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Measure for Measure

On Election Day across the country, citizens registered their votes for major changes in the White House and Congress. But change will also soon come to California’s built environment, as several major initiatives facing California transit, infrastructure, and development were approved or denied. 

On the statewide ballot, Proposition 1A passed with 52.3 percent approval, meaning a high-speed train linking San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento—and most major cities in between—could be ferrying passengers at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour by 2030. While a whopping $9.95 billion in state bonds was allocated by the proposition, development cannot continue until matching funds are secured from federal, local, and private sources. A business plan for the program was released on November 7, equating it in scale to the State Water Project, the world’s largest public water and power system, funded by a 1960 bond measure. California High Speed Rail Authority chairman Quentin Kopp called the proposition’s approval a “21st-century golden spike." 

Once funding is secured, the Authority will focus first on the LA-to-San Francisco “backbone” segment. Environmental impact reports have been completed for the route and alignments chosen, with the exception of the Northern Mountain Crossing connection between San Jose or Oakland and the Central Valley.

In Los Angeles County, another major transit proposal, Measure R, reported 67.93 percent voter approval when a 2/3 majority was needed. The 30-year, half-cent sales tax increase will fund improvements and expansions for light rail and subway lines, HOV lanes, freeways, and traffic reduction. According to Metro spokesman Rick Jager, the tax will go into effect next July, and citizens could start to see evidence immediately, since a portion of the funds will go directly to LA-area city governments. “The local return is an important element because these 88 cities will start getting their 15 percent share from the tax that’s generated,” he said, noting that many cities had plans for street resurfacing, pothole repairs, improving left-hand signals, pedestrian improvements, and bikeways. It also postpones a planned Metro fare increase to 2010.

The rest of the funds generated by Measure R will be available in 2010, when the major projects up for funding will be an extension of the Gold Line that goes to Azusa (the first six-mile extension of the Gold Line, begun in 2004, is on budget and on schedule to open in the summer of 2009), the Green Line extension to LAX, and the second phase of the light rail Expo Line stretching from downtown LA to Santa Monica. The first segment of the Expo Line’s route from downtown to Culver City is scheduled to open in 2010, and with this burst of funding, it could reach Santa Monica as early as 2013. Later, funding will become available for the Purple Line or “Subway to the Sea” extension in 2013.

In Santa Monica, the hotly-contested Proposition T, which would have limited development in the city to under 75,000 square feet annually, was defeated 55.92 percent to 44.08 percent. This was a relief to many architects and developers who had fought hard against the measure, including Gwynne Pugh of Pugh + Scarpa, who, in his role on Santa Monica’s planning commission, will address Proposition T’s concerns in the city’s new Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), which is currently in environmental impact reviews. “The LUCE has addressed this issue by stating that there will be a goal of ‘no new net trips,’” he said. “Unlike previous plans, this will be monitored, and development phased as resources are developed such as the Expo Line.”

After Beverly Hills’ city council approved a 12-story, 170-room Waldorf-Astoria hotel and two condo buildings on the site of the Beverly Hilton in May, opposed residents gathered enough signatures to put the decision on the ballot as Measure H. After results were too close to call for several weeks, on December 2 the city certified that Measure H had been approved by 129 votes, meaning that an architectural design review and tract map will move forward as planned.

In San Francisco, Proposition B, which would have required the city to set aside 2.5 cents for every $100 of assessed value over the next 15 years for affordable housing, failed 47.4 percent to 52.6 percent. This was disheartening to housing advocates and the city’s Board of Supervisors, who strongly urged its approval to prevent what they called an “affordable housing crisis” due to budgetary concerns. Proposition B would have allocated $30 million to help house those making less than $18,000. According to housing advocate Calvin Welch, the budget currently only reserves $3 million for affordable housing. Mayor Gavin Newsom was one of the strongest opponents of Prop B, arguing that it was unnecessary.

And while its outcome did not directly impact architects, another Measure R, this one also in San Francisco, was certainly a topic of conversation for anyone working in infrastructure: This ballot initiative that would have renamed a Bay Area sewage plant in honor of President George W. Bush was soundly defeated.

Gehl to New York: Lose the Cars

When the Danish urban-design guru Jan Gehl visited New York a few years ago, he was struck by how little the city had changed since the 1970s—“as if Robert Moses had only just walked out the door!” But since that visit, as Gehl recalled last night at the Center for Architecture, New York has made a surprising about-face on matters of public space, embracing the ideals of his late friend (and Moses nemesis) Jane Jacobs.

Gehl was holding forth in a town-hall-style meeting with New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who has played no small role in challenging the dominance of the automobile in New York, and who hired Gehl Architects last year to study the quality of public life on the city’s streets. She and Gehl articulated their shared vision for keeping New York globally competitive by making its streets some of the best in the world. “We can’t afford to slip into a Yogi Berra situation,” said Sadik-Khan, “where New York becomes so crowded that nobody goes there anymore!”

Unfortunately, Gehl continued, New York still bears deep scars of Moses’ long reign. His team’s findings (in a report distributed on eco-friendly USB drives, naturally) highlighted telltale signals of poor-quality street life: pedestrian crowding, low frequencies of stationary activities, and low proportions of children and elderly on the sidewalks. Partly to blame are a sad dearth of sidewalk cafes, along with far too much scaffolding and too many shuttered facades. (The stretch of Broadway from Columbus Circle to Houston Street—one of the busiest in the city—has only six curbside cafes, and scaffolding obscures 30 percent of its buildings.) Gehl’s team also deplored the fact that many public spaces don’t link to their surrounding streets and buildings, but instead require a deliberate trip—often across traffic—to reach them.

Still, Gehl expressed unhesitating enthusiasm about the city’s potential. “You are absolutely lucky here!” he exclaimed. “You have such wide streets. So you can have nice comfortable wide sidewalks, street trees, bike lanes. Maybe even,” he allowed with a grin, “also some lanes for the cars.”

And what about the economic crisis? Can we really afford to pour money into prettifying our streets at a time like this? Streetscapes, it turns out, may be just the right focus for urban investment at the moment. “It is very cost-effective for us to make these changes,” Sadik-Khan emphasized. That’s partly because many DOT projects can be achieved at relatively minimal cost—but also because, as Gehl’s research has shown time and again, pedestrian-friendly streets boost nearby property values and deliver more customers to local businesses.

So how far is New York prepared to go toward pedestrian nirvana? When one audience member asked if the city had given any thought to closing off Broadway to cars entirely, there was a smattering of applause—and then came Sadik-Khan’s reply, which more or less translated to fuhgeddaboudit.

All the same, it was impossible not to feel a touch of exhilaration at the city’s new trajectory. “I am quite sure that in her heaven,” as Gehl told the crowd, “Jane Jacobs is looking down and thinking, ‘Finally, my city is on the right track!’”

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Pedal Parking
With DCP's help, New Yorkers may soon be parking their bikes inside.

The Department of City Planning has introduced new zoning language that would require secure bicycle parking in all new commercial, multi-family residential, and institutional buildings. The zoning change will go through public review before being voted on by the City Council. “It’s one of a series of incremental changes that we hope will lead to a snowball effect,” said Rachaele Raynoff, press secretary for Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden. “It’s about changing the culture to make biking a fun, easy, and safe mode of transportation.”

The requirements are relatively modest. Residential buildings with more than ten units will require one space for every two units. Office buildings must provide one space for every 7,500 square feet of space. Retail and most commercial and community uses would be required to have one space for every 10,000 square feet.

Bicycling advocates hailed the move as a significant step forward. “It’s major. It’s one of the big three, along with bike sharing and dedicated lanes, necessary to make New York a great biking city,” said Wiley Norvell, communications director for Transportation Alternatives (TA). Still, TA believes requirements need to be adopted for existing buildings, which make up the vast majority of the city’s building stock.

The change goes against the wishes of some in the real estate industry. In a letter to members, Real Estate Board of New York president Steven Spinola encouraged voluntary inclusion of indoor bicycle parking, but wrote, “We have strongly urged the city not to consider legislation requiring office buildings to provide bicycle parking and we will continue to do so.”

In another step toward upgrading cycling conditions in New York, the winner of the City Racks Design Competition, which called for a new standard bike rack for the city, will be announced on Friday, November 15. Ten finalists were named, but the announcement was delayed by a week to allow some of the winners to travel for the ceremony. On Friday, November 7, the design competition website Bustler incorrectly implied that a red, free-form design by Francis Anthony Bitonti’s FADarchitecture had been selected. According to Norvell, who knows the winning team but declined to name it, Bitonti was not the winner.

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Street Wise
Rogers Marvel Architects' winning entry Streets for Everyone.
Courtesy Transportation Alternatives

New York’s quixotic quest to turn traffic-choked streets into pedestrian paradise took another step forward today, when Transportation Alternatives released the winning entries in its Designing the 21st Century Street competition.

The contest, which drew more than 100 entries from 13 countries, challenged designers to reimagine sidewalks and avenues that could safely accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, transit, trucks, and cars on the same “complete street”—a notion gaining traction in other nations and cities, but one that has until very recently eluded New York's car-centric transportation planners.

Coming on the heels of the Design Trust for Public Space’s Grand Army Plaza competition, as well as the popular PARK(ing) Day, Transportation Alternatives’ competition focused on the intersection of 4th Avenue and 9th Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a wide-street crossroads plagued by speeding and reckless driving.

“We asked entrants to thread the needle of safety and mobility while designing world-class public space,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, in a statement. “Given that this intersection is one of the city’s most problematic crossings, each of the winning designs could serve as a template for countless streets across NYC.”

The jury—which included Danish planner-about-town Jan Gehl, New York City chief urban designer Alexandros Washburn, and architect Laurie Hawkinson—selected three winners. Rogers Marvel Architects was recognized for its entry Streets for Everyone, which focused on integrating infrastructure, turning 9th Street into an urban stormwater swale that filters runoff on its way to the Gowanus Canal. The design also places bike lanes in the middle of the street, offers “flex lanes” that can be claimed as neighborhood social space during times of low traffic, and revamps an adjacent overpass as a covered plaza with sheltered bike parking.

Somerville, Massachusetts-based Steven Nutter took honors for Shared Space, an entry that looked at fine-grained boundaries between different user groups. The plan widens 4th Avenue to allow for street trees on each side and a wider, mixed-use median with container-planted trees. Street life is focused on 9th Street, with widened sidewalks, bike paths, lighted bollards, and benches that create a more intimate scale.

Shared Space by Steven Nutter.
all Images courtesy transportation alternatives

Finally, Philadelphia-based team LEVON’s entry boldly resurrects the street as public domain, adding civic space, markets, gardens, leisure zones, and water areas. A heavy dose of green—in the form of street trees, gardens, and other organic elements—cuts down on the heat-island effect while providing new spaces for social use. In a nod to urban efficiency, all of the project’s elements are organized around a single, flexible module—one that is exactly the size of a parking space.

LEVON's entry Streets Come Alive.

Eavesdrop: Anne Guiney

Ah, springtime, when young men’s fancy turns to love, and middle-aged men’s fancy apparently turns to things a little fleshier. At a recent launch party for L’Homme, a new men’s fragrance from Yves Saint Laurent, the main attraction was the presence of Jean Nouvel, who had designed the fragrance’s bottle. Like so much of what the bald and black-clad architect creates, it caused gasps. A thick test-tube-like glass shaft rises from an octagonal platform base. But heck, biomimicry is all the rage these days, right? The brief was presumably to come up with something virile, and Nouvel obviously took his directive literally. And just in case you missed the joke, there is a squirmy little bauble floating around inside. Mr. Nouvel described it thusly to the good people of Wallpaper*: “I wanted to give it a clear-cut shape, so it would easily fit a man's hand while still stimulating different aspects of his imagination.” We prefer to rouse our imagination by gazing at the picture of L’Homme’s spokesmodel Olivier Martinez

We are feeling civically inclined this afternoon, and tough times require bold thinking and new ideas. We would therefore like to make a suggestion to Governor David Paterson for a successor to Patrick Foye of the Empire State Development Corporation: the writer Andrei Codrescu. We were flipping through Architect magazine the other day and saw an article on the parlous state of America’s infrastructure, and what a handful of experts and thinkers recommend to fix it. Most suggested sound and reasonably predictable measures—planner and teacher Alex Garvin thought money should be allocated to a trust fund for community planning, design, and engineering, while a fellow from the League of American Bicyclists advocated a comprehensive network of bike lanes—but nothing so vanilla for Codrescu. Once we have introduced hydrogen-fueled mag-lev trains and free access to bikes, commuter vans, and canoes, he wrote, “we should mobilize a huge national will to make teleportation available to everyone.” To finance it? “Within every municipality there should be a tax-exempt 24-hour zone where everything is legal: drugs, sex, and music.” This last suggestion, we dare say, might just get traction among some local pols. 


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A Lane of One's Own
Aaron Seward

Cyclists on Ninth Avenue will soon have a lane of their own. Currently under construction, the separated bike lane is adjacent to the sidewalk and buffered by a parking lane, and is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. Modeled on a similar program in Copenhagen, it also includes planted medians at intersections that shorten the pedestrian crossing distance by 25 feet. This so-called “complete street” design is being tested from 16th to 23rd streets where they then connect to more conventional bike lanes in the Meatpacking District and the West Village. “We’re really trying to get quality over quantity, not just more bike lanes, but the best bike lanes in any given situation,” Joshua Benson, bicycle program coordinator for the Department of Transportation (DOT), said.

While the goal of the program is to improve bicycle safety and to increase bike ridership as a part of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, the design should provide benefits for drivers as well, chiefly through easier turns at left lanes at 16th, 18th, and 22nd streets. The turning lanes should relieve what DOT calls “back pressure,” a situation in which drivers, for fear of being rear-ended, make hasty turns that imperil pedestrians. In addition to the left turn lanes, which cross the bike lane, intersections will be equipped with special signals for both the turn lane and the bike lane. “There are a lot of pieces to it, but people are adjusting smoothly,” he said. “The key for this project is to study it and learn how it functions.”

Cycling enthusiasts are effusive about the design. “The design was unveiled and it was under construction a month later. In New York, that’s nothing short of revolutionary,” said Wiley Norvell, communications director for the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. “I know a lot of planners around the country who are jealous.”