gap between the backs of the benches facing in different direction, which looks at first like wasted, dead space. The kids really enjoy running through the series of long, narrow channels formed by these benches.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

When the Wealthy Steal Public Space

When the City allows a developer to construct a larger building in exchange for public space, you expect there to be a real benefit to the public. At the very least, you would expect the space to be minimally usable by the public. Nevertheless, at the Millenium Hilton Hotel, a "privately owned public space" is nothing more than a parking lot outside the hotel's garage, and it uses the public sidewalk as its driveway. As we will see, this is just a small part of a larger pattern of wealthy business owners padding their profits by stealing from the masses in New York City.

Of course, the privately owned public space at the Millenium Hilton is nothing short of a swindle. No space has been provided to ease pedestrian circulation. Instead, pedestrians remain confined to the original sidewalk, where they now have to contend with cars driving back and forth. Meanwhile, the private interests are able to eek out even more profit through the illicit revenue-generating use of this space.

There are unintended consequences, and there is negligence. It is not clear if this case quite crosses the line, but the City could clearly do much more to protect the public's interest in this property.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Under the Bridge: Skate Park

Over the weekend, I passed by the skate park under the Alexander Hamilton Bridge again. It is a great space in an otherwise derelict part of Highbridge Park.

There is nothing novel, of course, about using residual space below a bridge as a skate park. I have memories from my youth decades ago of the skate park under the Burnside Bridge. Nearer by, the Brooklyn Banks famously occupied an area below the Brooklyn Bridge before New York City closed it for a bridge rehabilitation project.

A solution doesn't have to be original to be effective. Areas below bridges generally remain difficult spaces: generally unattractive for most uses by accessible enough to draw undesirable activities. Meanwhile, cities typically lack enough places for their youths to skate. This area in Highbridge Park had been somewhat desolate and trash-filled before the New York State Department of Transportation disrupted it to rebuild ramps for the Alexander Hamilton Bridge. In the process, they created New York City's largest skate park. It has been refreshing to see the improvement to this part of the park and the opportunities it provides to the skaters who drop in here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Is There a "One-Way Epidemic"?

Recently, City Limits ran an op-ed by architect John Massengale about the need for safer street design. Under the photo at the top, the caption read: "First Avenue in Manhattan. Avenues used to run two-way, which is safer for pedestrians, but were mostly made one-way, to make life easier for drivers." This argument was elaborated in detail in the text. This week, Cap'n Transit followed up on his blog, extending the campaign against one-way streets.

These are familiar arguments. After beginning a discussion a while ago about one-way streets, it was suggested that I refer to "The One-Way Epidemic" section in Walkable City, which makes these same claims. These pieces all serve as good examples for discussion purposes. I wholeheartedly agree with the need to redesign New York City's streets to be safer for pedestrians, and I share the majority of the views of these safe-street advocates. I find some areas of common ground regarding one-way streets, as well, but it is useful to draw out the key differences as well as the overlap to illustrate why the rhetoric against one-way streets is overblown and counterproductive.

Let's start with the term "epidemic" used in Walkable City. This is rhetoric that invokes fear. The book explicitly compares the creation of one-way streets with an outbreak of influenza that killed 20 million people in 1918-1919. The not-so-subtle claim is that one-way streets are an imminent threat to your life. Avoid them like the plague!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Invasion of the Christmas Trees

Soon after Christmas every year, New York City is invaded by trees. It's no killer Christmas tree attack, but the discarded trees start to take over the city's public spaces.
Observing the places where trees end up can be instructive. It can expose differences in community attitudes toward public space, demonstrate which places and activities are sacrificed first, and expose other interesting relationships.

Discarded trees often fill in spaces along the curb between street furniture, maintaining an effective sidewalk width for pedestrians
Sometimes trees pile up in the curb lane, reducing some of the available on-street parking

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Lunchtime Around a Construction Site

Construction in an area often illustrates opportunities and shortcomings of a place. Just keep an eye on how the workers use the area during their breaks.

Since they're less worried about getting their work clothes dirty, they're not bashful about finding comfortable places to sit when there aren't proper benches around. Their seating choices largely illustrate locations where there could be a general interest in sitting, since the desire to watch the crowds during lunch is such a broadly shared human interest. The street furniture they use can also suggest ways these features might be designed differently to deliberately incorporate seating in ways that could be both comfortable and appropriate for long-term maintenance.

The activity these workers bring can also start to activate a street in the interim before new buildings open. Class tensions surface at times between the working-class laborers and affluent residents and workers who usually populate areas with new construction. It is probably too optimistic to hope, but there may be potential for change by exposing these tensions. If nothing else, I find it positive to see the working class claiming some public ownership, if only temporarily, in parts of the city they increasingly can't afford.