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Monday, November 12, 2018

Two Sides of the Same Woods

On one side of the road, you have tourists reading plaques about trees. On the other, gay men circle the woods looking for potential hookups. The Bronx River Forest is one of the few remaining sections of the great woodland that once covered the New York region. While we tend to consider the plants and animals that populate wooded areas like this as "wild," this landscape is highly shaped by the physical interventions and social activities of humans. It is easy to overlook how much human action can shape the "natural" environment, but the differences created by separate jurisdictional control over trails winding through the woods along the Bronx River on each side of Allerton Avenue create a stark contrast.

People duck under a fallen tree (covered in poison ivy) on the Blue Trail north of 204th Street in the Bronx Forest managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation
Tourists stop along the trail in the Thain Family Forest in the New York Botanical Garden to read facts about the trees 

South of Allerton Avenue, the Bronx River flows through the New York Botanical Garden. Since the 1890s, this land has been City parkland, part of Bronx Park, which is administered by a private institution specifically charged with the development and maintenance of a great living museum. To the north, the parkland is under conventional control of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

There are some physical differences in terrain between the two sections. To the north, the river passes through a floodplain. After flowing into the garden, it quickly drops into a ravine with some moderately steep slopes down to the river. Nonetheless, the main distinctions between these two sections is how the land is managed and access is controlled.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Rain Garden That Wouldn't Grow

Recently, my wife and I were out on a date and taking a stroll through Harlem before dinner when we stumbled on a dog relief area at the corner of Manhattan Avenue and East 122nd Street. I was excited and my wife was, well, glad to see me enjoying myself.

A few years ago while musing about planning for pets, I came across the French canisites. Now I had stumbled on one in my own town, and I hadn't even heard about it!

It is a wonderful little example of the transformation of a residual space. Initially it was a hatched area in the roadway where northbound traffic is diverted as Manhattan Avenue becomes a southbound one-way street. It was just the sort of dead space that was long common on our paved streets. In 2012, it was converted into a rain garden to improve storm water management and probably contribute a few count toward the Million Trees program, but the plants just wouldn't grow on the street side of the triangle. After a few years of the vegetation struggling and consistently dying off, it appears somebody had the genius to stop fighting the inevitable and repurpose the space to address the dog poop problem that is chronic on sidewalks throughout New York City.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Performance on a Dirty Corner

There was no lack of spectators for the performance down on the corner. Many even returned to watch the show on its second and third days. "I've lived here for 30 years," or "I've lived here for 40 years," several of them stopped to say, "and I'm so glad you're doing this."

Creating a mural is a public performance. Of course, the finished artwork is a permanent installation, but the process of transforming a space in the middle of daily street life becomes performance art in its own right.

East 207th Street and Bainbridge Avenue has always been an unremarkable and rather dirty corner.  The side of the bodega is a blank wall that consistently attracted juvenile tagging, which local anti-graffiti group Norwood Against Graffiti (NAG) routinely rolled over with fresh paint, seemingly refreshing the canvas for the next set of tags. Meanwhile, the sidewalk and tree pits had long accumulated trash. A couple local characters spend their afternoons sitting on the corner with a drink in hand. It was the leftover backside of a small commercial building, a little place that had mostly been abandoned for decades. It was a place that people shuffled through, dulled by the mundane ugliness.

While most people were resigned to walking by the griminess on this corner as an immutable fact of life, something they had effectively tuned out, Elisabeth von Uhl saw the possibility of creating a place that had more to contribute to the community. It took a few years of effort and a couple false starts, but with some perseverance and persuasion, she eventually partnered with ArtBridge and secured funding from Councilmember Andrew Cohen. ArtBridge brought in artist Laura Alvarez who designed and painted the mural.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Mountaindale General Store

Mountaindale isn't really a place. At least, it's not anymore, and it hasn't been for a long time.

When I was a child, there was a little store with a gas pump at the intersection of a couple quiet country roads. For me, it was a sort of landmark; we turned at the store, went past the old, red, one-room schoolhouse, and then we were at Grandma's house. A few times my grandmother took me on a quick errand to get milk or butter at the Mountaindale General Store, although we usually went into the small nearby town of North Plains or further to Cornelius or Hillsboro for any more significant shopping. My memory of the Mountaindale General Store is not very clear, but in my imagination it was a creaky old wooden affair with a few creaky old locals hanging out inside.

Appropriately, during the store's waning years, it served as a shooting location for an episode of some forgotten TV show titled Nowhere Man. I never watched it, but the reviews on IMDb are quite positive. Mountaindale played the role of a Southern town with a population of 37.  "Is this the whole town?" the protagonist asks after getting off the bus. The store was the last remnant of Mountaindale to close.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Early Morning Haunts

The early hours are haunted times. Sometimes it seems still, but in that eerie silence something is always quietly moving about. At other times, activities go on regularly in the dark without us, as we slumber in our beds unaware of the activities occupying our regular places. Familiar places become foreign to us during these irregular hours, with a heightened sense of awareness.  At these times, I am often haunted by Jean Anouilh's Antigone returning home and describing the early morning:
De me promener, nourrice. C'était beau. Tout était gris. Maintenant, tu ne peux pas savoir, tout est déjà rose, jaune, vert. C'est devenu une carte postale. Il faut te lever plus tôt, nourrice, si tu veux voir un monde sans couleurs... 
Le jardin dormait encore. Je l'ai surpris, nourrice. Je l'ai vu sans qu'il s'en doute. C'est beau un jardin qui ne pense pas encore aux hommes... 
Dans les champs c'était tout mouillé et cela attendait. Tout attendait. Je faisais un bruit énorme toute seule sur la route et j'étais gênée parce que je savais bien que ce n'était pas moi qu'on attendais. 
From walking about, nurse. It was beautiful. Everything was gray. Now, you can't tell, everything is already pink, yellow, green. It's turned into a post card. You must get up earlier, nurse, if you want to see a world without colors... 
The garden was still sleeping. I crept up on it, nurse. I saw it without it suspecting. A garden that isn't thinking about men yet is beautiful... 
In the fields it was all wet and it was waiting. Everything was waiting. I made a huge noise all alone on the road and I was bothered because I knew that it wasn't me it was waiting for. 
Truth be told, my memory probably embellishes on Anouilh a bit. My imagination makes it more mythic, perhaps, than the actual text itself. Perhaps that is part of how haunting works.

Recently I found myself in Weehawken at the corner of 19th Street and Boulevard East at four in the morning, where I was again visited by this familiar memory. I experienced the sense of being bothered by the world's indifference to us, and this time it wasn't waiting for anything, although I rather expected it to be.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Popping up on Parkside Place

Major changes have been announced for Norwood with new construction planned for a rocky slope that residents had always believed was parkland. This has raised concerns.

The site is a long, narrow rock outcropping that separates Parkside Place from Webster Avenue in The Bronx. It is near my home and I know it well. Almost nobody ever climbs up on the rocks above Webster Avenue. There's no reason they would. I am one of the few who has. I was curious about a stair that extended from 207th Street down to Webster Avenue on old maps. It was unclear if it was merely planned or if had actually been built and then removed at some point long forgotten. I went looking for any remnants under the vegetation. There is some concrete that might have been part of a stair, although I can't be sure, as well as some mortar used to stabilize the rock outcropping to avoid a collapse onto the street below.

A stair location is indicated on the Borough President's street title map
Parkside Place is a short, three-block-long street that climbs over and back down those rocks. It splits off from Webster Avenue, climbs the hill to 209th Street, continues to 207th Street, and then drops back down to merge back with Webster. It takes its name from the tree-covered rock outcrop that it climbs over, which has never been a real park, but is park-like as a visual resource.

Recently, somebody started clearing the trees off the rocks. Local residents became alarmed. It was commonly believed this was City parkland (in no small part because the Department of Parks and Recreation showed it as parkland on their interactive parks map), and now it was being clearcut without warning. 

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Chronicles of Stolen Space: Fake Enforcement

After closing the Privately-Owned Public Space for months of reconstruction to fix subsurface problems, the Millennium Hilton is now reopening its POPS with the same non-compliant design and illegal operations that degrade our public realm. And as before, despite some pretense that they are responding to complaints, the enforcement agencies empowered and entrusted to safeguard our public space are allowing the owners to shirk their responsibilities and steal space from the public:
  • Required public seating and other features were not installed
  • The parking garage has resumed using an area that is supposed to be public seating to temporarily park vehicles
  • The parking garage continues to illegally encroach on the sidewalk and park an extra vehicle that blocks an egress door.
The Department of Buildings, after an insanely prolonged battle, did finally issue a violation for the missing public space amenities. That turned out that was only a token gesture. They listed a demerit and issued a small one-time fine. Then they let the building's owners continue with business as usual. If the Department of Buildings were serious, they would require the owners to meet their obligations under the Special Permit or revoke their Certificate of Occupancy. By all appearances, the Department of Buildings is still siding with unscrupulous building owners against the public.

Meanwhile, the New York Police Department is still letting the parking garage operator break the law and possibly endanger lives. In response to 311 complaints, they have claimed to go out in an attempt to take care of the problem, but those responses are obvious falsifications.

The result is a poor pedestrian experience for the city's residents, workers, and visitors due to wealthy business owners abusing our public space and possibly even putting the lives of their own paying guests in danger.

Previous chronicles in this saga:

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Staring at the Pole

I was recently at Frederick Douglass Circle at the northwest corner of Central Park. Every time I go, I am bothered by a detail that detracts from the relationship between the plaza and its surroundings. I am not sure if the detail was on the drawings I first say many years ago, but if it was I certainly missed it.

Back in 2003, I attended a public meeting for neighbors skeptical about the transformation of Frederick Douglass Circle into a public space. At the conclusion of years of participatory planning and a design competition, residents of Towers on the Park emerged with last-minute objections to various aspects of the reconfiguration of the previously dysfunctional intersection (the circle was previously cut through by traffic, creating far too many movements as well as lane drops in the middle of the intersection...). I spoke in favor of the project, convinced it would create a great new public space.

Then construction stretched on for many years. It was disruptive for everybody in the area and continued long beyond what any resident would consider reasonable. I second guessed myself for speaking up after seeing the ordeal I had helped to put these people through. I hoped the quality of the built space would eventually make up for the disruptions in so many lives.

Since the first time I was finally able to visit the plaza some time around 2011, I have been bothered and deeply disappointed. For me, the execution of the concept was seriously compromised by one poorly placed traffic signal pole.

The overall concept for the plaza was strong, and much of it has in fact turned out very well. It would be unfair to call this urban space a failure. Yet while the statue of Douglass was symbolically positioned to face Harlem, the gesture is undermined by that traffic signal. Instead of looking up the avenue that carries his name, Douglass just stands there staring at a steel pole a few feet in front of him.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Planning in Your Frontyard

Yards (like this one in Yonkers), as well as stoops and
parks, are places where neighbors come together
Last week, The New York Times ran an engaging article by Emily Badger about community opposition to new projects titled, "How 'Not in My Backyard' Became 'Not in My Neighborhood." It is subtitled, "The expectation that homeowners should be able to reach beyond their property lines has become deeply embedded."

It is a timely article and a discussion that planners need to continue. As many dense urban areas continue to see sustained growth, community resistance to development has become a significant problem. I am not sure Badger's explanation of the problem is entirely correct, though, and it may lead to the wrong conclusions. Wrapping up the article, she says:
We want people to be invested in their neighborhoods, but not to the exclusion of anyone else who might live there, too. We want to empower neighbors to fight a trash dump, but not to halt every housing project the region needs.
Ultimately, we need to find a home for trash dumps, too. I would argue what we need is to empower people to work together to develop plans that are fair and provide improvements for everyone. We want to channel their loud voices into a chorus of optimism rather than shouts of fear.

Badger clearly makes an appeal to balance, but I think the fixation on homeownership may carry her off course. Homeowners have become too focused on their own interests, she seems to argue, to the detriment of others who have not yet found a home. The natural conclusion seems to be reducing the power of self-interested homeowners to better provide for the common good. While I do not doubt there are plenty of examples of selfish constituencies, I am inclined to think what we really have is a process problem.

The article itself shows a touch of ambiguity about the role of homeownership. While most of the text ascribes motives to the financial interests in homes, there is some contradiction:
...as residential mobility rates have declined, [Vicki Been] suggests, Americans are staking even stronger claims to their neighborhoods, with renters now behaving in ways we once associated more with homeowners.
It may seem I am being picky with the difference, since it was the financial investment in a home that kept homeowners rooted to a community while renters could simply move away from problems. Nonetheless, there is a more significant underlying point: what drives opposition is a concern about neighborhood quality of life. Homeowners may in fact feel sensitive to the worsened conditions as a financial impact, but I expect they are generally more upset about how it will affect their daily lives while they are still in their homes. At any rate, any effect on the value of their home is a function of quality of life in the neighborhood as seen by the next set of homeowners, which brings us back around to the same place.

So if the question is really neighborhood quality of life, why are we having problems with such a backlash? Do all these proposed projects really deteriorate neighborhoods so much? There is clearly a sense that projects that serve a public good are being fought bitterly - is urban growth really just a zero sum game? Can we not accommodate new residents without making current residents worse off?

I think the problem is a lack of real planning.

We have a lot of process. There is a lot of public participation, but it repeats over and over without actually forming plans. While indispensable for planning, extensive public participation is disruptive for projects, and unfortunately that is often precisely what we do.

While developing a plan, it is important to engage the community. This exposes differences in what people want in their communities and informs prioritization. In the best cases, a consensus vision can coalesce; otherwise, the deliberations that set strategic direction are at least transparent and lay out shared expectations, even when disagreement remains.

Adopting a plan insulates the individual projects from prolonged process during implementation. With the decisions settled about the key features, developers and other project sponsors can move forward with greater certainty. This reduces a range of costs including design revisions and financial expenses incurred from delays. Given the overarching concern about housing affordability, reducing these costs is important.

A plan can also improve balance and equity in ways that fighting over projects cannot. By subjecting an area to an overarching framework, there is less room for power and influence to manipulate decisions for specific projects. It can also better address negative features (a waste transfer station, for example) by demonstrating how social burdens are shared and mitigating impacts with other positive features more comprehensively than project-level "mitigation" measures.

Finally, progress can be tracked with a plan. People can see if things are improving, and they know what benefits to expect as work continues. In the absence of a plan, each project can seem like a new fight to make small gains or hold onto whatever you have. It can seem never-ending with no sense of collective achievement.

Very often, what we practice as "city planning" is not really planning. Many jurisdictions have instead adopted public process without drafting plans. This is an approach that fosters NIMBYism. Without the overarching framework to ensure fair treatment in spreading impacts and benefits, residents are compelled to face off on every project to fight for their interests. Even those who embrace social equity and are prepared to accept a fair share of impacts must eventually take a stand too, if they are to avoid being exploited by other less progressive (and often more powerful) communities.

In my view, it is not really a matter of reigning in homeowners who are not willing to share with the next generation of neighbors who isn't there yet. We have communities full of people who have friendly discussions in their front yards, on their stoops, and in neighborhood parks. It is an issue of engaging them in developing an actual plan that provides them confidence about how their neighborhood will grow and thrive in a changing city. Perhaps it is because I am a planner, but I see better planning as the solution to our NIMBY backlash.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Under the Roadway - Inspiration from Bethesda Terrace

It seems to be an article of faith among many contemporary planners that grade separation is an
ti-pedestrian and inherently anti-urban. In practice, this has been the case all too often; pedestrians have been forced to use uncomfortable overpasses and underpasses, diverted from a direct route to a grossly inferior detour. It is indeed a miserable experience when you're forced to climb steep stairs to walk across a narrow concrete pad over noisy traffic with a sharp wind cutting through the chain link fence, or to pass through a claustrophobic, musty, tunnel adorned solely by the exposed electrical conduit for the dim lights. Yet when we accept these bad places as our model for grade separation, we forget the concept's original vision and early success. This troubles me again each time I visit Central Park.

The ideas and work of Frederick Law Olmsted set much of the foundation for urban planning. His transverse roads in Central Park continue to successfully overlay a rustic park environment on a busy street grid. They make it possible for an expansive urban park to coexist with the city's street system. This is the baby we should not throw out with the bathwater.

And then there's Bethesda Terrace, the architectural showpiece of the park. It is an amazing progression of space, a place that is experienced by movement through a sequence of spaces. Grade separation here is not some mere functional layout. It is not just a safety feature. The experience of descending, the transition through a dark, constrained space that frames the view of the Angel of the Waters, and the reemergence into the open, sunny space is the design.