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It's the Client, Stupid
R&A has made an effort to reach out to hungry developers in West Hollywood.
Courtesy R&A

What do Aaron Betsky, Martin Pedersen, Steven Bingler, and Los Angeles developer Geoff Palmer have in common?

Betsky, Pedersen, and Bingler have recently been arguing in Architect magazine and the New York Times over (among other things) whether architects should dictate their own path or follow the less effete road of consumer demand. In my opinion both approaches are valid—one doesn’t trump the other—and there is plenty of room for both radical and client-centered architecture. But neither will be effective if architects remain shut out of too much work.

This is the missing piece that architects need to address instead of fighting over their increasingly small piece of the pie. It’s the constant stream of projects built in this country without competent architects, like housing developments, retail and commercial centers, gas stations, and, yes, faux Italianate monstrosities from the likes of Geoff Palmer, who has concocted an empire from the vacuum created in a city, and a country that has gotten used to mediocrity.

 
Geoff Palmer's Medici is an example of clients choosing profit over architecture.
Courtesy GH Palmer Associates
 

“Architecture for the masses,” as the modernists liked to call it, has been largely ceded to corporate developers, who are by their nature large, risk-averse, and sometimes leave architects out of the equation altogether. Of course they sometimes hire top architects, and many are well-intentioned, but since they, by nature, need to generate high profits they more often resort to a pro forma model, where building envelopes, plans, and programs look similar everywhere, with a few flourishes thrown in to cater to locality. This is the 98 percent of work that Frank Gehry recently called “pure shit.”

The Independent’s Jay Merrick summed this situation up superbly: “Architects serve commercial forces that are generally uninterested in the complex qualities of place, aesthetics, and history.”

After following this field for well more than a decade I’m high on the talent and sophistication of most architects. I’m less sanguine about the system and the clients that they work (or in many cases don’t work) under. All have drastically different priorities.

This wasn’t always the case. Sophisticated architects were once regularly commissioned by enlightened developers to design excellent housing developments, bowling alleys, offices, and coffee shops (like the beloved Norms that Angelenos recently fought to save). They weren’t just building houses for the rich, museums for wealthy institutions, and headquarters for the wealthiest and trendiest. They worked for everybody, and they brought style and livability to everyone’s lives. Now the type of developer who commissioned this work struggles on the fringe (burdened by unimaginative banks and corporate-favoring regulations), leaving architects to largely fend for themselves.

The AIA’s efforts to give architects a voice through well-produced commercials is laudable, and helps give them a face in the public consciousness. But dispassionate corporate clients aren’t moved by touching stories. We can best demonstrate the value of architecture through effective case studies, through the language of hard numbers and money, and by hammering home what people really want—quality. Only then can we return architecture to the masses. It doesn’t matter if it’s a starchitect doing it or a corporate firm or a struggling startup. There is a thirst for better work, in any type of language, from edgy to traditional. America is tired of banality, and it doesn’t care if the replacement is contemporary or traditional. As long as they’re carried out well, styles don’t matter. In fact, the more styles and the more approaches the better.

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Skyscraping and Staying Down-to-Earth
NBBJ's proposed nuCLEus tower in Cleveland.
COURTESY NBBJ

After years of chilly development prospects, downtowns across the Midwest are sizing up a skyscraper boom of sorts.

Local developers are playing high-stakes Jenga in downtown Cleveland, proposing to stack horizontal forms between high-rises that reach 54 stories at their tallest point. NBBJ’s design for nuCLEus, as it’s called, is bold. If approved by the city and realized according to plans, it would be the city’s fourth tallest building, and certainly among the skyline’s most eye-catching.

In Minneapolis, a call for proposals to redevelop downtown’s defunct Nicollet Hotel block received several submissions, including one for a new tower that would be substantially taller than Philip Johnson’s IDS Tower, the tallest building in the state. Duval Development tapped Perkins+Will to outline plans for a skyscraper 80 stories high, stirring debate about the Twin Cities’ urban character and the local real estate market. That buzz was ultimately for naught, however, as city planners rejected the plan one month later.

Shortly before Christmas Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel presided over a press conference confirming plans first made public five months earlier for a new supertall building in the Lakeshore East neighborhood—a proposal financed by Beijing-based Dalian Wanda Group. The 1,150-foot-tall, 88-story structure would be the first skyscraper over 300 meters since Trump Tower was completed in 2009; other than that, the city practically synonymous with tall building design and engineering hasn’t reached such heights in 25 years.

So what should midwesterners make of all this? While the interest in tall towers speak to development trends—real estate markets seem confident the Rust Belt rebound is here to stay, and it’s becoming a safer bet for large projects—they belie a larger question about design and urbanism in the region.

In the belt-tightening of various economic cycles over recent decades, cities in the Midwest and beyond have done best by returning to basic principles. In the years since the recession, we’ve seen good design even on meager budgets, and it often focuses on human-scale connections, inspired landscape design, street life—urban vibrancy in the least wonky sense. Think of the rise of landscape architecture as a discipline, the celebration of tactical urbanism and other grassroots initiatives, the general demographic shift back toward inner cities.

Minneapolis’ public process ended with doubt about their would-be skyscraper’s grasp of the local real estate market, even if the public (and at least one city councilman) seemed eager to set a new state record. That council member, Jacob Frey, said he hopes Duval Development takes up the plan elsewhere in the city. In December Alex Duval told AN, “No other site in Minneapolis satisfies the criteria that would sustain” such a building—we’ll see if he reconsiders. At any rate the City of Minneapolis has decided the tower was out of scale with its plans for remaking downtown.

The other two projects (and perhaps more coming soon) are still up for debate. I hope this round of skyscrapers builds on ground-level progress throughout the Midwest. Tall buildings, after all, afford more open space for their density—both nuCLEus and Wanda’s supertall allude to open space and urban context in their initial plans, but details are scant at this point. Cleveland and Chicago planners (and grassroots groups, if the city won’t take up the charge) need to demand greenery, human-scale considerations, and other contributions to public space.

Without overplaying the importance of any given project, how our new skyscrapers embrace the city at a human scale will answer a critical question for midwest downtowns on the rebound: Are today’s tall buildings a return to poor form, presaging a homogeneity of skylines with mere monuments to wealth? Or can we go tall again without losing that accessibility, modesty, and uncomplicated elegance that has always made the region a bastion for good design?

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Bridging the Digital-Material Divide
James Carpenter designed the facade of 7 World Trade Center.
David Sundberg / ESTO

The contemporary notion that what is called “research” should be an important component of every architectural practice is one that deserves further interrogation. If we think of research as something done by scholars, academics, and social scientists then what takes place in most architecture offices is most often little more than public relations or simply the instrumental steps in the creation of a design for a building. It is often the case that architecture offices are developing new ideas of building production (like BIM, digital fabrication, 3D printing, etc.) but even these tend to be aimed at specific design projects with clients and therefore not concerned with general professional or goals of the discipline. There is one area however where architects are doing primary research: the development of materials and how they impact design and are themselves changed through creative form making. In issue number seven of the architecture fanzine P.E.A.R. (Paper for Emerging Architectural Research), which comes from a London group of academics, architects, and the Royal Academy of Arts, they call this type of practice “material research” and investigate new models in its evolution. Architects, Adrian Forty argues in his P.E.A.R. essay, have always cared about construction materials, even as he quotes William Morris, who wrote that architects were falsifying their use and meaning—making one thing seem to be another.

This is true, Forty goes on, even if they “make a show of not caring, as Peter Eisenman famously did with his ‘house series.’” In fact, Forty’s concise yet thorough essay makes the point that there is no such thing as a “pure” material—all are the result of mixing human labor with substance “whether naturally-occurring or synthetic.” But his principle point and an important one for contemporary practice is that today digital fabrication has nearly eliminated human labor from the work of processing materials while making infinite variation possible. Architects now, he contends, can more fully concentrate on “what materials are used for—upon the end results.”

The leading edge in architecture ten to 15 years ago were those architects creating primarily in the digital field and staying there, as they were unable to build what they could imagine on the computer. But the students of these mostly academic practitioners have taken their ideas and are now slowly applying them to new and old materials to create a dizzyingly array of spaces, installations, and built forms. Some of these young architects have left the design studio and opened fabrication shops (most with their own CNC milling machines) where, applying the skills they learned in school, they work directly on and with materials. These practices are doing some of the most interesting work in the architectural field. Further, some of these workshops are in fact hybrid studio/machine shops, and thus are able to dig deep into the meaning and use of materials to create new forms and ideas for installation proposals and/or buildings when approached by other architects.

We are, it seems, only at the beginning of this design phenomena and for this reason The Architect’s Newspaper began three years ago its Facades+ conferences where we highlight the leading edge of new research and technological advancement in the field. The material that is most often considered in the Facades+ seminars is glass and its use in curtain walls. In fact, glass, both through industrial and professional research, is perhaps the single most developed material in the building world in the last 20 years, which may explain its ubiquity both in corporate and small scale design in every climatic condition from desert to alpine conditions. The recent Facades+ conference in Los Angeles featured James Carpenter, whose creative glass research, as a consultant to SOM, for the curtain wall of 7 World Trade Center in New York makes him one of the leading practitioners and glass researchers in the field. We will be reporting on Carpenter’s lecture in our next issue, along with other highlights from the conference and beyond.

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New Hope or a Phantom Menace?
MAD's rendering of the proposed Chicago Lucas Museum.
Courtesy MAD

At the start of this year if Chicagoans were readying for a battle over a high-profile museum project, it was Barack Obama’s presidential library. That project—though it’s sure to be contentious, too—will take shape in 2015. In the meantime filmmaker George Lucas has given the city plenty to discuss. After San Francisco’s Presidio Trust turned down his plans to erect a “cultural arts museum” at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, Lucas looked to Chicago, where he married local businesswoman Mellody Hobson last year.

Since the project shifted to Chicago, it has grown substantially in size—Lucas has committed to spending some $300 million to $400 million of his own money to finance what’s now called a “museum of narrative art”—and garnered design talent that far outshines his initial West Coast proposal. The nonprofit in charge of the museum tapped Beijing-based MAD Architects, as well as local darlings Studio Gang Architects and VOA. The project won’t officially go before the powers that be until next year, but conceptual renderings were released in November.

Detractors were vocal. How vocal? Well, enough that Frank Gehry stepped in to pen a defensive op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, dismissing the backlash as the shock of the new. That probably wasn’t helpful—there’s more to the criticism than that—but the speed with which much of the public wrote off this opportunity deserves some challenge.

 

There are three issues so far: the site, the process, and the design. The site is currently the subject of a lawsuit. As the 17 acres on Burnham Harbor between Soldier Field and McCormick Place is composed of lake infill, erstwhile green space crusaders Friends of the Parks have maintained that any privately financed construction there constitutes a violation of the state’s public trust doctrine. The legitimacy of that claim will be decided in court. Its optics, however, could scarcely be worse: open space advocates are in effect fighting for a surface parking lot used by the Chicago Bears (whose parking deal with the city virtually ensures they’ll benefit one way or another from their potential neighbors).

The battle of the public process surrounding the museum is somewhat of a proxy debate over Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s way of doing business. There’s little doubt that his political cache and private sector connections helped the city wheel and deal when the San Francisco proposal fell apart; it irks some that the city seemed ready with a controversial site in mind, basically ensuring some legal wrangling later. And it makes the whole thing feel like a foregone conclusion—an unfortunate sentiment that started off the conceptual design’s public relations campaign with a broken knee. Depending on your political alignment, you likely view Rahm’s modus operandi here, and elsewhere, as either effective leadership or an affront to government transparency.

The design, on the other hand, is somewhat of an incidental casualty in all of this. Irresistible Star Wars puns provided support for the clunky pejoratives and gut-reactions that have characterized much of the media commentary on the subject. Whoever chose to release the few MAD concepts before the Studio Gang–designed landscape work was available deserves some of the blame—while the fringes of these early renderings hint at some exciting human-scale spaces, we’re left with monolithic images that dare an already wary public not to call it out for starchitect object-worship. (The press release refers to Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe in what seem like rote platitudes here—not that I’d prefer retro designs, but the incongruity of those designers’ styles with the project as proposed appears to belie the PR team’s commitment to context.)

But there is a lot to love about the initial design, recognizing of course that it is a preliminary concept. We’re told there are myriad landscape improvements (burying a parking lot in favor of a park, essentially), including a new bridge over Burnham Harbor connecting the museum to Studio Gang’s eco-oasis on Northerly Island. There are public spaces throughout the building, including a rooftop observation deck and what appear to be layers of greenery and space-age hardscapes harboring human activity. I’d like to zoom in—what transit connections and other public benefits are possible? Let’s work to bring this design down to earth, instead of hitting hyperdrive to discredit it.

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Look to Lindsay
New York City in 1967.
John Atherton / Flickr

The City of New York that John Lindsay governed in 1966 was a very different one from the one we live in today. It was still reeling from the loss of its middle class to government subsidized suburbs, its infrastructure was crumbling, and there seemed to be few new ideas about how to deal with these issues and move forward. But the Lindsay administration, as Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in 1974, “occupied the historic moment when the [planning] profession was beginning to make itself felt,” when the city was “lavishing care, quality, and sophistication on the design of new buildings and urban landscapes.” He founded The Urban Design Group, one of the first design-led organizations that attempted to come up with public policy for urban space inside a government agency. The Group, for example, organized and catalogued the city’s complicated and overlapping infrastructure for the first time in a series of beautifully designed books. It made public service compelling for the first time for professional designers. It is hard to imagine any of the design-led non-profits that proliferate in this city without the early efforts of the Group.

Before the Lindsay administration, the last urban agencies in the United States to attempt to plan or design urban space was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the multiple agencies under the direction of Robert Moses. Moses’s idea about transportation in the city, for example, was to make its city streets as accommodating as possible for the automobile. The thinking was that everything should be done to allow the car to move through the city as quickly as possible. This model has had a vice grip over New York transportation planning since the 1920s, but Lindsay’s administration began carving into it with bicycle lanes taking over the streets for the first time. It was an obvious example of designers thinking about how to make a city with cleaner air and one that is fitter and more livable. There are many photos of the glamorous mayor biking around town in his suit and tie. But when Lindsay left office in 1973, the following administration, as critics like Yonah Freemark pointed out, slowly strangled many of his and the Urban Design Group’s ideas. The first bicycle lanes were removed during the Beame, Koch, and Giuliani administrations. These mayors, who knew that businesses did not like them blocking their curbside pick up and drop off lanes, went back to the Moses model of thinking and acting only for the automobile. Even city parks, on which Lindsay had published a white paper in 1965 in which he promoted them as sites for happenings and anti-war speeches (some of which he delivered), were slowly disregarded and left to flounder. Who can ever forget the ham fisted redesign and closure of Tompkins Square Park under Mayor David Dinkins that led to days of rioting in the East Village?

Its is fair to say that this lack of thinking about public space and infrastructure that marked the post-Lindsay administrations of New York came to a dead stop under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Not only did he hire public officials who made the connection between policy and actual physical design, but he allowed them the freedom to make changes based on a newer model of urban living that tried to tame the automobile and think about the act of living in the city. The streets, for example, were rethought, and where there were triangles of leftover, barely used carriageways, they became hard-surfaced parklets. Bicycle lanes were laid down all over the city and, of course, the bike share program took off like a rocket.  Streets were no longer only for the automobile, but became shared spaces for pedestrians and bicycles, and sometimes places for tables and chairs. But what about Bloomberg’s urban design legacy of improved parks, streets, and infrastructure? Will it go the way of Lindsay’s?

It seems clear that Mayor Bill de Blasio sees many of the Bloomberg initiatives as having only benefited the wealthy, and especially Manhattanites. But we have reported on the urban design issues surrounding de Blasio’s quick agreement over the Domino Sugar plan and Henry Melcher has written about de Blasio knocking Bloomberg’s parks legacy—a legacy that is widely respected in the city and beyond. De Blasio said, “I think [fighting inequality] is front and center in the philosophy of this administration and it applies to everything we’re doing—doesn’t matter if you’re talking about schools or job creation, or parks—it’s the way we see the world,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say the previous administration didn’t see the world that way.”

We have been critical in past editorials on the funding mechanism for spaces like the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park, but now they are there and should at least be maintained and improved. And as former New York City parks commissioner Adrian Benepe wrote, the Bloomberg administration put money into parks all over the city—not just Manhattan. It may be that de Blasio needs to stay focused on equity and affordable housing and to meet his laudable goals for this city, but lets just hope that he also thinks about the impact that construction and these improvements will have on the future livability of the city.

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Beyond the Starchitecture Debate
Paul Tuller

Frank flips the bird. Zaha sues a critic. Rem excludes the names of all architects in the Venice Biennale. With all their accolades and success, the biggest names in architecture, it seems, have adopted a combative, defensive crouch.

This posture is confusing. All three architects continue to shape the profession and produce significant buildings, but have they sensed a shift in their reputations? What’s getting under their skin? Is the celebrity/architecture complex beginning to break down?

Gehry, Koolhaas, and Hadid built their practices around strong individual talents with big personalities and identifiable styles. The younger generation of architects has yet to surpass the fame of Frank, Zaha, or Rem, or produce buildings of their globally recognized status. Some emerging architects are trying to follow in their footsteps, but many are not. The model and the goals of many younger practices have evolved.

Perhaps fame isn’t the point. Perhaps trophy buildings for rich institutions or corrupt regimes are not as enticing for emerging talents.

In his sharply tinged remarks to a Spanish journalist, Gehry exclaimed that 98 percent of the world’s buildings are “pure shit.” He has a point. We continue to tolerate poorly functioning, wasteful, ugly buildings, which do little to serve society and often do a lot to harm it. And certainly great museums and concert halls can inspire the public and educate them about the possibilities of design—but so too can a good public school or a community center or a hospital or a college lab building. Elevating the architecture of everyday life is as important as creating aspirational cultural buildings.

The media’s reaction to Gehry’s raised finger also illustrates the limitations of the celebrity-driven practice. It emphasizes personalities and styles over program, performance, and user experience. It flattens architecture into an image and turns the architect into a stylist. This is part of what Gehry was reacting so strongly against.

With the modernism/postmodernism wars of the 1970s and 80s fading into history, many younger architects want their practices to solve problems and engage with the programmatic, social, and ecological challenges of the day—all while pushing the limits of technology and design.

Bjarke Ingels, arguably the biggest celebrity architect of his generation, talks fluently (and very rapidly) about program, about sustainability, about narratives of place. He is always careful to declare his daring forms are in service of other needs. Has he just updated the Gehry/Hadid/Koolhaas model with more contemporary packaging? My sense is that there is more substance to it than that, but we’ll have to see as his firm develops and completes more built work.

Gehry, Hadid, and Koolhaas shouldn’t feel defensive. There will always be a global elite to support their work and trade on their brands. Other architects—and the media that covers them—should go about the business of fixing the remaining 98 percent of what gets built. We would all be better for it.

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Control the Message
Houston skyline viewed from Eleanor Tinsley Park.
Robert Blackie / Flickr

When I interviewed Thomas Woltz of landscape architecture practice Nelson Byrd Woltz about his research and initial design proposals for a rethinking of Houston’s Memorial Park, he mentioned a stinging comment that someone had made during one of the project’s public outreach sessions. It ran something like, “We don’t need your weenie, leftist, green, bicycling unfit-for-print!” A comment left under a story about the project on the Houston Chronicle’s website struck a similar tone: “Leave it alone, Woltz. I don’t need you to ‘tell a story’ with our park. Mother Nature has done a far better job than you ever could.”

While these gripes contain a number of fallacies—design professionals don’t need that pointed out to them—the pervasiveness of this sort of opposition makes it a factor that any architect must face when undertaking a project that is open to public review and input. And though the remarks above may have a certain regional flavor specific to Texas and the Southwest, this brand of misinformed, knee-jerk reaction is common all across our great nation. It seems, in fact, to be endemic in the American Grain.

As such, architects and landscape architects with ambitions to enter the public realm need to be prepared to deal with entrenched positions and prejudiced bloviating just as much as they need to keep their ears peeled for justifiable criticism and the opinions of locals who might know a site and how they want to use it best. Sure, designers should listen carefully to a community’s needs in order to make “careful insertions” that will “heal the public realm” by promoting “connectivity and open exchange,” or whatever, but a good idea is a good idea, and just as often as not too much influence from a divided and querulous populace can spell its death.

What I’m getting at is that, often, in order to protect the integrity of a good design it has to be carried through opposition without distortion. This can require certain actions that may not make the press release—backroom dealing, ardent cajoling, pugilistic obstinacy, etc. Luckily for architects, this dirty work falls mostly within the domain of the politician. But architects should pay attention to how ambitious projects are taken through the public approval process because it can help them craft their presentations to better ensure that the ideas that matter make it to construction.

A couple of examples of figures in Houston who have handled this tricky process well come quickly to mind. One is Judge Roy Hofheinz, who gleefully referred to himself as the Grand Huckster. Even before almost single handedly assembling the land, funding, and county approval for the Astrodome, he was known for swimming against the current to improve the city. As Mayor of Houston and as Harris County Judge, he was able to sell voters on new taxes in order to fund a range of civic improvements, such as paving the roads.

Another, more apropos, example is current Houston Mayor Annise Parker. In order to drum up money to pay for the Memorial Park improvements, rather than propose a bond referendum (which would certainly have been shot down) she approached the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (or TIRZ, a Texas variety of tax increment financing) and convinced them to redraw their boundaries to include the park. It was an easy enough sell. An improved park will only hike up Uptown real estate prices, thus feeding the TIRZ with increased property taxes.

Hofheinz and Parker both exhibit how to pitch a matter so that the stakeholders involved can see how it benefits them, even against their first inclinations. It is a skill that any architect would want in their quiver, even when dealing with a private client.

As for Woltz, he knows that maintaining the integrity of his firm’s design for Memorial Park is important. “We do need to listen to the public, but we are charged with a high goal. Never again is there going to be a 1,500-acre park in the middle of Houston,” he said. Fortunately, not everyone in the Bayou City stands against him. Other comments left under the same Chronicle story mentioned above include: “I like the plan,” and “It sounds great!” and “Fantastic!”

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Build More Affordable Housing
La Brea Affordable Housing by Patrick Tighe Architecture and John V. Mutlow Architecture was recently completed in Los Angeles.
Art Gray

Now that the Great Recession is more or less over (for the time being) there seems to be a mistaken sense that we’re all doing better. But if you’re someone who can’t afford the rent—and that number is growing as rents nationwide grow astronomically—that couldn’t be further from the truth. In California that issue is problematic not just in San Francisco, but also in Los Angeles.

According to a recent study by the state-funded California Housing Partnership Corporation, the financial crisis converted homeowners into renters and drove down salaries. In Los Angeles County, the study asserts, rents went up 25 percent from 2000 to 2012, but incomes fell 9 percent. They indicate that the county now needs at least 490,340 more affordable homes. Reinforcing these findings, a recent study by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs found that LA is now the most unaffordable rental market in the country, with lower incomes than those of cities like New York and San Francisco and only a small difference in rent.

The private market, which zeroes in on maximum profit, isn’t much help. In the Los Angeles Times, urbanist Joseph Mailander pointed out that the market “works to serve only the affluent and double-income professionals, because the returns to the builder and the contractor are so much more promising than they are for building starter homes.”

Meanwhile government support has waned dramatically. The city has allowed its affordable housing trust fund to nosedive, using its resources to pay off deficits, while federal Housing and Urban Development funds have fallen off severely. According to the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department, federal and city money for affordable housing has dropped from $108 million per year in 2008 to $26 million this year.

There are signs that the city and the affordable housing world are beginning to address the problem. Affordable housing developers, unable to rely on as many public funds, have gotten creative at financing projects through new grant sources and public-private partnerships, to name some strategies. And last month Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a goal of building 100,000 new housing units in Los Angeles by 2021 through restoring the Affordable Housing Trust Fund; subsidizing affordable housing on sites currently owned by METRO, the city’s transit agency; and cutting red tape on building in general through development streamlines and CEQA reform.

But much more needs to be done, and fast. For one, the city should take councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s advice and put at least 25 percent of its former Community Redevelopment Authority funds into affordable housing. The city should impel developers to include more affordable housing in their buildings, with such demands offset by allowing developers to build higher and denser. Another good technique: other west coast cities like Seattle and San Francisco have effectively forced developers of non-housing projects to pay “linkage fees” to help support affordable housing.

Meanwhile Los Angeles should think more creatively with its models and codes. It can follow some cities in Europe by developing its own affordable housing on government-owned land (transit sites should be just the beginning). And it can update zoning restrictions to battle sprawl with affordable density and allow, for example, prefab homes and even shipping containers to be made into affordable housing.

None of these plans should badly burden businesses, or the city, but all will benefit from a healthy mix of income. Among other things, affordable housing means stable communities, more jobs (affordable housing encourages companies to move in), shorter commutes (and hence less traffic and pollution), and less (very costly) homelessness. We may think we’re getting more prosperous as our economy improves, but that will prove to be a dangerous, and expensive, mirage if we don’t manage our development the right way.

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Infrastructure to Build The Future
The Englewood Flyover replaces a ground-level intersection between the north-south Metra Rock Island tracks and a set of east-west Norfolk Southern tracks at 63rd and State streets.
Courtesy Norfolk Southern

Important as many high-tech items on urbanist wish-lists may be these days, a lot of American infrastructure still hurts for simple fixes. Regional and federal leaders gathered in Chicago on October 23 to celebrate the opening of a railroad bridge in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood: A prosaic piece of steel with an outsized impact on freight traffic from coast to coast, as well as the area’s own economic future.

The Englewood Flyover, as it’s called, is a $142 million elevated rail crossing that replaces a ground-level intersection between the north-south Metra Rock Island tracks and a set of east-west Norfolk Southern tracks at 63rd and State streets. By rerouting traffic during schedule conflicts, it remedies a congestion point often blamed for snarling the progress of both commuter rail lines and freight movers who must pass through the area on their way across the continent.

As AN’s Alan G. Brake noted in 2012, it can take as long for trains to travel from the West Coast to Chicago as it can to cross the city itself, due to uncoordinated and outmoded systems and infrastructure. The flyover is a major element of the Chicago Regional Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE), a suite of rail improvements and switching upgrades that federal transportation officials say will help the Chicago area, which sees as much as one quarter of the entire nation’s freight traffic, get up to speed.

It took years for a simple fix such as the Flyover to become reality, but it’s worth acknowledging that it was built at all—many similar projects await the approval of a Congress loath to allocate money for infrastructure improvements. The need to do so grows every year. In a recent report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that national freight rail and truck traffic had approached levels of 2007 prior to the economic recession. They cited a Miami-area study that found rail crossings there have caused delays of roughly 235,000 person-hours per year at a cost of $2.4 million.

Last year AN called on planners, developers, and urban designers to look for solutions that would tie the revival of Chicago’s shipping industry to enhanced quality of life and sustainability. Against the backdrop of the Flyover’s opening, that imperative is even more clear. As the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the opening makes clear, such projects are about more than just freight.

“We’re sick and tired of the dust and the dirt and the delays and not getting the dough,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush at the opening ceremony, referring to scandals that marred the negotiations leading up to the Flyover’s completion. Rush and Metra were involved in a bitter spat over hiring minority bidders, in which Metra’s then-CEO Alex Clifford alleged improprieties from Rush on behalf of a local organization, and Rush alleged racial bias and criticized the lack of local employment opportunities.

Emissions and noise from idling trains have long been a problem for the Englewood neighborhood, an African-American neighborhood reeling from disinvestment and entrenched poverty. The Flyover should reduce that, but future CREATE projects need to engage with local organizations to ensure economic development for the nation’s freight carriers does not come at the expense of local opportunities. In the meantime, the Flyover’s opening underscores the importance of infrastructure improvements in the Chicago region and across the country.

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Shady Thoughts
The Mayor's Volunteer Corps plants treesalong the city's first Great Street, Cesar Chavez Avenue.
Courtesy City Plants

On the heels of several stifling Los Angeles heat waves it’s a good time to address one of my biggest issues with the city: the profound lack of street trees.

Why, I wonder, would a place known for sunny, cloudless skies and baking heat remain so poor at providing shade? The city is well below the national average in tree canopy cover, and its abundance of existing palm trees, which suck up too much water and provide little-to-no shade, does not do the trick. The tree-related problems are many, and they all need to be fixed.

The first is a similar refrain: the city’s bureaucracy, which often stifles coordination, innovation, and action. Right now the planting of trees is overseen by disconnected and hobbled departments. And the act of planting a tree in front of one’s property, or on a nearby median, involves enough rules, permits, and time that it dissuades many from attempting. For instance, various friends of mine have been either forced to cut down existing trees (because they exceeded spacing requirements, which still confuse me), have been unable to reach the city’s Urban Forestry Division about planting more trees, or have had no follow up on complaints of neighbors cutting down their trees.

The city’s aging infrastructure—such as decaying irrigation systems—makes things even more difficult, and there’s no fix in sight.

The second is also familiar: a lack of funding. The budget of the Urban Forestry Division under the Bureau of Street Services has been cut back so severely that the majority of their work now involves just emergency tree maintenance and planting oversight.

The third is a little more unusual. Because of the city’s car dominance, business owners are afraid of trees blocking their signs. Hence they practice techniques such as “topping,” in which they cut off the top of a tree to keep their sign visible, or just cutting down trees altogether.

There doesn’t yet seem to be the legislative will, the money, or the ability to change these situations. If LA Mayor Eric Garcetti is truly committed to making great streets in the city, and to making the city more pedestrian friendly, he needs to further embrace trees, which not only provide shade, but clean and cool the air, stabilize and purify the water supply, and beautify and transform neighborhoods.

There are some encouraging signs. While the city’s Urban Forestry Division is largely down and out, City Plants, the successor to the city’s Million Trees LA initiative (a program of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that fell well short of its goal of planting a million trees), is a non profit focused on planting trees in “low canopy” areas, but it also branches into commercial corridors and other important zones. Largely funded by the Department of Water and Power and by private donations, the organization has become the city’s de facto tree agency.

It’s not ideal to have a non-profit running a city’s tree efforts, and City Plants won’t release its budget. Nonetheless the agency has done an effective job, partnering with other non-profits and upping the total number of trees planted since Million Trees was founded to about 500,000, mostly drought tolerant trees. (Still the organization insists that its goal is not the number of trees planted, preferring to focus on key need areas). Each tree costs about $500 to plant, including concrete removal, so this is no small task.

Tree planting is also a major part of Garcetti’s “Great Streets” initiative, an effort to make the city’s streets more walkable and livable. The goal is admirable, but funding for tree planting as part of the program has not yet been accounted for. As of now tree planting would have to be sponsored by local businesses and community groups like business improvement districts. If the program gets more funding in the city’s next budget that could change, say sources in City Hall.

Meanwhile the Department of Public Works and other agencies have proposed updated guidelines for planting trees and landscaping near houses, businesses, and in parkways—streamlining and making sense of a difficult process—but so far the city has yet to pass such measures.

So the city is far from where it should be. It needs to dedicate its own resources to this effort, not depend on non-profits, it needs to widen the scope of tree planting to more neighborhoods, and it needs to simplify and improve its oversight. With global warming the days are only going to get hotter, and there’s no excuse for a concrete jungle lacking trees in a place like this. If you’ve ever walked down an LA street and wondered why you felt so uncomfortable you need to do your part to make sure this happens.

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Make Way for People, Profit
Four examples of Chicago's People Spots.
Courtesy CDOT

Chicago’s pleasantly mild summer hung on through September, save for a brief cold snap that so rudely intruded before its time, and as such Chicagoans have been spending a lot of time outside. That’s to the benefit of their wellbeing, but also to the pockets of local businesses that happen to be located by a People Spot—one of several “placemaking” initiatives underway across the city.

Such was the conclusion of the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), members of which spent the summer studying People Spots to gauge what impact they had on local businesses. People Spots are small parks that take the place of parking spaces for pop-up, seasonal parks. (The parking is replaced somewhere else in the neighborhood, lest Chicago’s parking overlords at Morgan Stanley feel put upon.) The city has experimented with nine people spots, from the far North Side to Bronzeville. Part of the “Make Way for People” program, People Spots are all handicap accessible, and typically feature planters, benches, and functional art along a street with high foot traffic.

 

When the idea was first floated a few years ago, some local business owners and commentators were skeptical—wouldn’t displacing street parking make it harder for small business owners to attract customers who might arrive by car? According to MPC, who observed 400 visitors across all nine People Spots, the opposite was true: 80 percent of businesses by People Spots saw increased foot traffic during the summer survey period. What’s more, MPC interviewed 100 visitors and a few dozen adjacent business owners. They found roughly one third of People Spot users surveyed said they’d be at home if not for the parklet, and one third said they had made unplanned purchases in the area before, during, or after hanging out in the space.

Michael Salvatore, owner of Heritage Bicycles at 2959 North Lincoln Avenue told MPC the People Spot in front of his space was “Instagram Heaven,” and the free advertising on social media corresponded to more customers. Other business owners had similar observations. Some even said their spots led to sales upticks of 10 to 20 percent.

“Even if [people] do not patronize the business that day, they may be more likely to return another time,” said Mark Robertson, who told MPC he’s planning to open an upscale restaurant on the south end of Andersonville and would welcome a People Spot.

It’s important not to overstate the power of putting a parking space to pedestrian use as a parklet, even when they’re nicely designed. The spots don’t enliven streets on their own, of course—so far they’ve mostly invigorated already attractive retail corridors like Bronzeville’s 47th Street and Clark Street in Andersonville.

But MPC’s survey helps urbanists put the value of public space in business terms. It should be a little clearer now that placemaking—activating streets, giving preference to pedestrians, whatever you want to call it—can be good for economic development. Let’s hope that’s a lesson we’ll find verified again as more public spaces pop up around Chicago.

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Real Change for a Changing Climate
(Flickr / Climate Action Network International)

As we worked to finish our annual environmental issue, nearly 400,000 people marched through Midtown Manhattan to demand political action to address climate change. It was the largest gathering ever dedicated to the issue. Thousands of additional events took place around the world to echo the message that decisive action on climate change is urgently needed. Attending the march, the atmosphere was festive and empowering. The sense was that change is not only possible, but that it is long overdue. For New Yorkers the issue has become personal. The memories of Hurricane Sandy remain fresh in our minds.

Over the course of his administration, President Obama has announced strong new regulations for power plants, raised mileage standards for cars and trucks, and invested in alternative energy through the Recovery Act. In mid September, the administration announced steep voluntary cuts in hydrofluorocarbons—mostly used in air conditioning and refrigeration—by working with large corporations. He has arguably done more to address climate change than any other president, all in the face of an obstructionist Congress and the Republicans’ cynical, anti-science agenda. And yet these measures are not nearly enough to curb our emissions, let alone compensate for rising emission rates in the developing world.

A recent study suggests that drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not only possible, but will save money in the long run. According to the New Climate Economy Report 2014, “the structural and technological changes unfolding in the global economy, combined with multiple opportunities to improve economic efficiency, now make it possible to achieve better growth and better climate outcomes.

The report puts urbanization at the center of the fight to reduce emissions. The sprawling development pattern in the U.S. wastes money and resources, according to the report: “New modeling for this report shows that the incremental external costs of sprawl are about $400 billion per year, due to increased costs of providing public services, higher capital requirements for infrastructure, lower overall resource productivity, and accident and pollution.” Addressing sprawl will be the first line of offense in reversing our outsized emissions in an economically viable way.

Climate change is one area where the architecture/design/urbanism communities have taken the lead. The professions can and must do much more. In already dense areas, like New York, improving the efficiency of our buildings has the greatest potential to reduce our already modest (by U.S. standards) emissions. On the day of the People’s Climate March, Mayor de Blasio announced a plan to cut the city’s emissions by 80 percent over 2005 levels by 2050. Nearly three quarters of the city’s greenhouse gases can be traced to its buildings. As a first step, the mayor created a plan to upgrade 3,000 city owned buildings, and pledged to work with the private sector in incentivize efficiency upgrades. Though these upgrades will come with upfront costs, the city estimates a savings of $1.4 billion in energy costs by 2025.

The New York Chapter has quickly moved to embrace the Mayor’s plan, releasing the following statement: “The American Institute of Architects New York Chapter (AIANY) commends the mayor’s pledge to drastically reduce the City’s greenhouse gas emissions by focusing on building design. AIANY has long advocated for local laws and code changes that support energy conservation. Upgrades to public buildings, including housing, that concentrate on renewable energy sources and innovative design solutions, will benefit all New York City residents and set a powerful example for the private sector and the rest of the world. New York’s architects stand ready to help carry out this work.”

We couldn’t agree more.