Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Avalon Chrystie, Phase II

Round and round we go, where it stops, nobody knows ...

Monday, February 27, 2006

Better By Design

The default mode here at Polis is urban planning and city life in New York. But I also appreciate good design, which of course knows no city boundaries. One of the more interesting blogs about design is Inhabitat, and just a quick perusal this morning yields these little gems: rubber sidewalks made of recycled tires that are easily replaced and don't require tree removal; bamboo design; gorgeous cork floor tiles; and lots of prefab home designs. It's a great site.

Bring Back the Trolley

Forgotten New York has a post today adding to its previous coverage of exposed trolley tracks that were once paved over but refuse to go away. It's interesting to note that the same General Motors that could very well go out of business in the early part of the 21st Century was largely responsible for having trolleys removed in the early part of the last century: "By 1948, all the trolleys were gone to be replaced by buses. It has been alleged that General Motors and an unspecified tire company conspired to speed the trolleys' demise," notes Forgotten NY. Here's an idea: let's intentionally expose the tracks and put trolleys on them again ... not the old-fashioned, tourist attraction trolleys, but modern trolleys that are springing up in cities all over America and actually help the city function with less pollution and impact on the enviornment. Read more about trolleys on Forgotten New York here.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Photos from Around the World

When I agreed to jury an architectural photo contest with Tropolism entitled Your Hidden City, I had NO IDEA the response we would get: so far more than 300 photo entries and there's still several weeks to post. More impressive, however, is the QUALITY of photography. It's just absolutely astonishing. Learn more about the photo contest here, and then check out the photos for yourself. As an amateur photog myself, I'm thoroughly humbled.

Photo posted by scarlisle

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Yeah, Whatever ...

The Center for Architecture has announced a New York New Visions public forum on Feb. 28 (6-8 pm). The speakers: Stefan Pryor, President, Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and Steve Plate, Director of Capital Projects, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The topic: "an informative discussion of how the individual projects at the WTC site will relate together." Here's an informative opening salvo: They don't relate. At all. Discuss.

To RSVP, click here. Photo by Julian Olivas.

Gondolas to Gov's Island: Breathtaking Inanity

Last week when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made another plea for development proposals for Governor's Island and revealed Santiago Calatrava's vision for gondolas linking Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn to the Island, I was tempted to nominate this for another edition of Breathtaking Inanity. But I quickly realized it's meant to be just a teaser, so I didn't bother.

But today, the Times' Nicolai Ouroussoff puts the gondolas into an urban planning context that makes this much more worthy of comment. Ouroussoff rightly points out that this latest plea for ideas is an obvious if not explicit admission that the city's planning/economic development departments are bereft of ideas themselves and have outsourced planning to the private sector (with the notable exception of the West Chelsea/High Line rezoning plan, which recently won the American Planning Association award for Best Community Plan ... and of course, that was a zoning thing, which the city knows quite well, but I digress):

"[C]onjuring an image for the island's future will be left up to developers. ... Not all countries operate this way. In Spain and the Netherlands, city and regional governments typically organize elaborate design competitions for a major urban site, then hire a developer to figure out how to put the idea into practice.

An aggressive government role in galvanizing the best creative minds is virtually nonexistent in the United States, where political and financial power has shifted to the private realm. That's why New York has fallen behind cities like Barcelona, Rotterdam and even London in terms of the level of ambition behind public works projects. In New York, the system can foster a poisonous mix of political self-interest and commercial greed, as it did at ground zero.

And there you have it, the problem in a nutshell. One of the first pieces I wrote as a brand new freelancer in New York City was for Metropolis magazine that touched on this very issue. An urban planning firm founded in Amsterdam had opened an office in New York in hopes of applying their waterfront redevelopment expertise here. As far as I know, since then they've had one New York client in four years because we DON'T PLAN HERE. We throw designs at the wall and see what sticks. Is it any wonder then that Governor's Island, perhaps the most intriguing piece of developable land in the Northern hemisphere, has been collecting dust since the Coast Guard abandoned it more than ten years ago?

The final irony (did I just use that cliched phrase?) is that this Dutch-based planning firm has been trying to get involved with Governor's Island since they first set up shop here more than four years ago -- the same little island that a Dutchman purchased from Native Americans with two ax heads, a string of beads, and a handful of nails in 1637.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Rose Window on the Passaic

I took the above picture in:
A) Chartres, France
B) Basilica, Italy
C) Newark, New Jersey

It's the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, begun in 1899 and finished in 1954, in Newark. Who knew? I suppose a lot of people who live there.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

New Blog, New World

I love the web. I love blogs. I love the whole damn digital thing. Why? Because it allows smart, interesting and cool people like David Zeev Krieger to get in contact with me. He has a new blog called Distressed Property, which consists of a handful of short videos he's made of, you guessed it, distressed properties around New York City. You can read his quick bio for yourself, but it ends with this bit of real estate intrigue: "now living in new york working to encourage buyer driven real estate development." I'm looking into exactly what that means, and might even do a real estate story about it. But in the meantime, Distressed Property has a handful of very cool short videos. Check them out here.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

New York and Photography: Like Cabernet and Chocolate

A must-see photography exhibit is currently at the Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea. Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao won the 2005 "Capture the Times" photography contest by the New York Times Magazine, and Habitat 7 is his first solo show (it will move to the Queens Museum of Art from Feb. 26-May 24). The photos are taken around the Number 7 subway line in Queens using a large format camera. Several photos are taken throughout the day and then combined into one panoramic view creating detailed and sharp images that also have a time-lapse quality. The photos are so rich and detailed, I was able to take the above pic (which is just a section of one photo) using my digital camera. Aside from the technical prowess of the photographer, what's so amazing to me is that, as absolutely saturated as this city is with photographers capturing every nook and cranny, there are still original and surprising ways to shoot New York.

In case you missed an earlier post, Tropolism is sponsoring Your Hidden City, an architecture/photo contest (I am on the jury). For more details, click here, but the contest welcomes photos from any city on earth, not just New York.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Who's Spending $11.5 to Live on Literary Row?

I'm momentarily breaking my silence here on Polis (see next item), but since I've already wasted time today doing a post for the Times real estate blog about a record-breaking sale in Manhattan, here's the scoop: Over at The Walk-Through, "Give Us Your Rich, Your Famous..." is about a townhouse on W. 10th Street that sold for $11.5 million. This breaks the previous record for a single-family home below 34th street of $9.3 million on E. 11th St. The buyer is listed as Doves' Nest NYC LLC, but who that is exactly remains unknown ... for now. Anyone got more info?

Update: Curbed and some readers chime in with a little more info, but not much, except to say that chances are, the buyer is unlikely to be a celeb. As soon as I know more, you'll know more (probably sometime after Curbed knows more).

Sunday, February 12, 2006

On Book (Proposal) Leave, Part II

I'm going to be taking a break from Polis (and the Times) for a week or better to work on a book chapter. Meanwhile, check out a contest I'm helping to jury (click here or go to Your Hidden City) to get details of the first open source architecture photo contest, led by Tropolism. I've been looking at the photos so far, and Hidden City is already shaping up to be a high calibre international contest.

Wish I had a Fireplace

I took this about 8:15 this morning.

I took this (facing the opposite direction on St. Marks Pl.) about 5:30 this evening. Apparently this was a record breaking Nor'easter.

Question: Is my impression correct that Bloomberg has gotten exceedingly lucky on the bad weather front? If memory serves, every time we've had a major snow storm, it was over a holiday or weekend when cleaning up the streets is significantly easier and cheaper. Anyone care to take on that little research project and let me know?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Street Renaissance

I went to the Urban Center (at the Municipal Art Society) to see the New York City Streets Renaissance "exhibit," an undertaking of The Open Planning Project. I don't recommend making the trip, as it's mostly just text and pictures posted on the wall with some video clips, all of which are available online. That's not to say the project itself isn't worthy, but the gist of it can be had by clicking over to NYCSR. One of the better videos is about Hell's Kitchen under seige by traffic. But the best video is about how neighborhood activists forced DOT to redesign Canal Park, a triangular plot of land in Tribeca, and rerouted traffic entering the Holland Tunnel. The video really shows how these efforts can be a win-win for everyone: traffic flow is far better, pedestrians are no longer being run down, and the neighborhood gets a lovely park space.

The above photos are of Astor Square, as is and reimagined (click to enlarge the photos, and check out how they surrounded The Cube with seating and moved it to the north so it's the first thing you see when you come out of the Astor Pl. subway station). Having criss-crossed this area hundreds of times, including the traffic island where The Cube currently is, I can attest to the fact that this is not a well designed space. NYCSR points out that Astor Square is an important transition area between one neighborhood and another (Greenwich Village and the East Village), and yet it's a dead zone. And it really is.

My criticism is that many of the design recommendations start to look the same ... umbrella seating here, there and everywhere.

The Astor Square redesign is probably the most detailed, but many of the other recommendations seem to be just about widening the sidewalk and reducing the space allocated to cars and trucks. There must be some cost-benefit analysis here about how reducing all this traffic space would affect the commerce of the city.

The other thing is, and I'm not one to pooh-pooh streetscaping improvements, but there does come a point where prettying things up too much kills a neighborhood's spirit. St. Marks Pl., for example, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues (the block I live on), is infuriating to walk on with all the kiosks and tourists and punk kids and drug addicts. But it's St. Marks Place! What would living in the E.Vil. be if you weren't infuriated on occassion? So, sure, let's fix the dead zone that is Astor Square. But the litmus test, as I see it, is whether or not a space is actually dead or just "unattractive" to some eyes (click to enlarge photo of Trash and Vaudeville on St. Marks).

Related Posts:
  • Check out this photo I took of The Cube during the holidays.
  • Check out another Polis post on how the Bowery could be enlivened by widening and landscaping the traffic median.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Your Hidden City: Open Source Architecture Contest

Hey architecture observers, fellow urbanologists and cityfolk! Today I have a fun announcement: Tropolism is launching the first open source architectural contest. Tropolism is an architecture blog run by Chad Smith, who has distinguished himself as a serious up-and-coming architect (he’s been involved with such projects as the public plaza at 55 Water Street, as well as designed Kate Spade retail spaces, a Chelsea art gallery, a gym and more). Tropolism and six other bloggers (including me) will jury the contest. Details of Tropolism’s vision for Your Hidden City are below:

After a week of very subtle buildup, Tropolism is pleased to announce the first open-sourced architectural contest, Your Hidden City.

The contest is simple: post your photos (with a caption) to our public Flickr pool (or email them to us), and our jury will select their favorites in five categories. The winners will be posted to Tropolism.

The theme of the contest is uncovering the Hidden City, your Hidden City, the one you see every day. It may be in plain sight of everyone else, but it is your eye that finds the extraordinariness in a particular street corner, a unique stair, a crazy intersection, a visually arresting approach, or a particular tree in the city. The photographs can be of a beautiful (and perhaps unpublished) building, or as simple as the sun hitting a particular building at a particular time of day. They should have one thing in common: They demonstrate, to you, the pleasure of living in the city.

The jury is a set of bloggers who write about architecture, urbanism, and landscape design. They are:

The 5 Categories are:

Best Hidden Place
Best Density
Best Natural/Urban Overlap
Best Vantage Point
Best Building

We will keep the contest open until March 10, 2006, and post winners the week of March 20. Good Luck!

Coincidentally, the very next post on my blog is a good example of what this contest is about:

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

I Love St. Marks Pl.

I've been meaning to do an extended post about all the little things I love about living on St. Marks Place (like the fabulous tea lattes at Sympathy for the Kettle, near Ave. A). I'll get to my St. Marks love letter eventually (and throw in a few things I don't love so much about it). In the meantime, here's a pic I took this afternoon while on my daily walkabout, which captures one of the more ephemeral reasons I love this street: On any given day or night, there are a million little scenes happening on these three blocks between Astor Place and Tompkins Square Park. This scene happens to be a photoshoot of a pair of shoes taking place outside one of the two buildings that was featured on the Led Zepplin album Physical Graffiti (click to enlarge the pic to see the storefront sign). I feel downtright privileged to be able to walk these blocks and the rest of the E.Vil whenever I feel like it, bearing witness to the froth of commerce and creativity that bubbles up 24 hours a day.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Food Saves the Day

The Downtown Express reports (via Curbed) that the $60 million renovation of the Battery Maritime Building's Beaux Arts facade is just about complete. Now the city wants to turn the building into a public market/food emporium.

References to Seattle's Pike's Place have come up, 'natch, but hopefully we can do a little better than a fish-tossing spectacle. And it seems the place isn't easily accessible. But it could become quite a catalyst for Lower Lower Manhattan if some real planning takes place. The city would do well to get the Project for Public Spaces involved, the experts on public market design and how to leverage them for further investment.

P.S. I've been informed by Bird to the North that indeed PPS has made a presentation to a "decision-making group" to consult on the new public market concept. Good luck!

Another Installment of "Breathtaking Inanity"

Today's installment of "breathtaking inanity" (the "irrational exuberance" of the two-thousand-oughts) is once again inspired by the redevelopment process at the World Trade Center site. The hard-working Charlie Bagli of the Times has a piece about how the next five weeks will prove crucial in the rebuilding efforts. The city is trying to open up the site to builders other than Larry Silverstein, developer of the monumentum horibilis.

Yes, it would be good to include other developers. But honestly, that's not enough. If Silverstein is allowed to build that f**king Freedom Tower, it will cast a shadow over the entire site for a century (assuming it doesn't get hit in another terrorist attack). I've said it before and I'll say it again: Condemn the site in the public interest and start over. If it takes a dozen more years, so be it. But nothing would be worse than a horrible, bunker-like piece of design-by-committee architecture sticking up like a giagantic sore thumb. Are we really that stupid?

Friday, February 03, 2006

Repeal Term Limits, Make Urban Life Beautiful

Nearly two years ago, I did a story for Metropolis Magazine about Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and everything he has been doing during his 5 terms in office to make Chicago the "greenest city in America," as he has so often pledged. His greening crucade started out modestly enough by widening street medians and planting them with a cornucopia of trees, flowers and greenery. This simple yet effective landscaping initiative had the dual effect of calming traffic and making life a wee bit nicer for everyone. One thing led to another, and next thing you know, entire neighborhoods have been transformed by Mayor Daley's greening initiatives.

When I got back from Chicago, I happened to be walking on Bowery and noticed the pathetic, dirty little median strip on Bowery and thought, "This would be the perfect place to do a demonstration median strip in New York City." Then I promptly forgot about it until my good friend Bird to the North posted about this very same topic just a few days ago:

"The median on Bowery between 4th and around Grand is just pathetic. ... The cars speed, taking advantage of the wide lanes. And there's barely any shoulder, so truck tires really do feel like they are running you down. I'm afraid that the same changes are going in for the median on Houston between Bowery and Broadyway. These are wide streets with great sidewalks! They could be so much nicer, with a boulevard effect. If only." Image from Flickr, by antiparticle.

Of course, Bowery is never going to look like the Chicago street pictured above, but there's no reason we couldn't take the principle and adapt it to our own environment ... no reason except that Mayor Daley has been in office for five terms and probably will run again. One of the points I made in the Metropolis article is that doing what Daley has for Chicago practically requires a dictator to get it done, and hey, benevolent dictators have done some great things for the world. I'm thinking we need to repeal term limits in New York City and on the condition that Mayor Bloomberg take a page out of Chicago's playbook and raise the city's consciousness about urban environments. The same way that Giuliani forever changed New Yorker's expectations of safety, so too could Bloomberg elevate our expecation of street aesthetics. If only.

The Metropolis article is only accessible to subscribers. If you are one, the easiest way to find it is to search "Sadhu", as in Sadhu Johnston, who was an assistant to Mayor Daley at the time when I did the story and is now Commissioner of the Environment.