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On a New York City map, the seven-mile roadway that cuts through Queens is designated as Queens Boulevard. But to many New Yorkers, the notoriously dangerous street is known by another name: the Boulevard of Death. According to the city, 185 people (most of them pedestrians) have been killed on the boulevard since 1990; over that time, scores more have been seriously injured. For Mayor de Blasio—who wants to eliminate traffic deaths through a street safety campaign called Vision Zero—overhauling the Boulevard of Death was an obvious place to focus his attention.
In March, the Department of Transportation presented a $100 million plan to transform an especially hazardous 1.3-mile section of the street where 42 people were killed or seriously injured between 2009 and 2013. The plan would fundamentally change the geometry of the street by widening sidewalks, shortening crosswalks, reorganizing slip lanes, and creating pedestrian plazas and protected bike lanes.
“Work has begun to turn Queens Boulevard into a Boulevard of Life—literally remaking this street, rewriting its future, making it safe for all,” said the mayor at a press conference along the street as construction kicked off in July.
Transit advocates and numerous elected officials from Queens and around New York heralded the redesign of Queens Boulevard—especially its inclusion of protected bike lanes—as a “safe streets” homerun. But to these same stakeholders, the laudable transformation of Queens Boulevard is an exception in the DOT’s track record of creating safe streets for cyclists. In the Vision Zero era—after Michael Bloomberg waged, and largely won, the battle to make New York more bike-friendly—the so-called “bicycle lobby” and its allies are questioning the DOT’s commitment to protecting people pedaling around town.
As work was just beginning on Queens Boulevard, the DOT presented a $60 million plan to remake part of another notoriously dangerous roadway in New York: Atlantic Avenue. The redesign included traffic calming measures to protect pedestrians, but like many recent road diets proposed and implemented by the department, it lacked any bicycle infrastructure. To the added chagrin of cyclists, as these plans have been rolled out, existing bike lanes across the city have been worn into oblivion while others have failed to reappear following street resurfacings.
In July, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James wrote a public letter to DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg inquiring about these issues. After lauding the department’s commitment to Vision Zero, she asked why certain road diets were missing bicycle infrastructure and urged the department to make bike lanes the “default option when a street is up for a redesign.”
Paul Steely-White, executive director of the non-profit Transportation Alternatives, said the DOT must be bolder about implementing bicycle infrastructure if it is serious about eliminating traffic fatalities by 2024. With the rate of bicycling increasing, neighborhoods clamoring for bike lanes, Citi Bike now doubling in size, and the mandate of Vision Zero, he believes the department has all the political capital it needs to do so. “It’s no longer a political issue, it’s simply a DOT performance issue,” he said. “There is a residual shyness from a lot of DOT professionals who are perhaps gun shy from the bike lanes battles of the Bloomberg years,” he said. “But politically, socially, we’ve evolved beyond that and it’s time for the agency to catch up.”
DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo said the criticisms levied at the department are not reflective of the reality on the ground. “People should be impatient, they should want things to come quickly, but there has been a process,” he said.
Russo explained that while certain road diets may exclude bike lanes, they can be the first step in convincing skeptical communities that precarious streets can become complete streets. “We have to get people from A to C,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean every single street has to have a bike lane initially or when you do a project.” In the Vision Zero era, he continued, redesigning a dangerous intersection might initially get priority over a bike lane. The idea is that once a street is made safer for all users (cyclists included), the DOT can go back to a community board with a more substantial focus on cyclist safety.
To Ben Fried, the editor-in-chief of StreetsBlog, a popular pro-transit publication, this strategy amounts to unnecessary “self-censorship” on the part of the DOT. Since road diets often meet community resistance whether they include bike lanes or not, the DOT “might as well propose the bike lane anyway,” he said. To many advocates, the best way to create support for bike lanes is to implement bike lanes.
As for the condition of the existing bike network, Russo, who bikes to work from Brooklyn, understands cyclists’ frustration about faded markings and vanished paint. He said the winter was especially harsh on existing lanes, but that “under Vision Zero we have money we never had dedicated to upgrading our markings, and we’ve been growing that operation.”
Overall, the DOT is bullish on its bike lane record—especially outside of Manhattan. The department highlighted bike networks it has proposed or implemented in Long Island City, Ridgewood, Queens, Brownsville and East New York, and around the Harlem River. Each of these plans includes a mix of bike infrastructure from shared lanes to protected lanes to bike pathways. In August, Commissioner Trottenberg also announced that the DOT would be presenting plans for a bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue, a project cyclists and local officials have been requesting for years.
The DOT plans to install 50 miles of bike lanes per year, at least five of which will be protected.
Building on its success in developing research that led to the High Line and the first purpose-built NYC Taxi, the Design Trust for Public Space partnered with the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) on a two-year research project exploring in-depth the 700 plus miles of elevated infrastructure across New York City, and the spaces below. The results of this study have been published in a new book entitled Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities.
The book was developed by Design Trust fellows Neil Donnelly, Susannah Drake, Krisanne Johnson, Chat Travieso, and Douglas Woodward. Together, the team analyzed spaces under bridges, highways, subway tracks, and rail lines as a comprehensive network of underutilized urban space. They envisioned new strategies for developing these sites, as well as a criteria for choosing the most potentially useful ones.
Douglas Woodward, vice president of Design + Development at Edison Properties told AN that the project started in 2001 when the Design Trust recommended that the 33 urban spaces under the High Line should be considered equally important as those above it. Edison Properties wanted to figure out what to do with the plots they owned, so they approached the Design Trust, who put out a call for fellows. "Rather than having an urban designer or architect, we felt we should have a landscape architect," explained Woodward.
Drake approaches urban design with an ecological focus, having previously received EPA grants for pilot projects to improve stormwater management on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. However, this is only one part of the larger equation of Under the Elevated. "We always want to improve underused places, ecologically, culturally and socially," said Drake. "These are places where transit cuts through human scale things."
NYCDOT, a collaborator on the project, has been searching for and realizing innovative urban design strategies in recent years, illustrated by such work as the Plaza Program and the Green Infrastructure Unit. Its mission for Under The Elevated is to empower communities to improve those leftover, underused spaces, and reconnect them to the urban fabric.
What is next for the program? "We are talking to the DOT now, trying to find some sites to kick the program off," said Drake. "We are all committed to it, but until we have something on the street it won’t seem that real to me. We have the pop-ups, but we need something permanent." Without having to abide by the same stringent regulations as most long-term urban design projects, pop-ups have proved to be a good tool for experimentation. The pilot projects, while more permanent, are still recognized as tests which can push the envelope.
The program addresses a range of issues from policy and ownership to simple problems, including measures to reduce noise and increase light. Neil Gagliardi, director of urban design at NYCDOT, says that the information from the study is very useful, and the agency is committed to moving forward with the ideas proposed. (NYCDOT owns, or at least operates nearly all of the spaces.)
"This is the first comprehensive approach. It is good to look at [underused spaces under the elevated] as a system and how they can benefit the city,” explained Gagliardi. “We are testing some solutions over the next few months mainly around lighting, because it is the main complaint we get." NYCDOT has engaged Sam Schwartz Engineering to look at the spaces on Livonia Avenue in Brownsville, and has also sought the expertise of other designers whom the agency has worked with in the past. The goal is to establish a toolkit of tried-and-tested strategies to enhance spaces under the elevated.
NYCDOT has identified pilot sites to inform its larger framework called the EL Space Program. It will address sites in Sunset Park's Industry City at 36th Street and "Rampland" in Long Island City along Dutch Kills Street—with the hope to get funding for a more comprehensive program. The pilot program is funded through public and private sources and will depend partially on how the Department of City Planning (DCP) rezones these areas. NYCDOT is working with City Planning to incorporate elevated spaces into housing and zoning initiatives. For example, The Jerome Avenue area in the Bronx has been the focus of recent rezoning efforts, and the city has expressed interest in improving lighting in places under the elevated infrastructure as part of its economic development strategy.
The question is whether these improvements will come to fruition.
"I think it’s more real than the High Line," said Gagliardi. "We need comprehensiveness to help plan strategies and plan criteria. What places are best used for industrial operations? Which are best for the pedestrian?"
The ultimate success of this program will likely be the strategies born from this study. These forgotten, underused tracts, however, are not just found in New York City. They are ubiquitous in most cities in post-industrial America. The study has far-reaching potential, and could serve as a lesson in how to exploit and make good use of underutilized spaces.
Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities is available for $30.00 from the Design Trust.
Here’s the massive water slide planned for New York City’s Summer Streets, when pedestrians take over Park Avenue
This urban intervention in Chicago would let citizens control colorful lights under the “El” with their smartphones
For most people visiting or living in Chicago, Wabash Avenue in the Loop is a dark, noisy, sometimes scary place to either avoid or walk quickly through. Positioned between the history of State Street and the futuristic playground of Millennium Park, Wabash Avenue is an underutilized resource in the city for art, culture, and business.The design calls for 520 light tubes that are programmable every 1.2 inches, and Chicago residents can control the lights using a smartphone or computer. The project was initially entangled in a bit of a bureaucratic red tape, but it now has gained all of the approvals needed to move forward with a pilot outside of the Palmer House Hilton on Wabash Avenue. The duo has been working closely with the Chicago Transit Authority, the Chicago Department of Transportation, and the city government. To contribute to the project and see Chicago’s streets come to life, head on over to their Kickstarter page.
On April 9 and 10, the Institute for Public Architecture and Pratt Institute School of Architecture held “An Inventory of What’s Possible,” a symposium organized to discern what can be done to implement Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plan to build 200,000 affordable housing units in the next ten years. The event consisted of visits to a variety of different public and supportive housing projects from various eras throughout the city, in addition to talks by professors, students, city officials, community activists, and the president of a residents’ association. They discussed new ideas, historic projects, problems, possible solutions, and opportunities that the current affordable housing crisis presents.
On April 9, participants toured housing ranging in time from Strivers Row by James Brown Lord, Bruce Price, and Stanford White (1893) to Via Verde by Dattner Architects and Grimshaw (2012) and in space from Roland Wank’s Grand Street housing in Lower Manhattan to Clarence Stein and Henry Wright’s Sunnyside Gardens in Queens and Twin Parks in the north Bronx. Richard Meier; Prentice, Chan & Olhausen; and Giovanni Pasanella all have buildings at Twin Parks. The tour drove home the point that New York City’s legacy is remarkable for its range, quality, and continuing success. It also showed that there are lessons to be learned—both positive and negative—from what has been built in the past.
After welcomes by Pratt Dean Thomas Hanrahan, and professor and AN editor-in-chief William Menking, panel discussions furthered historical perspectives, provided views of neighborhood activists, and presented new ideas about ways to attack the affordable housing crisis.
Jonathan Kirschenfeld, the founder of the Institute for Public Architecture, who had designed some of the housing visited the day before, noted, “We have 50 years of research on the public realm at Pratt in the institute founded by Ron Shiffman (Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, or PICCED) and now directed by Adam Freeman. Housing—and the way we think about the public realm and the interior realm—defines our humanity as a city. New York is the quintessential innovator in thinking about housing in a dense place, willing to take chances and create new types of housing.”
Karen Kubey, who directs the Institute for Public Architecture, mentioned "Total Reset" an Institute Fellows residency program on public and below-market housing that took place last summer, noting that Michael Kimmelman had covered it enthusiastically in “Trading Parking Lots for Affordable Housing,” in The New York Times on September 14.
Later in the day, when Institute Fellows presented the findings from their work, Miriam Peterson, Nathan Rich, and Sagi Golan described the “9 x 18” plan that Kimmelman had praised. They proposed a new parking policy, especially in areas near pubic transportation, an attempt to create streets that promote an active lifestyle.
“There is much more parking on NYCHA sites than on other urban blocks. The idea is to replace parking lots with parking structures that house community facilities,” said Golan.
“A lot of the residents were willing to trade parking space for other amenities.” Another Institute Fellow, Kaja Kuhl, a Columbia GSAPP professor who goes to five neighborhoods every year with the 5 Borough Studio, talked about the importance of starting a conversation with each community. She uses “Postcards from Home” to learn how the residents view “home” and found that they see it as “neighborhood and community,” “privacy,” and even “food.” She said, “We heard that housing should be affordable,” and she showed some of the student projects that were inspired by these conversations. At the Forest Houses in the Bronx, students looked at the schools that surround the NYCHA development as a place to share school facilities like a library, a gymnasium, and computer labs with each other and with NYCHA residents by putting them on the housing authority campus.
Frederick Biehle, a Pratt professor and principal of VIA Architecture, had also considered restoring streets and reshaping the urban fabric in his studio that focused on the Ingersoll and Whitman Houses in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He suggested “delineating public, semipublic, and private spaces” to counter the “sameness and banality” of the existing buildings. The studio proposed a new two-story base connecting two existing towers with semi-private space for residents and an interior courtyard with new institutional programs—a skating rink, a school, stores. “Each individual building gets to determine its own block. The metastasized scheme doubles the number of units, but the buildings’ lower floors become more porous. Townhouses face the street.” He described a number of possibilities and noted, “It’s amazing that so many successful, doable projects were proposed.”
In a morning session on “Stabilizing Neighborhoods,” the moderator was Daniel Hernandez, the Deputy Commissioner for Neighborhood Strategies at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and a Pratt professor. He noted the importance of early engagement in identifying issues and then implementing them, since “it’s a moment when there is a lot of cultural change going on in the agencies.”
NYIT Professor Nicholas Bloom described the promise of subsidized coops and said, “The word ownership comes up often in the mayor’s document.” He talked about the success of earlier subsidized coops, such as Village View in Manhattan and the Luna Park Co-op in Coney Island, which encouraged residents to take care of their neighborhoods. He proposed that NYCHA create a subsidiary to build some of these on their land on a nonprofit model, similar to what is done in Singapore. They might be built with FEMA funds in some areas, would “put more eyes on the street,” and might be step-up housing for some NYCHA families. “There has to be a less strident conversation about underused land in NYCHA communities,” he said.
Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, a principal of Buscada who teaches at the New School for Public Engagement, discussed the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA). She described it as “a big mess but one that is interesting.” In 1967, families were driven out but told that they could return when new housing was built. However, not enough was built for many families to return. She emphasized the importance of perpetuity in communities.
Benjamin Dulchin, who is a community organizer, not an architect, represents the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Developmentan, an umbrella organization for 101 community development groups. He is trying to help neighborhoods set agendas and develop policies by studying what has worked and what conditions made success possible. He said that while it is important to build permanently affordable housing, it is also necessary to focus on crime, economic development, and institutions to sustain a community.
Paula Segal, the executive director of 596 Acres, an organization that advocates for community gardens spoke, unsurprisingly, in favor of their preservation and of ownership of land by communities. She is particularly opposed to giving gardens to for-profit developers.
In a discussion period after their talks, Ron Shiffman said, “Displacement and speculation on land has become palpable in every neighborhood of New York. A lot of good planning came from neighborhood-based organizations. Let’s start integrating some of the wealthiest communities.”
Pratt faculty member Meredith TenHoor chaired a panel on Enabling Quality Design. She noted that in the 1970s, when cities were seen as failing, it was often the design of housing that was blamed.
Suzanne Schindler, who teaches at Columbia, discussed another historic example—Twin Parks in the Bronx (1967–75), which participants had visited the day before. She described the interesting variety of buildings, built by a group of 15 churches and synagogues with help from the state and federal governments and designed by well-known architects. The 2,300 apartments ranging from studios to five bedrooms “were created to stabilize the neighborhood but gang warfare happened right there.” She asked, “What can we learn?” and answered, “It all depends, not just on design but on how a project is managed,” showing a single loaded corridor completely blocked, plazas fenced in, she added, “You need to think about design along with management, security, and other factors.”
Pratt professor David Burney commissioned innovative community centers from celebrated, mostly young architects when he was in charge of architecture at NYCHA in the 1990s and then headed the city’s Department of Design and Construction during the Bloomberg Administration. “When I got to NYCHA, I found that there was still some money left for buildings but it was hard to spend. You couldn’t build unless you could provide free land and use the low income tax credit. The Reagan Administration insisted on private developers, and the early attempts had been disastrous,” he said. They found a community garden on West 84th Street and hired Castro-Blanco Piscioneri Architects to build 35 permanently affordable units. With Becker + Becker, they built two- and three-bedroom apartments in a contextual walkup building on 8th Street; at 189 Stanton Street they built supportive housing for families with AIDS designed by James McCullar. “There are ways of doing things that are different. All these projects are completely integrated into their neighborhoods,” he pointed out.
TenHoor then asked the speakers, “How do we get quality? Who defines those standards?” Menking said, “At Sunnyside, the architects were deeply committed to quality and social scientists were part of it.” He also noted the role that philanthropy had played in the past, citing Phipps Houses, The Robin Hood Foundation, and Common Ground. Burney suggested, “Reverse the notion that design costs money, that design is only for the wealthy.” He also said, “As every architect knows, when you get to the end of the project, it’s the landscaping that gets cut.” He noted the importance of “health and the built environment. We are not number one in many things, but we are number one in obesity.” TenHoor mentioned the role of the private sector, noting that Mayor Lindsay advocated it and that it attracted architects of the caliber who designed Twin Parks. Schindler mentioned “long term issues and short term issues. If someone is going to maintain it, they may build it differently.”
Toward the end of the day, the president of the residents association at the five-story walkup First Houses (1936), Brendaliz Santiago, presented the tenants’ point of view. “NYCHA doesn’t communicate with tenants,” she said, “but we want community residents involved in planning.” Since New Years Eve 2014, though, she has been working closely with NYCHA. “With unity there is power.”
Karina Totah, Senior Advisor to the Chair of the New York City Housing Authority, explained, “The mayor gave the chair two directions: Reset your relationship with key stakeholders and create a plan for how you are going to make NYCHA survive.”She said, “Safe, clean, and connected is the goal,” and that engaging residents like Santiago to get resident input is a priority as well as dealing with short term financial problems, rehabilitating, and harnessing the real estate NYCHA already owns, and operating 138,000 units. “We are the largest landlord in New York City,” she added.
The two-day event brought together architects, professors, students, community organizers, residents, and managers of housing projects. The conversation necessary to jumpstart Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious housing plan has begun.
The public debut of the Texas Department of Transportation’s $6 billion plan to re-route I-45 around downtown Houston has citizens, planners, and city leaders atwitter about whether to demolish or repurpose a section of freeway known as the Pierce Elevated.
Houston needs an urban icon, said Marcus Martinez, a designer at the Houston office of national architecture firm Page. Martinez believes the Pierce can be saved and reprogrammed into an elevated park development connecting Buffalo Bayou, downtown, and adjacent neighborhoods. He has been working pro bono on a proposal called the Pierce Skypark with Tami Merrick and John Cryer, also of Page.
“We are due for something big that puts us on the map and attracts people from all industries,” said Martinez. “Our chief goal is to keep it and turn it into something public and transformational for the city. It could be a variety of programming and flavors as well.” And it would be a nod to the city’s heritage instead of razing the structure completely.
The Pierce Skypark is an optimistic vision to turn a two-mile stretch of elevated freeway (roughly 3 times the size of New York’s High Line) into an amenity for citizens and visitors. Programming above and below the existing structure could range from parks and trails to public space, retail, housing, and office space.
“All kinds of big ideas are being batted around,” said Cryer, Board of Directors, Emeritus of Page. Cryer has been a key player in major revitalization projects in downtown Houston, including Discovery Green and Buffalo Bayou parks, the Rice Hotel, Commerce Towers, Club Quarters Hotel, and Keystone Lofts. He is also president-elect of Preservation Houston. “The main issue is people think of it as another park. The power of it is that it becomes a development with occupied space below, like a shaded promenade, and above with air rights. It can be an incredible design element and identity marker. Think big. When you look at the history of Houston, there can be a return to the legacy of Houston doing bold and big moves again.”
A master development strategy needs to be created, Cryer said.
“Not every elevated stretch of infrastructure is a High Line,” said Charles Renfro, a Houston native and a partner at Diller, Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), which designed the High Line. “There is no success guarantee. The Pierce makes a surreal landscape that lets people get higher than normal and it is a launching pad to think differently about making landscape in Houston. There could be an opportunity to keep, or selectively keep it, and that is where design comes in. Whosoever designs something on top and under the Pierce Elevated, there has to be a spectacular ambition to not mimic anything in the world.”
A myriad of public and private conversations have ensued about the potential of transforming the 37.7 acres of the Pierce that currently afford a view of a giant neon cross. Comments have come from journalist Lisa Gray of the Houston Chronicle, urban and environmental historian Dr. Kyle Shelton of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, Bob Eury of the Houston Downtown Management District, and John S. Jacob of the Eastwood Civic Association.
At three public meetings attended by more than 500 people across the city, TxDOT has released intricate maps, animated renderings, and data tables showing various routes, as well as the environmental and statistical impacts of its rerouting plan. It involves the widening, depression, and elevation of three segments of I-45 from Beltway 8 continuing to downtown connectors and around the George R. Brown Convention Center. Parts of the proposal in segment 3 cut through the Mexican Consulate and the South Central Police Station in Third Ward, and will raze a public housing project called Clayton Homes along with the Pierce Elevated.
The state agency is in the process of gathering public feedback, but consensus has not been reached in the community. The environmental studies are due in 2017, and then a public hearing will ensue. Along with processing community input, the lengthy procedure of eminent domain would need to run its course and funding would have to be secured. Danny Perez, TxDOT spokesman, estimated “it could be five to 10 years before we see any movement on these projects.”
TxDOT is accepting public comments until May 31 via regular mail and email. The group from Page had pitched the idea of the Skypark to Councilman David Robinson privately prior to the recent public meetings and media attention. “We need to recognize this is going to be a very long process and there are several authorities that have jurisdiction over this,” said Robinson. “It’s not a fully integrated solution but it’s very provocative and stimulates the discussion in an appropriate way and hopefully we can make a Houston-specific solution.”
At the entrance to the tunnel, local Washington Heights artist Andrea von Bujdoss, also known as Queen Andrea, welcomes pedestrians with her mural entitled, 'Primastic Power Phrases,' a series of typographical designs that include phrases such as, 'Today is Your Day,' 'Live your Dreams' and 'Estoy Aqui!' As one travels further into the tunnel, Maryland-based artist team Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn have created, 'Caterpillar Time Travel,' a series of colorful, geometric designs. Next, Queens-based artist Nick Kuszyk takes viewers through 'Warp Zone,' a geometric design that plays with perspective and 'warps' the tunnel walls. Chilean artist Nelson Rivas, also known as Cekis, has created a dense jungle landscape with, 'It’s like a Jungle/Aveces es como una jungla.' At the end of the Tunnel, local artist Fernando Cope, Jr., also known as Cope 2, created 'Art is Life' to remind pedestrians to 'Take Your Passion, Make it Happen' and to 'Follow Your Dreams.'If you're wondering why the DOT oversaw this project, it's because the tunnel is technically mapped as a city street. Anyway, onto the pictures!