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Piggyback Yards Still Not Rollin' on the River
A masterplan envisions a vibrant Piggyback Yards and a revitalized LA River.
Courtesy Perkins + Will

Over 25 years of work have culminated in a transformative blueprint for 150 acres of land in the heart of LA abutting the famously barren Los Angeles River. However, funding and approval for the Piggyback Yard (PBy) conceptual masterplan, as the project is called, are still nonexistent, while the land’s owner, the Union Pacific Railroad, is still hesitant to part with it.

In 2009, the nonprofit Friends of the Los Angeles River found four architecture and landscape firms—Michael Maltzan Architecture, Mia Lehrer + Associates, Perkins + Will, and Chee Salette Architecture Office—to work pro bono on the Piggyback plan, targeting the railroad yards located at the critical junction of downtown Los Angeles, Lincoln Heights, and Boyle Heights. The firms, known as the PBy Collaboration, met biweekly until late May 2010. Now the group is initiating a dialogue with city leaders, public and private agencies, and the community.

A conceptual rendering of the PBy site.
A conceptual rendering of the PBy site showing parkland surrounding the LA River.

Although the city’s Los Angeles River Revitalization masterplan, which was started in 2005, has moved forward with bike lanes and small park projects along the river’s length, the PBy masterplan is the first sizable effort, said Mia Lehrer + Associates designer Hong Joo Kim. The plan includes 125 acres of land and 25 acres of riverbed. The Piggyback Yard, otherwise known as the Los Angeles Transfer Container Facility, is the largest single-owner property adjacent to the river, and hence, the yard’s proponents suggest, the only place a single, large-scale project could work.

The PBy Collaboration proposes to replace the river’s concrete bottom with a soft riverbed, reintroduce plants and wildlife, and set the stage for educational, cultural, commercial, health care, and minor industrial buildings. The midsize structures would include green roofs and photovoltaic panel arrays. Building vertically means more space for the proposed 130-acre public park, which would include soccer fields, sports amenities, walking and biking paths, and a botanical garden.

Conceptual rendering of new park space against the LA skyline.
A conceptual rendering of proposed park space set against the LA skyline.

The plan is to build an area where mixed-income residents would live, work, and play, increasing vitality and decreasing crime. The project would “bridge, through architecture and landscape design, the gap between isolated neighborhoods and districts,” said Jessica Varner, an architect from Michael Maltzan Architecture.

Mia Lehrer emphasized that the PBy plan is “an ongoing investigation” of the yard, with several private and public agencies involved. Some of these include the county, city, and California High Speed Rail. But even with such backing, the collaboration’s hands are still tied, since Union Pacific (UP) owns almost all of the land in the masterplan. It uses the Piggyback Yard to transfer containers to and from trains and trucks.

Union Pacific acknowledged the yard is operating below capacity, but Lupe Valdez, the company’s director of public policy and community affairs, partially blamed the economy, adding that UP was worried about giving up the valuable property. “It is the last yard UP has in the city of Los Angeles, and we realize we could never get it back once gone because of cost and current environmental requirements,” Valdez said. She added that the yard is being used night and day by 50 to 100 workers at a time, not including truck drivers.

Several athletic fields are included in the PBy master plan.Several athletic fields are included in the PBy master plan.

Others note that while retaining jobs in this recession is important, more jobs would be created than lost if this working blueprint—which would take about 20 years to complete—were implemented. Architect Leigh Christy from Perkins + Will said work could be realized piecemeal through “capitalizing on efforts already in place.” The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, has funding to complete the Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study by 2012. Part of the area being studied for restoration and flood control is a stretch of river adjacent to the PBy. Meanwhile, the city’s Clean Tech and BioMed Tech Corridors and California High Speed Rail all have funding to perform work on or around the PBy area. The PBy Collaboration needs to sway these organizations to work in tune with its masterplan, which cannot be realized without eventually purchasing the yard from Union Pacific.

A small piece of the plan, the Mission Road corridor, is almost free of UP ownership. This portion of Mission Road, which lies between Cesar Chavez Avenue and Main Street, is about one mile of arterial roadway lined by commercial or industrial buildings. The PBy Collaboration has been talking to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and various city council and city planning members to start work on this area, said Christy. The project could become a “new model for the densification of the city,” said Marc Salette of Chee and Salette Architecture Office, and could jumpstart the rest of the PBy masterplan.

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Arch Rivals Vie to Remake St. Louis Icon
The Behnisch proposal calls for a ring of new buildings, including museums and a performance venue, encircling the arch.
Courtesy Behnisch Architekten

Few structures are as synonymous with their locations as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Arch in St. Louis. Designed by Eero Saarinen with a landscape by Dan Kiley and completed in 1965, the Arch is central to the identity of St. Louis. And yet while the glinting form still draws a million tourists each year, the structure adds little vitality to the city’s downtown.

Five teams, including leading architecture, landscape architecture, and engineering firms from across the United States and Europe, have been working on ambitious plans to re-envision the memorial and grounds as a dynamic urban park, revitalizing both its relationship to the city as well as its cultural, environmental, and educational roles as a national park. The results were unveiled today by the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, which sponsored the competition.

 
Weiss/Manfredi Are creating a grand new park in East St. Louis with swooping bridges providing views across the river. glazed canopies and a pedestrianized bridge recall the arch to the south.
Courtesy Weiss/Manfredi

The Arch grounds are currently isolated on three sides and bounded on the other by the Mississippi River. To the north, the site is delimited by the Eads Bridge and parking structures; to the west, by Memorial Drive and I-70, severing the connection to the Old Courthouse and the Gateway Mall, which includes the newly renovated and highly popular CityGarden; and to the south by the MacArthur Bridge and its approaches. The best place to view the Arch is in neighboring East St. Louis, Illinois, but that waterfront is currently underdeveloped.

The five multi-disciplinary teams grappling with this complex site are led by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Weiss/Manfredi, SOM Chicago with Hargreaves Associates and BIG, Behnisch Architekten, and PWP Landscape Architects with Foster + Partners and Civitas. The teams were selected from a roster of nine contenders announced in February.

The PWP team seeks to restore and extend Saarinen and Kiley's vision down to the river.
Courtesy PWP

The Behnisch-led proposal calls for a series of new structures that would create a ring around the Arch, including a large music venue to the north and a recreational center to the south. Like all the proposals, it also calls for bridging I-70 to the Old Courthouse, creating an axis from the Gateway Mall through the Arch. Perhaps most provocatively, the plan also calls for a sky gondola that would transport riders from one side of the river to the other.

The team led by Michael Van Valkenburgh would create a one-block deck over I-70 and eliminate a garage to the north, creating greater connectivity to the city. A parking garage, with a rooftop beer garden and ice rink, would be built to the south. The most dramatic changes would come to the East St. Louis side, where a new wetland park, using recirculated stormwater, would be built, including an elevated treetop path, offering views back to the Arch as well as into the new wetland park. The park would also accommodate flooding from the Mississippi.

Van Valkenburgh's East St. Louis park has extensive wetlands with recycled stormwater. The team also seeks stronger connections to the north on the St. Louis side.
Courtesy MVVA

The PWP/Foster/Civitas proposal is most reverential regarding the intentions of the Saarinen/Kiley plan, the building and unbuilt portions of the 1947 scheme. It is also the most fine-grained in its approach to the surrounding blocks, with extensive attention paid to improving pedestrian conditions at intersections and narrowing surrounding streets and adding allées of street trees. The proposal would also remove an earth mound to create a clear sightline from the Old Courthouse to the Arch. A large viewing mound would be built on the East St. Louis side.

SOM/Hargreaves/BIG turned their Interstate cap into a sculptural element called the “Magic Carpet,” with curved concrete wings that extend up from the sides to create enclosed spaces for exhibitions or ticketing that flank the path toward the Arch. Two buildings-as-landscapes would be constructed at the north and south ends, both with curving and sloping accessible planted roofs. One would house bike rentals and exhibition space, while the other would house education facilities. The east side of the river is conceived as more for locals, with a large canopied performance venue, a wetland garden, and a large commissioned sculpture by Jaume Plensa.

SOM/Hargreaves/BIG bookend the site with a pair of buildings-as-landscape. They also seek to activate the waterfront with more uses.
Courtesy SOM/HarGreaves/BIG

The Weiss/Manfredi–led team’s proposal calls for narrowing Eads Bridge to make room for bike and pedestrian lanes, and would renovate the parking garage at the north end of the site to make it more active at street level and accessible to pedestrians. The bridge overpasses to the south would cover skate and mini-golf parks and a bike rental facility. New “bluffs” for boating would be built on the St. Louis side, which, during flooding, would become islands, accessible by raised paths. On the East St. Louis side, a channel would be carved through the land in a dramatic asymmetrical plan, allowing kayaking and other recreational activities, as well as absorbing floodwaters.

St. Louis has struggled with depopulation in recent decades, but organizers and stakeholders, including the National Park Service, and the cities of St. Louis and East St. Louis, are hoping that this national park can better serve a national, international, and local audience, and contribute to the economic vitality of an American metropolitan region that is fighting to reverse its decline. “What will come out of this competition is a new definition of what an urban national park can be,” said Donald Stastny, the competition manager. Funding, design implementation, and management will likely be handled through a new public authority.

The proposals are currently on view under the Arch and will be displayed in nine locations around the city, as well as at the competition website. The winning team will be announced on September 25. Organizers hope construction will be complete by October 28, 2015, the 50th anniversary of the day the keystone section of the Arch was secured in place.

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A Bargain for Pullman?
Walmart (at left) and other retail stores within the Pullman development will seek to be sustainable and sensitive to surrounding architecture.
Courtesy PappageorgeHaymes

With the support of the mayor, the aldermen, and even unions that have long opposed it, Walmart is coming to the South Side of Chicago. What will be joining the 150,000-square-foot Super Center on the sprawling 180-acre site remains less certain. Whatever gets built, it will bring economic activity to a depressed corner of the city, part of the reason Walmart succeeded against such stiff opposition.


A preliminary Site plan for the Pullman development, with retail in red, housing in brown, recreation in Teal, office in light brown, and hotel in orange.
 

When the council approved the new store on June 30, with it came a masterplan for hundreds of units of housing and hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail and recreation space. The developer, David Doig, said those elements will be phased in over the next decade, after infrastructure work is completed on the site and Walmart opens, possibly by the spring of 2012.

Walmart’s campaign to increase its Chicago presence has been underway for several years. The company was unsuccessful in landing a store in the middle-class South Side neighborhood of Chatham. Local businesses opposed the project because they feared the competition, and unionists and community groups argued Walmart’s notoriously low wages and business practices would undermine workers citywide. Without the support of the local alderwoman, the project was practically dead on arrival.

Walmart then turned its attention to Pullman, where Doig and Pullman Alderman Anthony Beale had struggled to find tenants for the retail component of their Pullman Park development. “No one else was interested in our community,” Beale said. The recession aided Walmart’s efforts in an unusual way. The city was desperate for development, as were the construction trades, whose workers were experiencing widespread unemployment in the downturn. This allowed Walmart to pit one group of unions against the other, though the company did eventually agree to a starting wage of $8.75, 50 cents above the state minimum though short of the $9.25 the retail unions were seeking.

Ultimately what won over the recalcitrant council was Beale and the overwhelming support he enjoyed from his community. Pullman is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, even by South Side standards, with virtually no retail or recreational facilities. While Walmart may be unpalatable to the Hyde Park set, it is about as good as it gets for Pullman, where many of the area’s working class residents must leave the area to go shopping, even for necessities such as groceries or socks.

Another factor that has helped the overall project is how intensively it has been planned, including some 60 community outreach sessions. While planning and Walmart have not always gone hand-in-hand, George Pappageorge, principal of PappageorgeHaymes Partners, said his firm has worked hard to convince the retailer of its benefits, and Walmart has been receptive. The parking lot—the entire site will have a whopping 3,008 non-residential spaces—will be landscaped and have permeable pavers. The site will have zero storm water runoff, managed through three large retention ponds and green roofs.

Low-scale retail on 111th street will serve as a transition to the complex. The Walmart can be seen at top center, next to an existing bank headquarters.

Walmart has even agreed to alter the appearance of its building so it blends in better with its surroundings, which is appealing in Pullman, one of the city’s largest historic districts. “They’re not willing to mimic the historic buildings, but they were at least willing to look at the color palette and the material palette and make a nod in that direction” PappageorgeHaymes senior associate Timothy Kent said.

Doig said the first phase of the project will include the Walmart and another 250,000 square feet of big-box retail. Toward the end of phase one, work on a 125,000-square-foot recreation center in a former steel mill will commence, with planned completion by 2014. The second phase will include more urban-scale retail on the site’s southern edge, along 111th Street. “The idea is to create a gateway to the rest of the Pullman community,” Pappageorge said.

A 10-acre park, part of 30 acres of open space, is located at the heart of the development along a planted boulevard.

Once the retail is in place, housing developers will build out the rest of the site in two phases, with upwards of 1,150 units, including a mix of townhouses and bungalows. As part of a TIF development receiving city subsidy, 20 percent of the units will be affordable.

Connections between the development and the rest of Pullman are limited to two at the south and one in the north, due to the expressway on the east and a rail line and light industrial buildings on the west. They are also limited within the development. “It would be very hard to mix, in one place, a walkable, pedestrian neighborhood and big-box store,” Pappageorge said. “What we did was place them side-by-side, with the necessary ingredients so they can thrive independently and together.”

Downtown Chicago looms in the distance, where City Hall has played a major role in shaping the project.

The project has bike lanes throughout and a bus route will be drawn in at 111th Street, terminating now at the stores. Pappageorge said it will be up to the housing developers to determine whether and how much of the housing will be sustainably built, though he did point out that even Walmart has been trending in this direction of late. Even preservationists and planners—including the Congress for New Urbanism—have expressed approval for the project. “This can’t do any harm to the historic district, and it's our hope that it will help restore it,” said Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois.

“I believe, at the end of the day, Walmart will prove everybody wrong and be a huge supporter of the city of Chicago,” Beale said. The council finally seems to believe so, as it voted on July 28, less than a month after the Pullman vote, to approve a Walmart for Chatham.

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Next Exit for Transportation's Future
2030 vision of urban transport in Buenos Aires by PALO Arquitectura Urbana
Courtesy Center for Architecture

Our Cities Ourselves: The Future of Transportation in Urban Life
Center for Architecture
536 LaGuardia Place
New York, New York
Through September 11

The title of Our Cities Ourselves, the latest urban planning exhibition at the Center for Architecture, suggests a certain 1970s openness, a live-and-let-live philosophy, a crunchy impression enhanced by the bicycles hanging in the Center’s double-height display window. And bicycles turn out to be the dominant theme (along with buses) in the exhibition within, organized by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. The Institute’s ten principles for sustainable transportation, printed up on an interior wall, include such unobjectionable (and by now somewhat obvious) ideas as 24/7 mixed-use development, pedestrian-scaled streets, buying locally, more bikes, and more buses. The ten proposals on display to create better cities through better transportation by 2030 seem (mostly) reasonable. After a quick look around the exhibit’s first bay (Jakarta, Rio, Johannesburg), my instinct was to say, Sounds great! How could one object?

While the exhibit title sounds macro, most of the proposals are micro, taking on specific neighborhoods and conditions in cities from Ahmedabad to Guangzhou, Dar es Salaam to Budapest. This makes for subtler planning, but the topic is difficult to display clearly. Maps on central kiosks are more confusing than useful (many have few labels), and the texts just skim the surface of the urban condition. In the Johannesburg scheme, for example, a stadium pops up in a single rendering and caption, with no notation of its name or whether it is one of the white elephants built for the World Cup. It was hard for me, unfamiliar with most of the cities in question, to evaluate the plans, either for feasibility or impact.


TERREFORM AND MICHAEL SORKIN STUDIO'S VISION OF NEW YORK

What was also disconcerting is the sameness of the strategies. Bus Rapid Transit, the transport fix on everyone’s lips, is the major player, linking backwaters to centers, creating transit nodes, replacing cars and motorcycles. BRT is the one thing most of these cities do have (or have in the works). Dedicated bus lanes and bike lanes turn up in almost every example, along with linear parks and landscaped boulevards, street-level retail, highways sunken and disappeared. But can BRT really always be the answer? I also wondered about those disappearing roads. In the New York proposal, Terreform and Michael Sorkin Studio casually remove the Manhattan-side access ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge, along with the elevated FDR, and replace them with multi-level shops and cafes in the anchorage, direct pedestrian access to the bridge, urban farming, and freight barges. Were all the proposals just as unlikely to happen?


AHMEDABAD BY HCP DESIGN AND PROJECT MANAGEMENT

If that sameness is the big idea of the show, demonstrating the universal applicability of the institute’s principles, they should say so. I still don’t know why these proposals were generated and for whom, and there’s no sense that they are more than paper architecture. In the case of Ahmedabad, the wall text casually refers to a new elevated highway, now under construction, that will make the congestion in Jamalpur worse, and possibly negate HCP Design and Project Management’s concept for “taming traffic chaos,” opening the waterfront, and creating public gardens. I couldn’t tell if they were betting on the city’s inability to finish the highway in order to let their plan flower.


JAKARTA BY BUDIPRADONO ARCHITECTS

The architecture on display is in general banal, background to renderings of urban liveliness. But a couple of exceptions seemed notably bizarre. The marquee image of the show, the first you see on walking into the Center, is a lumpy planted arch by Budi Pradono Architects for Jakarta. Its purpose is not explained, and its aesthetic seems a too-literal embodiment of the “organic connections” the architects hope to create among the city’s urban villages, or kampongs. The wall text praises the Budi Pradono plan to elevate planted roofs and walkways as saving the kampongs from clearance, but later suggests those same kampongs might be better replaced with new urban villages on stilts, as a hedge against flooding. This idea smacks of 1960s urban renewal, destroying things in order to save them. I’m also not sure that PALO Arquitectura Urbana isn’t indulging in a little favela chic with their domestic designs for Buenos Aires’ La Boca zone. Rainbow bright, built of corrugated metal and recycled timbers, the new houses are supposed to line a non-motorized boulevard along the former industrial waterfront. More happy bikers, with a BRT link to the city center.


MEXICO CITY BY ARQUITECTURA 911SC

Our Cities Ourselves is full of good ideas, and I hope as many as possible happen. The exhibition is a good opportunity to review the possibilities and the realities of cities very different from our own. What it doesn’t do is question some dominant contemporary planning pieties (a bicycle for every stoop!) or give any sense of how likely any of us are to be living in such a city in 2030.

Read all of AN's Friday Reviews here.

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Next Exit for Transportation's Future
2030 vision of urban transport in Buenos Aires by PALO Arquitectura Urbana
Courtesy Center for Architecture

Our Cities Ourselves: The Future of Transportation in Urban Life
Center for Architecture
536 LaGuardia Place
New York, New York
Through September 11

The title of Our Cities Ourselves, the latest urban planning exhibition at the Center for Architecture, suggests a certain 1970s openness, a live-and-let-live philosophy, a crunchy impression enhanced by the bicycles hanging in the Center’s double-height display window. And bicycles turn out to be the dominant theme (along with buses) in the exhibition within, organized by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. The Institute’s ten principles for sustainable transportation, printed up on an interior wall, include such unobjectionable (and by now somewhat obvious) ideas as 24/7 mixed-use development, pedestrian-scaled streets, buying locally, more bikes, and more buses. The ten proposals on display to create better cities through better transportation by 2030 seem (mostly) reasonable. After a quick look around the exhibit’s first bay (Jakarta, Rio, Johannesburg), my instinct was to say, Sounds great! How could one object?

While the exhibit title sounds macro, most of the proposals are micro, taking on specific neighborhoods and conditions in cities from Ahmedabad to Guangzhou, Dar es Salaam to Budapest. This makes for subtler planning, but the topic is difficult to display clearly. Maps on central kiosks are more confusing than useful (many have few labels), and the texts just skim the surface of the urban condition. In the Johannesburg scheme, for example, a stadium pops up in a single rendering and caption, with no notation of its name or whether it is one of the white elephants built for the World Cup. It was hard for me, unfamiliar with most of the cities in question, to evaluate the plans, either for feasibility or impact.


Terreform and Michael Sorkin Studio's vision of New York

What was also disconcerting is the sameness of the strategies. Bus Rapid Transit, the transport fix on everyone’s lips, is the major player, linking backwaters to centers, creating transit nodes, replacing cars and motorcycles. BRT is the one thing most of these cities do have (or have in the works). Dedicated bus lanes and bike lanes turn up in almost every example, along with linear parks and landscaped boulevards, street-level retail, highways sunken and disappeared. But can BRT really always be the answer? I also wondered about those disappearing roads. In the New York proposal, Terreform and Michael Sorkin Studio casually remove the Manhattan-side access ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge, along with the elevated FDR, and replace them with multi-level shops and cafes in the anchorage, direct pedestrian access to the bridge, urban farming, and freight barges. Were all the proposals just as unlikely to happen?


Ahmedabad by HCP Design and Project Management

If that sameness is the big idea of the show, demonstrating the universal applicability of the institute’s principles, they should say so. I still don’t know why these proposals were generated and for whom, and there’s no sense that they are more than paper architecture. In the case of Ahmedabad, the wall text casually refers to a new elevated highway, now under construction, that will make the congestion in Jamalpur worse, and possibly negate HCP Design and Project Management’s concept for “taming traffic chaos,” opening the waterfront, and creating public gardens. I couldn’t tell if they were betting on the city’s inability to finish the highway in order to let their plan flower.


Jakarta by BudiPradono Architects

The architecture on display is in general banal, background to renderings of urban liveliness. But a couple of exceptions seemed notably bizarre. The marquee image of the show, the first you see on walking into the Center, is a lumpy planted arch by Budi Pradono Architects for Jakarta. Its purpose is not explained, and its aesthetic seems a too-literal embodiment of the “organic connections” the architects hope to create among the city’s urban villages, or kampongs. The wall text praises the Budi Pradono plan to elevate planted roofs and walkways as saving the kampongs from clearance, but later suggests those same kampongs might be better replaced with new urban villages on stilts, as a hedge against flooding. This idea smacks of 1960s urban renewal, destroying things in order to save them. I’m also not sure that PALO Arquitectura Urbana isn’t indulging in a little favela chic with their domestic designs for Buenos Aires’ La Boca zone. Rainbow bright, built of corrugated metal and recycled timbers, the new houses are supposed to line a non-motorized boulevard along the former industrial waterfront. More happy bikers, with a BRT link to the city center.


Mexico City by arquitectura 911sc

Our Cities Ourselves is full of good ideas, and I hope as many as possible happen. The exhibition is a good opportunity to review the possibilities and the realities of cities very different from our own. What it doesn’t do is question some dominant contemporary planning pieties (a bicycle for every stoop!) or give any sense of how likely any of us are to be living in such a city in 2030.

Read all of AN's Friday Reviews here.

BIG on Bikes
How to make the Danish Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo truly a national symbol? Add some bike lanes, of course. Bjorke Ingles, head of BIG Bjorke Ingles Group and designer of the pavilion, takes us on a tour, via Archinect. (Be warned, though. Instead of soundtracking this with the Raveonettes or Kashmir, whoever put this together went with arguably the worst song ever, "I Got a Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas. You may want to mute your sound before hitting play.) Terrible music aside, why is Scandinavian architecture so much fun?

Pounding the Pavement

In 1811, the streets of Manhattan were laid down in an efficient grid, dissected by the old Broadway. In the two centuries since, the island has been ringed with bridges, tunnels, and freeways, but the grid remains largely intact, if far more congested than it once was.

Hoping to bring some efficiency back to city streets, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan continued on page 16 Pounding the Pavement continued from front page has been closing off bits and pieces of the grid to cars and transforming them into plazas for pedestrians, most notably along Broadway between Times and Herald squares.

Coming off the success of that effort, the Department of Transportation announced in late April the initial designs for a major re-jiggering of 34th Street, including closing the entire block at the foot of the Empire State Building. The department also unveiled plans for reorganizing streets around Union Square, as well as reinventing a safer and saner Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.

“I think when people conjure an image of what a 21st-century street is, they’ll think of 34th Street,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “This is what a high-performance arterial can and should look like.”

The so-called 34th Street Transitway goes well beyond adding bus bulbs, where riders prepay, and passenger islands. It is the latest phase in the department’s ambitious bus rapid transit plan, rethinking traffic patterns in the heart of the city. No longer will there be two-way traffic on this crowded causeway, apart from buses. Should the plan take effect after community approval, cars will only be able to drive east from 5th Avenue and west from 6th Avenue.

In the new plan, bus lanes in two directions will hug the curb, while the rest of the street will be given to one-way traffic. On 5th Avenue, buses will travel on the north side of the street, and on 6th Avenue on the south, with a crossover on the block-long stretch between the two avenues. Two plazas will be created on the block where the traffic lanes terminate, and sidewalks widened to improve pedestrian space.

Further south on Broadway, traffic lanes will also be reorganized to better accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. Eastbound lanes will be eliminated from the northern border of Union Square, with traffic down Broadway diverted east at 18th Street. Through traffic will be eliminated on Union Square West, as vehicles on Broadway will be forced to head west at 17th Street.

Still more plazas will be created from the leftover asphalt. Half a block north of 18th Street, the western side of Broadway will be given over to the usual benches and chairs, as will a “ribbon plaza” hugging Broadway and 17th Street to the east and south. Improvements to the corner of Union Square West and 14th Street are also under consideration. Bike lanes will be re-routed, connecting up for the first time with 14th Street and 4th Avenue. The improvements are meant to make it easier to access and enjoy Union Square, particularly when the Greenmarket is in full swing.

A more complex reordering is taking place across the river at Grand Army Plaza, where the community has agitated for improvements to the plaza walled off by traffic. Lanes at the northern and southern end will be simplified and regulated; pedestrian islands and crosswalks added and improved; a new bikeway will ring the plaza; and landscaping will be added throughout.

“For too long, the city and the department prioritized through traffic over community concerns and character,” Steely White said. “Fortunately, those days are over.”

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What's Holding Us Up?
Chicago architects UrbanLab developed guidelines for the city of Aurora, Illinois, reprogramming landscapes with new soft-infrastructural networks.
Courtesy UrbanLab

Opening day on March 27, 2008 at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5—designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners to radiate confident, high-tech bravura—was a complete disaster. Instead of the planned celebration, mayhem ensued when airport personnel failed at working key networking infrastructure, from following directions to their work stations to operating their hand-held computers. At the end of the day, 23,205 suitcases had gone astray, and most had to be hand sorted in Milan. National embarrassment was complete, according to Donald McNeill of the Urban Research Center at the University of Western Sydney, who has written a paper about the increasingly complex intersection of hard and soft infrastructure at airports, when Naomi Campbell pitched a fit and The Daily Mail called the supermodel “a martyr to the Terminal 5 fiasco.”

Tunnels, bridges, highways, and airports have traditionally been both the backbone of organized societies and the way they dig out of economic ruts and push on to higher standards of living. Yet events such as those at Heathrow have drawn attention to another, emerging infrastructure, one with none of the steel beams, soaring trusses, and hulking pipes we associate with the hard underpinnings that make cities work.

This so-called soft infrastructure tends to be invisible or disembodied, organic in behavior, and powered by data networks, not engines. But when the world’s financial systems—soft infrastructure of an especially indecipherable kind—collapsed in 2009, the reverberations felt every bit as shocking as the collapse of a four-span suspension bridge. As with the disastrous opening day at Terminal 5, hard infrastructure—no matter how brilliantly designed— cannot triumph without effective soft infrastructure.


All systems go?: Heathrow's Terminal 5, where hard and soft infrastructure meet in a confrontation between complex spaces and digital networks.
Gary Bembridge

The need to pay equal attention to both is fast becoming apparent across many professions, from education, healthcare, and government to architecture and urban design. Key areas of interest especially for designers include water management, layering social networks over transportation, and programming public spaces. In fact, finding ways to integrate soft solutions into building projects could be the opportunity that architects have been seeking to show how design thinking is an essential tool for building not only offices, schools, and museums, but also more smoothly functioning societies.

Efforts to explore this largely uncharted territory are well underway. Last fall the Architectural League did so with its exhibition Toward the Sentient City, based on the premise that we “are now on the cusp of a fundamental reconfiguration of physical space, one in which a vast and mostly invisible layer of technology is being embedded into the world around us,” according to exhibitions director Gregory Wessner. Installations included LED sensors measuring and reporting on water quality in real time from the Bronx and East rivers, and mobilizing opportunities for office work in public places through social software.

In February, Parsons launched a new graduate program in transdisciplinary design to engender fresh thinking about what constitutes design in a world where, according to TransDesign program director Jamer Hunt, “Designers are increasingly designing businesses, services, experiences, policies, and even emergent social forms; and along the way they are inventing new methods, new tools, and new ways of conceiving design.”

But what soft infrastructure—if that’s the operable word—exactly is remains frustratingly vague. As he prepares a new curriculum at Parsons in large part focused on it, Hunt said, “We are all struggling to understand what we mean when not talking about the old infrastructure. Is it whatever is systems-based, sentient, dynamic, or wetware and squishy?” Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, finds the roots of soft infrastructure in the traditions of 18th-century landscape design, where complex systems of land management sometimes manifested themselves in stunning visual and architectural effects. And while the formation of any network of exchange might qualify as a type of soft infrastructure, Bergdoll considers the adaptive networks engendered by meshing the demands of landscape, urbanism, and sustainability—especially as they relate to changing coastlines and water levels—to be at the most compelling frontiers of the subject. (See our feature on the exhibition Rising Currents now at MoMA.)


UrbanLab's Eco-Boulevard concept for Chicago would turn the city into a gigantic water recycling machine, using greenways to filter storm water.
Courtesy UrbanLab

From the University of Pennsylvania, architect and landscape architect Anuradha Mathur, together with Dilip da Cunha, a planner and architect, have also been exploring new frameworks and modes of representation for ecological issues, from monsoons in India to Mississippi River floods. They are investigating historical maps and how the hard lines drawn to indicate solid divisions between land and water both misrepresent and prevent understanding—and appropriate response to—a landscape that in reality is in flux depending on the season, the climate, and agricultural uses. ”The time is past for measuring performance according to probabilities. Architects, engineers, and landscape designers need to build in resiliency,” said Mathur.

Last summer, they presented the exhibition SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. The show and accompanying book have inspired subsequent studies of coastal conditions, with its conclusion that hard walls and defined borders must be replaced with more flexible terrains that can absorb and recirculate water as needed. “It’s not rocket science,” said Mathur. “Why push water out? Why don’t we imagine ways to hold it and to think of water conditions over time, not only at one moment, or season? Boundaries need to be negotiated, not made permanent.” (The couple were consultants for nArchitects’ entry into MoMA’s Rising Currents exhibition.)

Closer to home, UrbanLab in Chicago has been concentrating on further developing a concept that architects Sarah Dunn and Mark Felsen proposed theoretically in 2006 when they won History Channel’s City of the Future competition in Chicago, a city where one billion gallons of fresh lake water are consumed each day. Functioning as a gigantic recycling machine, a citywide network of so-called eco-boulevards would treat all of Chicago’s wastewater—passing it along greenways and through vertical nodes, or living machines stocked with microorganisms, small invertebrates, scrubber fish, and plants—and returning it to Lake Michigan. As with SOAK, a key to the plan hinges on reprogramming existing hard infrastructure (around playing fields, parking lots, and airport runways) to double up as part of a flexible water-collecting network. Through swales, swamps, blue belts, and vegetation corridors instead of tunnels and pipes, water could thus be treated and absorbed back into the ecosystem rather than blocked and channeled out of sight as sewage. More recently, the architects have worked with Mayor Daley’s office to develop an “eco-boulevard toolbox,” including recommendations for improving ongoing and upcoming road renovations. The ideas are robustly doable and include both point- and linear-based solutions for water absorption, including swales along median strips and planter boxes next to sewer points.


Local Projects' BikeIt layers public infrastructure like bike lanes with an interactive network to create a super-charged iPhone app for cyclists. 
Courtesy Local Projects

While much of the current thinking about soft infrastructure is focused on storm water, a second front is networking, especially as it applies to social and civic space. In a series of talks, and notably in a review of Sentient City on the Architectural League’s blog, the Sydney-based Arup designer and urbanist Dan Hill describes soft infrastructure as a way to “bend the physical city” and rescale it to what he calls “walkable urbanism.” Hill could have been referring to Bike It, an initiative by Jake Barton of Local Projects, a design firm focused on public space. Bike It takes advantage of underused infrastructure—in this case, New York’s bike lanes—by layering them with an interactive network. In brief, said Barton, Bike It is a “super-charged iPhone app that calculates time and money saved, as well as calories burned plus locations of other cyclists” that could be broadcast on LED panels already embedded in bus shelters around the city.

Barton sees soft infrastructure as a powerful planning and advocacy tool that promises to change people’s behavior. And while Bike It could be a model for encouraging bicycle commuters, Barton realizes there is a cultural component to soft infrastructure that could thwart the best-laid plans: People don’t like to arrive at work in sweaty clothes. And so there is Cool Biz, a governmental initiative from Japan that recommends minimal air-conditioning at work and a greater tolerance for casual clothing. Intended to lower energy costs but equally focused on office culture, pilot programs are already in place in California and Colorado. 

Unintended consequences are a constant where soft infrastructure and humans meet. During a recent lecture for the New School’s Design and Social Science Committee Seminar—whose theme this year is “Infrastructure: Complexity, Risk, and Design”—McNeill of Sydney’s Urban Research Center described the collision of privatized interests, political will, digital interfaces, and human error at Heathrow, where hard and soft infrastructure are intimately entwined. Soaring spaces buttressed by structural derring-do may impress, but the real business of getting around depends on information in digital code, from e-tickets to LED announcement boards. The subtitle of McNeil’s paper is “The Heathrow Hassle,” and in it he detailed the Terminal 5 catastrophe to underscore the new reality that without complete integration, neither hard nor soft infrastructure is going to work.

“The way we build has to be rethought, as the old ways don’t cut it,” said Hunt of Parsons’ TransDesign program. “The real opportunity for designers is to have a voice. We bring the right capabilities to this kind of problem.” And better understanding may offer the sturdiest bridge to get there.

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Sustainability Experts Descend On Downtown LA
There's hope for the greening of Downtown LA.... Last month the AIA’s Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT), a group of eight sustainability experts (including architects, landscape architects, urban designers, transportation planners, business development professionals, and workforce training experts) from across the country, presented their preliminary ideas for Downtown to the local community. The event came thanks to a grant awarded to the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council (DLANC) by the AIA’s Center for Community Design. The team recommended that the DLANC’s Sustainability Committee start or continue working on small scale interventions like tree plantings, community gardens, bike lanes, rerouting buses, its Harlem Place stormwater management/open space project, a sustainability website, Parking Day LA and other outreach events. It also proposed developing a vision that included a checklist of reminders that for all began with E (Empowerment, Equity, Environment, Economy, and Example). The SDAT team's final report is to be delivered to the Neighborhood Council in early February 2010. We’ll let you know what they come up with. --Gunnar Hand
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Free Wheelin'
A new bike hub -- the first on the East Coast -- designed by KGP Design Studio opened last month.
Don Paine

Consider this paradox: The Washington, D.C. region has some of the nation’s worst traffic—but according to the latest American Community Survey, it also has the sixth highest rate of bicycle commuting, with some 87,500 people relying on bikes as their primary means of transportation. In early October, the D.C. government took a big step forward when it opened the first publicly accessible, stand-alone bicycle storage and rental facility on the East Coast.


The capitol can be seen in the distance from the bike hub's union station locale.
 

The $4 million Bicycle Transit Center is neatly wedged on a traffic island between two Daniel Burnham masterpieces, the National Postal Museum and Union Station. The facility offers storage for 150 bikes, changing rooms, and a rental and repair space. Riders can park their bikes at the facility for $1 a day and have access between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.; for $100 a year, they get 24-hour access.

“I really see the bike station almost as a monument to bicycling and one that shows that bicycling is here to stay in D.C.,” said Eric Gilliland, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Just as striking as its range of services is its design: The fritted glass walls are draped with tensioned 80-foot steel tubes, which bow outward from concrete bases at either end, drawing comparisons to half a football, a bicycle helmet, and Captain Nemo’s submarine.

“The plan is somewhat dictated by traffic patterns, which gave us the need to taper it at the north end and the south, where we wanted to minimize sight lines,” said Don Paine, principal at KGP Design Studio, which designed the center (80 percent of which was federally funded).

But aesthetics were important as well—the client required a design that was at once iconic but not intrusive to its Beaux-Arts surroundings. “It was important that we did something to complement the buildings,” said James Sebastian, manager for the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program. “We couldn’t just have a shed.”

The hub has capacity for 150 bikes.

The 1,700-square-foot facility is operated under a lease by Bikestation, a Long Beach, California–based firm. Bikestation also operates similar facilities in Seattle, Santa Barbara, Palo Alto, and Long Beach.

The station is part of a larger pro-cycling strategy for the region. There are already 40 miles of bike lanes in Washington and over 100 miles of dedicated bike trails around the city, with another dedicated bike trail underway to link the Capitol Hill area with the Maryland suburbs. Washington is also planning to expand its SmartBike program, in which riders can rent bicycles from racks set up around the city.

Though it’s too early for reliable statistics on usage at the transit center, Sebastian said he’s been inundated with anecdotal success stories. “There’s a lot of walk-up interest,” he said. “I was there the other day and a family who didn’t know anything about it came in, and by the time I left they had all rented bikes.”

A version of this article appeared in AN 18_11.04.2009.

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Home Range
OBRA Architects' Centrifugal House features a shade pavilion made entirely of cedar garden lattice.
Courtesy OBRA Architects

Context is not always fixed, and not always what you expect. A West Village carriage house that’s had the same view since the Civil War may get ultra-2009 neighbors in the space of a year. Shelter Island, often thought of as an enclave of traditional architecture, has waterfront streets where some houses were built in 1970, not 1870. And the Hamptons? Shingle Style is open to a wealth of interpretations. 

These three houses, all completed within the last year, and all by up-and-coming New York City partnerships, treat their respective contexts with respect but preserve a questing spirit. There’s no blank-slate modernism—Christoff:Finio hoped to save the historic back facade of the burnt-out carriage house before adjacent construction did it in—but also no maintaining-property-values historicism. None of the architects want to admit a regard for the vernacular, but it creeps through in more abstract ways. There’s a utilitarian aspect to the carriage house befitting its historic supporting role. Both East End manses have the square footage and wood siding of the typical spec house. But their plans twist and turn to make the most of their physical context, the landscape. 

“They told us, ‘We want you to work in the vernacular language of houses in Southampton, the Shingle Style, maybe Shaker architecture,’” Pablo Castro of OBRA Architects said of his Centrifugal House clients: an investment banker and a film editor. “It was an uncomfortable moment for us. We’re always trying to run away from the idea of style.” The architects were given a program that kept growing and a budget that was static. While the clients had started small, they soon realized that for resale, the house had to maximize the potential of its five-acre lot. They ended up with seven bedrooms, a four-car garage, and 8,000 total square feet. 


TOP: Board and batten siding plus gables respond to the client’s demand for a sense of the vernacular, but their articulation is sleekly modern. ABOVE: A porch carved out of the facade is angled toward views of a neighboring agricultural reserve. below: Highly composed shafts of light add richness to THE interior.
 

COURTESY OBRA ARCHITECTS

 
 

Castro and partner Jennifer Lee turned to an early idea they had for the site, “the excluded middle,” a court between house and guesthouse that would channel views toward a neighboring agricultural reserve. They mashed this up with the narrow gabled communal houses of the Shakers and the oversize shingles of a Robert A.M. Stern, cranking the bar into the shape of “a donut somebody had taken a bite out of,” said Castro. “We still liked the idea of a vacant place where anything can happen. The house surrounds a void and spins out”—the centrifugal force—”toward the view.” 

The clients liked everything but the curve, so the donut became faceted, with oversize dormers breaking the difficult geometries of the roof (and, to my eye, referring to the “vernacular” of the Venturis). Because of the budget, interiors had to be kept simple, but you catch a glimpse of the Shaker in the play of light on the white walls of the long, turning hall upstairs. The odd angles and extra planes created by the insertion of the dormers increase the possibilities for such effects, and the corridor, which hides the next door or window around each turn, is full of surprises rather than a long march. The house also has three custom soapstone fireplaces, hearths that add another geometry and focus to rooms that stray from the rectilinear. 

Outside, OBRA Architects returned to shingles in search of a single material for roof and cladding (copper was their dream, but too expensive). “We wanted one material, one surface to give it integrity as an object,” Castro said. They ultimately chose cedar, board, and batten for the vertical walls, and shingles for the roof. Cedar was also used for the pool house, a double set of right-angle barn-like buildings, one solid, one roofed and sided in off-the-shelf garden lattice. Castro jokes that it is a “freckle machine,” but it’s also another twist on the requested traditional Hamptons architecture. 

While suburban style has become fairly common on Shelter Island, you can tell from the street that the one thing the YN-13 House is not is a cookie-cutter, shingles-on-steroids McMansion. If that’s context, Michael Morris and Yoshiko Sato of Morris Sato Studio want nothing to do with it. The houses across the street from their two-acre Shelter Island site are the ambitious architecture of an earlier era—Norman Jaffe’s 1972 three-house development, in which one is Corbusian, one Wrightian, and one has the over-scaled shingle roof that came to be Jaffe’s own calling card. “That’s the one we like the best,” Morris said. For their own site, on which they are constructing two 6,000-square-foot spec houses, “we decided to make contemporary forms of our choosing, and to have them fuse into the local ecology by being part of that fabric.” 


Above: The bleached cedar siding of morris sato studio's YN-13 house “fuses into the local ecology,” which includes a 1972 house by Norman Jaffe, while deep cuts bring light and breezes into the interior.
Courtesy morris sato studio

Boulders unearthed on the site will become retaining walls, and the windows that pop and pock the bleached cedar siding are oriented toward particular points of view and times of day. “In the center, we have a large cut in the volume, so what would be the darkest part of the house has direct sunlight coming in,” Sato explained. The four corners of the main floor all have doors that slide open (an oblique reference to Japanese shoji screens), allowing the landscape in and natural convection to cool the house. “That is a reference to vernacular buildings. There are systems that are useful to understand from the past, rather than stylistic ideas,” Morris said. The floors, made of Kota Brown limestone, will also retain and radiate heat, with their cleft surface suggesting a rougher natural terrain and a certain 1970s au naturel aesthetic. 




top and above: Windows pop and all four corners of the house have doors that slide open like Japanese shoji screens.
courtesy morris sato studio

 
 

Like the sliding doors, the vernacular Morris and Sato reference is Japanese. The exterior siding is an adaptation of the shitami-bari used on traditional urban houses in Kyoto and Kanazawa, which Sato translates as “downward-facing boards.” The horizontal cladding combines with vertical strips, allowing Morris and Sato to integrate the module on the house’s facade with that of the standing seams on the turncoat stainless steel roof. Rather than looking like a gable, the pitched roof folds down into the house on some sides, creating the illusion of Cubist-inspired flattening. YN-13’s closest neighbor will be their so-called Soula House, which serves as a gateway in the way they have developed the land, bringing the houses closer together and leaving the rest of the site untouched. “There’s a critique of individual houses centered on one-acre lots,” Morris said. “We imagine the site as a proto-urban thing, the buildings working together.” 

Christoff:Finio’s carriage house is another exemplary object within its landscape, though a minimum urban dwelling with a footprint of 20 feet by 20 feet and two floors. The architects even shaved a little more off that miniscule square footage to create an “urban garage,” a sliver of space behind a screen of flat steel ribs, each twisted 90 degrees, to provide a useful landing strip for bikes, bags, and garbage, and also a zone of privacy for a front door that originally opened directly onto Charles Lane.

The carriage house is owned by photographer Jan Staller, who lives and works in an 1860 townhouse on Charles Street that now neighbors Richard Meier’s third glassy residential tower and Asymptote’s first. Christoff:Finio had designed a penthouse and terrace for Staller to preserve his view once the Meier building was underway, so when the carriage house was gutted by fire, Staller asked them to build a two-bedroom rental unit between the existing party walls. As he now had a terrace, he no longer needed the 12-foot sliver of backyard, which was turned into part of the architects’ brief for the rental. 


TOP: The street-level glass wall of christoff:finio's carriage house is protected by a screen of twisted steel ribs, with a niche for bike storage. ABOVE: The rear facade is clad in eight-foot-long slate shingles. below: a wall-mounted kitchen extends outdoors into a sliver of backyard.
 
jan staller
 
 
 

“What was fun for us was designing this tiny little house, but making it feel bigger,” said Martin Finio. “We took the terrazzo-ground concrete on the first floor and extended it out into the yard.” The wall-mounted kitchen also runs seamlessly from indoors to out, with teak cabinets and stainless-steel countertops. The windows are big, but for the sake of privacy (as much for landlord as for tenants), they start at the floor and extend up only four feet. The back wall is covered in unusually long slate shingles (more typically used for roofing), three feet by eight feet, which turn into operable louvers for the upstairs bedroom windows. The wall is really only visible from Staller’s townhouse, and Christoff:Finio wanted to give him something interesting to look at, as well as refer to the clapboard siding more typical on a small house. “When you get direct sun on it, the cleft edge picks up light like a line drawing,” Finio said. Since it was to be a rental, the interiors are sturdily generic: white walls, white bathroom, gray tile. 

“What’s the vernacular of New York City?” Finio asked. “It’s always frothing and rebuilding. When we started building this project, we had this large glass opening on the front facade at the second level looking out at a brick warehouse. That came down, and Asymptote’s glass started up.” In other words, neighborhoods can change, tastes can change, and so can architectural context. Curtains are forever.

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Indy's Trail Blazers
A rendering of the new Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which dedicates large swaths of city streets to biking and pedestrians.
Courtesy Rundell Ernstberger

The revitalization of Central Indianapolis created several thriving “cultural districts” in the downtown area, anchored by institutions such as the Indiana Repertory Theatre and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. These districts are disconnected by distance and by gaps in the urban fabric, but the Central Indiana Community Foundation has developed a plan to fix that: the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

A unique urban loop linking the cultural districts together with fully segregated pathways for pedestrians and bicyclists, the trail is to be carved out of 18 to 36 feet of space on eight miles of downtown streets. Beyond pure functionality, the foundation wanted to “create an inspiring space for people,” according to president Brian Payne.

A short teaser segment of the trail opened last year. The major northeast segment recently broke ground. It will connect the Cultural Trail to the Monon Trail, the city’s principal rail-trail. A northwest segment linking to downtown’s Canal District and the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus will also be built this year.

The trail will also feature $2 million worth of public art and a bike-share system modeled on the Paris Vélib. To maintain, market, and improve it over time, $5 million of the $55 million budget is being set aside as an endowment to support the trail, with the non-profit Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc. formed to manage it. The trail is largely being built with $40 million in private funds and $15 million in federal funds. The trail is not costing city taxpayers anything.

“This is bigger, bolder, and more beautiful than any urban trail being built in the world today. In terms of impact, we hope this will be our Millennium Park. Only this is more innovative,” claimed Payne.

Unlike a typical roadway project, the Cultural Trail design team is headed by
a landscape architecture firm, Rundell Ernstberger Associates. As principal Kevin Osburn argued, “Architects don’t think first about cars; we think about everybody.” Osburn’s design features a two-way bicycle trail separated from the street by landscaping and “rain gardens” used for green stormwater management, then another landscaped buffer and a completely separated pedestrian pathway for much of the trail’s length.

The trail makes extensive use of native plantings, and is in effect a linear park. The width is made possible by the city’s wide streets. Indianapolis was laid out as a grand capital city by Alexander Ralston, a one-time assistant to Washington, D.C.’s famed planner Pierre L’Enfant. These wide streets meant lanes could be taken away from cars without reducing the level of service.

Osburn was inspired by the city’s George Kessler–designed greenway network, and the trail is intended to be the downtown hub of that system. He specified high-quality materials such as concrete pavers instead of a plain asphalt path, and dense, low-mast street lighting to make the trail feel safe 24 hours a day.

More important to Osburn is the trail’s effect on the city’s future: “We want to reimagine the streets of our city for the 21st century.”