Search results for "MTA"

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Bottom-up Urbanism
The Lowline.
Courtesy The Lowline

When James Ramsey and Dan Barasch set out to turn a defunct trolley terminal underneath Manhattan’s Lower East Side into an open, airy park, they launched a Kickstarter. It was 2012 and they needed $100,000 to build a full-scale mockup of Ramsey’s “remote skylights” which would collect natural sunlight at the surface and funnel it into the 60,000-square-foot site through fiber optic tubes. If it worked, there would be enough light to sustain photosynthesis.

The team met its goal in six days, and ultimately exceeded it by more than $55,000. The installation was created that fall and, for the most part, the tessellated, aluminum light canopy, with its 600 individual panels, worked.

 
Courtesy The Lowline
 

But in the year-and-a-half since, the Lowline’s 15 minutes have come and gone. The project has been eclipsed by other Kickstarter campaigns, including ones for a floating pool, a floating beach, a floating party island, solar paneled streets, and so on and so forth. The Lowline, however, is not dead; the non-profit behind the project has a full-time staff that believes the park could be a reality by 2018. “The past year, and going forward at least another half year, we have been primarily focused on advocacy politically, and refining our technology and design process,” Ramsey recently told AN in his Tribeca office.

The 2012 installation was an integral piece in getting the Lowline to where it is today; it raised the project’s profile and proved that the technology was actually viable: an underground park could be filled with natural light.

Courtesy The Lowline
 

“We learned a lot about the way the light actually behaves—physically and psychologically,” said Ramsey. “In order to actually have some sort of bearing or reference to how the natural sky works, it was important to strike a balance between directed parallel collimated light and ambient diffuse light.” He explained that he wants the light to create an inviting, timeless quality in the park.

This technology is still being refined and Ramsey was headed to South Korea to “suss out” an optics manufacturer the day after AN visited his office. But making the Lowline a reality will take more than technology—it will take cash, approximately $50 million.

Courtesy The Lowline
 

Ramsey and Barasch are not planning another Kickstarter. Instead, they are pursuing corporate support, public grants, and said they have received “several seven-figure pledges” for the project. That money, though, is contingent on whether the Lowline gets access to the 1.5-acre site, which is controlled by the MTA.

Ramsey and Barasch said they are making progress on securing the space, but a spokesperson for the MTA told AN “there is nothing currently happening with regard to this former trolley location.”

But that could change as the proposed site of the Lowline is directly adjacent to Essex Crossing, a 1.9-million-square-foot development designed by SHoP that is expected to break ground in March. While Ramsey and Barasch said Essex Crossing and the Lowline can exist autonomously, the projects could connect through the mega-development’s “Market Line”—a retail corridor similar to Chelsea Market. Doing so, they say, would significantly boost public space at Essex Crossing.

Courtesy SHOP
 

“The Market Line is going to absorb a lot of the commercial activity and the Lowline will have its own design autonomy," said Vishaan Chakrabarti, a principal at SHoP.

Since its inception, the Lowline has been racking up political and community support, but ultimately needs City Hall’s blessing to move forward. Ramsey has not landed a meeting with the mayor just yet. “Understandably, the new mayor has been really busy,” he said.

For the time being, Ramsey and Barasch are pulling together all of the Lowline’s disparate pieces so that if—or when—they get the go-ahead, the project can be executed quickly and efficiently. “This is not like the mayor issues an RFP and it trickles down,” said Ramsey. “This is completely bottom-up urbanism.”

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Route Improvements
A dedicated bus lane in New York City.
Courtesy NYC DOT

With the cost of new transit infrastructure skyrocketing, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing to expand the city’s Select Bus Service (SBS), a version of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Twenty SBS lines are planned citywide by 2018, adding 13 new routes to the current seven. A joint effort of the NYC Department of Transportation and the MTA, officials have begun planning the next phase, a route along Woodhaven and Cross Bay boulevards in Queens connecting Queens Boulevard and the Rockaways.

“All around the world there’s been a push for BRT due to the high cost of building underground rail,” said Gene Russianoff, a spokesperson with the Straphangers Campaign for NYPIRG. “It’s particularly well-suited to parts of Queens like the Woodhaven Boulevard corridor that is already very wide and has lots of available customers.” According to NYCDOT, the corridor services nearly 34,000 daily bus riders.

 
The planned Woodhaven SBS Corridor (left). Existing conditions along Woodhaven Boulevard (right).
 

Seven SBS lines already run through the city on routes identified by the Bloomberg Administration. The latest opened on May 25 running along the M60 bus line connecting 125th Street with LaGuardia Airport.

New York’s SBS is not a full BRT system, like international examples in Guangzhou, China, Bogotá, or Mexico City. SBS is characterized by dedicated bus lanes, traffic signal prioritization, pre-paid transit fares, limited stops, and other pedestrian safety amenities. NYCDOT figures show these changes can account for a 10 to 15 percent decrease in travel times as compared to traditional bus routes that are often slowed to a pace less than walking. Along the Woodhaven route, a study by the Pratt Center for Community Development estimated that travelers between Howard Beach and LaGuardia Airport could cut their transit times from 65 to 45 minutes. NYCDOT’s initial proposal for the Woodhaven line is similar to other SBS routes in the city with on-street bus lanes.

Proposed bus lane alignments.
 

“A more fully-fledged, world-class BRT system will include fully separated bus lanes and more permanent station locations,” said Ryan Lynch, Associate Director at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “These are small things that really improve travel times and ease access for people with disabilities.” His organization this year identified Woodhaven Boulevard as among the region’s most dangerous streets for pedestrians and is making a push for the new route to expand on existing SBS models. His group and others are proposing a median-aligned, physically separated bus lane with permanent, elevated stations. “When you do build out a world-class BRT system, you can expect faster transit times. Woodhaven is an ideal opportunity to take SBS to the next level.”

“It’s important to remember that SBS has been very successful throughout the city at a time when bus service has become slower on other lines,” said Lynch. “SBS has really done a good job of increasing ridership and has improved pedestrian and bike safety.”

NYCDOT has been studying the Woodhaven line since 2008 and is currently working with the community on defining what the future bus line might look like following a meeting in late April. The agency expects to have a concept plan complete by the end of the year.

Route Improvements

With the cost of new transit infrastructure skyrocketing, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing to expand the city’s Select Bus Service (SBS), a version of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Twenty SBS lines are planned citywide by 2018, adding 13 new routes to the current seven. A joint effort of the NYC Department of Transportation and the MTA, officials have begun planning the next phase, a route along Woodhaven and Cross Bay boulevards in Queens connecting Queens Boulevard and the Rockaways.

“All around the world there’s been a push for BRT due to the high cost of building underground rail,” said Gene Russianoff, a spokesperson with the Straphangers Campaign for NYPIRG. “It’s particularly well-suited to parts of Queens like the Woodhaven Boulevard corridor that is already very wide and has lots of available customers.” According to NYCDOT, the corridor services nearly 34,000 daily bus riders.

 

Seven SBS lines already run through the city on routes identified by the Bloomberg Administration. The latest opened on May 25 running along the M60 bus line connecting 125th Street with LaGuardia Airport.

New York’s SBS is not a full BRT system, like international examples in Guangzhou, China, Bogotá, or Mexico City. SBS is characterized by dedicated bus lanes, traffic signal prioritization, pre-paid transit fares, limited stops, and other pedestrian safety amenities. NYCDOT figures show these changes can account for a 10 to 15 percent decrease in travel times as compared to traditional bus routes that are often slowed to a pace less than walking. Along the Woodhaven route, a study by the Pratt Center for Community Development estimated that travelers between Howard Beach and LaGuardia Airport could cut their transit times from 65 to 45 minutes. NYCDOT’s initial proposal for the Woodhaven line is similar to other SBS routes in the city with on-street bus lanes.

 

“A more fully-fledged, world-class BRT system will include fully separated bus lanes and more permanent station locations,” said Ryan Lynch, Associate Director at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “These are small things that really improve travel times and ease access for people with disabilities.” His organization this year identified Woodhaven Boulevard as among the region’s most dangerous streets for pedestrians and is making a push for the new route to expand on existing SBS models. His group and others are proposing a median-aligned, physically separated bus lane with permanent, elevated stations. “When you do build out a world-class BRT system, you can expect faster transit times. Woodhaven is an ideal opportunity to take SBS to the next level.”

“It’s important to remember that SBS has been very successful throughout the city at a time when bus service has become slower on other lines,” said Lynch. “SBS has really done a good job of increasing ridership and has improved pedestrian and bike safety.”

NYCDOT has been studying the Woodhaven line since 2008 and is currently working with the community on defining what the future bus line might look like following a meeting in late April. The agency expects to have a concept plan complete by the end of the year.

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19 East Houston Street
The new building mimics the scale of its neighbor and its Houston Street face is meant to appear as though it has been sliced away, revealing the section.
Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Up through the 1920s, Houston Street was a narrow little passageway through the lower Manhattan trenches, no bigger than Spring Street is today. It was not until the 1930s, as part of Robert Moses’ overhaul and modernization of New York City, that it took on its current form as a multi-lane thoroughfare. The transformation from urban lane to city highway involved the demolition of quite a few buildings, and resulted in a number of odd-shaped and sliver-like lots that would only appeal to a developer in the city’s current real estate reality. One such oddity is a triangular plot on the south curb of Houston bordered by Broadway and Crosby Street—a prominent location that for years has been home to a fruit stand, a subway entrance, and an MTA parking lot. The brick wall of the building bordering the lot has been used as a billboard for much of this time, home for an age to an iconic DKNY advertisement, and now branded with the logo of the Southern Californian clothing company Hollister and an artificially distressed rendition of the California state flag.

 
The facade system’s depth and variation are inspired by Soho’s historic cast iron facades.
 

This awkward patch of land is now being developed by New York City–based real estate investment and operating company Madison Capital. It will soon be home to a building comprising four floors of retail (one subterranean) and three floors of office space. With a 36-foot exposure on Crosby Street, a little over 200 feet on Houston, and nothing but a razor’s edge on Broadway, the building will offer about 5,000 square feet of leasable space per floor, considering vertical circulation needs and an MTA easement for the subway entrance. This relatively limited amount of space was not seen as an impediment to finding likely tenants. In the words of S9, an affiliate of Perkins Eastman, principal Navid Maqami, “The value of the property is not so much in the floor plans and square footage—it’s the location more than anything else. It’s about visibility and who would want to be there.”

  SOURCES:
Structural Engineer
Severud Assocaites
MEP Engineer
Cosentini Associates
Civil Engineer
Vollmuth & Brush
Geotechnical Engineer
Langan Engineering
The building's glass facade will glow at night along Houston Street.
 

Since the site sits at the edge of the Soho Cast Iron Historic District, the design of the building had to pass muster with the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Perkins Eastman took a contextual/contemporary approach to this challenge. The structure’s massing and floor-to-floor heights match that of its immediate neighbor, keeping it on-scale with the area. The treatment of the Crosby facade is the most contextual. It is clad with a Danish grey brick that closely matches the material facing other buildings on that street (Denmark was apparently the closest place to source a natural brick of that particular color) and also features punched windows and even a cornice.

   
Houston Street's evolution.
 

The Houston facade, on the other hand, is a contemporary interpretation of the 19th-century cast iron facades that predominate in Soho. Here, the architectural notion is that a pre-existing building has been sliced by the widening of the street, leaving a sectional view of the structure. In addition to communicating this idea, Maqami and his design team played on the strong horizontal character of the historic district’s facades, their layering and depth, and their variation and elaboration from floor to floor. To emulate these features in a contemporary idiom, the team employed two layers of floor-to-ceiling glass—one set 18 inches inboard from the other—aluminum pilasters, and a frame of the Danish grey brick that carries over from the Crosby Street face. The outboard panels of glass are all 15 feet wide, while the inboard panels vary in width from 1 foot 6 inches to 7 feet 2 inches. The architects change up where these varying-width panels fall, thus modulating the expression up the elevation and creating a sense of movement along high-speed Houston Street.

 
Before and after aerial views of the infill site.
 

The building’s first three floors, which are all dedicated to retail, are faced with transparent glass panels. This changes in the top three office floors, on which the inboard glass panels are treated with an increasingly opaque ceramic frit pattern. On the fourth floor the inboard panels feature 33 percent frit, on the fifth floor they feature 66 percent frit, and on the sixth and top floor they feature 100 percent frit, thus providing a higher and higher degree of privacy as you go up the elevation.

For those of you wondering what will be done with the thin-edge-of-the-wedge space at the corner of Broadway, it will be left empty, a soaring atrium from the second floor up, giving whatever retail tenant that takes the space a highly visible branding opportunity. Whatever piece of advertising fills this space, it will show through the glass facade to the bustling throng entering Soho from the Village—a preservation of the building-as-billboard condition that has ruled this site for the past few generations.

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Video> 48 Crazy Hours In the Life of a Citi Bike
While Citi Bike is publicly bleeding money and senior staff, the program continues to be extremely popular on the streets of New York. The blue bikes have woven themselves into the city’s urban fabric like yellow cabs, or halal carts, or rats eating shwarma that fell off a halal cart. New data released by Citi Bike shows that the bikes aren't just being used by tourists pedaling from MoMA to the High Line—they are a viable transportation option for the city's commuters. Sarah Kaufman of NYU’s Rudin School of Transportation, Juan Francisco Saldarriaga from Columbia’s Spatial Information Design Lab, and designer Jeff Ferzoco took some of Citi Bike's data and translated it into a video to show general patterns of the program. The map represents about 75,000 rides taken over a two-day period in September. Their work, which shows purple dots zipping around Brooklyn and Manhattan, isn’t too surprising: ridership is up dramatically around rush hour and is most concentrated in the financial district and Midtown. Researchers at NYU also discovered that Citi Bike has become a viable transit alternative—especially when the MTA is experiencing delays. So, Citi Bike has become a valuable transit alternative. “For the month of September, there is evidence of ‘reactionary biking,’ in which subway riders encountering delays likely switched modes to bike share for that trip,” they explain. And as the map shows, most people using the system are yearly members. That's great for New Yorkers—a one year membership sets them back less than a month on the MTA—but it is killing Citi Bike's bottom line. The program needs to up the yearly membership fee or boost sales on daily passes if it wants to stay solvent and continue to expand. That's because, unlike other bike share programs, Citi Bike receives no public money; and New York City Mayor de Blasio says that’s not going to change. If only there was a bank—perhaps one whose name is plastered all over the bikes—that could just write another check. If only.
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Campaign Seeks to Ease New York's Traffic, Build Transit With New Tolling Structure
Manhattan has a traffic problem. But, as of now, New York City has only taken marginal steps to fix it. To some, charging tolls on certain bridges and tunnels leading to the island, but not on others is uneven or unfair. To former New York traffic commissioner, “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, however, it’s “a cockamamie system of charging people that makes absolutely no sense.” And today, Schwartz and Move NY are launching a campaign against that “cockamamie system” as they call for new strategies to ease congestion. Ahead of today's event, The Atlantic Cities is out with a great profile on the troubled past, and uncertain future, of passing congesting pricing in New York City. After former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pricing plan failed in 2008, it’s not clear if de Blasio will even take-up the fight. Considering the current way the city handles traffic, though, it’s blatantly clear that something has to be done. “[New York’s] current system of handling commuter traffic is completely busted,” wrote The Atlantic’s Eric Jaffe. “Case in point: the four city-owned bridges over the East River are free, but the two MTA-owned tunnels beside them cost commuters $15 cash round trip, leading to rampant ‘bridge shopping.’” The plan advocated by Schwartz and Move NY would change that. They call for lowering fees on already expensive bridges and tunnels, and raising—or adding—fees on others. The plan could hypothetically pay huge dividends for the city: a 20 percent improvement in traffic flow, easier commutes into and around Manhattan, and up to $1.5 billion a year in revenue. Despite its benefits, congestion pricing will still be a tough sell. Jaffe noted that Schwartz isn’t even calling his plan “congestion pricing.” Whatever it's called, the plan will likely face strong opposition from drivers who are currently getting a free pass on their commute. Convincing them that new fees are worth it won't be an easy sell. That's why Schwartz and Move NY are setting out on the age-old “listening tour.” The main focus of the tour is to hear from New Yorkers about where they want to see all that additional revenue spent. Most of the money is reportedly planned to go toward “maintaining current service and expanding into transit deserts.” This type of long-term investment would be necessary to provide transportation alternatives to those who could be priced off bridges and tunnels. In the short-term, though, this won't quell the backlash because these projects would take years to complete. Still, Schwartz and his team say this type of investment is vital to New York's long-term viability and the revenue raised from congestion pricing could help catalyze new transit projects. While this type of plan is widely regarded as the best way to ease congestion, its impact on low-income individuals cannot be overlooked; those with the smallest voice will most profoundly feel its effects. “Pricing a low-income driver off the road from a 40-minute car commute might be a win for traffic; but it’s a loss for society if that person now rides two hours to work,” wrote Jaffe.
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Two Cheap and Efficient Ways to Improve Public Transit
Ah, the joy of New York City's rush-hour subway commute. If you live in a major metropolitan area, you know the thrill in stepping off one crowded, dirty subway car into a wall of people to push your way onto the next crowded subway car. You turn up your music, or that riveting Podcast with that guy from that thing, and you power through it. While you might be accustomed to it, the daily commute has plenty of room for improvement. Two new approaches to ease crowding on public transit systems show how some easy adjustments could make big-city commutes considerably less hellish. A group called the Efficient Passenger Project recently posted signs on New York City subway platforms telling straphangers which section of a train to board to efficiently make their future transfer. But only days after the signs went up, the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority tore them down. “These signs have the potential to cause crowding conditions in certain platform areas and will create uneven loading in that some train cars will be overcrowded while others will be under-utilized,” said an MTA spokesperson. Despite the swift removal of the signs, the guerrilla campaign, part of a trend known as Tactical Urbanism, isn't dead just yet. The anonymous individual behind EPP told New York Magazine, “I'm really going for it. I'm ready for them. My plan is to eventually convince the MTA that this is a plan worth allowing. I want to beat them with the numbers—just keep putting them up." But, as of early March, even the group's website had been taken down. Over in Santiago, Chile, a more official plan to place a small gate on a crowded platform has already seen remarkable success in easing congestion. The gate, which separates exiting passengers from transferring passengers, has reduced crowding, boosted passenger capacity and increased train frequency. The plan, though, does take some adjusting to—passengers must learn where to board a train to make sure they end up on their preferred side of the gate. A project like this shows that dramatic improvements to public transit don’t always require big investments; they require ingenuity and a willingness to try. We don’t know if the Efficient Passenger Project would have seen similar success because it wasn’t given that chance to succeed—or fail—on its own accord.
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Explore Grand Central's History With Fun, New Website
Grand Central has always been more than a train station. It’s an architectural and cultural touchstone for New York City. Even the most hurried commuter will stop to admire the building’s impressive scale and immaculate detail, before making their next transfer or stepping onto the crowded Midtown streets. The iconic building celebrated its Centennial last year, and it's looking pretty good for 100. But, to be fair, it has had some cosmetic work done over the years. Either way, to honor that milestone, the New York Transit Museum hosted an exhibit called Grand By Design, which explored the station’s storied history. And now, a year later, that exhibit has a fun, new website. With some drawings, photos and videos, the site tells the captivating story of how the “Grand Central Depot” of the 1800’s became the Grand Central Terminal of today. Turns out, a lot happened before the Apple Store showed up. As these things go, the story is full of greed, politics, threats of destruction, and what's described as a “stormy partnership.” It's like one of today's development battles, but with more provocative facial hair. Check out the new website here. [via Gizmodo]
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A Life-Saving Proposal for San Francisco's Sidewalks
Can better design save lives? That question is at the center of a proposal by Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects (OPA) to transform crosswalks along San Francisco’s Divisadero Street. The project, Sous Les Paves, originated in a GOOD design challenge by the Center for Architecture and Design. With help from AIA San Francisco, OPA partnered with local advocacy organization Walk San Francisco in a bid to improve pedestrian safety at street crossings. The proposal couldn’t be more timely. According to Walk San Francisco, at least three pedestrians have died in city crosswalks since New Year’s Eve alone. OPA began its design with a rudimentary pedestrian-safety tool: the bulb-out, which projects the sidewalk into the street. But while bulb-outs increase visibility, they also make pedestrians more vulnerable. OPA Principal Zoë Prillinger explained: “Our first thought was, when we looked at the curb extension, was that it should be modified to protect the pedestrian.” The designers elected to build protective ridges along the edge of each bulb-out. This led to a second thought. “If you’re building up the curb extension, what else can it do? If you’re creating a kind of public space, what can we do to augment that public space?” OPA hit upon the idea of treating the protective ridges as planters, creating a new kind of green space at pedestrian crossings. At an urban scale, these mini-parks would connect to median plantings and, eventually, city parks. The designers chose Divisadero Street for their project in part because its traffic lanes are separated by a median. “Median strips [create] a kind of link between intersections, a language of green space: median strips, curb extensions,” Prillinger said. “[You] start to see streets stitched together by these green moments.” As for the architectural language of the crosswalks themselves, OPA employed a variation on the black-and-white zebra crossing. The diagonal hatch extends into the sidewalk as well as the street. “The hatch implies a dual condition,” Prillinger explained. “It’s kind of a hybrid condition. We’re thinking of streets as a place where both cars and pedestrians belong.” OPA’s relatively simple design, comprising the hatch pattern, curb ridges, and median ridges, is a kit of parts designed for flexible use around the city. The firm “created a language that’s modular, that can fit different situations, to create a kind of new public space,” Prillinger said. That language, moreover, could be used to help define an area, like Divisadero Street, that doesn’t yet have a distinct aesthetic identity. “San Francisco is conservative, it’s very hard for planners even to think about doing anything that has a real presence,” Prillinger said. At the same time, “There are real opportunities [to do things] that are more consciousness-raising.” OPA worked with the city Planning Department late last year to outline some of the obstacles to implementing Sous Les Paves. Next, the designers will meet with the Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA), representatives of the Fire Department, and other stakeholders to explore opportunities to realize the design. “I really would like some element of this project to get off the ground,” Prillinger said. “It would be lovely for San Francisco to do something that’s not just progressive environmentally, but also combines progressive architectural language.”
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France's FRAC Centre to Open New Tubular Prefabricated Center
The Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain, known as the FRAC, will open its fourth location at the former Subsistances military site in the Centre Region on September 14th. The Orleans-based center dubbed "The Turbulences" is the brainchild of architecture duo, Jakob + MacFarlane, who have renovated the original U-shaped military base and created a bold prefabricated  structure in the middle of the courtyard to house the public reception area, cafeteria, bookshop, and auditorium. Made of aluminum, concrete and wood panels, the Turbulences will also display a "veil of light" on the exterior produced by artists Electronic Shadow (Niziha Mestaoui and Yacine Aït Kaci). The permanent and temporary exhibition galleries, in addition to a learning workshop area, will be located in the Subsistances. A new garden, "La faille/The Fault," designed by ruedurepos agency (Christophe Ponceau and Mélanie Drevet) will offer visitors an open green space with plantings and outfitted with Corten steel furniture. The FRAC, in its thirtieth year, emerged out of the decentralization of the country's collection (and production) of contemporary art and architecture to foster a more equitable and regional cultural program. The FRAC Centre's collection of architecture focuses on work from 1950s to present day, and consists of 15,000 architectural drawings, 800 models, and 600 artworks. The FRAC has embarked on an ambitious expansion plan: six regions are in the process of opening new centers, including Brittany (opened), Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (opened), Franche-Comté (opened), Centre Region (opening in September), Nord-Pas de Calais (opening in September), and Basse-Normandie (to be completed in 2015).
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Emergent Master Planning
SOM and Sasaki are transforming a 600-acre former U.S. Steel mill on Chicago's South Side into a mixed-use district with parks, a marina, and small block sizes.
Courtesy SOM

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?’

Rendering of SOM and Sasaki's plan for Chicago.
 

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.

 
Grimshaw and Gruen Associates’ vision for a multi-modal, transit-oriented LA (left). Four alternatives for integrating those plans with LA’s existing Union Station (right).
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.

SOM, Hargreaves Associates, and Kiewit are turning Denver’s Union Station into a centerpiece for the city, as well as a multi-modal tansit hub.
Courtesy SOM
 

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.

 
Plan for transforming Denver's Union Station.
 

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.”

Detail of the rail shed and platforms at Denver's Union Station.
 

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.

The Blairs, designed by Bing Thom Architects, transforms a 1960s suburban development in Silver Spring, Maryland, into a dense, pedestrian-oriented district.
Courtesy Bing Thom Architects
 

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 Blairs in Silver Spring, Maryland.
 

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.”

The KPF-designed Hudson Yards, on Manhattan’s West Side, includes more than 13 million-square-feet of development that links into The High Line.
Courtesy KPF
 

“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.

 
View of the first tower under construction at Hudson Yards from the High Line (left). Rendering of the first group of towers that will rise at Hudson Yards (right).
 

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.”

Detail of Hudson Yards' retail mall and tower bases.
 

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.”

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Anthony Foxx & Tom Prendergast Confirmed as Head of USDOT and NYC MYA
We've known for a while that Tom Prendergast and Anthony Foxx would be leading New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation for a while now, but now it's official. The New York State Senate has confirmed Prendergast has been appointed as the new chairman and CEO of the MTA and Congress has okayed President Obama's selection of Anthony Foxx as the new Secretary of Transportation. Prendergast, who has extensive experience working in the transit system, is replacing Joe Lhota who left the position to run for New York City Mayor. With Prendergast's new role comes the heavy responsibility of managing an annual $13 billion dollar budget and effectively serving 8.5 million commuters per weekday. Anthony Foxx, former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, replaces Secretary Ray LaHood, a notable enforcer of safety who initiated a strong campaign against distracted driving. Foxx says that he will follow from LaHood’s example, making safety a priority as well.