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Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Cincinnati Is Cool by Mike Doyle

[ In 2008 Chicago Carless blogger Mike Doyle took a trip to Cincinnati and was blown away - Aaron. ]


(Photo: “I am Cincinnati; no flashbulbs, please.”–Leah Spurrier, co-founder of the Queen City’s fabulous High Street.)

I had been jonesing for a break from blogging before the end of summer, so when Cincinnati Jamie asked if I wanted to ride shotgun on a weekend trip back home to check on his Queen City condo, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t expect more than a few quiet days in a quaint backwater, a plate of chili, and some gratuitous references (on my part) to WKRP.

I admit it. Cincinnati blew me away. (See trip photos in my Picasa web album.)

That came especially as a shock considering the trip it took to get there. I had only ridden Indiana highways once before, on the way into Chicago five years previous with my refugee New York possessions. I remember two things from that drive: boredom from passing through 150 miles of the middle of nowhere; and thinking that the radio announcers were pulling my leg every time they mentioned “Michiana”.

I longed for that kind of action on last month’s 300-mile lengthwise schlep through the Hoosier state, highlighted only by a construction detour through the environmental degradation of Gary and ironic graffiti on a men’s room wall in Crown Point that read, “NASCAR: The other white race”. We intended to stop in downtown Indianapolis for me to take a look at the place. However, once I got a look at the skyline from the I-465 ring road, even after the three-hour drive from Chicago, I felt humming the theme to One Day at a Time and simply passing through sufficed.

It would be another hour to get out of flatland followed by a meandering drive past the Ohio border through hills and ravines on snaky I-75 before the next cityscape of any significance. Descending through Cincinnati’s West Side, following the course of the massive railyards in the valley below, the skyline took me by surprise. I half-expected yet another bombed-out rust belt burb whose downtown had been whacked with the ugly stick of Post-Modernism.

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(Photo: Cincinnati at dusk, from Covington, Kentucky.)

Yet, as we neared the Ohio River flats that house downtown, the pre-war Carew Tower and PNC Bank building took my breath away. Not just for their elegant, pre-war terra cotta beauty. But also because their still-prominent placement in the center of the skyline, neither upstaged nor blocked by taller, newer buildings, suggested in an instant a city respectful of the aesthetics of its built form.

From its history, that could follow or come as a complete surprise. Queen City of the West, Cincinnati was the first major inland American metropolis. Its early nineteenth-century commerce paved the way for the commercial giants of the latter 1800s, cities like Chicago and St. Louis. In the 1860s, the city gave freedom to thousands of slaves as a northern terminus of the Underground Railroad and, at the turn of the last century, cleanliness to millions of Americans as the birthplace of Ivory Soap.

Then again, Cincinnati’s brightest economic times happened in another millennium, and it also happens to be the only city in the nation to build an entire subway transit system, in the 1920s, only to brick it over for the next 80 years due to insufficient funds. So there’s a lot of unrealized potential and missed opportunity tied up in the civic psyche, too. Given all that, I was just happy the two towers were still standing.

We were heading for out first stop: Park & Vine, the hugely successful organic general store run by Chicagoland Bicycle Federation-escapee Dan-doesn’t-drive-either Korman. But first, Jamie gave me the nickel tour.

We exited I-75 at the riverfront and drove along the pedestrian-friendly deck hiding the now-sunken highway, past Paul Brown Stadium, the Great American Ball Park, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Roebling Bridge (little brother to my hometown bridge in Brooklyn). For a city of barely 330,000, I was pleasantly surprised at the effort made to liven the river’s edge here and link it back in to the rest of downtown.

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(Photo: Looking north across Over-the-Rhine from condo deck of the American Building on Central Parkway.)

Dan’s store sits in Over-the-Rhine, the gentrifying–but not too much–neighborhood on the north end of downtown, nestled beneath the imposing hills that make up much of the rest of the city. Now civic leaders want to build a modern, Portland-style streetcar between downtown and the still-downtrodden neighborhood to try and jumpstart investment there. A lot of people think the streetcar plan will just go the way of the subway–i.e. to nowhere.

Jamie could see the trained-urban planner in me already salivating at the ped-friendly streets, so we meandered through downtown on our way to Over-the-Rhine, with him as tour guide.

“That’s the Aronoff Center for the Arts, but look on the other side, too, the new building is the Contemporary Arts Center. It’s a Zaha Hadid building.”

Readers are getting the benefit of the URLs I wished had access to while Jamie commented on.

“Don’t look know–and don’t sing, either. That’s Fountain Square and Tyler Davidson Fountain from WKRP in Cincinnati fame. They show movies there during the summer. Carew Tower is catty-corner, and the modernist building is Fifth Third Bank Headquarters.”

I marveled at the number of pedestrians. “Is downtown always this peopled so late in the day?” I asked.

“I think there’s a football game later, but for the past few years it’s been like Chicago,” said Jamie. “More and more people come down here to play after work. Maybe we’ll come back later for the movie on Fountain Square. Now get out, we’re there.”

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(Photo: Over-the-Rhine’s Park & Vine general store.)

We hadn’t told Dan we were coming. Even after the bear hug that passed between him and Jamie, I could see him still beaming. The stress of the Bike Federation long gone, in the two years since his return to the Queen City, Dan Korman had finally become a happy man.

“Did you see the wallets made out of recycled bicycle tires?” He pulled one off a display shelf. “Look! Some of them still have the writing from the tire on them. That’s so cool!”

When he told me in 2006 he was ditching his Windy City communications career to open what I figured would be a glorified hemp shop in a marginal nabe of a secondary rust-belt town, I thought he had already begun smoking his product. As I purchased my recycled bicycle-tire wallet with the writing still on it from the happiest man on Vine Street, I knew Dan had made the right decision.

“Are you staying at the condo?” Dan asked Jamie.

“No, I have a renter in there. We’re staying in East Walnut Hills, in a rental condo that one of my client’s owns at the Edgecliff.”

“Did you guys go see Matt and Leah at High Street yet?”

“Not yet,” Jamie said. “But Michael will love it when we do. He seems to already be in love with Cincinnati.”

“Really!” said Dan. “Huh. It’s cool. Who knew, right?”

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(Photo: Jamie with happy Dan Korman, owner of Park & Vine.)

Next stop: a strong black woman. A 20-year Cincinnati resident, Jamie needed to check on the condo he left behind when he moved to Chicago three months ago. He left it behind in the American Building, another handsome, pre-war former office tower built on the border between downtown and Over-the-Rhine to wait for the subway down Central Parkway that never came. That’s ok, Jamie’s ex-next-door neighbor and former flight attendant, the very tony Toni, seemed to get around well enough without one.

“Oh my, it is so good to see you, Jamie! Let me tell you, you are lucky to have caught me and I’ll tell you why. I shall probably be leaving in a few days to bring some shoes to be fixed in Seoul–that’s South Korea. I had previously asked my friend to take them on ahead but she said no and now it falls to me to carry them all that way and you know, don’t you, that Miss Toni is a bit put out because of it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be monopolizing the conversation. What do you think of my new artwork?”

As Toni paused to inhale–as I would come to learn, a rare occasion worthy of remark–I started to see the attractive side of Jamie’s 350-mile move away from her side of the common wall.

“I really had to come back to fix a problem with my car title so I can get Illinois plates,” said Jamie.

“Problem? What problem? Tell Toni about your problems, honey!”

“Well, the bank forgot to tell the DMV that I paid off my car note years ago, so there’s still a lien on my title,” said Jamie. “Wells Fargo told me I had to come here in person to clear it up.”

“Are you kidding me?!”

Then again, it’s always nice to have a strong black woman in your corner.

“You know what I’d do?” said Toni. “I’d piss on ‘em. No! I’d get a kid, a seven-year-old kid. Wouldn’t that be good? A kid of my own and I’d take him down to the bank with me and just when they stopped doing their job to give me grief I’d give the signal and my boy would whip it out. Just whip it out and piss all over them! Yes!”

From the look of the people I’d seen on the streets on the way through town, Toni was definitely not a stereotypical Cincinnatian. I had noted the uniformity of uniforms: flower-print blouses and black polyester trousers for women; dark, three-piece suits or slacks and tweed sport coats for men. (I figured the latter were county courthouse lawyers.)

I chalked up the Softer Side of Sears-ness of it all as the stylistic impact of the city’s main employers: the national headquarters or back offices of conservative banks (Fifth/Third Bank, U.S. Bank); conservative grocers (Kroeger); and conservative conglomerates (Macy’s, Proctor & Gamble). I couldn’t imagine any of these uniformed office drones ever whipping it out to give some unsuspecting clerk a bath.

Not for an instant would I put that past Toni.

“I’d even like to piss on some of the heifers that live further up in the neighborhood. Always with a hand out. Get a job, stop having babies, grow up! I had a career. I saw the world. I lived on Michigan Avenue. I hope that streetcar plan happens. We didn’t get a subway, but that streetcar will push ‘em all like rats away from a flood. Then you’ll see how good this neighborhood will become.”

The haves lashing into the have-nots in the Black community is not a practice confined to southwestern Ohio. But my introduction to the social dichotomies of Cincinnati was just beginning.

Finally sneaking away from Toni during one particularly deep pause to inhale and sip a sparkling tonic, Jamie and I headed for the hills. For the next couple of hours until dusk, he drove us to every scenic outlook above downtown, then across the Roebling Bridge into Kentucky, to peer back at the city from the Covington shore.

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(Photo: Daniel Carter Beard Bridge to Newport, Kentucky. Can you guess why locals call it Big Mac?)

The scenery felt familiar, like coming home, in a way. At each stop, as I
gazed at the city, I remembered the half-hour I spent sitting atop steep Parque Eduardo VII and peering down across Lisbon, between the Bairro Alto and Alfama hills, towards the old downtown Baixa. The visible terrain and ineffable energy touched me then, and try as my Portuguese friend, José, might, I would not be moved away from the view.

I felt the same tug inside every time I looked back across Cincinnati. As if, although I wasn’t of the place, in some way, some part of me was consonant with it. I knew I was falling for the city.

That love would deepen in short order. At sundown, we headed for Ludlow Avenue, ground zero of the student-laden Clifton neighborhood, to sample an entirely different skyline. There’s no need to mince words here. In one meal, I became an official Skyline Chili crack whore. Give me the mild chocolate-cinnamon laced chili in a five-way (ladled over spaghetti with beans, onions, and cheddar cheese) or on a coney (a Cinncinati hot dog with mustard, chili, and onions), I don’t care. I wanted–and still want–more. Now please. Sooner if possible.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to like the chili any more than I thought I’d be taken by the city. But as the evening wore on, I started to rethink my raging bias against small Midwestern urbs. The black raspberry chip 1870 Tower sundae I inhaled down the street at Graeter’s French-churned ice cream helped a little bit, too. (And considering how much chili I had already eaten, I was in no way surprised by Jamie’s look of abject shock when I ordered it).

We would have headed back to the Edgecliff then, but Jamie remembered my earlier question about evening liveliness downtown. He let me answer my own question as we sat on Fountain Square with several hundred Cincinnatians and their children watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory projected onto the roof of Macy’s across Walnut Street until long past even our bedtimes.

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(Photo: Love at first bite–Skyline Chili cheese coneys and a five-way.)

The next two days were a similar whirlwind of food, friends, and from-left-field observations about Cincinnati life. In the morning, we shared the best dim sum I’ve ever had in or out of Chicago at Clifton’s King Wok, with Jamie’s designer friend, Huong, and her young daughter, Hannah. While Huong explained the dating difficulties faced by a Vietnamese single-mom in southwestern Ohio, I was busy teaching her frantically energetic daughter how to walk like a giraffe-a-gator (“Stand on your tiptoes with your arm raised above your head, sneak up behind them, then CHOMPA-CHOMPA-CHOMPA!”).

Huong’s news was far less whimsical. “He was Anglo. We’d been talking online for awhile and he seemed like a nice guy. I think he’s about to ask me out, then he says ‘I have rice fever really bad tonight.’ What the fuck is that? Like he has no idea how insulting that is. Like he lives in a totally different world than I do.”

That’s exactly how I felt as Huong segued into a discourse about the Vietnamese practice of giving children dirty nicknames to ward off evil spirits. She whispered, “Hannah’s is ‘dirty black cock’. You guys should have one.”

I considered Jamie for a moment, then asked Huong, “How do you say ‘toothpaste poop’ in Vietnamese?”

Worlds would continue to miss colliding later that afternoon while Jamie and I visited the Museum Center inside the renovated historic Union Terminal. We lucked into a free tour of the building with a tour group comprised mostly of locals. I spent the whole time confused by an oddly handsome Kentucky bubba who apparently had no idea his bad-ass booted self was wearing women’s jeans. Yet when he opened his mouth to ask a question, the thick, south-shore drawl delivered a thoughtfully phrased query on the aesthetic merit of a restored mural.

“It’s always like that with the bubbas,” said Jamie. “Some cute construction worker with a day to kill, maybe an architecture hobbyist. But there’s always that touch of idiot savant about them that ends them up in the wrong department at Wal-Mart.”

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(Photo: Fountains outside the Museum Center at Union Terminal.)

I thought that was a bit harsh. Then again, my New York friend, Tony “You’d have to kill me to make me go back there” Skaggs, never had a kind word to say about growing up in Cincinnati’s Kentucky suburbs, either. By now I was wondering whether some unknown organism in the city’s infamously toxic water had the side-effect of turning fellow citizens bitchy towards each other.

I continued to wonder that evening, while supping with a couple of Jamie’s local friends on mind-blowing steak tartare and calf’s liver and onions in downtown Cincinnati’s sublime Bistro JeanRo, as one of them began to opine on the streetcar plan so near and dear to tony Toni’s heart.

“It’ll never get built. Mark my words. Who is it going to serve? The ‘element’. Who’s going to ride it? The ‘element’. Do you want to ride next to the ‘element’? I don’t. Is it gonna go anywhere I want to go? No. Who’s supposed to pay for it? The rest of us. Is that fair?”

Embarrassed, I looked around the restaurant to see if anyone within earshot had managed to hear the openly racist comments that had just emerged from our table. How balkanizing the properties of a civic social contract must be to allow locals to feel free enough to share shitty thoughts like that in the company of strangers (like me). More upsetting, by evening’s end, I was pretty sure Jamie’s friend had no clue at all about the implications of the things he had said.

How to parse a city of aesthetic beauty, civic pride, high cultural amenities, and, at the most unexpected times, low social graces? I found myself pulling for the place, despite the intellectual box I was coming to see some locals gratuitously living in. I wanted to stay an extra day to figure the place out a little better.

That was fine with Jamie, who still hadn’t been able to work things out with Wells Fargo (I half expected him to fill Toni up on tonic water and drag her and her bladder down to their nearest office). We wouldn’t be remaining at the Edgecliff. Unbeknownst to us, the unit we were staying in had been sold, and our desired third night coincided exactly with closing day.

Not that we were attached to the Edgecliff. Although we didn’t want to have to scramble to look for new digs, we were pretty certain wherever we ended up would be more permissive. Jamie had no doubt when we left, I’d be taking the property’s asinine folder of dos and dont’s with me. The best missive was almost Marina City worthy:

PLUMBING INFORMATION

Acceptable:
Any toilet tissue except the quilted brands.

Not Acceptable in Commodes or Sinks:
Quilted toilet tissue.
Kleenex.
Dental floss.
Depends.
Sanitary napkins.
Any type of wipe.
Paints.
Drywall mud.
Potting soil.
Kitty litter.
Grease.
Construction debris of any type.

Drumroll please…

Or any other unsuitable liquid down the pipes.

It was thusly in good humor that we headed to High Street, according to Cincinnati magazine–and me once I got there–one of the coolest home design and lifestyle stores anywhere, to beg fabulous co-owner Matt Knotts for a place to crash for the night. The answer was yes, but Matt was in the middle of a meeting with partner Leah. So we waved our thanks through their office window and set out for another round of Queen City adventure.

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(Photo: Best home design store in Cincinnati, High Street. Do I get that blue chair, now?)

What to do on a bonus afternoon in Cincinnati with a veritably still-chili-virgin in the car? Swing by Over-the-Rhine to pick up tony Toni and head out for more coneys. But tony Toni eats no coneys bought at Skyline.

“Honeys, don’t you know, now there is this Gold Star Chili I’ve seen underneath the I-75 Bridge in Covington, and now I think we’ve got to go, yes!”

And as everyone knows, there’s just no arguing with a strong black woman (not unless you want to end up with a wet pants leg), so half an hour later and there we were in Kentucky, munching down five-ways and coneys at the Gold Star where Covington bubbas go to pass around the communal tooth.

And a good thing they did, because I’d never have understood the wait staff if they hadn’t. Nonexistent teeth aside, this Gold Star did teach me two things: one, I’m definitely a Skyline man; and two, it’s probably time for me to stop avoiding the dentist.

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(Photo: Strong black women Jamie and Toni.)

Later, with Toni no longer in tow, we headed back to the fabulosity of High Street, only to find that Matt had already split for the afternoon. However his partner, the unsinkable Leah Spurrier, had not.

“You guys want to hear about my book? One of them anyway, I have a lot of ideas rolling around, but this is the one I just took three weeks off to begin writing. It’s about my life as a northern Californian Jew raised in Tennessee by a genuine Haight-Ashbury mother. When I was little, I used to ask my grandma why mom always looked the way she did. And grandma would answer back, ‘Because she’s always stoned, dear.’”

Leah seemed a far cry from the collection of Cincinnati social misfits I had spent the previous three days variously being warned about or meeting. I asked her what people thought of her store in such a conservative city.

“You know, Cincinnati is cooler than you might think. Downtown has a lot going on, a lot of new businesses and residents in Over-the-Rhine. We’re actually starting a blog on High Street’s website to try and help the buzz along. It’s not Chicago, I love that city. But people know there’s potential here, if they’d just loosen up and listen. I think a lot of them are just waiting to be told how good we’ve got it here.”

It’s rare for the cool people to be pulling for the squares, even rarer for the squares to be hoping to come along for the ride. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, Matt and Leah might be on to something.

That night, Jamie and I luxuriated in Matt’s style-forward Liberty Hill townhouse. The papier-maché caricatures under glass on the coffee table entranced me for an hour as Jamie tried to teach Matt how to Twitter.

Over dinner, we were all entranced by the twittering of a female patron at Ludlow Avenue’s Ambar Indian, a real contender for the title of worst South Asian food in Ohio. If it hadn’t been for her outlandishly loud yammerings to an embarrassed boyfriend who asked at one point for her to write down her side of the conversation on a napkin, we might have been more miffed when, in mid-meal, the wait staff at this palace of putrid pulled out a glue gun and started performing repair work on a nearby wall.

We washed those troubles away with another trip to Graeter’s (I won’t bother telling you how many pounds the scale said I gained after I got back to Chicago–feel free to insert your own weight here: ___) and retired back to the manse of Matt-fabulous. There, he told us more about his plans for local Internet domination.

“We want to use the High Street blog as a jumping off point, to create community. But we’re also creating a separate blog for the city. We want it to have downtown news, happenings, events, design, food, to really hook people together. We’re calling it, ‘Cincinnati Is Cool’. The name’s not as wooden as it sounds. All these boring corporate types always say the city is cool, but they never follow it up with action. We want the name to be a blunt reminder that this city has a lot to offer.”

I looked Matt dead in the eye. “Have you ever heard of Gapers Block? There’s this guy, Andrew Huff, I definitely think you should know…”

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(Photo: Angelic Matt and Jamie at Ludlow Avenue Graeter’s.)

The next morning, after making one last run towards the end-zone of teaching Matt to use Twitter, we rolled up the remains of our trip and packed them in the car to head home. We hugged Matt, headed to Park & Vine to say our good-byes to Dan, made one final (and finally successful) trip to the DMV for Jamie, and then it was time to roll out of town.

But not before one last stop (or so we thought) at a fabled Cincy eatery. As my plate of undercooked biscuits and gravy and over-singed fried eggs attested, Tucker’s, in deepest Over-the-Rhine, is not known for its food. But the family-run ramshackle joint, a seedy combination of half-hinged doors, swaying tables, and questionable sanitary practices, has been feeding all comers for 60 years. The morning of our visit, that included downtown office workers, local yuppies, and most interestingly, a steady stream of poor black kids and young men from the surrounding neighborhood.

The hustle the last group of diners put the white wait staff through, trying to enter without shirts and bargain down bills, didn’t go down with the same indignant fervor on both sides I would have expected from Chicago. These were downtrodden locals in a barely hanging-on corner eatery. The beleaguered nods and smiles that passed among all parties was perhaps my best clue into the soul of Cincinnati.

There was no artifice here. Nothing was prettified. Just basic communication passing among familiar faces. Unexpected, a bit shocking in its primal quality. But not out of place. It did make me wonder whether inside the average Queen Citizen beat the heart of a conformer. We may be down, but we’re down together, and as long as we lie low, things can’t get much worse, so let’s just leave well enough alone.

Was that the unrealized potential Matt and Leah were aiming to mobilize?

Getting lost in the West Side hills on the way out of town was a great excuse to stop thinking and driving in circles and make our real final food stop: Putz’s Creamy Whip. More old-school Cincinnati: roadside shack; cash-only; fabled Coneys; double-thick malteds. The menu didn’t exaggerate, I nursed my concrete-consistency malted until well into Indiana.

We finally did make that stop in Indy, too. Downtown there was certainly monumental, but small given the size of the surrounding city. I couldn’t help thinking of Milwaukee, another Midwestern burg with a downtown curiously unimpressive for a place of its size. (After several hundred more miles of boring Hoosier farmland, I also couldn’t help thinking God put Indiana on the map to make people appreciate Illinois and Ohio better).

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(Photo: Tyler Davidson Fountain at night.)

Arriving home in the Windy City, the Loop felt positively enormous after three days in Cincinnati. Yet the Queen City still loomed large in my mind. It still does. Two weeks of wondering, and I think I’ve hit on why. Despite the unrealized potential of the place–including the potential for locals to realize how good they really have it (and in this, Chicago and Cincinnati share a similarly misplaced civic modesty)–unlike other, far more time- and budget-ravaged rust belt cities, in Cincinnati the potential is pungent and palpable, not limping on life support.

In the end, I think those upstart Internet impresarios Matt and Leah have a point. Change happens thanks to thoughtful souls brave enough to believe in the fortune cookie of potential. When these two finally smash it open, I have no doubt in their case the slip of paper within will read in big, block letters, “CINCINNATI IS COOL!”

And in small print on the flipside, “Who knew?”

This post originally appeared in Chicago Carless on September 9, 2008.

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Beware of the Aristocrats: Architects and the Elite by a Texas Architect

[ I found this old blog post written by someone who posts under a pseudonym but who is an architect in Texas. Note that is was written as the Great Recession was in full slam. It's not likely to be a popular point of view here, but this goes along with my "failure to communicate" theme that examines why so many urbanist policies have not been widely embraced - Aaron.]

Whether it’s because humans have evolved in response to the challenges foisted on them by nature or because God wanted to ensure that universal agreement and understanding is impossible, people will always take sides. Humans belong to tribes, social classes, nations that compete against each other to obtain limited resources. Politics is by definition the study of this aspect of human behavior, as it tries to explain who gets what and why. There is much that can be understood about a political issue by taking looking at who represents either side. Knowing what cultural norms, values, and world views govern a tribe/class/nation/interest group will reveal lots about their motives and expectations facing an issue. Since there are as many groupings of values and philosophies as there are people and a finite amount of resources (natural and human) and time, political conflict will forever continue to remain with us. Compromises merely suppress long-running conflicts temporarily, or create new unforeseen conflicts (unintended consequences).

I keep the above concept in mind when looking at every issue, but in particular when it comes to environmental policy. As an architect these days it is well near impossible to avoid engaging in this issue. From my observation, architects, in desiring a status as independent craftsmen/artists, are relatively naive about the political dimensions of environmentalism and instead prefer to reflect on its attendant virtues of sustainability and harmony between man and nature. In the real world, we architects’ inability to solidly grasp the theory of economic value and the mechanics of wielding political influence makes us incapable of making lots of money or effecting real change. As we strive to improve the look and feel of our communities, we are often blissfully unaware of people’s economic interests and the major political factions and powerbrokers that make things happen in the real world (…until it slaps us in the face in the form of architectural review committees, value engineering or canceled projects).

For instance, nothing makes us architects happier than to realize a structure that responds poetically to the landscape or achieves efficient ways of harnessing energy. Anything that can result in smaller mechanical rooms or reduced ceiling plenums is welcome by us designers. Smaller A/C units, more compact ductwork, eliminating waterheater closets and elevator machine rooms not only allow us more freedom, they are also usually greener. For urban planners, density in the form of compact infrastructure and utilities is preferred over suburban-style decentralization, and it also delivers greener benefits as well. In isolation such thinking becomes orthodox, and makes design professionals antagonistic to opposing points of view. Outside this architect/planner bubble, such orthodox assumptions look increasingly idealistic. It ignores the valid economic interests of a majority of people, and it is too myopic to consider unintended consequences of translating their ideals into public policy. Issues of cost, personal freedom, and social winners and losers are often not understood fully by us architects.

This myopia among architectural professionals also makes us unaware of where we stand in the existing political landscape. As a result we are repeatedly manipulated by outside factions and movements, with questionable benefits to our profession. Our willingness to side with whatever faction to bring about our own aesthetic and enviromental ideals contributes to the paradoxical way architects are portrayed in society: in spite our fairly middle-class incomes, architects are perceived as elitists. The values that drive our work and our thinking often mirror the values of the economic and political elite. That’s not surprising when we realize that our profession almost exclusively depends on these elites for our paycheck. After all, it is extremely difficult to derive an income from middle-class clients alone. Whether we recognize it or not, our political objectives as a profession rarely diverge from those pushed by entities at the very top of society. Architects throughout history have always been, to put it crudely, mercenaries of the powerful- from carrying out the will of kings, popes and aristocrats to putting into concrete the social control on behalf of a modern technocratic state (e.g. Le Corbusier, Albert Speer, et al.)

The political agenda of the socio-economic elite and architects who depend on them continues to converge on the contemporary issue of environmentalism. As a philosophy, environmentalism offers a system of values and morals, an appealing sense of unity with the world for all people of secular persuasion. As a set of policies, however, environmentalism leads to inequitable outcomes that favor governments and their bureaucracies and encourage corporatist big businesses to use regulation hinder competition. Other winners are wealthy people who lament the upward mobility of the social classes beneath them. It is no coincidence that environmentalism emerged to the forefront of social consciousness as soon as a certain level of social wealth had been attained. This is firmly linked to people’s natural concerns about quality once the material abundance brought about by prosperity reveals the shallowness of seeking satisfaction from sheer quantity.

To value the quality of things, to consider important yet immaterial matters, these are luxuries. Before industrialization dramatically raised individual productivity and resulting in a broader distribution of wealth, land and political kinship were practically the only way to enjoy the luxury of contemplating about beauty, philosophy, science and mathematics. This traditional elite, the artistocrats or plutocrats, have been the lifeblood of cultural and intellectual development for most of human history. Although not necessarily the greatest minds themselves, they were benevolent patrons of the most influential artists, musicians, poets and philosophers. One thinks of King Philip of Macedonia and Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci at Amboise Castle, or of the lively salons taking place at a nobleman’s (or noblewoman’s) house. What are universities or non-profit organizations other than institutionalized salons where people can write, research, or create art and music on the dime of someone else’s private trust (a modern legal form of aristocratic patronage) or taxpayer funds? These sorts of modern ‘salons’ are privileged settings where people can focus on qualitative matters that are given relatively short shrift in the world outside governed by economic rules, even if they rarely produce works of quality.

So it was with reading a post by Brendan O’Neill, a British journalist, about Prince Charles’ latest hypocritical crusade, that I was reminded of a scene filled with finely clothed men in long white wigs sitting on plush chaises longues listening to the latest epic from their favorite young poet. The future King of England, inheritor of a tremendous family fortune and one of the biggest beneficiaries of taxpayers’ largesse, has dabbled in a number of public issues throughout his non-productive career. One of his main pursuits included architecture, in which he founded a school to promote the revival of traditional design. In recent years he has moved on to champion environmental causes and the virtues of growing organic food all while burning mind-blowing amounts of fuel on his private jet. As O’Neill reminds us, far from demonstrating the courage of conviction, Prince Charles is merely keeping up with his fellow English aristocrats who have played a larger than assumed role in raising environmental awareness. Reading the passage below undermines the idea that the environmental movement is a purely grassroots effort:

…Many of the major players in British environmentalism are posh, rich, and hectoring. One of Charles’s top advisers is Jonathon Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth and a patron of the creepy Malthusian outfit, the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). Porritt is a graduate of Eton, Britain’s school of choice for the rich and well-connected, and is the son of Lord Porritt, the 11th Governor General of New Zealand. The increasingly influential OPT also counts Sir Crispin Tickell (who is as posh as his name suggests) and Lady Kulukundis, the wife of a Greek shipping magnate, among its patrons.The head of the organic-promoting Soil Association, Peter Melchett, is also known as the Fourth Baron Melchett: that’s because he is the Eton-educated son of the Baron and Sir, Julian Mond — former chairman of the British Steel Corporation — and is heir to Sir Alfred Mond’s extraordinary ICI fortune…

…Zac Goldsmith, editor of the greens’ monthly bible The Ecologist, is the son of a billionaire (Sir James Goldsmith) and an aristocrat (Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the daughter of the eighth Marquess of Londonderry.) And if you thought it was grating to be lectured to by the mansion-owning, electricity-zapping Al Gore during his Live Earth bonanza two years ago, then spare a thought for us Brits: during Live Earth, we were given the Gore-approved “Global Warming Survival Handbook,” written by one David de Rothschild. Yes, David is a member of the mind-blowingly wealthy Rothschild banking family and is an heir to its enormous fortune.

Couple the above British “who’s who” with their American counterparts, namely the Hollywood elite (like Al Gore’s friends Laurie David and Leonardo Dicaprio) and it becomes clear that such consistent support from people at the top should make those of us from below a bit suspicious. If one’s convictions are influenced by one’s social status, then it make sense to look into why this aristocratic class is so involved in environmental causes. An overriding sense of guilt due to their great fortune is an obvious explanation, similar to my fellow architects’ feeling of culpability in destroying natural resources and adding to the energy burden with every building they design. Tied to this is a belief that possesssing a public profile demands protraying oneself as a model citizen. Just as we had chivalry for medieval knights, and social expectations for aristocrats to exemplify virtues of loyalty, respect and a reverence for tradition and intellectualism, today’s elites project an embrace of virtues that are judged preferable for public consumption. Being green is good, and no celebrity or European aristocrat could maintain a good reputation by openly shunning it.

Take away environmentalism’s emotional and social dimensions, and we are left with its political and economic dimensions. Suddenly the moral standing of the aristocratic eco-warriors crumbles. To begin with, if politics is the study of who gets what, how and why, then it becomes apparent that the aristocrats have the least to lose from environmental policy. Isolated by their wealth from having to struggle daily to make a living, they don’t tend to be aware of the vastly different priorities of people below them. Depending on what social status one belongs, priorities will range from the mostly material and monetary for those at the bottom, to ones that cherish qualitative, spiritual and intellectual at the top. Power enables one’s priorities to be enacted over another. In an aristocratic arrangement, a small landed elite has power over everyone else and thus enforce their priorities at everyone elses expense. If something is favored by an aristocrat, it is prudent to question the political motives of these self-appointed leaders.

If economics is the study of how goods and services are produced, distributed and consumed, then who would be the least familiar with all this than these very people who don’t produce anything but consume a lot? Environmental policies presents serious ramifications to economies worldwide, whether through regulations that that limit production or through subsidies that distort market signals and tax policy. While aiming to clean the environment and reduce carbon emissions, these policies tend to have the unintended (or intended) effect causing economic hardship to many and dragging down national economies through the wasteful use of capital and low productivity. From many contemporary architects’ perspective, policies that would force urban density, mass transit and less automobile use would result in a better built environment. The aristocrat would tend to agree, but for a potentially different reason: these policies would limit the personal and economic freedoms of the middle classes beneath them and would lower their standard of living relative to their own. It would keep the masses in crammed into cities, which tends to discourage property and home ownership, thus returning more power and influence to an oligarchy led by the governing elite and well-connected families.

Are these the kind of political bedfellows architects want? As a long-time admirer of the many fruits of traditional aristocratic culture, I understand the importance of the finer things that enrich life at an extremely deep level. It drives the passion of many designers and artists, and fulfills us more than the naked  pursuit of profit. Greek and Roman patricians along with most European aristocrats had a high disdain for merchants, traders and self-made men for precisely this reason. But in this age of republican democracy, shouldn’t architects respond to the ordinary needs of everyday people? Thus far many of us have been guilty of declaring that we are designing for the people, while in reality it was done from an elitist point of view. We claim to build and plan for the masses, only refer to them so abstractly that we come up with solutions that encumber personal freedom and economic mobility.

By embracing elitist points of view and political causes, architects are logically perceived as part of the world of elite, not of the common man. Our services are considered by most people as a luxury, even if architecture has a useful role in enriching the simplest and cheapest of construction. It’s ironic that although the building of shelter or the shaping of functional space are among the most primordial needs of man, the professional most dedicated to such endeavors, the architect, is considered largely unnecessary. If this is to change, it may require a revolution in the way we practice, but it has the promise of enabling architects to become independent advocates of design in the community rather than remote agents of the rich and powerful.

This post originally appeared in Architecture + Morality on June 12, 2009.

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Replay: Shock and Awe

This post originally ran on November 1, 2012


Felix Baumgartner’s record setting jump from 120,000 feet. If the video doesn’t display, click here.

Last month I attended a supper club event in Indianapolis were the topic was urban design in the city. We started the conversation by having people give their personal pick for best and worst urban design. My choice for worst design decision was changing the zoning to allow skyscrapers. I believe that for many years Indy restricted building heights such that nothing could be taller than the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, similar to other restrictions in DC, Paris, or Philadelphia.

My argument was that skyscrapers function very poorly in smaller, auto oriented cities. This is because skyscrapers require huge parking pedestals or attached garages to put all the cars. Each skyscraper thus ends up taking up pretty much an entire city block, which produces horrible urbanism and isn’t even very dense. The perfect example in Indy here is the American United Life Building. It consumes an entire city block, the building is set back from the street on all four sides and sits dead center on the block, and it is surrounded by many surface parking lots. The planned Block 400 project I heavily criticized is converting one of these blocks – into a big parking garage with nothing at street level. These buildings basically create huge dead zones, especially after 5pm when the buildings empty.

This past weekend I was with my friend Kristian, who organizes the supper club events, and he asked me why I’d said that. I explained my rationale. He countered by asking whether there wasn’t value in the overwhelming power of an urban skyline to announce a city.

This reminded me of a post I previously ran called “Saint Jane” by Will Wiles. He makes a similar argument saying:

The Nurbanist vision of carving up the city in this way is as diagrammatic and retrograde as Moses’ planning – and, similarly, it’s an assault on the complexity of the city, the city’s ability to generate its own fabulously complicated internal patterns that defy cursory inspection. The emphasis on little neighbourhoods, the stoop, local shops and walking distances, the “human scale” only tells part of the story of the city – after all, these things can be found in villages and small towns. All cities need sublimity, a touch of holy terror, a defiance of human scale that asserts connection to the greater urban whole. Elevated highways, crowds, tall buildings, interconnection and confusion – these things can be to some people dismaying and unpleasant, but the awe they strike is the overture of accepting the condition of living in a city. The Tube roundel is vaguely holy to Londoners – intensely reassuring – because it is a sign of connection with a system of vast complexity and importance.

Kristian and Will haven’t convinced me that skyscrapers in auto oriented cities are a good thing. European cities like Paris and Barcelona have proven that you can build real cities and great density without them.

But there is something to this idea that cities need to contain structures, systems, and symbols of overwhelming dominance and power, shock and awe. It’s notable that from earliest days, cities were set around immense temples and palaces that served this very functions. Skyscrapers can do this well, but so can stadiums, massive airport complexes, rail yards or ports, vast flyover interchange complexes, or huge industrial parks or buildings.

In our quest to humanize every element of the city, we have in a sense dehumanized it, by robbing it of the primal human longing for the transcendent, to be part of something larger than or outside ourselves, to find the limits of existence and go beyond them. Our obsession with Mars landings or Felix Baumgartner’s jump shows this uniquely human quest in action.

Creating a link to the transcendent is one of the most important things cities do, and perhaps more than anything else what separates them from a town. I believe this is at some level the fuel that powers so much else that happens there, why they are the locus of innovation, etc.

Part of this is by creating structures and systems that not only overwhelm, but at some level cannot be understood or grasped. It is one of the under-recognized virtues of megacities like New York, Sao Paulo, and Mumbai that it is impossible for any single human being to comprehend them.

In a secular age, the idea of the transcendent has little currency. Most people lack even the awareness to engage with the concept. Yet engage we must. To sever a city or society of its link to the transcendent by “humanizing” it or applying overly rigorous cost/benefit analysis to everything is perhaps to drain it of its lifeblood. The extravagant, incredible, overwhelming, and almost seemly pointless and impractical gesture may in fact be the most practical of all.

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

The Bentonville, Arkansas Effect by Eric McAfee

[ It's frequently alleged that Wal-Mart is a destroyer of small towns. Today Eric McAfee of American Dirt takes a look at Wal-Mart's home town of Bentonville, Arkansas to see what its effect has been there - Aaron.]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, from the perspective of urban sociologists and planners at least, major discount retailers such as Walmart have thrived on the destruction of commercial activity in traditional town centers. No doubt my assertion borders on exaggeration, but it would have to, considering I’ve cribbed Jane Austen’s famous (and equally ironically hyperbolic) first seven words to Pride and Prejudice, in which a man’s search of a wife sets a blithe tone for much of what follows. By contrast, the unceasing diatribes against Walmart from urban advocates are rarely whimsical. And while not every high-profile writer/blogger on urban affairs excoriates Walmart, the general tenor of the discussion ascribes much of the decline of downtown retail to the much-maligned megachain. After all, virtually every freestanding small city in America over 20,000 people that is not part of a larger metropolitan agglomeration can claim a Walmart, perched at the edge of the municipal limits. And yes, the burgeoning of Walmarts does more or less coincide with the near abandonment of historic, pedestrian-scaled main streets in favor of car-oriented commercialization consolidated into big-box department stores.

But did a corporation—or the corporation—really cause all this?

If the average American consumers genuinely cared enough about Main Street or the courthouse square, wouldn’t they have shunned this commercial cataclysm before it radically altered the entire landscape? Wasn’t it the consumer that ultimately fueled Walmart’s meteoric growth, by opting for the convenience of everything under one roof, abundant free parking, and (perhaps the most objective factor) those famously low prices? Some might argue that I’m unreasonably throwing Walmart a bone, since the folks at the boardroom table clearly knew what would happen to Main Street, as department-store big-box shopping encroached on communities that commercial developers had previously perceived as too modest in size to support this retail typology. And, yes, I recognize the firm’s historic opposition toward unionization, its eventual reneging on a long-standing “Made in America” pledge, and even the management of logistics/merchandising favoring the automatization of functions that once provided communities with stable jobs. Maybe I am cutting Walmart some undeserved slack. But I also think the corporation’s biggest critics fail to recognize that Walmart didn’t become a leviathan overnight, any more than these towns devolved from flourishing to failures with the flick of a light switch.

My own articles on main street America have explored the topic routinely. But it took a visit to Bentonville, Arkansas to develop a more nuanced understanding of Walmart’s approach to community engagement right at the belly of the beast.

My suspicion is that, until probably around the year 2001, 98% of Americans hadn’t heard of this well-scrubbed little municipality in the northwest corner of the state, just a stone’s throw from the rugged topography of the Ozarks. Even today, if people are familiar with the town, it is only because it hosts the corporate headquarters for the world’s largest retailer. And there’s nothing wrong with this seemingly simplified association: after all, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Bentonville who would argue that the city is better known for something else. But what sort of impact has Walmart’s presence exerted on what otherwise would likely be a nondescript, mid-southern county seat?

Not surprisingly, the influence has been formidable. I mention the year 2001 because, upon publishing the results of Census 2000, the nation learned that the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area (consisting of the primary cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville) had become the sixth-fastest growing region in the nation. While a Census update isn’t the sort of news item that necessarily grabs the public by its lapels, it can flirt salaciously with the unconscious and, eventually, through mimetic repetition, penetrate to the conscious. With each passing year, Bentonville has grabbed the headlines more often, as decisions from the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Home Office exert a greater impact on the global economy. I would hesitate to assert that the name “Bentonville, Arkansas” is common knowledge to the same level that a similarly-sized city such as “Beverly Hills, California” might be, partly because the similarities between these two places basically stop there. But its star is rising on both the national and international horizon, since many of Walmart’s foreign retail ventures have proven just as successful as their domestic efforts. And Bentonville, predictably, has enjoyed its share of the region’s growth: at over 35,000 people in 2010, it more tripled its population since the 1990 census, and, as recently as 1960, it was a quiet village of barely 3,500 people.

The impact on this growth is obvious, particularly when viewing the street configuration.

The shift from a conventional grid to a more hierarchical arrangement is conspicuous and unsurprising.The oldest part of the city adopted the grid, which was customary for shaping virtually all communities in the 19th and early 20th century. Yet 80% of Bentonville’s city limits (which extend in all directions beyond the boundaries in the image above) fits the more expansive, automobile-oriented configuration, in which streets curve and wend, sometimes into hairpins, sometimes into full loops. Often they terminate as culs-de-sac. For a municipality that remained a modest village until the 1950s, this growth pattern is normal and broadly characteristic of numerous Sunbelt communities.Thus, the city of Bentonville has decentralized considerably in the last fifty years, in addition to hosting the global headquarters to the retail behemoth most regularly flagged as the culprit in expediting the demise of downtowns. Given these two factors, one prevailing question remains: what on earth does its beleaguered town center look like?

Chances are, you’d be as surprised as I was.

It looks terrific.Nearly 100% occupancy, clean sidewalks, a well-manicured streetscape. And virtually of all the retail mix—from bike shops to brasseries, yoga studios to yogurt cafes, tea rooms to trattorias—caters to an upmarket clientele, suggesting that the leasing rates are fairly high.

The culminating attraction, however, is the humble storefront that spawned it all:

Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime now serves as the Walmart Visitors’ Center and a mini-museum, with interactive exhibits and the recreation of a soda fountain.

These pictures date from a summer festival on the central square, taken a few years ago, in 2010. Though they are obviously a bit faded by now—not all of the visitor attractions were open yet during my visit—I can say with a fair amount of confidence that downtown Bentonville is even stronger today. After all, most estimates show the city has continued to grow another 10% since the 2010 Census results, and, considering that it was demonstrating considerable resilience during the peak of the Great Recession, the downtown is likely only to build on a momentum it had established long before the bubble burst. A detractor might challenge my assertion by arguing that I captured the city during an atypically vibrant time, when out-of-towners had flocked to the city for the summer celebration on the courthouse square. But how could the downtown support a high concentration of restaurants, cafés and boutiques if it weren’t lively during the other times of the week as well?

The fact remains that downtown Bentonville boasts a number of civic associations that have worked tirelessly to boost its cachet, including Downtown Bentonville, Inc, a nonprofit association that promotes, attracts investment, and plans activities for Bentonville’s historic downtown, as well as the Bentonville Merchant District, which seeks to attract upscale traveling merchants through the provision of Class A office space and furnished loft-style apartments close to the city center. The city also has a Convention and Visitors Bureau and a Chamber of Commerce. These organizations have no doubt worked tirelessly to re-centralize investment in Bentonville’s small downtown, even as the vast majority of the population growth over the last two decades has taken place in the purlieus. By most metrics, their efforts have paid off. But plenty of other similarly sized cities can claim the same business associations without these results; I blogged about Jefferson City, Missouri earlier this year, a small city whose civic leaders have collaborated to promote the downtown. However, the results in Jefferson City, while palpable, have been much more modest than Bentonville—and it is nothing less than the state capital.

Bentonville is simply part of a region that is enjoying a persistent economic boom. The other primary cities in this unusual metropolitan area—Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville—are also growing like mad. It doesn’t hurt that the region is home to two other nationally prominent companies: Springdale’s Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat producer, and trucking giant J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc., based in the town of Lowell, which abuts Rogers. But the real cog in the wheel remains the world’s largest retailer, headquartered in Bentonville, and I still suspect the corporation and its numerous investments has more to do with downtown’s vibrancy than the tourist bureau. Walmart undoubtedly prefers to associate its name with a municipality that enjoys a profile of prosperity and high quality of life; the company will do what it takes to maintain that image within Bentonville.

So what is the visual evidence that this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill boomtown? Beyond from the picture-perfect courthouse square, the air of plentitude permeates the city.

However, it isn’t just the park spaces that distinguish the more recently developed outer reaches of Bentonville; all the spaces in between have received above average treatment as well.

So a city street has sidewalks. Big deal, some might say. But it is out of character for low density, hierarchical, auto-oriented development in the South to make any concession for pedestrians, let alone a full network of sidewalks along all of the major streets. Compare Bentonville to just about any other city in Arkansas (outside of the Northwest) and you’d be hard pressed to find sidewalks on any arterial or collector roads beyond the historic original
street grid. Both the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Planning in Bentonville have determined that core pedestrian access remains critical, even when the development pattern is sparse, in keeping with the preferences of the majority of people who settle in this part of the country. The former of the two aforementioned departments reveals that it has conceived network of parks, greenways and biking trails rivals that of a community three times its size.

Meanwhile, the latter-mentioned planning department has several aces up its sleeve as well. While it isn’t unheard of that a city might support a 76-page Bicycleand Pedestrian Master Plan, a Smart Growth Guidebook, or a Traffic Calming Guidebook, it certainly places the city well outside the bell curve when juxtaposed with its peers. After all, even the neighboring city of Rogers (pop. 55,000) shows no evidence that its planning department has the resources even to conceive of such initiatives.

The aforementioned features are hardly likely to elevate anyone’s pulse; they aren’t exactly competing with Manhattan’s High Line for infrastructural innovation. And it’s unreasonable to surmise that Walmart had any real influence on what remain purely publicly owned assets. But one structure in Bentonville is likely to turn the head of even the most skeptical coastal snob: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The structure was not complete when I visited Bentonville in 2010, but it opened to the public in late 2011, and made international headlines for both its novelty (first major American art museum to open in 50 years, and the only one in an over 100-mile radius) as well as its magnitude (over 200,000 square feet of space on 120-acre grounds and a collection valued in the hundreds of millions). The striking edifice reaches Bentonville courtesy of internationally recognized Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. Perhaps most importantly though, it is resolutely the vision of Alice Walton, daughter to founder Sam Walton and heiress to his fortune. In one of many interviews she offered at the time of the museum’s opening, Walton, who has been an art collector most of her life, acknowledged that she wanted to make a difference in this part of the world by bringing “something we desperately need”. She contributed over $300 million to the project, built on family land. Admission to the museum is free, but because of its destination status, visitors will typically linger, travel the grounds, shop, buy a meal. A Huffington Post article from the museum’s infancy concluded that the museum would skyrocket past its estimated 250,000 first-year visitors, based on the success after just three months open to the public.

If Crystal Bridges Museum lives up to its promise as an attraction of national or even international caliber, Bentonville clearly needs the tourist infrastructure to support those visitors. But it would appear it already has it. Just down the road, in neighboring Rogers, an Embassy Suites Spa and Convention Center flanks one side of the interstate; the Pinnacle Hills lifestyle center sits on the other. And, earlier this year, the sleek 21c Museum Hotel, famous for the prominent positioning of contemporary art, opened right off of Bentonville’s courthouse square – only the third of its kind in the country. (Louisville and Cincinnati claim the other two.) Many of the amenities that have sprouted across Northwest Arkansas over the last twenty years are in keeping with a metropolitan area of nearly a half million people; of course it has a mall, convention center, and a seasonal symphony orchestra. But while growth trajectory of the metro might resemble that of Phoenix or Las Vegas, no single municipality has spawned everything here in Arkansas. As of 1950, only college town Fayetteville had even 10,000 people. The other towns—Lowell, Rogers, Bella Vista, Johnson, Springdale, and of course Bentonville—were isolated villages that boomed simultaneously, swelling their incorporated boundaries until they touched one another. As a result, Northwest Arkansas may be the country’s youngest conurbation: a 35-mile string of small cities—a microlopolis. (The only comparable phenomenon I can think of domestically would be the Texas border towns along the Rio Grande, but even Brownsville and McAllen were more than villages fifty years ago, and they’re big cities over 100,000 people now.)

The rapid ascension of these communities into a regional economic powerhouse—with the amenities one might from a single, medium-sized city—may very well neatly manifest the multiplier effect. But it still doesn’t explain how Bentonville, the epicenter of Walmartlandia, has managed to hold its own with a lively downtown, when plenty of other fast-growing big cities struggle to keep it all centralized (Houston, for example). After all, in one of the most famous journalistic explorations of Northwest Arkansas, Financial Times’ “The Town that Wal-Mart Built”, Jonathan Birchall observed in 2009 that he always found it “hard not to be hit by the irony in this Bentonville Renaissance. Wal-Mart’s football-stadium-sized supercentres are, after all, the epitome of the chain store culture that has destroyed small town centres and homogenised communities all over America in the past three decades.” But it sounds like he took the bait.

The town that Walmart built has either proven itself immune to the main-street-murdering forces that afflicted most American cities, or it has recovered from that ailment magnificently. Bentonville also boasts a regional airport that offers year-round, nonstop daily service to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; Alice Walton’s money helped build the terminal, which serves a population that had no regular airfare until 1998. Bentonville Public Schools have offered the prestigious International Baccalaureate program since 2007. And yes, Bentonville has a Walmart not so far away, in what probably was the edge of town not too long ago.

By this point in such a lengthy analysis, it’s obvious what has happened: Bentonville has responded to the fact that it hosts a multinational corporation by offering the sort of amenities needed to attract talent to the region—talent that, its current leadership presumes, will propel Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. to another fifty years of unprecedented growth.

Most MBA grads trained at Harvard, Wharton or Kellogg are going to need enticement to move to an area not recognized for its urban offerings. On top of all the talent in multinational retail, Bentonville and its neighbors most also graciously host the satellite offices of 1,300 suppliers whom Walmart has lured due to its vast trade network—ranging in size from one sales exec to something as large as Procter and Gamble, for whom a few hundred employees call Northwest Arkansas home. The elite business class that routinely visits the Walmart headquarters expects top-tier hotels and shopping, while many of the executives who make it
their permanent home will inevitably seek sophisticated eateries in an attractive, walkable setting. How much of all this was funded directly by Walmart is anyone’s guess (though I’m sure at least someone out there has the numbers). The fact remains that the corporate culture in Bentonville fueled a demand for a Parks Department that builds a network out of its green space, or a Planning Department that performs traffic calming studies.

The hardened cynics can read about this serendipity in the Ozarks and offer an acerbic rebuttal: of course Walmart is going to prop up its hometown, but does that absolve it from the devastation that has taken place virtually everywhere else? This assertion would be valid if every town with a Walmart suffered an equally moribund Main Street. But they clearly haven’t. And there remain villages too small or too remote for a Walmart, which have confronted the exact same decline of entrepreneurism in their historic centers. Arguing from that same angle, the City of Bentonville did not enjoin Walmart to revitalize downtown—or force Alice Walton to build Crystal Bridges—any more than existing laws compelled Cornelius Vanderbilt to endow a university in Nashville, the capital of a state he never even visited. No doubt some of Walmart’s boosterism in Bentonville is self-serving, since a desirable community only helps to improve Walmart’s reputation as both an employer and corporate citizen, which in turn can attract further investment. However, viewing all corporate altruism as suspicious requires a labyrinthine recontextualization that is just as distorted as saying “Walmart killed our downtowns”. Or its equally hyperbolic counterpart: “Walmart has had no impact on the way we shop on main street”. Clearly it has, but the forces compelling consumer behavior remain complicated—baffling even. For while most of us can understand that we abandoned our old downtowns out of convenience and lack of foresight,
no one will ever truly be able to explain want prompted many American consumers
to give up their cars so they could return to bicycles. And if you don’t think I’m concluding ironically, I’ve got a Jane Austen novel to sell you.

This post originally appeared in American Dirt on October 16, 2013.

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Penn Station

PBS ran a documentary last week on the American Experience called “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station.” Here’s the video if you missed it. I suggest watching it on your TV since it’s long (it’s available through the PBS Roku channel if you don’t have a computer hookup). If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

This covers much more of the rise than the decline, and leaves many questions unanswered. But the look at the personalities, the technical challenges, and the daring that went into this was very good. On the whole I really liked it except for one of the talking heads who kept going on about how rare it was to have a private investment like this that actually benefits the public. He was the walking embodiment of why conservatives want to defund PBS, and his claims were both unsupported and dubious.

I also think they could have done a better job of explaining the financial decline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Yes, the rise of autos and planes played a role. But the feds continued to regulate railroads as if they were still the only game in town. And if you wanted to make the case for government intervention, this was a great one. Long before the demolition of Penn Station, governments had acquired most urban transit systems if not commuter railroads. So there was already a precedent in place for the government buying out Penn Station, which is what should have happened. Merely landmarking a structure and leaving it in the hands of a bankrupt railroad might have equally have led to its destruction through neglect. Grand Central Terminal shows that this facility could have been reborn under government stewardship.

Yet it’s clear that a shift in the values not just of railroad barons, but also of society had occurred from 1910 to 1963. Much of this was for the worse, but let us also not forget much of it was for the better. We don’t just accept dozens of workers dying on job sites anymore, for example. Yet it’s undeniable that the type of American ambition which built Penn Station, that of a rising power wanting to send a message that this would be the American century, no longer exists. Today the very idea of an “American Century” is outright hateful even to many Americans.

A friend of mine watching this wrote me to say, “My Deep Thought was ‘where have the great minds who produced this kind of magnificence’ gone? Answer: Weapons design… military industrial complex. There’s a reason huge swaths of the country look like crap but drones look so cool.”

There’s clearly a lot that goes into this question. Some of it is as my friend said; this creative daring has been channeled into other fields than the civic. We’ve suffered no decline in our ability to blow stuff up, that’s for sure. And as I’ve said before, in the Great War and the Great Depression, something in the human spirit was grievously wounded. I’m sure there’s more.

But in part it’s simply a deficiency of love, or at least the right kind of love, for our cities. If Penn Station was inspired by the greatness of Rome, then as G.K. Chesterton put it:

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing–say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Providence: The Suburbanization of Olneyville by Jef Nickerson

[ Providence, Rhode Island was spared some of the worst of the urban renewal disasters and has a lot of intact neighborhoods. But there have still been some not entirely positive changes in the urban fabric in others. One such neighborhood is Olneyville. As you can see in this aerial, there's an old mostly intact neighborhood commercial center at the core, though with areas of demolition. The area is also cut off by a freeway.

In the piece below Jef Nickerson discusses a proposal for a strip mall in the area that would further degrade the urban fabric. (It's near the bottom left of the photo above). This is sadly what happens in many struggling areas where a desperate city approves suburban style "redevelopment" that's actually destructive to the only things giving the neighborhood appeal in the first place.

As an aside, I believe this development is across the street from the legendary Olneyville New York System Wieners. Somewhat oddly, the term "New York System" actually means "Rhode Island style." Here's a picture of the classic, complete with cheese fries and coffee milk (like chocolate milk, but made with coffee flavored syrup - another Rhode Island classic).

- Aaron.
]

mcdonalds-rendering
Rendering of proposed McDonald’s and Family Dollar store on Plainfield Street in Olneyville.

After learning of plans for a drive-thru McDonald’s proposed on Plainfield Street in Olneyville, I requested plans for the proposal from the Planning Department.

The developer is seeking master plan approval from the City Plan Commission for the construction of a McDonald’s and Family Dollar store in a separate building on a site which was cleared of existing structures last year.

mcdonalds-plan

Per the CPC agenda, the applicant seeks relief from front yard setbacks (they are requesting to set the building further from the street than allowed) and also for a special use permit for a drive thru for the McDonald’s. The applicant plans for a total of 56 parking spaces on the site (per the plans, 19 parking spaces in two rows between Plainfield Street and the Family Dollar Store). The McDonald’s is situated on a corner lot (Plainfield and Dike) with the drive thru lane wrapping around the building between it and the sidewalk. Pedestrian access to the McDonald’s is proposed to be via two crosswalks across the drive thru lanes and a third crosswalk from the Family Dollar store across the parking lot. Direct off-road pedestrian access to the Family Dollar store is only provided via crosswalks from the McDonald’s or via sidewalks crossing a driveway entrance on the Atwood side of the parcel.

According to ProvPlan, as of the 2000 census (the most recent data available) 59.5% of households in the Olneyville area have automobiles this compares to 52.5% Downcity. With such low car-ownership numbers, the residents of Olneyville are highly dependent on public transit, walking, and bicycles. Buildings separated from these forms of transit by parking lots with drive thru lanes are not the best way to serve this population. Olneyville is a major traffic artery to points west where car ownership rates are much higher (~80% in Hartford and Silver Lake). The residents of Olneyville should not be further burdened with automobile infrastructure catering to people outside their community.

The removal of the buildings at this site has widened a widened a gap in the street-wall along the south-side of Plainfield Street and Olneyville Square which only had small gaps between the Route 6 overpass and the eastern end of the square. For generations Olneyville has fallen victim to the automobile, first the highways, them the retail mindset that set in in the middle of the last century with places like the former Price Rite plaza, the car wash on Westminster, the Burger King with a drive thru and 60 parking spaces, and the gas station across from this site.

The Olneyville community has been working hard to bring street-life back to the square and Olneyville Housing are providing homes for residents who can walk to this area. Allowing auto-centric design at the southwest side of the square will make that area dead to walkability for generations more, just as we’re making progress on reversing prior generations of damage.

This isn’t about the proposed retailers (though I’m sure we could have a long discussion about the food choices we have in lower-income neighborhoods), this is about their physical manifestation in the neighborhood.

This post originally appeared in Greater City Providence on January 15, 2014.

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

My Master Plan to Win the War For Indianapolis Government Buildings


The Marion County Jail in Downtown Indianapolis. Source: indy.gov

The Indianapolis Business Journal reported that Mayor Greg Ballard is championing a plan to relocate the jail out of downtown. This is an idea I’ve been touting to anyone who’ll listen since at least 2009, so obviously I’m a big fan of the concept. Though let me hasten to add I’m not endorsing any particular plan as I haven’t seen one.

I’ve always encouraged people to think about public transit investments first as about transportation. But also to ask what it is that implementing an expanded transit system like IndyConnect would let you do that you couldn’t do before. This is one of those things.

More about that in a moment. But first, this is only one part of what I see as a long term reconfiguration of city government space in downtown Indianapolis. I call it my “master plan to win the war” because I see it as game changing for the east and southeast parts of downtown. The components are:

  1. Relocate the jail and criminal courts to a new complex on an old industrial site on the near West Side in proximity to the proposed Washington St. transit corridor. (I was thinking the former GM site originally).
  1. Relocate the civil courts into a new downtown state judicial complex. (The state supreme court already wants one of these, so include the appeals court and local courts as well).
  1. Renovate the old City Hall as, well, the new City Hall housing the Mayor, Council, and executive functions.
  1. Move the rest of the office users into leased space. (I was thinking originally about using this to anchor the MSA site redevelopment and add an office component to the mix of use because the site was so close to the old City Hall).
  1. Implode the City-County Building, demolish the jail, and redevelop Marion County Jail II and Liberty Hall. (I kid you not, one of the jail locations is called Liberty Hall. I think it is used for work-release today, so may be viable as that if managed properly and there’s a particular benefit to locating it downtown for access to employment).
  1. Put all the land used by these facilities back onto the tax rolls by selling for development.

The benefit of this is eliminating multiple significant barriers to development, ones that keep the various districts undergoing redevelopment from feeding off each other. And while it wouldn’t fully pay for the projects, it would put large amounts of prime downtown land back to taxable use.

I’m not suggesting that the city should go do all this right away. Nobody has this kind of money laying around. Rather it’s vision to be implemented as the components reach end of lifecycle and need replacement or hugely expensive upgrades. Though to some extent they are all already there.

First the jail. The sheriff claims a new modern jail could be run with his existing staff. This would save money by allowing the city to dump the private contractor that runs Marion County Jail II. (News reports have criticized the sheriff’s spending. So if even the guy who is accused of spending too much money says it can be done for less, take him up on the offer).

And why put a jail on your city’s most valuable real estate? That doesn’t seem to make much sense today. New York and Chicago don’t have their jails downtown. (In fairness I should note the federal government has remand facilities in both CBDs however). A message board commenter noted that even in Indiana, Evansville’s Vanderburgh County Jail is away from downtown.

I actually got this idea when I was living in Chicago and was summoned to jury duty. The Cook County Jail and a criminal court building are located at 26th and California near Little Village. I had some time to kill while waiting around during a recess so I found myself walking down 26th St. spending money. I’m like, if I’m spending money, maybe other people are spending money too.

Downtown, jails inhibit development. But at an old industrial site near a transit served commercial street, a jail could actually inject life into a struggling neighborhood while still being reasonably centrally located. That’s a win-win.

It’s understandable why the jail would be downtown now for historical reasons. And downtown is the one area that’s reasonable to get to with transit today. That’s important when 10% of households don’t own a car. Those families should not be burdened with an inaccessible jail and courts, particularly when the poor are alas too often involved with the justice system. That’s why enhanced transit service on Washington is so important. It’s the link that enables people to get to the new jail. In this case, transit actually facilitates de-centralization, not centralization.

Some will no doubt say this is a waste of money and the jail doesn’t need to be replaced yet. It would not appear that there’s a burning platform to do this immediately. And it’s easy to point at Wayne County, Michigan as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong. But let’s be realistic. Anybody who’s been around Indy a while knows that there’s always at least one nine figure public construction project going at all times. With the new Eskenazi Hospital just wrapping up, it’s time for the next installment, and this looks like it’s the one. If a nine figure project is going to happen regardless, it might as well be something that’s actually great.

The merits of spending can of course be debated. But I’d like to suggest one benefit of these projects that’s often overlooked. I’m totally speculating with this, I’ll admit. But I see the implicit commitment to keep these construction projects going as a way to bind organized labor into the governing consensus. Indy has had remarkably few organized labor problems and I suspect this is one reason why. Labor is being taken care of. It also means labor is invested in keeping the city healthy, because a broke city means no more projects which means no more jobs for union construction workers.

Apart from purely debates about dollars, I suspect the most controversial part of my master plan is imploding the City-County Building. It’s a classic modernist era structure on an entire city block much of which is devoted to a plaza (with I think underground parking). Notably, the gorgeous historic Marion County Court House was demolished when the CCB was built. Here’s a picture:


Source: wikimapia.org

There’s not exactly a plethora of this type of modernism in Indy and demolishing it would be a loss. However, in my view it’s not a great building. It’s a massive development barrier/dead zone where it stands. And it needs huge money spent in renovations and is probably costly to operate. In the summer, even the 25th floor (where the mayor’s office is located), has insufficient air conditioning, for example. I say implode it and redevelop the block in the private sector.

Here are pictures of some other buildings I mentioned:


Old City Hall, empty and with the windows closed up. Source: ibj.com


Marion County Jail II (Source: indy.gov)

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.

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Beautiful Buffalo

This week’s video is a short film promoting Buffalo. Called “Buffalo: America’s Best Designed City” after a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted, it features simply gorgeous visuals of the city. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013

Newark Penn Station by Robert Munson

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

A visual pleasure inside and out, Newark’s Penn Station is more than a pretty face. An excellent workhorse, this station helped save one of America’s most troubled cities. Seemingly married to a special Destiny, this station was born in spite of the Great Depression and has endured as a leading Economic Engine; pulling its city through half a Century of hardship.


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.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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