Sunday, November 10th, 2013
I was surprised to see that last Wednesday’s post on Cincinnati’s culture of self-sabotage received such a huge response. In light of that, I want to circle back and more fully address the idea of cancelling projects.
What I do not want you to take away from that is that once started, projects should never be stopped on account of the money spent. That’s called the sunk cost fallacy. Money that’s been spent has been spent. One needs to look forward to the future expected benefits and costs. There are certainly many cases in which pulling the plug can be a good idea. For example, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels reversed the privatization of certain social services functions after he determined it was unlikely the contract would ever work out like originally envisioned. This an example of someone taking a risk, trying to make it work, then acknowledging it didn’t rather than continuing to double down on a mistake.
On the other hand, I do not see the majority of these rail cancellations as having anything to do with benefit/cost analysis. You may notice, it’s only transit projects that ever seem to get the ax. Since the era of the freeway revolts, it’s tough to name any governor or mayor that has ever sent back earmarks on a highway project, or ever cancelled any road project they could actually get money to build on the grounds that it’s a boondoggle. (My hypothesis continues to be that there’s no highway boondoggle big enough that even the most fiscally conservative governor is willing to kill it). Clearly, the cancellations in these cases is based on an ideological animus to transit specifically.
That is, unless it is baser motivations at play. Chris Christie’s cancellation of the ARC tunnel project enabled him to use the funds New Jersey had pledged to the project to bailout the state’s bankrupt highway fund. He’s not demonstrated any hesitancy to push even questionable and expensive transit projects when they involve Somebody Else’s Money. For example, he wants the Port Authority to spend a billion dollars on an extension of PATH service to Newark Airport, which many consider an inappropriate use of funds. Christie’s motivation appears to be bribing United Airlines to add flights to Atlantic City, whose gambling market is imploding. (Read up on the Revel Casino deal if you want to know more about this sordid story).
Meanwhile, many of these cancellations are proving to be costly in their own right. I noted before how Cincinnati had already let $95 million in contracts out the total $133 million cost of the streetcar, how it will have to repay federal grants that were going to pay for a big slug of the project, and likely end up with at best a minor financial win and potentially a loss.
It’s the same in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker trumpeted that he was returning an $810 million stimulus grant for rail upgrades between Madison and Milwaukee. Apparently although the federal government was going to pay 100% of the construction costs through the stimulus bill, he didn’t want the state to have to pick up the estimated $7.5 million in annual operating costs. (How much the state actually would have had to pay incrementally is a an open point. The existing Hiawatha operating costs were being 90% paid for by federal funds. It’s by no means clear that the state would have been on the hook for the full amount anyway). The feds were actually generous enough to reimburse Wisconsin for money it had spent on the rail line it decided not to build. However, that did not prove to be the end of the matter. Train maker Talgo is planning to sue the state of Wisconsin for $66 million for breach of contract. Given that it actually built trainsets for the state, this seems like a strong case. Also, if the state does lose, it might also be forced to immediately repay an additional $70 million in loans. The state could have paid operating costs for a long time for that kind of money – and it would actually having something to show for it other than a hole in its bank account.
So from a financial perspective, it’s not even clear cancelling these projects was a good move – even if you look solely at costs and ignore benefits.
But beyond the financials, these types of things also show communities that have deep internal divides, and which as a result require businesses and residents to apply an additional uncertainty premium into investment business cases there to account for the likelihood that a) promised actions by the government may not actually occur, even if they are in flight and b) that the community may not be able to muster the staying power to make the kind of long term investments that are necessary for any community to retain marketplace relevance. Though hardly immune to infrastructure drama, New York City just put water tunnel #3 into service for Manhattan. This is a project that was started in the 1970s. That’s the type of long term thinking that has kept a place like New York on top. In short, credibility counts for something, and places like Cincinnati and Wisconsin have damaged theirs.
I want to contrast this with one of the legendary stories of Indianapolis. In the late 1980s it embarked on construction of a downtown mall. Maybe that wasn’t the best idea in the world. The city definitely didn’t have its act fully together. Two entire city blocks had been excavated and were literally holes in the ground. No anchor stores had been signed and it wasn’t clear if the project would or even could be finished. A lot of the public suggested scrapping the project. Some suggested turning the empty blocks into ice rinks. Others trying to bring in a Wal-Mart. Instead, city leaders across the board came together to commit to the project, including many of the downtown corporations investing in the project. It got built. While generally successful, the mall has certainly had its share of troubles over the years and may not even survive over the long term given the disfavor of the mall format. However, one thing that project demonstrated is that Indianapolis finishes what it starts. In short, they have credibility and an ability to execute that’s simply better than most places. I suspect that’s one of the reasons metro Indy has so outperformed Cincinnati in population, job, and reputational growth, despite having far, far fewer natural assets to start with. They aren’t constantly shooting themselves in the foot.
This is also why even though there are road projects out there I did not think were a wise use of funds – say I-69 in Indiana, to pick one I’ve criticized – once they are being built I’m all in favor of getting them done as quickly and cheaply as possible. And then letting the communities in question live with the consequences of making that choice, for good or ill. Again, that doesn’t mean no project should ever be cancelled, but you need to pick your battles. Communities are not well served when project debates turn into endless years of scorched earth politics, litigation, etc. in which neither side will ever given an inch on anything.
Tuesday, October 29th, 2013
Grand Central Terminal And Penn Station: Will The Beauty and The Beast Ever Get Married? by Robert Munson
This post is part of a series by Robert Munson called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.
Photo by the author to celebrate GCT’s 100th anniversary
In today’s tale, Grand Central Terminal is The Beauty. Admired also for her goodness, she touches souls in ways most civic buildings cannot. Many souls, such as this author, find her exquisite. So when our mid-Century trend of destroying beautiful buildings put GCT on the demolition list, the public’s stored-up admiration stopped her assailants. And this inspired a preservation movement across the nation. Better yet, her Beauty also runs deep with a brilliant design that faithfully works 100 years later; distributing people better and seemingly with social graces that other hubs can only wonder how she does it.
However, our storyline has a dark side. For the past century, suburban passengers — who prefer her east-side location — have been forced to ride past her to the west-side Penn Station; often adding 30 minutes to the daily commute and congesting Midtown surface traffic further.
Who would conspire this denial? As in our tale, it is Beauty’s mean sisters who run the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Long Island Railroad. And like Beauty’s sisters, these bureaucracies seemingly are statues who — to have life again and solve this problem — merely had to admit their mistakes.
Photo of Penn’s main concourse, taken by the author while waiting for gate posting for his LIRR train
Of course, today’s Penn Station is The Beast. Its ugliness is visceral and personal; defying description. Most who enter its maw sense what true ugliness does; instinctually aware of the cramped quarters and negative energy generated by masses of irritated humans. To manage their discomfort, most learn how to get out as quickly as possible. It is hard to imagine how this guy can become Beauty’s Prince.
The fable’s richest lesson tells us that transformation only happens if one changes one’s ways. Today’s real life Beast cannot transform because the governments of New Jersey and New York have self-interested priorities; unconcerned with the collaboration required for the region to benefit from sustainable solutions. Yet, some agent of the public must have the authority to bring transit into the next era.The consequences of not creating suitable authority are immediate and darken the mid-term.
As an immediate (and recurring) problem, Midtown has hellish crosstown traffic. Because trains do not connect both stations, too many commuters surface and add unnecessary street congestion. While surface congestion was reduced by making subway trains interconnect six decades ago, that vital lesson still has not been applied to interconnect suburban service.
Similarly a result of ineffective regional authority, through-routing New York suburbanites to New Jersey (and vice versa) will benefit commuters and employers. Yet, this mid-term economic collaboration is a pipedream. Analyzing each station objectively gives us reasoned premises from which to shape solutions. Let’s start with Her, the fun one.
Poster artistically depicting the glamor of Grand Central, photo by the author while riding the subway
Grand Central Terminal: The Beauty As Secular Cement
Score: 81 (see full scorecard)
Category: Likely Sustainables
When GCT was threatened, prominent architect Phillip Johnson joined the civic movement to protect it with this statement: “Europe has its cathedrals and we have Grand Central.”
Also active in the movement to save GCT, the prestige lent by Jackie Kennedy Onassis helped revive the glamor of trains as GCT established a national standard that stations could be great again. After the nation’s Supreme Court decided in favor of GCT in 1977, the preservation movement had an icon and the law to grow its success.
More inspiring and exhilarating than the finest 21st Century airports (yet without the technological building advances of the past 80 years), it is hard to understand how GCT touches the human soul while smoothly handling its daily flurry of 1 million people hurriedly going places. As a museum piece, elegant shopping mall and transit’s single most efficient infrastructure piece, GCT’s magic is completed by generating constant fascination; serving as the sixth most visited tourist attraction with 21,600,000 visitors annually.
Grand Central sets this standard for every station: to serve as a complete destination, somewhere for tourist and commuter alike to benefit and enjoy travel again.
Now celebrating its 100th year, GCT’s excellent design remains an engineering marvel; flexible enough to accommodate ten times more people today than when it was completed at the start of World War One.
Track entrance, photo by author
Excellence starts in the basement with gates to the tracks that are welcoming, elegant and functional; all promising a pleasant commute. To accommodate rush hour traffic, platforms are wide; certainly the widest I’ve seen for a large terminus. Since platforms easily become choke-points as ridership grows, this shows GCT’s capacity to adapt.
Strolling down the ramp from the dining concourse to lower tracks, photo by author
Also adding to more fluid flow, ramps move people between the main, dining and lower concourses. The walk is far more spacious and pleasant than the usual cramped escalators… and wondrously less expensive to maintain or make handicap accessible.
Great design also helps GCT fulfill retail’s formula of location, location, location. Accommodating a variety of retail shops, GCT is unmatched perhaps anywhere; possibly except Tokyo hubs that have Macys-like department stores. But no where are shopping choices more elegantly arranged than GCT. Ranging from a cool Apple Store to upscale specialty boutiques to even a store for the New York Transit Museum to fascinate the inner subway rider of people like this author. And the shopping tour is not complete without a visit to the vast Grand Central Market (below) that ranks near the top of anyone’s list of gourmet cornucopias.
Grand Central Market, photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Unlike any station in the western world, GCT’s 40 stores for shopping exceeds the 36 for dining. GCT’s Dining Concourse and famed Oyster Bar plus the upper level lounges and dining rooms all combine to rival any station on the planet for quality. Also unlike the fast food dominance of other stations, GCT finds ways to offer a more healthful “grab ‘n go.” (GCT’s leasing decisions should be compared to Penn Station’s whose criteria seem to heavily favor impulse-buy foods that are fattening and, generally, lack intrinsic nutritional value; all consistent with the quality of Penn’s public service.)
Shifting from destination-making-made-easier to the general genius of Grand Central’s original design, its long-term value must be compared to today’s addition when the government builds stations. Here is the MTA’s schematic for the East Side Access project.
It will take a century to correct the obvious mistake of bringing all LIRR passengers to Penn Station and their surfacing and over-crowding Manhattan’s streets for the last leg of a commute. But, government finally is making progress. This MTA project will bring about 20% of weekday LIRR passengers into GCT. As the immediate area redevelops under new zoning laws, the influx of new pedestrians and taxi-users probably will compound today’s congestion; in some ways, defeating the purpose of the East Side Access… and causing its expense, in the judgment of history, to eventually appear as unproductive.
I offer two items as a half-time critique of the East Side Access.
First, ridiculous cost-overruns clearly make the MTA inappropriate to direct future improvements. This project to serve the public is starting to look more like a perversion of tax dollars. The 1999 federal budget had the price at $2.2 billion. Functioning as a slow motion lure that promises the public a solution, it took eight long eight years until ground-breaking; creating lots of opportunities for the politically connected to get their piece of the public’s treasury and for bureaucratic battles to work their woe.
By the time digging started, the project cost almost tripled to $6.4B and completion was projected to end this year. Now in 2013, completion has been bumped to 2019 and tagged at $8.4B, a 382% increase since politics got involved. With a performance like this, intuition tells me that we have not seen the end of this fiscal travesty.
There are acceptable explanations for some cost-overruns. But, there are no excuses as far as the taxpayers’ bottom-line is concerned. If the MTA cannot protect its funding source, the MTA should be replaced with an authority that has a core financial discipline.
If there is to be any accountability moving forward to complete the East Side Access or any current MTA project (or any future project such as remaking Penn Station), the accountability process should start this year with inspector generals of New York City, New York State, Connecticut and, possibly, the federal government making an expanded report. Better yet, a joint report will help taxpayers understand what has happened to their money and suggest ways to help restore the public’s trust.
It will be curious to see if reports indicate the lack of cooperation between MTA subsidiaries (LIRR and Metro-North) led to these ridiculous cost-over-runs. For example, why did the LIRR platforms have to go 91 feet under Metro-North’s?
As a separate item, how are these cost-overruns related to the shared tunnel on 63rd Street ? (See map below.) Didn’t that two decade construction project — starting in 1969 — also end in a fiasco in which it wasn’t useful until the 21st Century when subway connections were made ?
From this tunnel fiasco that so far spans half a century, what are the lessons from this overall lack of authority so that taxpayers can be protected in the future?
And in the Big Picture, would a through-routing strategy have made a lot of these costs unnecessary and still improve the chances to achieve the objective of reducing congestion?
But alas, all this money does not contribute to the strategic solution of through-routing. (Don’t forget, the “marriage” in this piece’s title refers, in part, to the sustainable benefits of through-routing.) Future capacity of Penn and Grand Central can be increased by trains running through it. Yet, the East Side Access project terminates these LIRR trains along with GCT’s 67+ other tracks. The future needs through-routes to contribute to sustainable regional solutions.
Drawing courtesy of Foster + Partners prepared for MAS competition and its website
Easier to grasp than this mind-boggling waste of tax dollars, my second criticism starts more micro. The East Side addition is too far below the standard of GCT’s elegant design; largely resulting from an inability to reconcile differing systems. While more passengers will be able to enjoy GCT (an improvement over Penn’s discomfort), they first get pinched (as in the red pressure points above.) There appears to be a poorly designed exit from the the East Side Access into GCT’s lower level concourse.
There is an even more serious constriction of customers seeking to transfer to the subway, the primary solution to Midtown’s street congestion. MTA also supposedly has authority to manage the subways. (On page 51 of the Foster proposal’s link above, a solution is offered; but, of course, the MTA has no money given its cost-overruns.)
So, we see yet again the weakness of MTA’s authority upon entering the subway system. Lines 4 and 5 (in the lower right corner) already are the nation’s most over-burdened. The ESA will bring some 12,000 more riders from the LIRR. And if the MTA plans to relieve this congestion by finishing the 2nd Avenue subway one long block away, I remind everyone that the Elevated was torn down and used as scrap in the war against facism… and east-side Manhattan riders have been waiting ever since.
Back to belief in today, these problematic transit connections are reviewed starting on page 31 of a study released for GCT’s 100th anniversary, A Bold Vision for Midtown. Prepared by the Municipal Arts Society, MAS has served as the primary civic organization and Guardian Angel throughout Beauty’s life. Opening yet another chapter of great public service, this excellent 65-page publication analyzes GCT. Particular attention is paid to public spaces and mobility within its original surrounds that sprung up in the 1920s. Known as the Terminal City, it remains NYC’s best contribution to the City Beautiful movement. Terminal City also is the original application of the “value capture” concept being talked about by cities today. For a relevant primer on value capture, refer to this 2012 post in “Urbanophile.” And for a longer discussion, see this recent post.
Using the rezoning of GCT’s surrounds, “Bold Vision” turns the coming redevelopment into an opportunity to evolve East Midtown. (The booklet also is a bit of a pre-emptive strike to prevent the surrounds from further reducing Beauty’s prominence.) I certainly hope MAS successfully guides and monitors deals between developers and City planning agencies to improve public spaces, streets and sidewalks to cope better with Midtown’s congestion.
But, all of these real estate updates beg several questions. First of all, why focus municipal attention on a center that, on a relative basis, works pretty well now? Instead, shouldn’t all these plans of increasing density be preceded by solving the congestion caused when commuters surface to get to their destinations?
And given that the MTA will be ridiculously over-budget and decades late in getting the LIRR to stop at GCT, should it be the agency to through-route GCT’s trains? Through-routing makes several contributions to regional sustainability. For GCT to advance in that direction, some lines need to go through.
Photo taken by author while riding the Lexington Ave subway
It is not my intent to challenge MTA’s competence. Per the photo above as an example of many improved efforts to serve the public, MTA is trying. (And relative to Chicagoland’s agencies, MTA gets an “A”.) But, here is the real question: is MTA the correct agent to solve problems economically?
Here also follow bigger questions for the sustainable era; most are so far beyond MTA’s purview that a true authority will be needed if the future is to look better than today.
But….. As beautiful as GCT is and as positive as the MAS influence on land use agencies and developers seems to be, how does remaking a 21st Century Terminal City fit into a strategy for regional redevelopment? Offering the more objective perspective of someone who lives in the nation’s second densest city, I ask: isn’t Manhattan’s problem really that it has too many people? Don’t Midtown’s insanely high land costs drive even more density that we currently cannot afford infrastructure for?
Let’s face the Big Picture. Manhattan bound trains serve its CBDs, but also congest these districts. Terminating commuter lines merely compounds connections to other transit and, thereby, raises the cost for everyone.
If our governments cannot follow a de-congestion strategy such as through-routing that European cities solve almost as a matter of course, then how can current agencies ever guide something as complex as the much talked-about goal of economically rational regional redevelopment? Fundamental to our economic competitiveness, this topic is explored in later articles. But for now, truly sustainable stations — of which GCT could lead the way — must also contribute to systems that guide rational redevelopment.
To end where we began our story….. In my personal opinion, The Beauty is doing just fine. She can age more gracefully with better streets and sidewalks. But giving her implants in the form of bigger buildings will just make her sag… or at least cause her to lose her shape… if you don’t mind my metaphor.
As for marrying her off to a Beast… we have to believe in miracles. Specifically, New York must try through-routing and other transit connection methods to relieve congestion… or else the marriage fails to improve the household’s economics. These methods are explored in the remake of Penn Station… the next article in this series on how stations can support truly sustainable transit.
Sunday, October 13th, 2013
The urbanist internet has been a ga ga over an article by artist and musician David Byrne (photo credit: Wikipedia) called “If the 1% stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here.” Now David Byrne himself is at least a cultural 1%er, and at with a reported net worth of $45 million, isn’t exactly hurting for cash. In fairness to him, he forthrightly admits he’s rich. He also is bullish on the positive changes in New York in areas like public safety, transportation, and parks, and does not fall prey to romanticizing the bad old days of the 70s and 80s. However, in his assigning blame for New York’s affordability, he points the finger squarely at Wall Street, neglecting the role he himself played in bringing about the changes he decries, changes in which he was more than a passive participant.
Back in the early 90s I liked to hang out in a neighborhood called Fountain Square in Indianapolis, a down at the heels commercial district near downtown largely populated by people from Appalachia. I enjoyed browsing the low end, marginal shops and eating at diners where the food was mediocre and the waitresses sassy but not all that attractive (not that I let that stop me from flirting with them). Today, Fountain Square is not exactly gentrified, but is seeing a lot of investment and new residential construction. It’s a long way from unaffordable, but it isn’t impossible to conceive of a day when it features almost entirely higher prices (by Indianapolis standards) in the way some other zones downtown do.
About that time I also liked to drive around the city and take pictures of various neighborhoods in the inner city. One time I was on the East Side and was walking around taking snaps of streetscapes. I apparently pointed my camera too close in the direction of a white minivan whose owner took umbrage. The driver, who was white, long-haired, with a bit of a redneck air about him, circled the block and pulled up next to me to berate me in a semi-menacing way, alternately demanding to know why I was taking pictures of his van and warning me I should never do it again. (I generally take pains to try to avoid including people in my photographs when possible, and things like this are one reason why).
I’m not going to claim there was any hidden agenda here other than this guy being directly suspicious of my pointing a camera his way. But I can’t help but wonder if subconsciously he was aware of a more subtle but potentially more dangerous threat that I posed to his neighborhood and way of life.
I’m not taking credit or blame for neighborhood change in Indianapolis. But I do know that I’m part of the dynamic of the city I’m in. And when I guy like me walks into a neighborhood, my mere presence can be a provocation. Cities are inherently dynamic places, and we are agents of the forces of change whether we want to be or not. (Which is as true for the poor as for the one percent, we just label it “fair housing” when poor people move into rich neighborhoods, but “gentrification” when the reverse occurs).
While I am a writer and observer on cities, I’m an endogenous not exogenous observer. All of us are players in the development of the places we live and visit, event if only bit players in some cases. And oftimes in the complex world of the city, our actions are part of forces or trends we are not event aware of, ones that may have consequences we would never have desired. That does not absolve us of our role.
As for David Byrne, the role of artists and musicians in paving the way for gentrification is so well known as to be conventional wisdom. Similarly today the hipster. And what’s one of the original signature markers of the hipster? The fixed-gear bicycle.
Just as reductions in crime obviously have an effect of dramatically raising property values (and thus rents) in a place as intrinsically attractive as New York, so do other quality of life improvements such as bicycle infrastructure. By making New York an even more desirable place to live, these improvements, wonderful as they may be and which I would heartily endorse, clearly attract more well-off residents and drive up prices.
Byrne has even taken a direct role in this. He created a series of nine public art type back racks from the city, all but one of which is in Manhattan, and which even includes this delightful example from Wall Street:
Photo Credit: Flickr/zombiete
These racks and his activism with regards to bicycles are what give Bryne his standing an urban commentator.
I for one am glad he made the bike racks as they are fantastic and I’m a fan of New York’s improved cycling infrastructure. But I also recognize that this sort of quality of life improvement contributes towards New York’s attractiveness to the wealthy. It’s just not realistic to think one can clean up the crime, the parks, improve infrastructure, etc. and then expect that prices will remain what they were back in the 70s when Bryne moved to the city. Rather than pointing the finger at the Other, the finance industry in this case, it would be more helpful if those of us who advocate for better urban environments would recognize the inevitable side effects many of our proposed policies would produce, and our own role in bringing them about.
Tuesday, October 8th, 2013
This post is part of a series called North America’s Train Stations: What Makes Them Sustainable – or Not? See the series introduction for more.
Photo from City of Newark website
Photo by Robert Munson
Score: 79 (see full scorecard)
Category: Economic Engine
Overview: Stations in this series’ third category, Economic Engine, perform perhaps the key function of daily urban life: facilitate transit systems that give a competitive edge to downtown employers and retail. This strategic goal helps explain why so many cities recently want to redevelop their central stations and, in the last third of the 20th Century, why preservationists succeeded so often in keeping alive their civic centerpieces.
To distinguish Economic Engines from the highest category (called the Sustainables), a related theory assumes that stations centering well their mobility networks also boost property values with more Transit Oriented Development. This creates a happy economic cycle for a growing middle class that uses transit more; raising both tax and farebox revenue, while creating savings from lowered household transportation costs and government road maintenance. This combination puts a network on the road to fiscal sustainability; particularly as discussed in this series’ earlier article on Philadelphia’s growing middle class that resides downtown. We should expect more of these more complete downtowns as the sustainable era emerges.
Usually with too little residential, Economic Engines are less complete and only stimulate the commercial downtown; but should improve the network as steps toward our more robust category. (While most of these correlations are good, causation is still squishy.)
Newark’s Penn Station is a good test of this TOD theory that transit is an economic enabler and stimulant. In my opinion, Newark potentially centers the nation’s largest suburban operator. (This assumes two combinations under good governance: PATH and NJ Transit technically count as one integrated system; and, Newark’s Penn and Broad Street stations are essentially one station with eight lines connected by a one mile light rail.) Yet, Newark is only a small, mid-sized city with 278,000 residents while Long Island’s railroad (currently the nation’s largest) can serve some 7.7 million.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Dougtone
Newark’s relatively successful commercial downtown looks like a much larger city. But its chief obstacle is the City’s middle class is way too small. While having some diverse neighborhoods, Newark still has the highest poverty rate (25%) of any American city. So if Newark turns around that statistic by using its transit advantage to rebuild its middle class, it further makes the social argument for every other city to invest in its station and reinvent its mobility network. Until that happy day, other cites can be well served by this analysis of Newark’s main station and how it encourages one of the nation’s better transit systems.
How The Economic Multiplier Works At Newark Penn
This station has two key factors in its equation: design; and transit as a top priority.
A great design may not be mandatory for success, but it sure helps. If a station is designed well, its functions fall into place easier and are less costly to update. If a station functions well, it gets used more and it is more possible for a downtown to flourish. Newark proves these operational and capital efficiencies. Twice. Most improbable was the second time; occurring now.
The first time, of course, was when Penn Station was built. With a 1935 ribbon-cutting and carefully orchestrated promotion, this equal investment from the City and Pennsylvania RR promised to work well for everyone. And it still does.
The station functions well. Integrating its three levels, one walks down from the almost airy platforms into a concourse with a relatively high ceiling so it doesn’t seem as if eight tracks could have trains rumbling above you. The concourse then smoothly distributes passengers to parking, taxis, buses or the exquisite Art Deco detail of the waiting room pictured above all on the street level. The basement is a light-rail subway; a short ride connecting to universities, medical centers and the Broad Street Station. Here is the agency’s recent blueprint. (The extensive local bus station is unmarked, but adjoins Penn Station’s north wall.)
While still working well through the 1970s, Newark’s decline caught up with the Station. It has undergone two decades of updates starting with $41M from NJ Transit in the 1990s. Then in this century and largely using the above drawings, NJT teamed up with federal money (including 31M from the 2009 ARRA stimulus.) All this brought the Station to as good a condition as could be expected; given the economic disaster of many Newark neighborhoods.
For more details on Newark Penn, visit this website sponsored by Amtrak that helps citizens preserve their stations.
Street map posted throughout ped-shed, photographed by the author.
The concourse and connection to other modes are done well (see scorecard details.) As in other good stations, improving passenger convenience and increases ridership. But, the real reward is the economic impact on the downtown. The above map captures this best. Its economic anchors are Prudential (absolutely key) and quasi-government corporations (New Jersey’s largest light and gas company and the state’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield.) Typical of recovering downtowns, it also has government centers.
Overall, Newark’s employers are not much different than you would expect a former industrial and port town to have after four decades of disinvestment preceded by a particularly awful 1967 race riot and very rapid white flight. In brief, the downtown needs more private employers.
But, that problem is being turned around. Of the recent large scale construction in all of New Jersey, one-third is in Newark; despite the City having 4% of the state’s population and the disadvantage of its per household income being 42% less than the state’s.
There is further evidence that Newark’s transit quality is attracting capital. It has combined well with the tax breaks to build a downtown sports arena for its NHL team. (Prudential got naming rights.) Panasonic’s North American HQ was just lured from neighboring, upriver Secaucus and added an attractive high-rise to Newark’s surprising skyline. While lures other than tax breaks are used, transit is the key amenity; and Newark and New Jersey know how to use it.
Many give Prudential credit for saving this downtown. I add that it probably took the largest life insurer (whose portfolio is invested heavily long-term in real estate) to recognize long-term value of a town with a great station and good transit.
Newark equals Chicago’s 26.5% of ridership to work. And transit should help rebuild Newark’s middle class to overcome downtown’s main drawbacks: it has very few residents, sparse retail and partial amenities that residents require.
Before Newark Can Solve Its Poverty Problem, Build Downtown Residential
Newark has good bones for downtown residential. It has the second lowest rate of car ownership, after New York City. In addition to transit, other assets should be leveraged for downtown residential. For example, four major institutions (Rutgers-Newark, NJ Institute of Technology, the nation’s largest health service university and a community college) bring some 50,000 students to downtown’s University Heights. These largely commuter colleges could facilitate more housing for students and staff.
As with many cities revitalizing its downtown using the “eds & meds” strategy, Newark knows it has to diversify; as represented in its 2008 “Living Downtown Plan” that stretches to University Heights on the west and troubled areas around Broad Street Station on the north. (Plan consultants were SOM and Sam Schwartz Engineering).
As Mayor for seven years, Newark’s Cory Booker has done much to refurbish his city’s image. In addition to imprinting many economic deals, he is a public safety champion. During the 1990s, Newark was considered the most dangerous city in America. Mayor Booker, an African-American, has been a frontline advocate for restoring public safety. This needs to continue if the downtown is to attract enough residents. Yet continuation depends on his successor, as Mr. Booker is likely to move up as the next Senator from this state.
The mar on Booker’s legacy is he has done too little for poor neighborhoods. Because some border the downtown and are stigmatized by housing projects, this remains an obstacle. In this series on how stations lead transit systems that support a middle class, I cannot start or finish the argument that we have a welfare regime that perpetuates poor people’s plight. But, we should not forget that transit is one of the easiest ways to reduce household costs; enough so every family can save more and move up the ladder.
Unlikely to get as complete a package as Mr. Booker to serve as its next Mayor, Newark needs a strategy that persists past his dynamic persona and take its currently stymied “Living Downtown Plan” and make it a reality. Let me propose a deal for new methods of regional redevelopment. (This concept will be explored throughout this series.) To encapsulate this strategy, look at this map of the PATH.
The Port Authority Trans Hudson is the nation’s 7th largest subway system by ridership. The four small cities it serves have 620,000 residents for an impressive ratio of 3 residents for every 2 riders, highly concentrated. (The nation’s next largest belongs to Philadelphia’s subway with a ratio of 5 residents to 1 rider.) If you add the four New Jersey Transit commuter lines that connect Newark (Penn and Broad stations) to New York’s Penn Station. Suddenly, poor Newark is a very rich transit connection. As the state’s largest city, Newark should be a natural mega-hub for the New York metropolis.
My future article on New York stations uses two assumptions. First, Midtown Manhattan has too many people for transit improvements to work cost-effectively. Second, there are cheaper places to live than Manhattan. Both proven.
Newark has an under-utilized and effective transit network. And second, Newark is an inexpensive place to live.
This begs a few questions. Wouldn’t the world’s main financial center benefit from a farm team eight miles away that already is the nation’s third largest insurance center? And for the common sense and stability of our financial system, shouldn’t investment banking learn something from the nation’s largest life insurer that required zero public dollars to make it through the worst real estate market since The Great Depression? And besides, didn’t banks just make its “Wall Street West” by bringing many players to Jersey City, Newark’s peer on the PATH? (Jersey City has four PATH stops.) And didn’t this expansion raise Hoboken and Jersey City housing prices to those in many parts of Manhattan? Does this make Newark the next city to expand to?
And because it is in-land, Newark would cost substantially less to bulwark against hurricane flooding; possibly a show-stopping cost for Manhattan and Jersey City?
So if all these assumptions make sense, the clincher is: what agency helps fix this match-made-in-Heaven between the first and second largest cities in the New York metropolitan area? And don’t forget the bride’s dowry: Newark has the metro’s second largest airport and it is the most convenient to Manhattan; plus, it has the largest container port on the East Coast.
I’m not done having fun with this scenario… nor laying out its logic for Newark and, by analogy, how other central stations can serve as Economic Engines. Solving transit’s problems are increasingly expensive and ineffective because of how we govern our urban areas. If we are to compete in an era of sustainability and if that model rebuilds regions with mega-centers (instead of one over-crowded midtown), then the New York metro needs to take advantage of Newark’s assets and Newark needs New York’s investments. In ways politicians obviously don’t understand, cooperation will pay great dividends to everyone. (But first, we must un-employ the turf-fighters).
Newark’s social problems won’t get solved overnight. But over-time, they must be improved as they currently use public monies very ineffectively and these otherwise could get a much higher social and economic return if invested in infrastructure. As a drain, urban poverty is a strategic obstacle that prevents transit systems from getting on a path to fiscal sustainability.
So for today… How can every city’s central station, as an Economic Engine, do preliminary work to overcome this obstacle? Answer: we still are finding out.
But… History gives us more answers than we admit. Consider the exhibit created from a brochure promoting Newark Penn at its 1935 ribbon-cutting. This exhibit fills the waiting room’s far wall. Reading this one panel below, it is clear that the Pennsylvania Railroad saw something worth promoting and, in so doing, defined this Station’s destiny.
Photo by Robert Munson
In 1935, the City of Newark had just split the cost of building the Station. This investment tied New York to Newark’s downtown. Four generations later, it still pays dividends. This is a great public value and should make taxpayers feel good (something that doesn’t happen often enough). Newark’s Station remains a great opportunity for all types of progress. But, it is under-utilized; blocked by out-dated laws for redevelopment.
Newark Penn is an Economic Engine for the downtown that is running at, let’s say, half capacity. Who is failing to use that asset to serve public goals? Let’s show politicians and transit bureaucrats the light. And if that doesn’t work, show them the door.
Sunday, August 25th, 2013
[ Many of you are probably aware by now that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing to upzone the Midtown East area around Grand Central Terminal before he leaves office. Micah Rodman, a student at Yale, wrote an a paper on this I thought would be of interest as an example showing the way Bloomberg has been seeking to reshape New York - Aaron. ]
Currently, the New York City Department of Urban Planning is in the public approval process of changing the zoning for East Midtown as a means of redeveloping the neighborhood. In this 73-block area surrounding Grand Central Terminal, the Bloomberg administration has proposed an increase in building height restriction to incentivize real estate developers to tear down old buildings within the business district to then replace them with contemporary skyscrapers. To efficiently allow developers to build higher, the city is basing its proposal around the creation of monetized air rights—a type of Tradable Developmental Right (TDR) that allow developers to build outside of the restrictions of the local zoning code. Sold within the designated area, formerly titled the East Midtown District Improvement Bonus Districts, the sale of public TDRs is a way to raise the funds for the public realm and transportation infrastructure improvements that will be necessary to accommodate for the increase density that will result from the plan.
Although this plan prescribes more density for an already quite dense section of the city, in this paper, I will argue that if executed thoughtfully, the East Midtown Manhattan zoning plan has the potential to create economically viable, competitive, and aesthetically rich additions to New York City.
Historically, the iconic forms of East Midtown Manhattan have defined New York City to the rest of the world. The proposed section of Midtown that would be affected under the proposal applies to the blocks in between East 39 Street to the south, East 57 Street to the north, Second and Third avenues to the east, Fifth Avenue to the west (Image: 1). Most notably, this district includes historical landmarks such as Grand Central Terminal and the promenade views of Park Avenue, the Waldorf Astoria hotel, and the Yale Club of New York. The Lexington Avenue subway and cross-town subway lines on 42nd and 53rd streets serve this district.
Image 1: East Midtown highlighted in red. Image from the New York City Department of Urban Planning.
In the later half of the 20th Century, East Midtown Manhattan became New York City’s premiere central business district. Now, it houses 14 Fortune 500 Companies and as such, it is a major contributor to the city’s tax base, providing what the city considers to be some of its best 70 million square feet of office space, accommodating approximately 200,000 workers.
But according to the findings of the Urban Planning Commission of New York, the central business district is not growing: less than 5 percent of East Midtown’s total office floor area was built in the past 5 years, with only 2 new office buildings constructed in the past decade—both medium sized—while the last major office development was completed in 1999.
Older than London, a commercial district developed 60 years ago, and far older than new global business centers like Shanghai, only 10 years old, 80 percent of office buildings in East Midtown are over 50 years old (with an average age of 73). Due to a combination of both a lack of physical growth in this district, and the potential attraction of Class A caliber buildings in competing cities like London, Tokyo, and Chicago, the city has concluded that East Midtown is not performing well in regard with the provision of up-to-date office space.
The Bloomberg administration has decided that the lack of Class A office construction in the area over the past two decades is a threat to the long-term performance of the business district and to the vitality of the city. Bloomberg’s urban planning commission is fearful that the district will not retain its reputation as “the best business address in the world.” The preexisting structures also lack the large “column-free spaces,” tall ceilings, and environmentally efficient features, now sought by many corporate tenants.
As with the recent zoning changes in Long Island City and Hudson Yards, Bloomberg and his administration do not look at the city with the eyes of one of its millions of annual visitors, who are very satisfied to catch a glimpse of the city’s physical status quo. In the eyes of Bloomberg, Midtown Manhattan could just as easily fall into a serious decline as it could create roughly 5 million new square feet of housing by 2033 (an increase of 5.5 percent) as a result of this rezoning plan.
In his proposal, he calls for “iconic new buildings” to redefine Midtown. However, current zoning regulations limit the ability of the private market to construct these new “icons.” In New York City, Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is the principal bulk regulating metric used to control building size. In short, FAR is the ratio of total building floor area to the area of its lot. Each New York City zoning district has a codified FAR which, when multiplied by the lot area of the zoning lot, produces the maximum amount of floor area allowed on that lot. For example, on a 10,000 square foot zoning lot in a district with a maximum FAR of 1.0, the floor area on the lot cannot exceed 10,000 square feet. Of course, with other zoning and building code regulations, buildings tend not to be the size of their lots, and the FAR figure does not simply equal floor height (Image: 2).
Image 2: Different ways FAR can be calculated. Image from New York Dictionary of Zoning.
FAR is really a ratio of building to lot size, and it’s helpful to think of it in terms of other buildings. For example, at 59 floors and 3,140,000 sq/ft, Pan Am/MetLife tower, one of the area’s behemoth office buildings that currently looms over Grand Central Station has an FAR of 18, while at 47 floors and 1,200,000 sq/ft, the old Bear Stearns headquarters around the corner—at 383 Madison Avenue—has an FAR of 21.6. Just down the street from the Old Bear Sterns Building, on 42 Street, at 55 floors and 2,100,000 sq/ft, the recently finished One Bryant Park, one of the biggest buildings in the city, has a FAR of 24.
These behemoths are examples of the type of large office buildings that are already present in the Midtown proposal area. However, they are by no means the average Midtown building. In the Midtown Development District, the majority of FARs are set at 12.0 or 15.0, with a special zoning Bonus District in the immediate area surrounding Grand Central Station that allows for the area’s highest construction limits. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Midtown is all on the larger end of medium-sized office towers. The neighborhood has many “dwarfs” that would instantly become more valuable as soon as the potential for the height of the development on their lots is raised. Under the proposed zoning changes, this height limit will increase by 20 percent, which would raise the current 12.0 and 15.0 FAR limits to 14.4 and 18.0 FAR respectively (Image: 3).
Image 3: The breakdown of base FARs as according to the East Midtown Rezone. Image from the New York City Office of City Planning.
With the new proposal there will still be a Grand Central Station Bonus District, a special area where the city has designated developers to construct taller buildings with a base FAR limit of 21.6. Within the Grand Central Station Sub District, the city has even proposed a Bonus District to include the couple or so blocks surrounding Grand Central Station where the FAR will be raised to 24.0. In addition to the expansion of building heights in the Grand Central Bonus District, the plan also proposes the creation of the Park Avenue Subarea, where FAR increases would be permitted up to 21.6 FAR in special cases, an increase on the existing base maximum FAR of 15.0 (Image: 4).
Image 4: The breakdown of the East Midtown rezone subdistricts, with the space for behemoth developments in the GCT zone. Image from the New York City Office of Urban Planning.
To regulate the additional building height made available in both the Grand Central Station Bonus Districts and the Park Avenue Subarea, under the plan, developers would have to purchase Transferable Development Rights (TDRs) from the city. These rights are the results of the monetization of public space—the sky—and would be held and managed by the city in what is called a District Improvement Bonus (DIB). The DIB is the legal financial mechanism that allows for the immediate collection of the funds raised from the sale of the TDRs within the new Bonus District. The BID then takes these funds raised from the sale of TDRs to developers in the BID and invests them back into the physical infrastructure of the BID to fund public realm improvements including the area’s public transportation, green, and pedestrian infrastructures.
According to Landauer Valuation & Advisory, the private appraiser the Department of Urban Planning hired to appraise the value of the proposed TDRs, over time, the adjusted “fair market value” for a foot of TDRs will be about $250 a square foot. The Landauer report concludes that from the sale of TDRs, the BID will raise as much as $750 million. Again, these funds will go to finance public realm green-spaces, new pedestrian expansion, and expanded public transportation access designed to ease any of the new density pressures added to the area as a result of the increase of people to the area.
Specifically, wider sidewalks, larger subway platforms, and a new set of public plazas along a potentially pedestrianized part of Vanderbilt Avenue have all been proposed as public realm improvements to offset the negative effects of the increased density that will result from enacting the plan.
As the final piece of new zoning machinery, the city has proposed a Landmark Transfer Zone to apply to historic properties that fall within the area of the Grand Central Bonus District. As per New York City Law, historical landmarks are the only properties that can fully transfer their TDRs to other entities (in other words, their air rights are neither publically held nor managed). With these transfers, a historic landmark can sell the TDRs they have to another landowner in the district in order to raise money and not have to worry about being priced out of the booming district.
If a landmark sells 100 feet of TDRs to the building across the street, the building across the street now has access to build on another 100 feet of the vertical space that sits above the property. Within the Grand Central Sub District, Historic TDRs are the last means of adding the extra couple thousand square feet to a new skyscraper building.
For example, if a historic landmark in the Bonus District, let’s say the Yale Club of New York, sold its air rights to its across the street neighbor, the neighbor would tack those credits onto her building to build higher. Now, the neighbor would be able to build higher than the base area’s FAR (see NYT: “The Great Race for Manhattan Air Rights“).
When Bloomberg announced his plan for Midtown, he gave yet another example of the zoning based economic development strategy that he’s used in other business and residential districts. This Midtown plan aims to regulate private market development with new standards for commodifying scarce resources (in Midtown FAR is the commoditized resource, but in Chelsea, on the Highline, the rights to real estate adjacent the Highline are that resource). In Chelsea, Hudson Yards, and Long Island City, zoning regulations that regulate building form (and not use) to align with what the Bloomberg administration deems public interest have been an effective means of guiding private market growth. Through these plans, Bloomberg has been able to levy new incentives to inspire his own desired private market outcomes: he is using these large-scale zoning makeovers as part of his grand redevelopment strategy.
By using zoning policy to align the city’s interests with those of private real estate developers, instead of using his public policy pulpit to arm wrestle developers into submitting to the city’s interests, Bloomberg has become NYC’s master real estate developer.
The TDRs are sold to raise money for the city on the basis that taller buildings create density that creates more congestion, pollution, and general demand for public investment: taller buildings in New York City create a negative social cost. TDR programs accordingly “regularizes and standardizes the price developers must pay to offset the impacts their developments will have on the community and again bring greater transparency to the process.” Through the sale of TDRs, participation in the DIB can be seen as an exaction for developers: they can have their building height, but they’re going to have to pay for it. The same notion goes for the use of TDRs in the Landmark Transfer Zone to preserve historic landmarks in a changing area.
Public policy theorists have lauded uses of TDR programs, like Bloomberg’s Midtown East proposal, as tools to negotiate tensions between conflicting interests such as future development vs. preservation of the past, and density vs. efficiency. Bloomberg has clearly harnessed this power of TDRs as his plan views unused development potential, as seen in the proposed use of BID funds for public realm improvements, as a public—rather than solely private— resource used to regulate the aforementioned tensions. To the Bloomberg administration, zoning and the monetization of public TDRs are a means of aligning public interests with the private market.
Legal Scholars and these public policy experts who focus on land use issues have credited Bloomberg’s shift to the TDR based zoning scheme with introducing and enacting policies that challenge urban planning’s central dogmas of site specific planning and activist regulatory policy from city hall. Scholars have considered the City Planning Department’s strategy as a way to “more carefully direct the form and intensity of permissible development in a way that reflects the goals (and structure) of more traditional zoning.” In this sense, TDRs have moved away from seldom used mechanism for buyers to escape from the strictures of existing zoning “towards a complex system of upzonings in which the right to develop to the maximum permitted FAR depends upon the use of TDRs.”
However, even with the built-in mechanisms for regulating the negative impact of this plan, critics of the plan have still charged the proposal with the potential to create an unmanageable midtown. In an interview conducted for this report, urban planner Alexander Garvin — the head planner of the NYC 2012 Olympic Plan — exclaimed that despite his support for the development of Hudson Yards, he is against the East Midtown Proposal: “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it,” he said. “It’s chicanery!”
Garvin, who is widely credited with creating the term “public realm” to describe the collection of pedestrian friendly spaces in a city spoke frankly that in its broad approach, the proposal would eliminate New York City’s unique sense of place, an opinion that his colleague, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, Robert A.M. Stern, took in his Sun., Apr. 21, 2013 editorial in the New York Times. Stern, who is himself the architect of some major Manhattan real estate, opined that “The advantages of density can go only so far without the infrastructure to support it.” He postulated that the literal rise of larger buildings might irrevocably affect the public realm of New York City, and fears that the famed New york City skyline might become indistinguishable from the city of Shanghai in the 1990s which saw major growth in the size of its central business district, but experienced a “Scaleless urban moonscape below” as a result.
A report composed by the Municipal Art Society (MAS) of New York “East Midtown: A Bold Vision for the Future,” advocates for a rezone that considers the current state of the economy as a part of its proposal, arguing that in the near future, the housing-less Central Business District might become obsolete. “Talent gravitates toward neighborhoods that are real places — with walkable streets, unique architecture, great restaurants and other opportunities for socializing and amusement,” the report concludes. “The number and mix of business types are important for the economic health of the neighborhood.” Garvin piled on as he too wondered how a new fleet of large Class A tenant office buildings fit the needs to the contemporary economy. “How’s a tech startup supposed to incubate in a space like this, and when would Facebook ever need it?” he wondered.
On top of these concerns, other arguments against the plan include an overvaluation of the demand for office space in the city, and then the constant argument against any type of real estate development—uncertainty vis a vis time.
However, the resounding successes of past zoning proposals that adapted smaller scale TDR mechanisms into their zoning frameworks, and the incredibly detailed nature of Bloomberg’s proposal serve to answer these valid concerns.
To combat the concern that the plan would not do enough in way of creating public realm beautification, the city does claim, albeit hopefully, that it can make $750 million by the sale of its TDRs. These funds seem as though they might be enough to combat the concerns of these critics, especially if thinking logically about the structure of the DIB, which dictates that the more building is built, the more rights need to be bought, the more funds from the sale of TDRs will flow back into the coffers of the BID. But there is always the opportunity that these rights have been overvalued, or that the rights won’t be purchased soon enough to fund and meet the high demand for the public realm improvements, especially considering the volatility in the price of air rights in other parts of the city.
But inherent in the design for the plan are a set of checks to regulate the area’s largest buildings. The aforementioned criticisms do not seriously consider the implications of Bloomberg’s new zoning district. What none of these critics mention is that large-scale buildings that go beyond the FAR requirements in special districts will have to go through an extensive design review in order to be built. This means that if a skyscraper that blocks out the Chrysler Building is designed and proposed, the community can prevent such a building from ever being constructed.
Not surprisingly, this section of the new zoning proposal has been unpopular with the real estate industry, as reported in the Sun., Oct. 7, 2012 edition of the Times in an article entitled: “Bloomberg Pushes a Plan to Let Midtown Soar.” Here, Steven Spinola, President of the New York Real Estate Board is quoted as being critical of this design approval provision, as the biggest buildings will have to go through rounds of review to win the required support of the public. However, Spinola, like most other developers or members of the real estate community, is still largely in support of the proposal.
For Bloomberg, the termed out mayor who is set to leave office this December, there is no doubt that this rezoning plan could be one of his most substantial contributions to the city. While a new addition to the New York skyline under the proposed plan will be a physical marker of his tenure, Bloomberg has more quietly redesigned the regulatory guts of neighborhoods all around New York City, just as he’s proposed in Midtown.
Without fear of the potential implications in changing the zoning framework, Bloomberg has tailor-fitted zoning based growth plans in a way that allows a neighborhood to use its assets (relevant TDRs) to naturally best serve its own growth. Throughout his term, Bloomberg has rezoned one-sixth of the city, and in this way, a taller and more dynamic midtown Manhattan might be the ultimate landmark of his legacy.
Micah Rodman is an Urban Studies student at Yale University.
Wednesday, July 31st, 2013
This week a few things from New York City. The first is a full color silent film from 1939 showing a great slice of life in the city. If you didn’t see it, it’s great. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
h/t Atlantic Cities
Here’s an interesting time lapse showing the development of Midtown Manhattan over the course of 165 years in a single minute. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
h/t Curbed New York
And lastly, here’s a WNYC radio piece on diversity and insularity in Brooklyn, though the lens of a Hasidic oriented super market and some of the unique business practices enabled through having a tight-knit community. If the audio doesn’t display, click here.
Monday, July 29th, 2013
[ This post by Sam Hersh is on a topic that's always sure to get people's blood pumping - historic preservation. I hope you enjoy the perspective - Aaron. ]
In historic preservation battles, it seems we are often fed an oversimplified story-line of two, opposing interests. In conflict with any landmarks or preservation, business interests imagine a thriving city as a place of commerce unfettered by unnecessary red tape. On the other hand, cultural proponents see a thriving city as a place of humanity that preserves its history while providing outlets for creative pursuits. Importantly, both of these views hold at their core the belief that cities as dense nodes of human agglomeration can transform the opportunities of individuals by pooling interests and talents to create something greater than their individual parts.
It seems to me that, given the shared interests in the city as vibrant hub for human collaboration by all parties either opposing or supporting the preservation of a building or district that there should be a third, more dominant and more tempered voice in these debates – those who spend their lives thinking about cities should work to reform their mindset toward preservation. Such a mindset would look for a common ground between both the knee-jerk preservation that many interested in architecture and design have been led to support and the blind search for growth at all costs that many economic development professionals have espoused.
As quick background, I take for granted the belief that land use regulations tend to curb new construction or the amount of square footage offered by new construction, disturb the efficiency of a city’s economy, and slow growth. The true benefits of urbanity are in the economic opportunities that efficient living in compact density provides to its residents. When older buildings are torn down and replaced with more housing or commercial space in a denser pattern, this tends to be good for a city. I also believe that cities are not merely corporate entities to maximize profit and efficiency. That same human density that, since the earliest ancient cities of the Fertile Crescent, has facilitated trade of excess harvests and wares has also created some of the most culturally important artifacts in human history.
I often feel that we have been led to believe that there are only two possible views that a government can take towards preservation – business oriented and culturally oriented. I will approximate these views with the case of Chicago and New York, both of which have been instrumental in the creation and dissemination of built forms throughout the world and both of which have a bank of historically important buildings.
In New York, the Landmarks Preservation Commission recently voted to protect, en masse, over 300 buildings in a swath of land called the East Village Historic District. Though none of the buildings in the East Village are seminal historically or architecturally, they are attractive.
In Chicago, preservationists just came off of what should have been an easy win: The Prentice Women’s Hospital. Prentice has a shape unlike anything else in the world and is widely regarded by critics and historians as seminal in the development of modern techniques in computer-aided architecture, hospital design and central core skyscraper construction. Despite its importance and having met multiple criteria for landmark designation in Chicago, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks decided that the economic benefits of razing the building were too great to preserve what otherwise would have been a worthy candidate for protection. (Disclaimer: I worked for Econsult Solutions at the time that they provided an economic impact study on the benefits of preservation of Prentice for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, though I was not involved in that project).
It might be easy to ignore the discrepancies in these two cases with the simple explanation that the fight for hundred year old low rises in Manhattan was a fight for the aesthetically pleasing while Bertrand’s Brutalist Prentice is “hard to love.” But the differences in landmarking procedures between New York and Chicago are for more pervasive than these two cases. In 2012, the Commission of Chicago Landmarks added ten landmarks to its rolls according to its annual report. In the same year, New York’s Landmarks Commission added at least 965 buildings to its protection, according to press releases I could find on the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission website. (The bulk of these protections were in the East Village Historic District, with about 330 landmarks, and an expansion to the Park Slope Historic District, with about 600 properties added).
More than the staggering disparity in number of buildings that receive landmark status, historic buildings are treated differently in Chicago and New York. In Chicago, buildings that are deemed historic are often stripped of their facades and reconstructed over new innards in a so-called facadectomy. These facadectomies are common throughout the city from the slightly pleasant Legacy to the horrific 10 South LaSalle. In 2007 in Chicago, a landmarked building was given a facadectomy and (to add insult to injury) filled with a parking garage for a postmodern tower next door meant to ape the subtle beauty of the original. In New York, also in 2007, the landmarks commission refused to allow Norman Foster, a world-renowned architect, to build a tower above a building in a landmark district that would have kept much of the original structure intact.
While it might seem that New York’s housing shortage would have pushed city leaders to rethink landmarks and the restrictions that they place on new construction, there has been little movement in this direction. Meanwhile Chicago, with a vacancy crisis on its hands in many of its neighborhoods, fears the impact of landmarking one building (though, to be fair, in Prentice’s Streeterville neighborhood, land is increasingly scarce).
Despite Chicago’s unwillingness to put some muscles behind its landmark regulations, the city continues to boast an edge over New York in architectural heritage. Chicago arguably has more architecturally significant buildings than any city in America with a diverse collection of LeBaron Jenney and Burnham skyscrapers, Miesian blocks, Frank Lloyd Wright houses, Goldberg quirk, and S.O.M. engineering feats like the Willis (Sears) Tower and the Hancock Center. Chicago is a living museum for anyone interested in the physical evolution of America’s cities over the past 150 or so years. Despite the fact that architectural tourism is one of the few categories in which Chicago presents a competitive advantage over New York, Chicago continues to sell off it’s heritage in the name of business and economic growth.
It’s easy to understand why Chicago is so landmark-averse and New York so quick to landmark. These policies are rooted in the attitudes of city elites toward business investment. It’s not necessarily New York leaders’ particular interest in preservation that leads to the disparities in preservation policy between the two cities. New York can afford to lose a bit of economic efficiency, even if that means pushing the poor ever further from their service jobs in Manhattan, because the city is in no real threat of losing its standing as a global economic center. City Elites believe that businesses will not leave the gravity of New York and thus don’t see any harm in impeding some development. Moreover, for the elites benefitting from New York’s economic gravity and the quaint neighborhoods they help landmark, the inflationary affects of landmarking are less salient than to the lower class who see their commutes lengthen, rents rise, and poverty rates grow as wage increases fail to match the rising costs of living in New York.
Chicago, meanwhile, has been fighting stagnant population growth, has massive, disconnected and crime ridden ghettos, and will always play second fiddle as an American financial center to New York. While promoting architectural tourism may be profitable in the short term, no city can survive on the tourist dollars of a few architectural patrons. Chicago city leaders know that at times they must sacrifice their past if the city is to remain competitive as a global (or Midwest) financial hub.
But some buildings are more than buildings and make a city worth visiting or living in. How do we preserve the artifacts that tell the story of a city, a nation and the world while allowing a modern city to act as more than a stagnant museum glorifying the urban achievements of the past at the cost of today’s inhabitants?
To start, if preservationists can only present one justification for the preservation of a building – that it is pretty – then the building is probably not worth saving unless private owners value the prettiness enough to save it themselves. There are plenty of pretty buildings in the world and not all of them can be saved. One way to allow for input on which buildings are worth saving might be to set a number of ‘pretty’ buildings to save and let the people of a city vote whether to remove landmark status of a given ‘pretty’ building in favor of the one in question.
In cases for which the preservation can be justified by more than a building’s aesthetic beauty, but also by historic significance, we should question whether the building is integral to the legacy preservationists wish to protect and, ostensibly, the story they hope to tell. In many cases, it seems that the building itself is saved only because it is a convenient place to tell a story. The stories of Muhammad Ali or Bill Clinton for instance do not need to be told at their childhood homes, both of which are landmarks.
Buildings that are worthy of being landmarked are those in which the story preservations wish to tell could only be told through the building. The importance of the building could be in a particular design, like Prentice. But the building’s importance can also originate in a historical event directly tied to the building. As an example, I believe that the landmarking of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York is justified because the history of that building, not a person who happened to live or work in that building, changed the course of this country.
Even if we have established that a building is important in its own right, the question of how important is important enough still remains. All interactions and lives in cities are important, contributing in small parts to the vibrant and sui generis story of each place. But, to retain some level of economy to preservation measures, a good rule of thumb would be to ask whether the building has either had a large international impact that is understood at least by an educated elite in a certain field or an impact on the city that is understood by all its citizens. In this way, buildings that are important to a given field, like Prentice to engineering, or to a particular strand of history, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to labor rights activists, should be preserved. Buildings that are salient in the public imagination of a city are also worth saving. In Chicago, the Water Tower may not be known by many non-natives, but it is an important piece of pre-fire engineering and a landmark to all Chicagoans and is therefore probably worthy of its landmark designation. The low-rises of the East Village of New York, however, are not worth saving. Activists at the Greenwich Village Historical Society spent years researching the buildings, saying on their website that, “research was key in our advocacy for expanding and securing today’s East Village Historic District, and the research was used by the Landmarks Preservation Commission itself in their documentation of the area.” In cases such as this, we should keep in mind why we want to save buildings: to reflect the history of our cities. If the history is not important enough to be relatively widely understood without extensive research, then it is most likely not worth of preservation.
Some people might say that I am calling for our cities to be gutted of their history and culture. But quite the opposite, really. I am calling for cities like Chicago to understand that some heritage is important, especially when that heritage provides an integral piece of history to help us understand a city, a country or the world. At the same time, I am calling on cities like New York to more carefully sift through the rich and multifarious physical legacy left by previous generations. For a city to remain culturally rich (not to mention affordable and economically diverse), some of the history must be moved aside to make way for new, more effective (and often higher density) uses.
Reforming our mindset towards preservation is about understanding that economic development and preservation do not have to be in opposition, but that through compromise we can have cities that are both growth oriented and respective of their history. Through such measures, we can hopefully make our cities more fair, efficient, and culturally exciting.
Sam Hersh is currently a student of urban studies at Haverford College in Pennsylvania hoping to use the worlds’ cities to more effectively catalyze human opportunity when he graduates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monday, July 15th, 2013
I participated in an interesting message board debate a few weeks ago. We were discussing the steep collapse in the urban core (Center Township) population of Indianapolis, a drop comparable to Detroit’s. It lost another 14.5% during the 2000s and even the downtown itself only added less than 1000 people at time with other downtowns were growing more sharply.
Most people were quick to blame schools. I agreed the schools were a problem but suggested crime was a bigger one. Besides which, nobody has yet demonstrated a real turnaround in urban schools, while multiple places have been able to achieve stunning improvements in crime.
What most took me aback was not the debate over which order to rank the two, but rather than many people effectively argued Indianapolis doesn’t even have a crime problem. “It’s not that dangerous” seemed to be the tone, and people talked about how they personally did not feel unsafe or threatened despite living in the city and that suburbanites simply sensationalized urban crime.
I disagree with that in the strongest possible way. While no doubt things can be sensationalized and you aren’t likely to get killed walking down the street, Indianapolis does have a serious crime problem. Almost immediately after our debate died out, someone was shot and killed in the middle of downtown on the 4th of July. And after that there was a series of five murders in one week.
While many cities have seen a drop in murders this year, Indianapolis murders are up 35% and the city is on track for upwards of 150 this year. To put that in perspective, New York City has experienced a stunning drop in murders this year (after a record low last year), and is tracking towards somewhere around 300 murders for the year. NYC has a 10 times the population of Indianapolis but only twice as many murders. When you consider that much of Indianapolis’ population is in outer “suburban” areas that were annexed and have very few murders, the urban core murder rate must be far, far higher than NYC.
Indianapolis Public Safety Director Troy Riggs says the city isn’t more dangerous and points at declines in violent crime overall (query: has it fallen by 80% in the last 20 years, like it did in New York City?). This is exactly the same spin that Rahm Emanuel has been giving to explain away Chicago’s high murder rate.
The people trapped in these neighborhoods tell a different tale. In some Chicago neighborhoods mothers won’t let their kids stand by the window even if they are home because of the risk of getting shot. Someone in Indy similarly said, “I hear gunshots and police sirens every night. I’ve taught my kids how to roll out of bed and get underneath it when it starts happening.”
Make no mistake, the top reason to reduce crime is to keep people from becoming its victims or having to live their lives in terror in neighborhoods like this. But beyond that crime is simply fatal to the urban fabric. Just as one data point, some researchers found that every murder committed causes a city to lose 70 people. Chicago actually would have gained population instead of losing it if its murder rate were the same as New York. Clearly crime is high among the factors driving people out of the central city who have the means to leave, and keeping those who might be willing to move into to it away.
Additionally, given the impressive record of crime reduction in New York and many other places, including Los Angeles (which has also made huge strides in improving police-community relations from its Detective Mark Fuhrman days), it’s also clear that progress can be made.
I’m not sure that there’s a ready answer for schools. My hypothesis has been that it will be families returning to the city that turns around the schools, not a turnaround in the schools bringing families back. But crime is clearly different. Yes, gentrification will “improve” the crime situation. But NYC and LA have seen dramatic crime reductions even in their toughest neighborhoods, ones that have not seen gentrification.
Crime problems can be solved if there’s the will to do so. That will is ultimately lacking in too many places. There’s a fatalistic attitude towards crime too often, and few politicians have the stomach for the spending it will take or the blowback many crime reduction efforts will clearly generate.
But by contrast look at something like fire protection. It’s well known that if you don’t put out a fire in a timely fashion, your entire city can burn down – including rich people’s neighborhoods – something that has happened again and again throughout history. Hence no city, no matter how poorly run in other areas, ultimately allows its fire protection to fall below minimum standard. For example, even in Detroit, while the fire department has seen major cuts, has tons of broken down equipment, has to deal with a stunningly high percentage of arson fires, etc, there is still a baseline level of fire protection for the city, something that was documented in the recent documentary about the Detroit Fire Department called “BURN.”
That fire protection is generally the best provided public service has been known for a long time. For example, in 1972′s “Report From Engine Company 82,” Dennis Smith (admittedly a fire fighter) had this to say:
The people in the South Bronx know that when the corner alarm box is pulled the firemen always come. If you pick up a telephone receiver in this town you may, or may not, get a dial tone. If you get on a subway you may, or may not, get stuck in a tunnel for an hour. The wall socket in your apartment may, or may not, contain electricity. The city’s air may, or may not, be killing you. The only real sure thing in this town is that the firemen come when you pull the handle on that red box.
Failing to put out fires in a timely fashion is simply unacceptable in a city, while we’ve grown used to tolerating large amounts of crime. Places like New York City have decided that they for one will not accept high crime rates, and have relentlessly attacked it, making stunning progress.
I think we need to acknowledge that macrotrends played a big role in this. Mayors like Giuliani and Daley got big credit for turning around their cities, when in fact many big cities all came back at the same time, suggesting common outside forces played a big role. (Saskia Sassen does a great job of documenting this macrochange in “The Global City.”) The peaking of the crack cocaine epidemic likewise helped incredibly. I’m sure there are many other such common factors.
Yet it doesn’t seem unreasonable to attribute at least something to policing and policy changes. Both NYC and LA saw major changes under the leadership of William Bratton. (Chicago, which tried different methods, has not seen similar results, though has had improvements in the last 20 years). It seems to me a lot of people would rather die than give any credit to Giuliani, Bloomberg, the NYPD, Bratton, Kelly, Broken Windows, etc. Myron Magnet wrote of this, “Some people can’t – or won’t – see what’s in front of their own eyes.”
There is certainly plenty of scope to debate or critique various police tactics (e.g, stop and frisk). I myself am very troubled by the increasing militarization of the police, for example. This is a debate that needs to be had and reforms made where necessary. And the police definitely need to be held accountable when they do wrong, something that requires significant, vigilant oversight.
Yet to me the current crop of NYC mayoral candidates give off a soft on crime air. If the next mayor decides to opportunistically score cheap political points at the expense of NYPD, not just that mayor, but the entire city, may come to regret it. Sadly, too many people no longer remember what it was like even in Manhattan not that long ago. (For a sample to refresh your memory, read this). For example, the New York Times in 2004 asked “Is New York Losing Its Street Smarts?,” citing a woman who thought it was a joke at first when she got mugged.
The Millennial urban dweller who has never experienced anything but urban Disneyland is sadly unlikely to understand what is at stake. And indeed even if NYC takes its foot off the gas on crime, things are extremely unlikely to go back to what they were (thankfully). But even a modest uptick in crime can have a chilling effect, and the crime genie can be fiendishly difficult to put back in the bottle once it’s loose. Just ask Rahm Emanuel. Despite his crime stat rhetoric, he knows the score. He meets the families of the victims and I’m sure desperately wants to end the killings.
As for Indianapolis, it’s hard to argue it has really been serious about crime. Before doing a job search for Public Safety Director, the city council specially raised the salary of the job – to $125,000 a year. That’s for a person overseeing both police and fire with a budget of $525 million. Unsurprisingly, they’ve been unable to recruit somebody with the experience befitting the 13th largest municipality in the United States. The previous occupant came from White Plains, NY. (His contract was not renewed). The current one came from Corpus Christi, TX.
I’m not saying Troy Riggs is no good, merely that this is a huge step up for him. He certainly deserves a fair shot to do the job, which he’s been on less than a year. But Indy is in a sort of lose-lose position. Either they hired another guy who’s a bust. Or if he succeeds he’ll be “gone in 60 seconds” to someplace where they’ll pay him a real salary.
I’ve long argued that Indianapolis public sector pay is too low to do a proper national job search for any key position in city government. But it’s tough to change when locals don’t agree. See, for example, Paul Ogden, who strongly feels differently. But it’s the same elsewhere. Detroit had a recent controversy over the pay of its police chief too.
Call me crazy, but I don’t know anyone in the private sector managing a $525 million budget that’s safety critical who only makes $125K/yr. If that salary was raised by just $25-50K, the field of potential recruits would increase enormously. Skimping on policing is the epitome of penny wise, pound foolish – and it’s the city’s citizens, disproportionately the poor ones, who pay the price.
At the end of the day it’s simply a matter of priorities. You could buy a lot of policing for the cost of even one of the $500 million stadiums that dot the American landscape. You can be sure that if a major fire ever again did wipe out a good chunk of a city, state and local government will do whatever and spend whatever it takes to make sure it doesn’t happen again. One hurricane in New York and Bloomberg puts $20 billion in improvements on the table for better withstanding future storms. Yet crime and other ills have effectively destroyed big chunks of our cities, and we’ve just let it happen.
I find that urbanists seem to rarely talk about public safety unless it’s about some controversial incident with the police. I think that’s a mistake. Most cities in America aren’t seeing the strong investment flows and growth of a New York, San Francisco, or Seattle. Outside of a “green zone” downtown many places are still in decline. There’s nothing more important to restoring confidence in those places – and put and end to the ongoing human tragedy in too many of their neighborhoods – than fighting crime. Public safety really is Job #1.
Saturday, June 8th, 2013
The local and even national furor over the Citibike bike share roll-out in New York continues to entertain. What’s more, it illustrates the huge advantage New York has in grabbing attention. The eagerness of its residents to make public spectacles of themselves over whatever it is that fires them up serves as fodder for these kinds of stories which the media that is centered in New York then eagerly devours. The amount of coverage this thing is getting is unreal given that this is a pretty prosaic bike share deployment.
Comedy Central even got in on the act. Here’s an awesome segment featuring Dorothy Rabinowitz’s now infamous video plus a number of man on the street type interview. If the video doesn’t display, click here.
Rather than embarrassment, this segment made the Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz proud of the blowback she caused. She was back with a followup. This one is not quite as hilarious, but she manages a few laugh lines. My favorite was when asked what would make a bicyclist leave a bike lane (and specifically to respond to the idea that the bike lane might be blocked, as frequently does happen), she replied, “This question should ultimately be answered by the therapist we hope this bicyclist is consulting.” If the video doesn’t display for you, click here and again note this is an auto-play link.
Lastly, John Stewart also did a segment that mocked the bike share program somewhat, but it wasn’t super funny. I’ll include it for completeness’ sake. The problem is that bike share is actually pretty darn boring and normal, so it can be a bit difficult to make fun of. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.
Wednesday, June 5th, 2013
Update: New York Magazine posted this awesome Venn diagram of why so many conservatives hate bike share (h/t commenter Racaille):
I’m a big believer in transit and liveable streets as you know. But even I find the overly self-righteous and sanctimonious attitude of some bicycle advocates (as well as the reckless riding style and flagrant disregard of traffic laws by all too many bicyclists) rather grating. They’ve piled on Nicole Gelinas, for example, for some minor transgression of orthodoxy regarding the bike share system despite the fact that she’s been a cheeerleader for Bloomberg’s transport enhancements (“Mayor Bloomberg’s transportation reforms have unclogged New York’s streets and made them safer”). And she’s done it on the conservative side of the aisle, which can sometimes be a challenge.*
But just when you think they’re bad, along comes something like this unbelievable video featuring Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz to make them look like paragons of rational discourse by comparison. I realize I’m late to the party here, but this is simply too over the top to let pass without comment.
I’ve watched this multiple times and I still can’t figure out if it’s for real or a Saturday Night Live skit. It’s titled “Death by Bicycle” (I’m not making this up), and in it Rabinowitz proclaims the end of New York is nigh thanks to Citibike, via a series of incredibly overwrought claims and soundbites:
“Do not ask me to enter the minds of the totalitarians running this government of the city”
“I represent the majority of the citizens. The majority of citizens of this city are appalled at what has happened.”
“…a government before which you are helpless.”
“…a city whose best neighborhoods are…begrimed is the word…by these blazing blue Citibank bikes.”
“It is shocking to walk around this city and see how much of this they have sneaked under the radar.”
“Before this every citizen knew, who was in any way sentient, that the most important danger in the city was not the yellow cabs, but the bicyclists.”
“…the mayor and his ideology-maddened traffic commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan”
And my personal favorite: “The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise.” Who knew? Apparently the bike advocates make the folks over at Bilderberg look like pikers.
I think everybody would admit there’s some truth in the idea that Bloomberg has a personal agenda he’s not bashful about cramming down the public’s throat without regards to public opinion. (Big Gulp, anybody?) And as I said, cyclists and their advocacy groups do deserve a chunk of their reputation. But this is so over the top and ludicrous I don’t even know where to start. It’s a parody of itself. Instead of blue bikes, Rabinowitz apparently sees the Red Menace. Definitely not what I’ve come to expect from the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
In any case, this is a must watch, for entertainment value if nothing else. I cannot imagine another video will compete with this one in the “video of the year” awards this year. It’s destined to be a legend. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here and note that it’s an autoplay link.
* I don’t know Nicole but I have been a contributor to City Journal