For as much as the rejuvenation of American cities during the past two decades has been accomplished by grassroots, D.I.Y. movements, the 21st Century is seeing a return of the urban master plan. John Gendall goes on a coast-to-coast tour of some of the country’s biggest inner-city development projects to find out how today’s master planners are finding ways to reconcile Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.
If you’re a reader of design magazines, you may be forgiven for thinking that 21st century urbanism is a product of popsicle stands and micro-gardens. In part, fueled by a distaste for anything that had a hand in the 2008 economic collapse (main characters: bankers, big government, and needlessly risky developers), urban theory took a turn to the grass-roots, self-starting stories that sprang up in the fault lines of the Clinton/Bush-era real estate bonanza. The American city, though, is facing a critical turning point, having to reckon with changing economic engines, the public health realities of environmental abuse, and a cultural reevaluation of the suburbs. While I like artisanal popsicles as much as the next person (truth be told, I like them more), with a glut of these so-called D.I.Y. Urbanism projects pinballing through blogs and magazines, it seems right to ask ‘where has the master plan gone?’
One answer would be Chicago, where what is expected to be a $4 billion development is reconfiguring an entire swath of the South Side. Back in 1901, when U.S. Steel set up shop—a shop in the form of a 600-acre landfill on Lake Michigan—it chose its site directly on the lake, where its long horizontal mills could make use of the water for incoming supplies and outgoing waste. Though the industrial site drove a wedge between the city’s South Side and the waterfront, economic benefits in the form of thousands of jobs justified the location. When it was shuttered in 1992, not only did those jobs vanish, but the environmentally compromised site was left as a blight to the neighborhood. Less than ten years ago, Lakeside Development (a joint venture between U.S. Steel and McCaffery Interests) hired SOM and Sasaki to design a master plan for the future development of the old mill.
“One of our first priorities is to deliver infrastructure to the site,” said Douglas Voigt, SOM’s director of urban design. “And we don’t want those technologies to come from 40 to 50 years ago, but rather 100 years in the future.” The way the designers see that future is in the form of a possible micro-grid (not unlike a university campus), where energy from wind and/or solar technologies could be generated by the district and sold to the city in times of excess. The plan also overhauls the site’s relationship to the water. Taking advantage of the landfill’s porous slag, the designers plan to allow rainwater to filter through the remediated terrain, where it will then return to the lake and recharge its water table. For the design team, the project is not about mitigating the environmental detriments of building, but about casting development as an environmental possibility. “We want the project to create a positive contribution to the site’s ecology,” said Voigt. But this is no experiment in environmental technologies. The designers are quick to foreground the human experience of what will become a new district. Parks and open space, a recreational marina, and smaller block sizes will enhance the quality of life for residents.
Courtesy Grimshaw and Gruen; Courtesy METRO
Mention large-scale master plans and transportation policy is never far behind. “Transportation is still one of the larger challenges,” conceded Voigt. “It’s as much cultural as it is an issue of technology.”
Nowhere is this truer than in Los Angeles. The city that mythologized the age of the automobile is now expanding its subway system, seeing surging volumes on its regional rail lines, and is anticipating the arrival of high-speed rail. In the midst of this diversifying transportation network sits Union Station, a 1939 architectural gem ringed by parking. Metro, which bought the 47-acre property in 2011, hired Gruen Associates and Grimshaw Architects to turn the building into an urban workhorse. Built in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it was designed for 7,000 daily passengers. It now moves 70,000. In the midst of a bourgeoning downtown, and next door to the vibrant Little Tokyo and Chinatown neighborhoods, Union Station was never fully integrated into the urban landscape. “Our first goal is to address the transit needs,” explained Cal Hollis, Metro’s executive officer of countywide planning. “It was built as a transit building, but it’s now a multi-modal transportation hub.” The master plan will also include two office buildings and approximately 250 residential units as a way to link the building with the surrounding area. “It’s now perceived as not a part of downtown, so we want to tie it in better with the area by making better pedestrian connections,” said Hollis.
L.A. can find a useful model in Denver, which, next spring, will cut the ribbon on its own historic Union Station as the center of a multi-modal transportation network. “We had several disconnected elements feeding into downtown,” explained Bill Mosher, senior managing director of developer Trammell Crow and the owner’s representative for the Denver Union Station Project Authority. “The issue was where to put the hub.” That hub, they determined, would be the 19th century train station that the design/build joint venture between SOM, Hargreaves Associates, and Kiewit is now reconfiguring into not only a centerpiece for a revamped city and regional transportation strategy, but also as an important connective public space between downtown and the Central Platte Valley. Owing to the real estate development that the project has instigated, Mosher said the project will account for more than $1 billion of development, dramatically transforming the physical and economic landscape of that area.
The Denver project highlights the critical role of what has become an Obama-era lightning rod: government spending. “There has to be an understanding of the role of government,” said Mosher. Citing voter-approved financing for a 2004 transportation initiative, he added, “there has to be public investment, which is then followed by the private sector.”
This is a formula that New Yorkers will recognize from the much-anticipated Hudson Yards redevelopment, the genesis of which can be found in the extension of the MTA’s No. 7 subway. A master plan conceived by KPF will harness the $2 billion of transportation investment into a 26-acre mixed-use area, zoned for more than 13 million square feet of development, both commercial and residential. Whereas urban development on this scale has been maligned in the past for carrying out heavy-handed top-down approaches, KPF is determined to avoid the mistakes of earlier planners. “The key is to create an exciting urban experience,” said KPF founding design partner Bill Pedersen. “You can’t just build a bunch of office buildings.” Up high, the tilting forms of the two main towers are meant to integrate into the Manhattan skyline, gesturing, on one hand, toward the Hudson River and, on the other, toward the towers of Midtown. But much of the master plan’s emphasis is on the street level. “We considered the position of the human body and its relationship to the environment so that it’s always changing as you walk around,” said Pedersen. Pointing out the way the towers scale down to meet Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Culture Shed, and the way the Highline will cut straight through the building volume, he stressed that “the connection to the city is the crucial element.”
These immense urban developments point to a changing cultural and demographic reality. The most recent U.S. census data shows that urban populations are growing faster than populations in non-urban areas, meaning that America’s cities are swelling (and are projected to continue that trajectory with increasing volume). Absent an outward expansion of the suburbs, basic arithmetic points to the need for cogently planned densification.
A current master plan for The Blairs, in Silver Spring, Maryland, doubles as a diagram of this data. Built by a private developer in the 1960s as a suburban foil to Washington, the 27-acre community had 1,300 residential units in slab buildings surrounded by parking lots. The Tower Companies, the development’s original owner, hired Bing Thom Architects and Sasaki to design a plan for a denser development. With a comprehensive approach, the team was able to increase density even while adding open green space by relocating most of the 3,200 parking spaces underground. “The key was to create a series of public spaces that not only allow for recreation, but also to complement the commercial spaces around it,” said Ling Meng, a director at Bing Thom Architects. The plan doubles the residential units to 2,800. As Sasaki principal Alan Ward put it, “The challenge in developing this many units would be that it could have resulted in a mega-tower, but by keeping the geometries varied and developing residential blocks wrapped by townhouses, the entire community will have a very human scale.”
The present debate between D.I.Y. and master planned urbanism still runs on the fumes of what has become an immensely reductive clash between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. While there is much to be learned from their legacies, to keep them in the kick-boxing ring of urban theory glosses over much of the nuance in counter-productive ways. The Cross-Bronx Expressway, put in place by Moses, is an urban disgrace. And the fact that there still exists a Greenwich Village, saved by Jacobs, is a delightful highlight in the history of community activism. But there is more to the story than the technocratic power broker setting out to squelch the crazy dame.
While the examples above involve decades of contentious public debate, byzantine political processes, and expansive budgets, they also borrow principles from each of the archrivals. To begin with, each of these master plans includes the chorus of many different community voices. “It takes time and money, yes, but it also takes a remarkable amount of civic will and a real commitment to the area,” said Mosher. Sasaki principal Dennis Pieprz put it differently: “We work on projects around the globe, and one of the things that is present in the U.S. that you don’t see elsewhere is the very active process of community engagement.”
“To see Jane Jacobs as only a community activist is problematic,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, partner at SHoP Architects and associate professor of real estate development at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. “She is also an advocate for the economic expansion of cities. She wanted to see development in the form of mixed-use environments.”
She did write The Death and Life of Great American Cities, yes, but she followed that up with The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations. To turn that popsicle stand into a popsicle store, and then to parlay that into a popsicle distribution company demands a dense local market complete with efficient transportation networks, diverse housing stock, and infrastructure.
The knee-jerk vilification of Moses is similarly unproductive. “Urban renewal is such a loaded term because it is so associated with Robert Moses and with community displacement, but it did some important things, like transit-oriented affordable housing,” said Chakrabarti. “That whole era has been made a caricature of itself.”
Dense urban areas make an environmental and economic case for themselves, but there is also a more intangible argument to be made for this type of urban regeneration: the cultural reconsideration of the suburbs as the desired life endpoint. “The suburbs are not just a consequence of the market,” said Chakrabarti, paraphrasing a theme of his forthcoming book, A Country of Cities (Metropolis Books, 2013). “There is a $100-billion-per-year federal subsidy to support the suburbs. If you were to level the playing field, we’d see even more movement into cities.”
As that movement happens, master plans—having learned from mistakes in the past and responding to active, thoughtful community engagement—have the capacity to render these cities more equitable, environmentally sustainable, and perfectly suitable for all kinds of D.I.Y interventions.
“These types of projects are opportunities to do more than just design a few buildings,” said Pieprz. “It’s an opportunity to develop a new vision for the city and how this area can evolve. Everything goes back to the human occupation of space, how people experience a place.”