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Nobody at the Wheel

Grim news awaits public projects and the professionals who want to contract for them. Even when New York gets its state government back, the state will be operating without permanent chiefs at its key transportation and development agencies. That impasse, while more bureaucratic in nature than the June 8 coup in the state senate, means little is likely to occur on major development initiatives until 2011


Governor David Paterson
 
FOrmer MTA Director Elliott Sander
 
Former Development Chief MArisa LavGo
 
Courtesy New York State; NY1; Tracy Collins
 

Well before Governor David Paterson lost control of the senate, many of his appointees had already fled their positions. Today, the heads of New York State’s Department of Transportation, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Empire State Development Corporation are all working under interim status. MTA executive director Elliott G. Sander quit hours after the state legislature narrowly approved a flawed bailout package on May 7. The ESDC’s chief, Marisa Lago, stepped down on June 6. Both agencies steer the fate of Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards, two stalled development sites, and of broader transit spending.

The rush to the exits, said Regional Plan Association analyst Neysa Pranger, “is coming at a very bad time,” since Congress will draft a new appropriations plan for federal transportation grants this fall, and the state will vote on long-term capital plans around the same time. “For the MTA, there aren’t that many candidates out there who qualify, and it’s even harder because the governor is not attractive to work for right now.”

Assuming that the senate resumes its business by early July, it remains doubtful that any of these agencies will have a new head before the gubernatorial election in 2010. Longtime Albany-watchers hesitate even to toss out names. Howard Roberts, head of New York City Transit, scores high marks from advocates. (So did Sander.) Transit chiefs from San Francisco and Atlanta, also well-regarded, seem unlikely to accept a job that may end with Paterson’s in January 2011.

This means big projects will continue without the expertise or the leadership to make them quick or transparent. Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the New York Public Interest Group and head of the Straphangers Campaign, said the refinancing of Atlantic Yards, approved at an MTA board meeting on June 24, will probably be as opaque as any deal the MTA cut before the reformist Sander arrived. Russianoff said interim head Helena Williams seems interested in transparency, but also lacks authority to impose it. “She has limited wiggle room,” Russianoff explained.

Taken further, this stasis hurts the region. When lawmakers vote on capital plans, they may privilege roads and bridges over transit. Deals like the East Side Access project to bring Long Island Railroad commuters to Grand Central Terminal have stalwart advocates and will survive. But the absence of persuasive managers will shrink the scope of transit and transit-focused development, say experts. “The federal dance that goes on requires somebody with the ability to look ahead,” said Pranger. That quality is lacking in Paterson’s Albany.

 

A version of this article appeared in AN 12_07.08.2009.

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Going Public
The new Brooklyn Botanic Gardens Visitor Center by Weiss/Manfredi, one of ten award winners.
Courtesy Office of the Mayor

As one of the largest developers and builders in the five boroughs, New York City has been committed to good design for over a century, through the Public Design Commission. Founded in 1898 as the Public Art Commission, the little-known body oversees nearly every detail in projects constructed by and for the city. To honor its most outstanding work, the commission has been conferring its Awards for Excellence in Design since 1982, the latest of which were handed out at a packed event last night at the New Museum.

“Public projects help define how New Yorkers relate to the city around them,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said. “In tough economic times, we all have to do more with less, but that doesn’t mean simple, elegant, and timeless public design can’t flourish. These award-winning projects exemplify the ideals of high-quality public design, and prove that public projects can be at once cost-effective, sustainable, and beautiful.” (He also made a lot of puns on the word “new” without much reaction from the crowd.)

In addition to the quality of the work, their sustainable aspects were very much on display, touted as a sign of the success of the city’s PlaNYC program. And as a further sign of the city’s commitment to spread quality design to the masses, all five boroughs were represented.

“I am fortunate to work with an administration that recognizes the impact that good design can have on our city,” Design Commission President James Stuckey said. “Many of tonight’s award-winning designs are the result of initiatives like Design and Construction Excellence, announced by the Mayor at these awards in 2004, and PlaNYC, that have set a new standard for public projects.”

View a slideshow of the ten winning projects here. They are:

Bronx River Greenway
The Bronx
New York State Department of Transportation, WSP Sells, The RBA Group

EMS Station 3
The Bronx
Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects, SCAPE / LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE

Croton Water Treatment Plant
The Bronx
Grimshaw, Ken Smith Landscape Architect, Great Ecology & Environments, Rana Creek

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center
Brooklyn
Weiss/Manfredi

Bushwick Inlet Park District Headquarters and Community Facility
Brooklyn
Kiss + Cathcart, Architects, Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners

Inside Out @ Riverside Health Center
Manhattan
Richard Artschwager

The Opposite of a Duck @ Glen Oaks Community Library
Queens
Janet Zweig

Shapes @ Elmhurst Community Library
Queens
Allan McCollum

Mariners Harbor Branch of the New York Public Library
Staten Island
Atelier Pagnamenta Torriani

A Special Recognition Award for the Staten Island Court Complex
Staten Island
Polshek Partnership Architects, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects

Editorial: The Electronic Express

There has been much talk about President Obama’s push to make electronic medical records standard in the United States. It’s a good idea that despite its upfront costs will increase efficiency and help save billions of dollars. But there is much more that needs to go electronic—and a good deal of it involves architecture and planning.

If you haven’t yet heard about “smart infrastructure,” you will soon. It encompasses digitally organized and controlled building guidelines, energy grids, transportation systems, and food distribution networks, among other infrastructure components. Companies like IBM, GE, Cisco, and Siemens are busy working on the technology behind such systems, and they’ve already proven effective, putting information within instant reach, streamlining bureaucratic processes, conserving resources, and improving coordination and transparency.

While the private sector has already made huge investments in smart systems, public agencies are way behind in taking notice, despite the fact that much of the technology has been developed in the United States and exported to governments elsewhere. IBM, for instance, has developed traffic-monitoring systems in places like Stockholm and London, while improving management for bus and train systems worldwide, and it is even working with food producers to limit the billions of dollars worth of food that is wasted every year. Yet very few American cities have adopted such technology and its obvious benefits.

Take one of the most egregious examples of our backwardness in this area: building permits. A look at the typical building department is a trip down memory lane, with disorganized sheaves of paper documents still dominating. Most of California’s building authorities are no exception, despite steps in the right direction. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, for example, offer online permitting, but only for simple permits like electrical and plumbing approvals. Anything requiring planning review is still done the old-fashioned way.

And most cities haven’t even gone that far, which is a waste, according to John Backman, executive director of ecitygov.net, an alliance of city and county governments in Washington State that provides online permitting to 16 cities and one county. They’ve issued 40,000 basic online permits so far, and their group hopes to unveil online review permitting by the end of this year (a more complicated, but very doable task, he said). Backman notes that online permitting will save his constituents thousands of hours of time and thousands of dollars. Still, the biggest holdup for most cities is the cost of launching a new service, he said, adding that several municipalities might work together on a system and thus share the cost.

Meanwhile, there are other rays of hope. Many of New York City’s building agencies use Buildings Scan and Capture Application Networks (BSCAN), which enable online submittal and retrieval of construction-permit applications. Oregon was the first state to sponsor a statewide e-permitting program, which now extends to over 100 cities and counties. And Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Fort Meyers, Florida, and Scottsdale, Arizona also allow online permit applications.

Some might argue that going electronic is a leap into the unknown, but that’s not the case. There is no good reason why most new infrastructure projects appear to be moving forward in the same old analog fashion. If the problem is that few seem ready to part with the startup money necessary to install these systems, it’s time to get with the program. We’ve already learned the lesson of sustainable architecture—that those willing to make an initial investment are already way ahead in terms of saving money and time down the line.

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The Woodstock of Street Design
The city has transformed parts of 9th Avenue into a haven for cyclists and pedestrians.
Courtesy NYC DOT

Traditionally, most New Yorkers’ attitudes toward their city’s streets could be summed up by the proverb “familiarity breeds contempt,” according to Deputy Mayor for Operations Ed Skyler. “They only noticed the streets to complain about potholes,” he said. But Skyler and company have been working hard to change that in recent months by creating a growing number of no-car zones, including a prime piece of Times Square roadway that closed to traffic last weekend.

While car-free Broadway has grabbed headlines, the city took another major step toward reinventing streets on May 20, with the release of New York’s first Street Design Manual, a “playbook” of guidelines for creating new streets and retrofitting old ones. The joint product of ten different city agencies, it offers guidance on everything from paving materials to the ideal width of bike lanes on different types of thoroughfares. Although it does not mandate policy change directly, the manual will become the new standard for the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Public Design Commission when they review proposed projects.


A view of the new Times Square from one of the many towers overlooking it. But this is not the only plans the city has for its streets, as outlined in the manual.
Valerio_B/Flickr
 
 

Skyler was on hand for the official launch of the manual on Wednesday at the Municipal Art Society, along with DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Parks and Recreation commissioner Adrian Benepe, Design and Construction commissioner David Burney, and a large crowd of planners, engineers, and designers. Excitement ran high among both the speakers and the crowd, not just for the manual itself but for what it represents: New York’s determination to conceive of greener, more people-friendly streets, and an unprecedented interagency collaboration toward that end. “This is like the Woodstock of urbanism!” laughed Benepe.

Although the Street Design Manual delves into the finer points of paving and planting, all those details are in the service of a few underlying principles. One of the most prominent is to further PlaNYC’s goal of making New York a sustainable city by 2030. “When you realize 26 percent of the city’s surface area is sidewalk and street, there are enormous opportunities there,” Burney told the crowd. And although environmental considerations are less of a rarity in street design guides now than they were a decade ago, the New York manual is exceptional for weaving those concepts throughout the guidelines rather than shunting them off into a separate section. The description of every design feature includes suggestions for “Sustainability Opportunities,” such as planting trees in medians or paving sidewalks with porous materials.

The manual is clearly committed to being in the vanguard of street design, venturing beyond the tried-and-true standards into more experimental waters. “When there are things that we don’t know work in New York, we have them in there as pilots,” said Andy Wiley-Schwartz, Assistant Commissioner of the Division of Planning and Sustainability and one of the guide’s primary authors. That includes speed cushions (speed bumps with gaps that allow emergency vehicles to pass through at full speed), and separated busways (currently enjoying success in Quito, Ecuador).
 

A sizable crowd turned up for the unveiling of the manual at the Municipal Art Society last Wednesday.
Julia Galef

It’s also a champion for pedestrians. The guide is packed with strategies for making intersections more pedestrian-friendly, and for reclaiming street space by widening sidewalks, adding corner and mid-block extensions, and narrowing streets. Its authors are especially protective of the public realm, criticizing streets that try to use design to discourage public access: “For example, private streets along waterfronts should not significantly differ from public streets in their appearance,” they warn.

There remain a few blind spots in the guide, notably a lack of discussion about how the community fits into the planning process. Filling in that part of the picture will be crucial, both in ensuring these principles get implemented, and in making New York an inspiring role model for other cities to follow. But as Sadik-Khan emphasized at the launch, “This is just the beginning.” She encouraged feedback for future incarnations of the Street Design Manual, and added: “Knowing this crowd, I’m sure you’ve got plenty.”

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The Gatekeepers
The Public Design Commission controls most every detail of most every public art and design project in the city, including the new Grimshaw-designed bus stops.
Courtesy Cemusa

For nearly 35 years, Paul Broches of Mitchell/Giurgola Architects has been working to make Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island a reality. On a recent Monday, he unrolled his drawings in a low-ceilinged City Hall annex before one of the least known but most influential deliberative bodies in New York: the Public Design Commission (PDC). On this afternoon, the engineer Guy Nordenson, one of 11 commissioners, took a typically conscientious line of questioning: “Will the park be high enough above the East River waterline,” he asked, “to endure rising sea levels due to global warming?” You bet it will, said Broches, who counted the meeting as one more modest victory for the quixotic Kahn project.

For Broches and other architects, the Public Design Commission is a customary stop on the road to public-works approvals. But ask many in the design community about the PDC, and you’re likely to draw a blank. Known until last August as the Art Commission, the PDC has maintained an air of mystery even as it exerts a strong influence over the city’s built environment. According to its mission statement, the commission is charged with approving all “permanent works of art, architecture, and landscape architecture proposed on or over city-owned property.” Yet many architects who have presented municipal projects for review are unclear how the commission works, where its jurisdiction begins and ends, and what guiding principles the commissioners hold in shaping the city’s future.


The commission oversaw the expansion of Staten Island's St. George Ferry Terminal, designed by FTL Design Engineering Studio, which includes these pavilions.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO

The Design Commission’s low profile is all the more surprising, since its operations are effectively hidden in plain sight. “All our hearings and meetings are open to the public,” said PDC Executive Director Jackie Snyder. The commission’s online calendar includes a docket of every project currently under consideration, and recent committee meetings—informal rehearsals for city agencies in the early stages of a new project—have featured everything from the installation of signage for a library book drop in Queens to a comfort station in the Bronx. Public hearings, where official submissions are made and approval granted or withheld, have recently ranged from newsstands on Madison Avenue to the reconstruction of East Fordham Road in the Bronx.

The PDC’s bailiwick has remained largely unchanged since the Art Commission’s creation in 1898. As called for in the charter of the then newly consolidated City of New York, the commission’s first members were appointed for three-year, unpaid terms at the recommendation of the Fine Arts Federation, an independent cultural consortium. The federation nominated one architect, one painter, a sculptor, and three “lay members.” Three additional commissioners were selected by the most prominent cultural institutions of the day: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the New York Public Library. Today, the PDC’s membership breaks down in precisely the same way, chosen by the same process, with one more lay member appointed at the mayor’s discretion and a landscape architect rounding out the group.


James Carpenter designed The Inclined Light Wall for a Polshek addition to the hall of Science in 2004.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO
 
The Commission Also oversees public institutions, such as the Hospital for Special Surgery, which expanded in 2006
Courtesy HSS
 
One Stone (2007) by cai guo-qiang was conceived in concert with the Bronx County Hall of Justice, by Rafael Viñoly Architects.
Francis Dzikowski/ESTO

 

 

 

The commission’s review powers are much as they were over a hundred years ago. In developing any public works project, every branch of the city’s vast bureaucracy must prepare a series of presentations for the commission. Usually the work of the consulting architect, these presentations follow a three-step process: conceptual, preliminary, and final.

The first two take place during public hearings in the commission’s offices, attended by members of the agencies involved (invariably) and by concerned members of the public (infrequently). The presenter outlines the project’s objectives and design strategies, while the commissioners make suggestions and take a casual thumbs-up, thumbs-down vote. The final stage entails only a submission of project documents. The result is fair and reasonable, according to veterans of the process. “I’ve presented to the PDC many, many times,” Broches said. “Even though the character of the commission changes as the commissioners change, I’ve always found them to be smart, serious-minded, and amicable.”

Some civic construction escapes the commission’s purview: Federal and state buildings fall outside their mandate, and some city buildings are the province of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The PDC also passes judgment on a surprising volume of construction beyond the city limits, like the entire Croton Aqueduct system, with its headhouses, gatehouses, and signposts scattered throughout Westchester County.

Other projects submitted for review aren’t actually being reviewed at all. “Courtesy” reviews are commonplace, delivered by non-city agencies in an effort to garner broad political support. As it turned out, the presenters of Four Freedoms Park, which is to be built on state-owned land, were performing one such courtesy call. “The Design Commission is involved with so many projects on public land in New York, it just seemed eminently reasonable to get their opinion,” said Sally Minard, who has helped spearhead the project.

The commission strives to avoid unexpected—and expensive—design revamps as much as is practical. As Snyder explained, “We usually try to have people come in earlier, so that it’s easier and less expensive for agencies to change designs.” But clearly, the committee isn’t just applying a rubber stamp. At a recent hearing, Department of Transportation (DOT) personnel milled around the PDC’s waiting room, having just finished their “second or third preliminary” for a Bronx highway improvement. More anodyne projects—a public toilet for Prospect Park, for example—are sometimes fast-tracked, given final approval at their preliminary hearing.

So what is the PDC’s yardstick for successful design? “Our goal is not to turn people into clones of us, but to make their project the best it can be,” said Signe Nielsen, principal of environmental planners Mathews Nielsen and the commission’s current landscape architect. The “us” of the moment constitutes a fair cross-section of influential New Yorkers: Other commissioners include architect James Polshek, Paula Scher of Pentagram, and a former director of Forest City Ratner, James Stuckey. “Whether we are wealthy patrons or scruffy academics, professionals or artists,” Nordenson said in an interview, “we share the belief that we can build a discourse about what is good design or not and cut through the bureaucratic yadda yadda.”

At times, New York’s small design world can cause complications. At a recent hearing, Nielsen recused herself for one session as Anne Trumble of Mathews Nielsen gave the preliminary proposal for the firm’s DOT-sponsored redesign of West 125th Street just landward of the Hudson River. The renovation includes moving and resurfacing crosswalks to coincide with Columbia University’s planned satellite campus for the neighborhood. At the advice of the PDC, benches with rounded armrests will be scattered around the site, echoing the looped arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct above.

 


Rendering of a Department of Transportation-sponsored redesign by Mathews Nielsen of West 125th Street at Fairway Plaza; the PDC suggested bench arms to echo the shapes of the viaduct passing overhead.
Courtesy Mathews Nielson

And the commission has had its share of contention. An uproar over the Parks Department’s Washington Square renovation brought crowds to commission meetings in 2005. (To little avail: The project moved forward.) Another episode, described in former commissioner Michele Helene Bogart’s illuminating book about the commission The Politics of Urban Beauty, involved former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, whose enthusiasm for “yardarm” flagpoles and animal motifs led him to circumvent the Art Commission on a number of occasions. This prompted a lawsuit, eventually settled, from Commission President Reba White Williams.

More typically, though, the PDC expressly avoids confrontation. “If the person running the meeting senses there’s a mixed opinion, we table the project,” said Nielsen. These rare differences are ironed out at executive sessions that are closed to the public, and where, according to Bogart, members discuss projects candidly. “When the politics around a project are particularly sensitive, it’s better to have an executive session,” Bogart explained.

Politics do occasionally intrude. Former Commission President Jean Phifer of architecture firm Thomas Phifer & Partners described an attempt in the late 1990s to abolish the commission outright, spurred on by a Staten Island councilman. (Phifer is the author of the new book Public Art New York, which includes the photography of Francis Dzikowski that can be found accompanying this article.)

The commission oversees work of all sizes and uses, including Barretto Point Park in the Bronx, designed by landscape architect Ricardo Hinkle with designer Rachel Kramer.
Malcolm Pinckney/Courtesy NYC Parks & Recreation

Mayor Giuliani interceded on the commission’s behalf, but Giuliani was otherwise less supportive of the commission than Mayor Bloomberg has been. “The difference between now and then is that the commission under Giuliani had no clout,” Bogart said. Mayor Bloomberg’s support of the PDC and of urban design generally has helped bolster the commission’s efforts, as evidenced by his creation, with the PDC’s input, of the Design and Construction Excellence program. One more change under Mayor Bloomberg has been the reassertion of PDC review power in the case of private leases on public land, a move that has helped extend the commission’s reach.

The best evidence of the commission’s scope and vision is in the city’s public works over the past decade. Hudson River Park, the Fulton Street Transit Center, the
Van Cortlandt Park filtration plant—if these can be taken together as signal projects, what sort of design preferences emerge? A clarity of visual language; a clean, muscular sense of materiality; an emphasis on environmental sensitivity. Struggling to sum it up, Nielsen simply said, “I could say it in fancy archi-speak, but it boils down to this: Will I still want to look at it in 20 years?”

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Walk This (Arch) Way
An original drawing of the Manhattan Bridge archway by Carrere and Hastings. The archway is to reopen to the public this summer after decades of closure.
COURTESY DUMBO IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT

Long barred to the public, a stone-covered archway beneath the Manhattan Bridge in Dumbo is being reopened for public access this summer, revealing for the first time in decades the elegant public space designed by renowned Beaux Arts firm Carrère and Hastings, which created both approaches. Thanks to the advocacy of the Dumbo Improvement District, the archway is also expected to serve as a stage for a variety of public programming, as well as a temporary summer site for a public marketplace known as the New Amsterdam Market.

Much of the new programming, including the market, has yet to be formally announced pending city approvals, according to the district, which emphasizes that discussions with public officials are ongoing. “The Dumbo Improvement District is working closely with the Department of Transportation and the City of New York to readapt and unveil The Archway,” the district said in a statement. “Plans are in the works for many exciting programs; we have been approached by the New Amsterdam Market among others. In the spirit of Earth Day 2009, we are glad to reclaim this incredible community space.”

The reopening of the historic archway, which is already publicly accessible, marks a significant milestone for advocates who have slowly been reclaiming the urban fabric around the bridge’s piers. “The archway connects Dumbo east to west. It’s crucial to the development of the neighborhood,” Kate Kerrigan, executive director of the improvement district, said in an interview.

Work on the archway, which had previously been used for storage by the Department of Transportation (DOT), will improve pedestrian connectivity while providing a number of new design features to make it more amenable to the public. In collaboration with the improvement district, Rogers Marvel Architects has designed benches for the 45-foot-high, 7,000-square-foot space, along with subtle lighting to improve safety and to highlight the original architectural elements.
 

The stunning space is expected to host a variety of public events this summer.
Jane KoJIMA/Courtesy Dumbo Improvement District

The new space would offer a stunning—if provisional—backdrop for the New Amsterdam Market, a project spearheaded by Robert LaValva, a former planner for the Department of City Planning who has evangelized for the role public markets can play as both civic gathering spaces and a key link in the sustainable supply chain. “My interest in urban systems comes from my background as a planner, in how the surrounding region can supply the city,” he said.

LaValva ultimately envisions a permanent showcase of purveyors that runs year-round indoors and offers a wide variety of goods, similar to the Borough Market in London or Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. He has long had his eye on the old Fulton Fish Market, but the ambiguous status of the South Street Seaport has made that site unavailable, at least through the summer. While LaValva continues his quest for a year-round location, he would welcome a temporary summer space under the Manhattan Bridge, perhaps setting up once per month, he said. “The archway is a wonderful space for a market,” LaValva told AN. “But the goal remains to find a permanent home.”

If all goes as planned, the market is expected to make its debut at the archway on June 28. However, an official reopening date for the public space has not been set, and much of the site’s programming is still being formalized, according to the improvement district, which expects to announce archway events in the coming weeks.

Editorial: Pedlocking Broadway

General gladness and near unanimous support greeted Mayor Bloomberg’s February 27announcement that he was malling Times and Herald squares by closing off portions of Broadway in the interest of easing traffic, widening sidewalks, and reclaiming some three acres for pedestrian use. The Regional Planning Association has been pitching the idea since 1974, and so the group’s president, Robert Yaro, was triumphant: “This plan is a win-win-win strategy for New York’s motorists, its residents, workers, visitors and property owners. All will benefit as the City’s Broadway plan is brought quickly to reality.” Streetsblog called it “a bold transformative new vision.” And what’s not to like? The $1.5million plan is supposed to reduce southbound motor vehicle travel times by 17percent on 7thAvenue, and northbound travel times by 37percent on 6thAvenue. And the Naked Cowboy will have someplace to sit down.



The notion of banning cars on Broadway has reared up every decade or so since the 1960s, when a malling craze seized the entire country from Kalamazoo (where the first downtown pedestrian zone opened in 1959) to Atlanta. Only 15percent of 200pedestrian malls survived, according to Sam Staley, director of urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation; the ones that did not were absent two essential ingredients: plenty of pedestrians and a unique sense of place, with viable retail. Those two are resoundingly on hand in Times Square, and always have been, along with efforts to subtract the traffic. In 1977, a $500,000federal grant was paid to the city to create an “experimental pedestrian mall” with trees and potted plants that—just like the one announced by Bloomberg—would become permanent if it worked. And that was the last we heard of a plan that made local businesses fear they’d lose curbside traffic; annoyed taxi drivers for the inconvenience; and flew against the city’s thinking at the time that only more and wider roads could make traffic flow faster. This time around, things are different, not least because the plan seems motivated in part by the mayor’s determination to have something highly visible go his way after congestion pricing went so wrong. The attitude of other stakeholders has also changed—except perhaps the taxi drivers—reflecting more enlightened thinking about public amenities and transportation. They get it now: Cars in the city are headed for extinction.



And yet as radical as the plan is, it was disappointing to see it quite so completely devoid of design. As Deborah Marton, executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space, pointed out, “No one thinks these plazas should look this way. Just claiming the ground was kind of heroic; they can always go back and rethink the detailing.” That’s true, but why doesn’t the Department of Transportation, which is spearheading the plan, have a landscape design consultant on call to sketch up a vision that’s a little less ad hoc, more layered, and not so isolated from side streets? The agency’s so-called piazza islands—like the new pedestrian spaces at Madison Square and 14thStreet—are risible for their smatterings of cafe tables and glued-in-place gravel. Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan deserves enormous credit for shaking the lead off this decades-old plan and making something happen that this time might stick. It’s still a shame, however, that landscape designers seem to belong to the second wave of the solution, not the first.

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Built for the People of the United States
The Triborough Bridge was built in 1936 with $44.2 million from the Public Works Administration.
Jet Lowe/Courtesy Library of Congress

In 1931, New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat in on a roundtable conversation with the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, RPAA members including Lewis Mumford, Benton MacKaye, and Clarence Stein presented the future president with a powerful argument that fallout from the economic collapse of 1929 might be best attacked by following a “new road” of regional planning at a national scale. The governor seemed sympathetic to their ideas, and helped MacKaye launch his ambitious plans for the Appalachian Trail, which began in New York State.

Two years later, when FDR began the historic 100 days of legislation that kicked off the New Deal, the RPAA’s lobbying seemed to have paid off. Roosevelt placed MacKaye in a planning position with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and selected Stein’s partner, Robert Kohn, as the first head of the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA). But while the RPAA’s progressive goals were embodied in these programs, as the New Deal wore on, its idealism and the scale of its ambition became muddled through political compromises.


MODELED AFTER ENGLISH GARDEN CITIES AND COMPLETED IN 1937, GREENBELT, MARYLAND WAS ONE OF THREE GREENBELT TOWNS CREATED UNDER THE FEDERAL RESETTLEMENT ADMINISTRATION.
COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Greenbelt Town program, which was supposed to change the face of America with a series of highly rational garden cities, was whittled down to three small projects. And the TVA’s initial steps toward creating a “dynamic regional and interregional economy” were soon shed by its director, Arthur Morgan, who steered the authority toward becoming merely a source of electricity for the industrializing south. This tension—between those with plans to use government action and money to transform the country and those who prefer a more laissez-faire approach focused purely on temporary job creation—is very much alive today as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) works its way through Congress. Like today’s stimulus package, the New Deal started as a jobs-creation program, but it gave rise to profound changes in the landscape and culture that were a natural outgrowth of the era’s newfound belief in the federal government’s ability to play a transformational role. As we debate what many call “the New New Deal,” the lessons of the 1930s remind us that a focus on job creation need not preclude a commitment to the broader progressive agenda that made the New Deal so far-reaching.

The New Deal’s largest and best-known agency, the one that became synonymous with the entire program, was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Enacted in 1935, it received more money and attention than any other of the Roosevelt administration’s initiatives. By 1941, the WPA had spent approximately $11.4 billion ($169 billion in today’s money). Of this massive investment, $4 billion went to highway and street projects; $1 billion to public buildings; $1 billion to publicly owned or operated utilities; and another $1 billion that funded initiatives as varied as school lunch programs, the famous Federal Writers Project, and sent photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans out to document the American landscape. By the time it was disbanded by Congress in 1943 as a result of the manufacturing boom created by World War II, the WPA had provided some eight million jobs and had left its mark on nearly every community in America by way of a park, bridge, housing project, or municipal building.


in 1935, the Public works administration allocated $5 million for the original brooklyn college campus.
courtesy brooklyn college

The magnitude of the change created by the WPA’s modernization program was unprecedented among direct federal interventions, and the current recovery bill has the potential to be as, or more, effective. At this writing, ARRA promises $825 billion in economic stimulus, $275 billion of which is tax cuts and $550 billion of which is actual investment. Much of this $550 billion will go to construction projects to bring America’s flagging schools, health care facilities, and infrastructure up to standard and beyond. A recent analysis of the bill from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the following run-down on infrastructure spending: $30 billion for highways, $9 billion for transit, $1.1 billion for Amtrak, $10 billion for science facilities, $3 billion for airports. The list goes on, including appropriations for clean water and restoration of brownfields, but also money for other architecture-related building work: $16 billion for school modernization, $9 billion for Department of Defense projects like VA hospitals and child care centers, and $2.25 billion for rehabilitating public housing.

While the rough balance of funds in the current bill and the WPA evinces a kinship, they will be disbursed in a very different fashion. Harry Hopkins, FDR’s handpicked director of the WPA, worked directly with the states to evaluate and select projects. Other agencies, such as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA), also had their own directors, their own budgets, and the power to choose how best to spend them. The money in the current stimulus package will be apportioned to the states not through newly created agencies based in D.C.— as was the case in the 1930s—but by existing formulas. These formulas evaluate the needs of various localities by calculating factors that range from demographics, to income levels, to official reports on structures and efficiencies. The formulas have the benefit of distributing funds by objective measures rather than political ones, as goes one criticism of the WPA. However, these measures change little from year to year, and a formula-based system has done little to address infrastructure failings at a regional or even national scale.


the 1940 segment of manhattan's east river drive, sketched by hugh ferriss, received a pwa grant for $4.8 million.
from east river drive (federal works agency. 1940)

What has not changed between now and then is the imperative to choose projects that are ready to start construction immediately. What we might call “shovel-ready” projects were a big part of the WPA agenda, and there were a number of regional plans in place, notably those developed by Robert Moses in New York, that captured an enormous share of federal funds. By 1936, New York City was receiving one seventh of the WPA allotment for the entire country, employed 240,000 people with this money, and was considered “the 49th state” within the WPA. Meanwhile other municipalities floundered in their attempts to draw up plans, and the WPA canceled more than 100 major grants to 11 northeast cities because the blueprints for those projects were not ready. Today’s analog is the “Use it or Lose it” provision in the bill that demands the return of funds if they are not put to work within 120 days. Because of this urgency, many are wary that we will spend $100 billion filling potholes.

There are a few significant projects in New York that promise to make a real difference to the region. One is Access to the Region’s Core, or the ARC tunnel, which will improve transportation between New Jersey and Manhattan. East Side Access, a project that will do the same thing for commuters coming from Long Island, is already under construction, but in dire need of funds. The same can be said for the MTA’s 2nd Avenue Subway project. And then there’s the Fulton Street Transit Center, which promised to become a central element of downtown’s redevelopment before the MTA’s own parlous financial situation put it in jeopardy. These projects, which stand to receive substantial stimulus funding, will undoubtedly improve transportation in the New York region and lay the groundwork for increased demand in the future. But what about transportation between New York and Boston, or New York and Chicago? What about developing a framework for wind power in the tri-state area? What about a comprehensive plan for regional watershed management?


the new deal's heroic ambition is exemplified by the tennessee valley authority's norris dam, completed in 1936.

There is no agency to think about the changing infrastructure needs of the country as a whole. In 2007, a bill was put forth to do just this: The Infrastructure Investment Bank Act would have established a national institution to evaluate project proposals and assemble investment portfolios to pay for them, much like the World Bank does on a global level. The fact that it did not pass Congress speaks to a reluctance in the U.S. to put planning power in the hands of the federal government—the same reluctance that the RPAA came up against in the 1930s.

One of Roosevelt’s first acts of the New Deal, an act some say he first mentioned at that RPAA roundtable meeting in Virginia, was the creation of the TVA. This ambitious project targeted the poorest part of the country, the one hardest hit by the Depression, and took it upon itself to modernize and reinvigorate it. Through a comprehensive regimen of education and infrastructure building—including the construction of 29 hydroelectric dams and even the building of one town—the TVA turned this rural backwater into the nation’s biggest producer of electricity, and one of the backbones of mobilization during WWII. Though it faced determined opposition, and proposals to implement similar regional plans were shot down across the country, the TVA stands as a high water mark.


After the Interstate Highways Act of 1956, the federal government covered 90 percent of costs for road construction, like the 1963 Alexander Hamilton Bridge.
Jack Boucher/COurtesy Library of Congress

The only time in American history that the federal government has been able to enact a national plan was through the Federal Highway Act of 1956, a project whose skeleton was drafted by the NRA during the Depression. While many today dispute the merit of this program, it is instructive to note that the only way Eisenhower was able to sell the highway act to the country was by declaring it vital to national security.

Today we face not nuclear Armageddon but a danger that could, in the long run, prove all the more crippling: our national infrastructure on the brink of collapse. It seems time to draft our own “new road,” one designed not just to pull us out of economic crisis, but also to lay the groundwork that will carry us undiminished into the future.

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Share the Road

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)
Tom Vanderbilt
Knopf, $24.95 

Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic
David Engwicht
Envirobook, $23.00 

The High Cost of Free Parking
Donald Shoup
Planners Press, $59.95

When my wife and I visited Lebanon in 1998, we rented a little Renault and spent a couple days on the road, and saw one working traffic light the entire time. The streets of Beirut were packed with a chaotic tangle of aggressive, pushy cars, and I was sure we’d hear steel shrieking on steel the moment we rolled off the car rental lot. We safely got out of the city, and while driving on the winding, two-lane Damascus Road in the foothills of the Chouf mountains, we found ourselves driving next to another car, each going at a good clip. Just then, a third car roared between us, making its own lane. I realized at that point on Lebanon’s roads, all bets were off. And yet, for the rest of our visit, I became more and more convinced that this was one of the safest places I’d ever driven: It was predictably unpredictable.

The time many of us spend getting from one place to another comprises most of our interactions with fellow citizens; it is as much a social experience as anything else. Since time in the car shapes our impressions of each other and of our cities, it might explain the appeal of Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).


 
 
 

Vanderbilt adroitly navigates a mountain of findings and opinions from traffic engineers, economists, psychologists, and even entomologists. Like an excited and precocious teenager, he parenthetically mentions one psychological study while describing another, adding, “more on that later.” But far from being overwhelmed, the reader is swept up in his enthusiasm.

Traffic is the latest in a series of books like Freakonomics and The Tipping Point that draw on diverse and sometimes arcane academic fields to create a coherent narrative for the lay audience. But I hope Vanderbilt will reach more than the casual reader: Planners, architects, and policymakers would do well to read his book.

Perhaps Traffic can best be summed up by one of its innumerable takeaways: You don’t drive as well as you think you do. And if you knew this, you’d drive better. But we don’t even know what we don’t know. That Rumsfeldian quip alone sums up so much about how we behave on the road that awareness of it on our part would make us safer as motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. Also, awareness of behavior among the people who design our roads and set transportation policy could change our cities for the better. Traffic engineers—who, for the most part, do not appear to be familiar with many of the psychological studies cited in Traffic—try to make our roads safer with more signage, wider lanes, shoulders, and gentler curves. But a growing number of dissidents are pointing out that a safe environment, surprisingly, is one that appears to be dangerous, because it forces us to be more attentive.

The idea that the perception of danger is good for us runs counter to standard reasoning in road design, which argues that since people will make mistakes, the road should provide a comfortable margin of error. This is generally thought to have worked well on highways and arterials, but in cities and towns where different types of users vie for a share of the same space, designing a margin of error into a road for the benefit of motorists is dangerous. They’ll just typically drive faster around that turn, and they’ll be less attentive in that wider lane. To paraphrase the late Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer whom Vanderbilt interviews, when you treat people like idiots, they will behave like idiots.

Monderman also features prominently in David Engwicht’s Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic, a slim and entertaining read that, while nowhere near as broad in its scope as Traffic, is nonetheless insightful. Engwicht, an Australian traffic consultant whom Vanderbilt discusses, had grown increasingly frustrated with the standard traffic-calming measures like speed bumps, neckdowns, and chicanes, and began to develop strategies to deal with aggressive driving in a completely different way. Rather than use negative stimuli to get people to slow down, he argues for positive stimuli—intrigue, uncertainty, and even humor—to engage motorists in their social environments. In other words, pull motorists out of the “traffic world” and into the “social world”—make them interact with each other and with others on the street via eye contact.

In Mental Speed Bumps Engwicht describes how, in his work with neighborhood groups all over the world, he advocates that everyone reintroduce the social world to their streets: bring their chairs outside into the car’s realm, and let their kids play there. In one city, a traffic engineer insisted that cones be placed in the center of the street to separate vehicle traffic from the neighbors socializing and playing, and that signs be erected to warn passing motorists. “It was without doubt the most dangerous street event I have ever conducted,” Engwicht writes, because “the signs and cones were a [false] promise of predictability and certainty.”

The streets of New York City display engineers’ best efforts to introduce predictability for motorists into a town rich in intrigue and uncertainty. They seem always to be fighting an uphill battle: There is nothing to be done about falafel guys pushing their carts in the streets, or brooding hipsters jaywalking while glued to their iPhones. Unfortunately, some of New York’s long-standing policies reinforce the misguided efforts of traffic engineers, and are pulling us out of the social world and into the traffic world. As Donald Shoup observes in his excellent book, The High Cost of Free Parking, the off-street parking minimums that city planning departments require of builders wildly distort the transportation market and wreak havoc on the public realm and on real estate development. The transportation market is distorted because motorists receive a benefit at low cost, subsidized by everyone. When presented with free goods, we consume them.

A professor of urban planning at UCLA and an economist by training, Shoup, who is also profiled in Traffic, is an engaging and passionate thinker, and The High Cost of Free Parking, while it looks thick enough to stun an ox, is as entertaining as it is informative. The book pulls the curtain aside, revealing all the parking space calculations for what they are: best guesses, often padded, and often based on just a single survey of actual conditions. Or, as Shoup says, “pseudoscience.” This pseudoscience is driven by the notion that parking lots should be able to handle peak demand. A Toys R’ Us parking lot has to accommodate shoppers the day after Thanksgiving. But what about the other 364 days of the year?

Parking is essential to transportation in any city. As Shoup points out, though, “food also produces enormous benefits, but this does not mean that we need more food, or that food should be free.” Economists, Shoup says, “do not define the demand for food as the peak quantity of food consumed at free buffets where overweight diners eat until the last bite has zero utility. Nor do economists, when asked for policy prescriptions, recommend that restaurants should be required to supply at least this quantity of free food no matter how much it costs. Yet planners do define parking demand as the peak number of spaces occupied at sites with free parking, and cities do require developers to supply at least this number of parking spaces, whatever the cost. Planning for parking is planning without prices.”

This might seem irrelevant to New Yorkers, whose neighborhoods are more likely to have parking maximums than minimums; however, there are a surprising number of minimums in place, especially for new development. Even plans for dense areas of New York—Hudson Yards, Willets Point—include shockingly high numbers of parking spaces. As Shoup argues, parking not only meets demand, it fuels it.

Traffic, Mental Speed Bumps, and The High Cost of Free Parking are all testaments to the complexity and centrality of social interactions and behavioral economics to our public lives and the fabrics of our cities. Drawing primarily from observations about psychology and economics, these authors show us that what characterizes our cities is much more than an aesthetic experience, traffic flow, or standard land-use metrics. The best urban thinking is done by those who truly observe and understand how we behave.

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And the Real Winner Is...
As we mentioned Tuesday, there was some confusion as to who had won the CityRacks Design Competition--held by the city's Department of Transportation, the Cooper-Hewitt, and Transportation Alternatives--given that no official announcement had been made last week. Whether Bustler's report impacted the decision or not may never be known, but it was the "Hoop" (above) and not, as predicted, the "Alien" (after the jump) that carried the day. Ian Mahaffy and Maarten De Greeve of Copenhagen beat out 200 challengers, including 10 finalists, to be named kings of New York City bike racks. In addition to the $10,000 prize they will receive, some 5,000 hoops will be installed throughout the city in the next three years. "The jury was convinced that the Mahaffy and De Greeve design will best meet the City's bike parking needs and generate greater interest in cycling," DOT head Janette Sadik-Khan said in a statement. The competition also honored two designs for indoor bicycle parking, which should come in handy now that the city is advocating a zoning change to require bike garages in new large-scale developments.

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.
verbos/Flickr

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.