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Southwest Specifics
Panaorama of Houston.
Dan Baxter / Flickr

The architecture community these days, for the most part, is “pro-urban” by indoctrination. Some even go so far as to label themselves “urbanists,” as though a preference for living in cities where one can walk to the grocery store or the bar somehow situates them on the opposite side of a yawning chasm from people who drive to accomplish the same things—much in the way the “Marxist” tag drew a hard line in intellectual circles of generations past. Along with the pompous branding is a turgid conviction that greater density, smaller residences, and more mass transit is not only the righteous thing, it is a foregone conclusion, the obvious trajectory of our growing population, diminishing resources, and shifting demographic predilections. But not everyone who thinks about this stuff is so convinced.

Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the National Housing Institute, recently expressed a more cautious view of the recent trend of urban in-migration in a post on rooflines.org. “As I read much of what is being written about demographic change and urban revival,” he wrote, “I see a lot of urbanist wishful thinking, along the same lines as the scenarios some pundits paint of exurban McMansions turning into slums and squatter colonies, as their former residents flee the suburbs for the cities like the residents of Pompeii fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius. Is it possible? Yes, but the evidence is not there.”

He goes on, “There is no compelling evidence of anything resembling the fundamental shift in values and attitudes on the part of millennials that would lead to most of them behaving that differently from earlier generations, and—to the extent that their means permit—buying suburban houses in which to raise their children, and, as often as not, commuting to work in the city in their Priuses.”

In the Southwest, and in Texas in particular, this discussion between urbanists and suburban defenders (I’ve never seen anyone label themselves a “suburbanist,” which may be some indication of on which side of this shouting match the true doctrinaires reside) seems a bit puzzling—a preoccupation of the Rust Belt and northern coasts, utterly tin-eared to the peculiarities and exigencies of our regional cities and built environment in general.

In Houston, just to take the largest and most perplexing example, the line between urban and suburban is fuzzy, if it exists at all. As opposed to a center city surrounded by outlying, tranquil bedroom communities there are four major employment centers—downtown only happens to be the largest—and many more minor ones spread out across a vast coastal prairie and filled in with single-family garden residences, apartment complexes, and vacant spaces left by the uninhibited, leapfrogging development. Each “center” carries its own mass and holds in thrall its own contingent of commuters, who rely almost exclusively upon automobiles for transit. So where in this “vast, attenuated conurbation,” to borrow a term from Lars Lerup, do you decide that you’re either in the city or in a suburb?

Just describing Houston is enough to make a card-carrying urbanist scoff and turn their attention back to a more northerly city with a large existing Victorian district or a fabric of 19th-century row houses. Add that to the fact that the term “Houstonization” is used as a pejorative by most architecture critics and you have to come to the conclusion that, if we wish to have a serious critical discussion about the future of urbanization in the Southwest, we’re going to have to come up with a language to discuss it ourselves.

From the perspective of this editor’s armchair, the urbanist view and Mallach’s cautious hedging are valuable steppingstones for reaching an understanding of a Southwest urbanism that breaks the mold of what either of those parties might consider to be urban. This publication is dedicated to investigating that progress in all the unique particularities of the places where it arises—as any architect worth their salt would do when approaching a new project.

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What's After
Bill de Blasio walks toward City Hall.
Rob Bennett

With his fiery rhetoric about inequality, Mayor Bill de Blasio is clearly a man on a mission. He has moved quickly to rework police and detention procedures and close substandard facilities for the homeless. He is aggressively pushing his plan for universal pre-kindergarten, which he would pay for by taxing the very rich.

Aside from his much-touted goals of preserving and adding to the city’s stock of affordable housing, the mayor’s goals for the physical city are vague. He, quite frankly, doesn’t seem that interested in planning and design. At least not yet.

Though he has appointed strong and experienced individuals to various housing posts, much of his team that will manage and shape the city’s built environment remains unfilled. As of press time, the Department of Design and Construction, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission remain leaderless or led by holdovers from Bloomberg who are not expected to stay long term. (De Blasio is expected to appoint Mitchell Silver today to head the Department of Parks and Recreation.) Sources within these agencies have grumbled about the slow pace of the appointments and a growing feeling of rudderlessness in city government.

The exception being the Department of City Planning, which de Blasio has filled with the veteran real estate and business improvement district czar, Carl Weisbrod. While Weisbrod is undoubtedly qualified, few in design and urbanism circles seemed enthusiastic about the appointment. Can Weisbrod, a consummate insider, bring in new ideas and resist the entrenched power of the city’s real estate interests? What is his vision for the Department and for the role of planning in this chaotic and congested metropolis?

It is a radical departure from Michael Bloomberg, who had a greater impact on the physical city than anyone since Robert Moses. He staffed his agencies with hard driving private sector appointees, who sought to remake the city with mega projects and fine-grained policy changes. Bloomberg’s deputies drew on best practices from around the globe, and used the city as a lab to test them. And if Bloomberg himself became increasingly tin-eared in this third term—defending one percenters and swatting down calls to rein in Wall Street—an unanticipated effect was that many of his urban policies came to be eyed with suspicion. Good planning and design policies seemed like agents of gentrification and homogenization. The mayor’s vast personal wealth and autocratic tendencies added to the notion that his planning and design initiatives were a kind of “trickle-down” urbanism—geared to please the few but eventually benefitting many more. Bloomberg failed to see how his elitist reputation was coloring his entire stint as mayor (shortly before the election he snapped that he found de Blasio’s rhetoric “racist,” an especially clumsy charge given de Blasio’s interracial family.)

All New Yorkers benefit from cleaner air, more parkland, and safer, more diverse streetscapes—all of which Bloomberg championed and created. They will also benefit from de Blasio’s priorities: more affordable housing and a more inclusive and economically diverse citizenry. Let’s hope the many positive aspects of Bloomberg’s legacy are not abandoned as de Blasio rightly tries to turn his “Tale of Two Cities” into one.

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Pitfalls of Democracy
San Francisco voters scuttled the waterfront 8 Washington development.
Courtesy SOM

A couple months ago, San Francisco voters turned back 8 Washington, SOM’s 134-unit condominium project along the Embarcadero, ending a seven-year battle. This month politics were again front and center in the city’s planning process, as a group led by former mayor Art Agnos made waves to get the planned Warriors’ arena at Pier 30-32 on the upcoming June Ballot. The arena, argues the group, could be moved to the spot where Candlestick Park will soon be demolished. Finally, the Sierra Club is threatening to fight other projects that will alter the waterfront heights, including 75 Howard, a 31-story condominium, and Seawall Lot 337, a mixed-use development near AT&T Park.

On the surface it seems logical that voters should be able to vote on large projects. The will of the public should decide the fate of the urban realm, right? But when you start to drill down it is not that simple.

The ballot, it turns out, can be used by developers and the wealthy and powerful to stop projects just like any other mechanism. And since voting levels are so depressingly low and issues so complex, the people that usually come out to vote are those in opposition. It is especially a problem in a city where the itch to keep things the way they are often gets in the way of progress.

“Unfortunately the ballot is a tool that is readily available to wealthy homeowners and special interests in California,” said Gabe Metcalf of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. “They can hire lawyers and pay for signature gathering.” He added that this kind of approach will inevitably slow the city’s new architecture to a crawl. “Every project in the city is treated as discretionary. I think the general direction we need to be moving in is to make the zoning matter so that projects that conform with zoning are welcomed and permitted.”

Speaking even louder on the topic is local architect Anne Fougeron.

“It’s completely out of control,” said Fougeron. “You can’t run a city if there’s always a possibility that the decisions your elected officials and planners have made can be curtailed by special interests.” Speaking to blanket opposition, Fougeron said, “What does the Sierra Club know about height legislation and planning? It trivializes what our planners do; people who spend a lot of time studying these issues.”

I don’t recommend approving every major development that goes up; certainly not ones in sensitive areas like the waterfront. But when projects go through years of neighborhood and planning review to meet the specific needs of the community then they should generally be given a better chance to stand. Especially when large shares of their revenues go towards infrastructure and affordable housing funds. Just as California’s statewide referendum process gets corrupted by special interests, so does its local one. The language and information in these initiatives needs to be more tightly regulated to avoid misleading the public, the processes that allow these items to get on the ballot need to be much more tightly scrutinized, and there needs to be more outreach to the public about the consequences of each measure. Until that changes the ballot measure in California, while seeming like a democratic process, will always be susceptible to the maneuverings of the powerful.

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Affluenza and Architecture
Background photo by Joits / Flickr; Montage by AN

The tragic case of Ethan Couch, the well-heeled North Texas teen who killed four people and seriously injured two others in a Dallas suburb when he ran into them drunk in his Ford F-350 pickup truck, has by now fallen out of the news cycle. The nationally voiced outrage at his relatively lax sentence—10 years probation and mandatory therapy at a cushy California in-patient facility—the vitriolic calls for the de-benching of the judge who handed it down, the needling criticisms of the defense’s claims that Couch’s behavior should be attributed to “affluenza” and not his possible moral turpitude, and the pious sermonizing on the exceptionalism afforded to the rich have all been relegated, at least for now, to the backburner. In my mind that makes it a perfect time to look at yet another target in the whirlwind of finger pointing that followed the trial: the built environment in which Couch did his growing up.

In a piece titled “The Affluenza Society” published in the New York Times, James McAuley takes the position that the most important aspect of the Couch case might be that it serves as “a metaphor for the dark side of suburban cosmology.” McAuley claims that the gated community in Keller, Texas, where Couch lived is a place that is somehow removed from the law. “Few would dispute that millions of affluent—typically white—Americans choose to live in communities whose primary raison d’étre is to afford their residents a pampered escape, a chance to withdraw from the barbarians at the gate and from every external reality imaginable. The Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs are a prime example of this particular strain of ‘affluenza,’” wrote McAuley. He also pointed out that Couch’s dad’s place is located near a thoroughfare called “Confederate Park Road.”

While this sort of cleverly phrased critique plays well with the readership of the Times, it is a long way from getting to the bottom of what is really wrong with the suburbs. Not only is it shallow, it is an irresponsible promotion of the black-and-white view that suburbs are intrinsically bad and inner cities essentially good.

I grew up in a similar milieu as Couch and have spent the last 16 years in New York City. As secluded and economically homogenous as it was, there was nothing in my west Houston neighborhood that suggested to me that I was insulated from the law. Similarly, my shoebox of an apartment in Brooklyn has been just as effective a place to “withdraw from the barbarians at the gate” as was my parent’s suburban homestead.

It is undeniable that the suburbs—especially those developed in the last 20 years—are becoming ever more grotesque and unsustainable, not to mention remote from the ideals of the theorists who created their predecessors (I can’t imagine that Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned people by the hundreds driving gas-guzzling vehicles to eat at a restaurant by the freeway called Fuddruckers). There is a multitude of reasons to reform this mode of development, but none of them are because it is a breeding ground for sociopaths. Furthermore, I believe it will be reformed, not by executive order, but by a market change that is already two decades in the making, in which the young, ambitious, and, in fact, affluent are moving to and creating a demand for more urban-scaled environments.

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What Does Regionalism Look Like?
OZinOH / Flickr

With New Year’s already far away in the rearview mirror, those who made resolutions may already find themselves struggling to stay true. It is a good time to reevaluate your way forward whether you are reconsidering choices made on January 1 or in the years that led up to that day. That goes for Chicago area planners and politicians, too.

As Greg Hinz noted in Crain’s Chicago Business, political leaders from the Chicago area’s seven counties gathered at the end of last year for an unpublicized meeting of the minds. At the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Chicago Deputy Mayor Steve Koch, and Chicago Metropolitan agency for Planning head Randy Blankenhorn heard presentations from regional leaders. Preckwinkle had called the meeting to discuss “opportunities for collaboration” among Cook and its ‘collar’ counties, which often find themselves at odds with one another.

“I can’t tell you the last time I’ve heard of anything quite like it,” wrote Hinz.

Of course it is easier to talk collaboration than to implement it. Chicago still trumpets victory over the suburbs when it poaches company headquarters (just this year Google’s Motorola Mobility was a big get). And the city-suburbs battle goes back just about to the birth of the area’s sprawl itself.

But it is also true that we have seen a convergence of the challenges facing Chicago and its surrounding towns and cities. Poverty and foreclosure are by no means constrained to city limits. A review of U.S. Census Bureau data by the nonprofit Heartland Alliance in September found Chicago’s suburbs have nearly as many people living in poverty as the city does—a population up 95 percent from 1990. A heroin epidemic affecting communities nationwide is especially pronounced in the Chicago region, with new users more likely to be white, suburban, and in their late teens or 20s. Suburban tropes about the dangerous city are outdated.

City prejudices against the suburbs are unraveling, too. Transit-connected cities, especially, are reinvesting in walkable downtowns, landscaped (often river-front) parks and promenades—development plans that sound decidedly urban. Chicago’s workforce largely lives in the suburbs. Each might be seen as the other’s greatest asset.

The point being that city and suburb have more to learn from one another than to quarrel over. So what would a Chicago-area “regionalism” look like? At December’s meeting, Preckwinkle’s office convened working subcommittees to look into opportunities for the city and suburbs to work together on issues like freight and logistics, exports, and food processing. They are going to meet again in six months.

Reviving the region’s freight and logistics industry is a matter this editorial page has explored before. More than one quarter of all jobs in the state are in industries tied directly to freight, according to a recent CMAP report. It would serve the whole region well to encourage compact development around corridors that could support the resurgent freight and advanced manufacturing industries.

Sprawl is one major way city and suburban interests diverge. Though cheap at first, flipping farmland into new exurban real estate increases transportation costs (and gas emissions) for those who live or work in the far-flung developments. It is tougher to reconnect these areas to transit, or remedy segregation, after the fact. Could we build up nodes for land-intensive industries like manufacturing and freight in the collar counties, where the expertise already exists, and continue to develop downtown’s burgeoning tech sector at the same time?

Regionalism is not a buzzword for urbanists and suburbanites to wield against one another in service of their own short-term interests. (Illustrated in Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s spate with suburban Waukesha over its contentious request for access to Lake Michigan’s closely guarded supply of drinking water.) It is about developing places that work for themselves and for each other, reinforcing a sense of place that goes beyond the block, the neighborhood, or the subdivision.

It can be a guiding force for sustainable development. Kaid Benfield, who blogs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it perfectly when he said “city sustainability is about the environment, even when it isn’t”—that is, anything that makes living in cities more rewarding helps forward the environmental benefits that dense development holds over sprawl. The same goes for a region.

This summer, when the Chicago-area group meets again, we hope this is one New Year’s resolution the region’s leaders decide to keep.

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Beyond BridgeGate
Courtesy wikipedia commons

Scandal continues to engulf the administration of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. His presidential ambitions appear to be dashed, his position as head of the Republican Governors Association is in doubt, and some question whether he can effectively run the state for the remainder of his term. And while The Architect’s Newspaper is not a particularly political publication, it is worth noting how many of the incidents that now cloud Christie’s governorship relate to poor policies on the part of his administration related to the built environment. 

The most obvious of these is, of course, “Bridgegate” itself, where Christie appointees to the bi-state Port Authority closed four local access lanes to the town of Fort Lee, tying up traffic for four days on what has widely been called “the busiest bridge in the world.” A massive and vital piece of infrastructure appears to have been used in a petty political maneuver, the exact motivation of which and level of involvement by the Governor are in dispute.

Beyond Bridgegate, Christie’s administration has repeatedly failed on transportation issues, especially on transit and regional connectivity policies and administration. Christie famously ran for office with the cancelation of the so-called ARC tunnel as a top priority, claiming New Jersey taxpayers would be responsible for 70 percent of its costs. A 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office found that Christie vastly overstated the contribution required of New Jersey taxpayers, which would have been less than 15 percent. Martin E. Robins, an early director of the ARC project, told the Times. “In hindsight, it’s apparent that [Christie] had a highly important political objective: to cannibalize the project so he could find an alternate way of keeping the transportation trust fund program moving, and he went ahead and did it."

Then there was the needless flooding of New Jersey Transit trains during Hurricane Sandy, which resulted in more than $100 million in damage due to poor planning. Even the “mass transit Super Bowl” was marred by sloppy crowd estimates and subpar planning, which left some football fans stranded for nearly three hours.

Similarly, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s account of being threatened by the Lieutenant Governor with withholding Sandy-rebuilding funds from the city unless Zimmer supported a controversial development project is only the most high profile of many questions surrounding the dispersal of Sandy-related funds. Zimmer, according to the Times, entered local politics because she wanted to do what she could to address climate change, a poignant motivation for a political near novice in a tiny, highly vulnerable harbor-side city. Christie famously disputed manmade climate change and the increasing severity of natural disasters.

What emerges here is a pattern of policy-making and administration motivated by political gain (or vengeance) rather than by good governance. This is a losing strategy over the long term, regardless of party affiliation. As many economists have noted, cities are leading the economic recovery, a trend that is only going to increase given most demographic indicators. As our cover story, “Jersey More,” shows large, dense projects are reshaping many cities in the Garden State.     Many Republicans support anti-city policies reflexively. Good urban policy should not be a partisan issue. Chris Christie may be learning that lesson the hard way: with his career.

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Blow Your Horn For Urbanism
Rios Clementi Hale's Sunset Triangle Plaza.
Jim Simmons

A couple of weeks ago, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne sat down with LA mayor Eric Garcetti at Occidental College’s Keck Theater to discuss the changing face of LA. The city, as Hawthorne mentioned (and as I have pointed out on numerous occasions), is undergoing a tectonic shift from a car-oriented, sprawling, and private city to a transit-oriented, dense, public-oriented one. So it seems fitting that LA has a mayor who, at least in his words, supports these changes and takes architecture and urban design seriously.

In many ways the discussion was a chance for Garcetti to tout his accomplishments in the urban realm as both mayor and councilman, from the establishment of the Great Streets Initiative, meant to improve the pedestrian and bike experience on the city’s thoroughfares, to the installation of hundreds of new bicycle lanes, to the installation of numerous pocket parks. He also promised to start construction on a subway connection to LAX (and the extension of several other lines) before the end of his tenure, help re-fund the city’s affordable housing trust fund, complete the effort to recode our outdated zoning system, and he mentioned that he was tripling the size of the city’s Urban Design Office (albeit from one person to three). He spoke about his lobbying trip to the White House to fight for the transformation of the LA River, and mentioned that the Federal Government was now choosing between alternatives, not just weighing whether or not to do something.

And you know what? A little bragging is ok. Granted many of these initiatives were started before Garcetti started office, and any of these accomplishments come from a large pool of people, not simply from his desk. But if somebody has a record in the urban realm to brag about, I want to hear about it. I want more people (particularly people outside of our fields) to understand that urban change can be a positive thing, not something to fear. Sure, not all change is good. But change in LA is inevitable, and if we know what we’re getting, and are willing to fight for the best result, then we can shape it to fit our needs.

As much as we lament that LA’s fractured political system leaves our mayor without much power, having an ally in the urban realm is a gift that we can’t take for granted. The mayor can appoint the right people in relevant departments (planning, building, transportation, etc.); he can issue executive orders; and he can rally people behind major initiatives. Just look what Mayor Bloomberg was able to achieve in New York City.     Garcetti also wasn’t shy to attack the unsuccessful schemes that the city has undertaken in the past. He attacked the LAUSD’s recent wave of schools as “fortresses” that “don’t talk to the architecture of the city.” And he joked that widening the 405 Freeway was “analogous to finding a slightly bigger sponge to throw in the ocean.

That being said he did not turn a critical eye on what he hasn’t accomplished, or what problems he could still address. Why, for instance, is our planning department reactive, not proactive? Why, despite all the talk, are our entitlement and permitting processes still so dreadfully inefficient? Why does our procurement process still favor the well-connected and well-financed? Why are we still allowing freeways to be widened, despite the mayor’s outrage about it? And why aren’t more architects part of (or leading) city commissions? Of course these are just a few, but the only part of the discussion that was missing was a critical look at where the mayor hasn’t been successful to this point.

Still, the fact that the Mayor is talking about these things at all—particularly
in such a public forum—is a victory for architects, planners, and any advocates for the urban environment. The more we can keep these topics on the radar the more this city, and others, will successfully adapt to fit a world that has changed dramatically and live up to its staggering potential.  

 

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Export Issues
Helsinki Public Library competition entry from PAR and ARUP.
Courtesy Labtop

We’ve all heard the term brain drain. But usually we associate it with poorer, far away places like India, Africa, and Eastern Europe, where money and opportunities are in short supply. But in the small segment of “design” architecture, a significant brain drain is taking place here in the United States; our talent working elsewhere. We’re a country that still boasts some of the best training in the world, but some of the fewest opportunities for innovation.

It’s not hard to see the issue. In my own office, for instance, two firms, Synthesis Design + Architecture and Freeland Buck, are carrying out their only major projects in places like China and Thailand. A former office mate, Platform for Architecture and Research (P-A-R), is pursuing most of its work in Europe and Asia. If you move up to LA’s most established design firms, they’re doing the exact same thing. Where are Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, and Neil Denari doing most of their projects? The Middle East, China, and Europe.

According to the AIA, the percentage of their membership billing work overseas is between seven and 12 percent, including corporate firms whose profits are more and more tied to international projects. That’s not a huge percentage. But when you start to look at the firms doing the most ambitious work, that figure rises significantly. The evidence is more anecdotal (and of course so many great firms are still working in the U.S.), but from where I stand it’s quite real. There’s just less to build here. We had our major growth spurts, and now the mantle has been passed to emerging markets. Another major factor is globalism itself. Firms worldwide are crossing boundaries like never before; sometimes it’s hard to remember where each firm comes from.

Which isn’t to say that nobody should work abroad. Quite the opposite: architecture is and always has been an international profession. The growth of international work spreads expertise and talent and often raises the bar through competition. And nobody can blame firms for chasing commissions, despite the toll taken from long trips and late phone conversations.

But the United States needs to do more to encourage its best talent to invest more domestically, which means creating more opportunities. Projects should be opened to a broader array of talent, via competitions and programs that support less experienced architects. Public and private clients need to embrace what architectural talent can offer (see New York developers, who have finally figured out how much money top tier architects can bring them). Buildings all-but ceded to non-architects, from mass housing to everyday shopping facilities, need to be taken back by architects; and we need more patrons to help reverse what has become a disturbingly conservative streak in our country when it comes to architecture.

These remedies are just the tip of the iceberg. But if we don’t start focusing on keeping our best talent in our own country, the best buildings in the world will continue to be built elsewhere.

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Shore Up Solar
Adam Gimpert / Flickr

In the dead of a Midwest winter, sunlight can seem scarce. But the future of the solar energy industry here looks a little brighter, thanks to recently announced plans to cut red tape for residential and commercial building owners who want to install rooftop solar panels.

In October, Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled Chicago Solar Express, a “one-stop shop” for getting rooftop solar permitted, installed, and connected. Instead of 30 days, city approval for such projects now takes only one day. Meanwhile a $750,000 “SunShot” grant from the Department of Energy will help cut the price of that permit by 25 percent, to $275. The SunShot Rooftop Solar Challenge is a national initiative to make solar power cost competitive with other sources of energy by 2020.

The move is well timed. A tax break for projects with renewable energy is set to fall from 30 percent to 10 percent at the end of 2016. Eligible projects have to be up and running by that date, so there will be a rush to get them online.

Federal incentives are still crucial for the U.S. renewable energy industry, which has seen explosive growth in recent years. In 2011, when Congress seemed ready to cut the production tax credit for wind farms, experts warned the business could grind to a halt. The credit was renewed as part of an 11th-hour budget agreement, and 2012 was a banner year for wind energy.

Critics argue renewable energy’s reliance on government incentives and grants is evidence that the industry is a losing bet. But those who want to see the programs continued point out fossil fuel companies benefit from subsidies, too—many set up during the 20th century and taken for granted today.

At any rate, a solar building boom should make solar cheaper, which could help make such subsidies unnecessary. The price of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells today is 74 cents per watt according to Bloomberg, less than 1 percent of what they cost in 1977.

And Chicago’s push to make it faster and cheaper for building owners to add solar power is not the only development. ComEd said it would launch its Online Interconnection and Metering Enrollment program by the end of the year. The policy is aimed at connecting distributed solar to an online platform, so solar panel owners can be paid (through credits on their electricity bill) for the power they put back on the grid. (The company launched a pilot program to spur rooftop solar and smart metering in 2010.) Other companies, like NRG Energy-backed Geostellar, are working to streamline the process of matching solar panel customers with installers and financiers.

Small-scale, distributed power generation is a good thing not just for ratepayers who could see lower bills as a result, but for the nation at large, whose carbon footprint is slowly shrinking in part as a result of growing renewable energy generation.

But challenges persist. A Toledo Blade investigation of that city’s push to become a leader in solar panel manufacturing found the state has struggled to create the jobs that it promised would help reinvent Ohio’s industrial base. Squandered loans, litigation, and taxpayer frustration snarled an effort to compete with Chinese manufacturers. Common knowledge holds that low labor costs make China a leader in the field, but analysts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said it has more to do with the scale of manufacturing there, and with China’s “less restrictive business and regulatory environment.” Supply-chain advantages give China-based manufacturers access to cheaper capital, materials, and machinery than their U.S. counterparts can get.

One lesson seems to be if the rust belt wants to resurrect its industrial base with clean technology it is going to need a technological advantage that can make better solar cells for less.

But there is plenty of room for growth. A recent study found the grid operator in charge of the eastern Great Lakes and mid-Atlantic region could handle as much as 30 percent renewable energy without threatening electricity delivery—much more than previously assumed. But it needs an overhaul of its transmission infrastructure to do so. There’s an opportunity to energize the rapid growth of renewable energy generation in the Midwest even further: when done well, subsidies can speed up technology price reductions, leaving more money on the table for infrastructure investments that enable technological innovation and expand the market for new renewable energy products. No one knows when solar energy will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels, but smart cities need to be ready when it is.

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What About Cultural Resiliency?
David Zwirner's Chelsea gallery designed by Selldorf Architects.
Jason Schmidt

The damage from Hurricane Sandy continues to resonate in New York. While devastated families and ruined homes grab the headlines, the economic impacts are complex and far reaching. One sector that could be drastically reshaped is the rarified world of art galleries. Far West Chelsea in Manhattan has solidified its position as the dominant gallery district in the city, and many galleries have commissioned architecturally significant spaces by leading firms, including Deborah Berke Partners, Selldorf Architects, Gluckman Mayner Architects, and Adjaye Associates, among many others.

Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in the neighborhood, damaging the physical spaces and destroying countless works. Most have since reopened, but a second wave of damage is headed for Chelsea. One gallery owner recently told me that fine arts insurance premiums have skyrocketed, and that many insurers are not extending policies to ground floor or below grade galleries. The blue chip brand names—Gagosian, Zwirner, et al.—that own their locations will survive. Smaller galleries that rent their spaces will likely be devastated. These galleries are an essential element in the city’s cultural ecosystem, and smaller spaces provide venues for emerging artists (and sometimes architects) who will later show in more established galleries or museums.

The character of Chelsea will inevitably change, but likely not for the better if the galleries close or decamp for another neighborhood. New York’s galleries have migrated from many different neighborhoods over the decades, but in this ever more gentrified city it is difficult to imagine where they would end up next (remember when Williamsburg, Brooklyn, had a gallery scene?). If SoHo is the clearest precedent, New York will end up with more of what it doesn’t need: high-end boutiques.

The city’s garment industry has organized around preserving its footprint in the five boroughs, arguing that local clothing manufacturing is essential to maintain New York as a fashion capital. Time will tell if they can succeed, but they have set a precedent that others in the cultural community could follow.

Worrying over the future of New York’s art galleries might not seem like a high priority in the populist de Blasio era, but if there is one thing we have all come to learn in this constantly changing city it is that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

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Making a List, Checking it Twice
One of Gensler's research images for LA's Pershing Square during the day.
Courtesy Gensler

Every publication under the sun is delivering its best of the year roundups, from books to movies to cars. So I conducted an informal poll of readers to see some of the most pressing issues for the year ahead. I reached out to some friends on social media, and to organizations like AIA/LA and SPUR, so you can even call the responses (relatively) inclusive, or even open source. So without further ado, here are the topics—let’s call them goals—for 2014. We’ll be tracking them in the year ahead.

 

  1. Developing a long-term Vision Plan for Los Angeles.
  2. Streamlining entitlement and permit procedures in Los Angeles.
  3. Addressing the troubling lack of affordable housing in San Francisco, and countrywide.
  4. Creating an Office of Architecture and Urban Design in Los Angeles.
  5. Improving Continuing Education Credits, which one reader called, “psycho-devastating money and time pits with no net professional benefit.”
  6. Reforming the prison industrial complex, and architecture’s role in it.
  7. Investigating how to localize development in Los Angeles and elsewhere relating to transit growth.
  8. The increasingly tenuous economic situation of the architecture profession.
  9. The impacts and solutions to architecture’s marginalized role in society.
  10. How to temper San Francisco’s “hysterical historical” planning process.
  11. How to turn around America’s biggest wasted space: LA’s Pershing Square.
  12. The remarkable transformation of Los Angeles through transit and densification.
  13. The soulless “packaging” of architecture in the high-end residential market.
  14. How to clean up LA’s Skid Row in a humane way.
  15. Getting a train to LAX. Finally.
  16. Removing old infrastructure in favor of greenways in cities nationwide.
  17. Preserving character in San Francisco in the wake of extreme gentrification.
  18. Encouraging adaptive reuse in downtowns across the west coast; could this be architecture’s future?
  19. Making the AIA more relevant to most architects.
  20. Examining how office architecture is driving the transformation of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

 

Happy New Year from everyone at The Architect’s Newspaper. We’ve got a busy agenda for the year ahead!

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Affordability & The Future of New York
Mayor Bloomberg cuts the ribbon to mark the official opening of the Via Verde affordable housing development in the South Bronx.
Edward Reed

The recent conference at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, “Since Now From Then,” celebrated the 30th anniversary of the minuscule but influential space on Kenmare Street. It made clear the far-reaching impact the Storefront has had on the culture of architecture but also how much New York City has changed around the gallery.

The first public exhibition at the original Storefront on September 18, 1982, then at 51 Prince Street, was a month-long series of performances titled A-Z, with a different artist featured each day. Many of these artists in the 1980s lived in the blocks surrounding Prince Street except Tehching Hsieh whose prescient performance was to live “homeless” on the streets of the city for a single year.

Today when the Storefront presents a group of emerging artists it is doubtful that any of them could afford to live anywhere near gentrified Kenmare Street. They are more likely living in Crown Heights or Bushwick, Brooklyn. In fact Kyong Park, one of Storefront’s founders, made an off-hand comment during the conference that if anyone today wanted to do what he did at the Storefront in the 1980s “they should leave New York City.” Park, who hails from Detroit and now lives in L.A., may have been thinking of the particular challenges and opportunities for young urbanites in post-industrial landscapes like Detroit.

But New York City officials would do well to heed Park’s advice and begin thinking about strategies for creating affordable housing, not just for the young creative class, but for all New York residents.

Mayor Bloomberg promised to focus on creating 165,000 units of affordable housing and claims to be meeting this target. He may believe this was enough new affordable units for this enormous city, but the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development analyzed Bloomberg’s housing program and came to another conclusion. Not only did tens of thousand of affordable units go off-line as landlords exited subsidized programs and regulated apartments went market rate, but in Harlem, to pick one neighborhood, property values have jumped 222 percent and in East Harlem, median market rents went from roughly $1200 in 2002 to $1900 in 2011.

Further, “it’s not only that rents are rising; it’s also that a growing part of the population is trying to live in New York City on very modest incomes. According to the city’s own poverty measure, roughly 46 percent of New Yorkers were what is considered “near poor” in 2011. For a family of four, that means earning under $46,000 annually.” Thus the Furman Center says that nearly a third of New Yorkers were what is called “severely rent burdened” in 2011, which means they were spending more than half their monthly income on rent.

The association admits the Mayor’s initiative is on track to meet its housing goal but these units too often do not meet the actual affordability needs of the neighborhoods in which they were built. Further, “one-third of these units have an upper income limit above the actual New York City median income and in half the city’s community districts, the majority of units built are too expensive for a household earning the local median income for the neighborhood.” The association claims that “starting in 2017, New York will be at risk of losing an annual average of 11,000 units built with city subsidy and by 2037, the city could also lose many units as were built by Bloomberg, greatly undermining the value of the City’s efforts.” Bloomberg can point to two recent housing projects that illustrate—if they were replicated ten times over—the kind of new housing that can and should be built in the city. The Lower East Side project called Essex Crossing will replace a forty year old urban renewal site with 1,000 units of new housing which the city claims will be 50 percent “permanently affordable for low, moderate, and middle-income households and senior citizens.” In addition, the project includes a 15,000-square-foot open space, a new and expanded Essex Street Market, a school, a community center run by Grand Street Settlement, a rooftop urban farm, the Andy Warhol Museum, 250,000 square feet of office space, and a diverse mix of retail space. In addition the Mayor recently announced a new housing facility in downtown Brooklyn as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s expanding district that will have 42 units of affordable housings built above a large cultural space and restaurant. It is clear that New York City has run out of easily and cheaply developable land in vacant neighborhoods like the South Bronx and Brownsville, so finding sites for new affordable housing will not be easy.

It is important to point out that in the deeply flawed 2030 Plan for New York City identified vast areas for new housing above open areas over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and Sunnyside Yards, but these would require massive public investment in infrastructure and will not likely yield any truly affordable housing.

The next mayor will have an enormous challenge to build enough units to meet the pressing demand for housing that always seems to be part of life in this city. Aside from protecting NYCHA and its 230,000 units of affordable housing and maintaining rent control, which helps thousands of middle income New Yorkers, the next mayor will need a new and different approach if more housing is to be built. This is an absolute necessity if New York is not to become a victim of its own success. Bill de Blasio, the apparent next mayor, claims to be a progressive politician. This will mean nothing unless living here is a possibility for the sort of person who wants to start the next Storefront.