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Saturday, April 30, 2005
Signs of Gentrification?
Cyclists who will participate in the annual Five Borough Bike Tour tomorrow will ride past the Ennis Francis Houses at 2070 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (Seventh Avenue), between 123rd and 124th Streets in Harlem. This is a 231-unit, 11-story federally subsidized apartment building for the elderly that opened in 1985. The riders may notice two large signs that tenants have affixed to the building. Starts & Fits has previously reported on tenants making complaints public and this seems to be another example. My first reaction was that the tenants were be reacting to some kind of incident or series of incidents. Perhaps real estate agents in this gentrifying neighborhood were snooping around, offering bargain basement deals to tenants of the building in hopes of flipping the units to wealthier new tenants. But it seems that this isn't a dispute about individual apartments, but rather the whole building.

City Limits reported last November that a judge had "appointed an independent administrator" to manage the building after years of neglect. In December 2003, City Limits had noted that the building, though relatively new, was in bad shape. "Apartment walls are stained with mold, ceilings are leaking, water bugs and mice lurk beneath radiators," the article said. It continues on to quote a tenant leader, Kim Smith, who said, "We lived through the slum era. We ought to be able to live through the renaissance."
The real issue is that when landlords let a federally financed building deterioriate, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development takes it over and gives Section 8 rent vouchers to the tenants. Meanwhile, HUD auctions the building off or gives it to a more qualified landlord. So the signs seem to be posted because the tenants at Ennis Francis want the Abyssinian Development Corporation, a highly esteemed community-based development organization, to manage their building instead of a speculative landlord who could try to profit by keeping maintenance at a minimum, as seems to be what happened before. In 2003, City Limits evaluated HUD's policies for disposing of poorly maintained property, and concluded, "tenants like those at Ennis Francis are going to have to fight for the future of their homes." That seems to be exactly what is happening.

- Posted at 6:01 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Friday, April 29, 2005
Above and Below Second Avenue
The Times had a story on April 27 that offered a pessimistic outlook about the construction of the $3.8 billion first leg of the Second Avenue Subway, which will operate between 63rd and 96th Streets in Upper East Side, which is the neighborhood with the highest residential density in the United States. Washington has agreed to finance two projects: Connecting the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, and the Second Avenue Subway, but Albany has not.
Members of the authority's board expressed doubts about the feasibility of the $3.8 billion project, known as East Side Access, and suggested that another plan, to build a subway under Second Avenue in Manhattan, was even less likely to be realized. The gloomy predictions came as board members met for the first time since Gov. George E. Pataki agreed to a state budget that provides $21.1 billion for transit infrastructure projects through 2009 — $6.7 billion less than the authority requested in September.
However, today, The Times has a story that offers a bit more optimism about these projects. It begins,
The chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said yesterday that he thought major expansion projects like a Second Avenue subway would be built, though it might take years longer than first projected. "They're not canceled," the chairman, Peter S. Kalikow, said at a meeting where his board unanimously approved a scaled-back capital program for 2005 to 2009. "They're just being stretched out."
A Second Avenue Subway would help ease the chronic congestion of the avenue, where one usually finds wall-to-wall idling cars stuck during the morning "rush" hour. But bit by bit and day by day, the carrying capacity of that avenue is increasing with hardly any public investment at all. A local artist and Midtown office worker writes in:
Well, it's the last Friday in the month so, once again, I'm temped to ride with the spunky bikers of this months critical mass. Perhaps, the fact that today is a critical mass day has something to do with a wonderful moment I experienced during this mornings' commute.

It was on 2nd Ave. (of course.) You have no idea how different 2nd ave is during the rush hours. It's nothing like at night, the difference is like... well it's like... uh "night and day" (if you will). From 76th St. to the queens midtown tunnel I had the glorious company of 8 other bikers, that's nine of us in all. It was like some kind of "procession." We had the 2nd to leftmost lane. The whole thing. We took up the space of about 1.5 cars.

At first we were scattered all over the avenue. I was down on the 2nd to the rightmost lane where I like to be when I go under the tram. Some crazy messenger on a track bike was in the center riding the dotted line and surfing traffic. Two yuppies in suits held down the leftmost lane while sporting neon leg bands. A delivery dude with a mountain bike on steroids crept and weaved in from the wrong direction on a one-way street around 67th street. Some old Noam-Chomsky-looking dude slid in from the bridge on a hot recumbent. A couple of lean young guys came off the bridge too on racers... with friggin' toe-clips.

At any given moment there is a best lane to be in. Also, riding with other bikes seems to confuse motorists much less so we all just pulled together into the 2nd right most lane.

There was also (get this) a *bike cop* But, he pealed off from the group after just two blocks.

I mean what could he do? Say we decided to have critical mass at 7:30am? I mean, it was pretty clear.. it was traffic. We didn't block anybody. We were all just going to work. We didn't look like we had anything in common. How could that be an illegal bike "procession?"

Well, you should have seen the "procession" all the cars formed too. I mean, they do it every day. Though, it's kinda hard to call it a procession when none of the members are moving forward. Maybe it's really a procession of gas fumes and exhaust. One of the yuppies had a face mask. I thought: "not a bad idea..."

Startsandfits.com's Manhattan rush hour bicycling has tended to be on Broadway and on the Avenue of the Americas, both of which have bike lanes that, despite being used as truck parking lanes and left-turn lanes for cars, tend to focus bikers on one side of the street. Frankly, I've tried to avoid Second and Third Avenues because I think they're too wide, have too much speeding traffic, and are just too hellish for bicycle riding. This report is starting to make me think otherwise.
- Posted at 10:31 AM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Tuesday, April 26, 2005
"Permanently Closed" Gate Remains Wide Open

The New York City Departments of Transportation and Parks & Recreation announced last Nov. 21 that they were closing to automobile traffic four entrances to Central Park — the ones at West 77th Street, West 90th Street, East 90th Street and East 102nd Street. Transportation Alternatives, which has gathered 85,000 signatures to have the loop drive closed to traffic, hailed the move as a victory for park users, which it was. But an announcement is one thing, follow-through is another. Above is a stealthy nighttime photograph of the entrance at East 102nd Street taken at about 9 o'clock this evening. The gate is wide open and any unwitting motorist could just drive right in there. The signs say the entrance is closed but the pushed-aside barriers indicate otherwise. The former entrance at West 106th Street was closed years ago, and today it doesn't even have a roadbed anymore, which is the way it should be for a park: no roads.
- Posted at 12:46 AM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Friday, April 22, 2005
You Want to Do What?
A startsandfits.com reader e-mails in with an article that says the Arizona House of Representatives is considering legislation to reimburse motorists' summer gasoline expenses at the rate of 10 cents a gallon. Despite their image as fiscally conservative, state Republicans are apparently pushing for this because they think it will stimulate the economy. Thankfully, the governor of Arizona, a Democrat, is opposing the idea. An Arizona legislator who supports the idea said: "This is probably the purest form that anyone's come up with in giving tax relief."

What? Did he say tax relief? The state would have to raise taxes on motorists and non-motorists alike in order to subsidize driving habits. Either that, or cut services. More importantly, by encouraging people to drive, the Arizona legislature will cause more gasoline to be burned, increasing its price for everyone who doesn't get the reimbursement (i.e., non-Arizonans). This will also further increase our dependence on Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters, and ever so slightly increase our national debt. It will put more strain on roads, which will need to be maintained with tax money. What's the benefit to this cost? Helping to subsidize sprawl-based businesses at the expense of everyone else. David Brooks and Joel Kotkin notwithstanding, almost everyone who thinks about transportation thinks that the United States should be working to reduce the annual number of vehicle miles traveled. Instead, the Arizona House would like to increase it. I'm not sure how the Arizona state budget is shaping up, but if it is like most states' there is no room to spare for anything. I imagine that other government-financed initiatives, for examples, schools, would be a better use of taxpayer's money than a subsidy for motorists.

The bill is being pushed as a way to get people to take driving vacations.
Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford, said he hopes the proposal will stimulate the economy in the wake of the price of gas rapidly approaching $2.50 a gallon. "The idea is to help on the family vacation and get people out of town," he said.
There is a reason the gas price is approaching $2.50: Too many people are driving too much. This bill will only encouraging people to drive even more! Like a lot of Republican thinking, this is a short-term measure that comes at the expense of long-term fiscal health. More importantly, this initiative speaks to the prevailing mentality in this country that the only way to have a good time is to drive somewhere, consume something or spend. How about helping the economy by encouraging people to save their money and get out of debt? How about encouraging people to stay in town and have a good time there?
- Posted at 4:22 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

Wednesday, April 13, 2005
Cities, Skyscrapers and Energy

In the Oct. 18, 2004, issue of the New Yorker, David Owen published "Green Manhattan," the most sensible article about the environment that I've seen in a long time. Using the communities where he has lived as case studies, he praises walkable communities and bicycling and public transportation and low energy use. The paiece begins with some personal history.
My wife and I got married right out of college, in 1978. We were young and naive and unashamedly idealistic, and we decided to make our first home in a utopian environmentalist community in New York State. For seven years, we lived, quite contentedly, in circumstances that would strike most Americans as austere in the extreme: our living space measured just seven hundred square feet, and we didn't have a dishwasher, a garbage disposal, a lawn, or a car.
That community, we later learn, was Manhattan, or, to use Kurt Vonnegut's name for the place, Skyscraper National Park. The article goes on to describe the ways that New York City is environmentally friendly, even if the city seems like a huffing, puffing polluted and unnatural concrete jungle. Of course, he's right. While the environmental movement struggles to encourage people to drive fuel efficient cars, New Yorkers don't even need cars at all. Suburban sprawl is turning forests and farms into parking lots and strip malls, but we New Yorkers are building up into the sky, letting plants and animals keep their habitats while creating an ever more vibrant and exciting place to live and visit.

New Yorkers spend less energy per capita than anyone else in the nation, and a key reason for that is the skyscraper, which brings people together into densely charged units of economic productivity while encouraging them to take public transit and live at least somewhat nearby in land already taken for human use. Mr. Owen lists the attributes of a particularly environmentally sensitive one, 4 Times Square, seen at the far top left in the photo above: "collection chutes for recyclable materials, photovoltaic panels incorporated into parts of its skin, and curtain-wall construction with exceptional shading and insulating properties." But he concludes that these attributes would be penny wise but pound foolish if applied to a suburban office park.
The two greenest features of 4 Times Square are ones that most people never even mention: it is big, and it is situated in Manhattan. ... Tall buildings have much less exposed exterior surface per square foot of interior space than smaller buildings do, and that means they present relatively less of themselves to the elements, and their small roofs absorb less heat from the sun during cooling season and radiate less heat from inside during heating season. (The beneficial effects are greater still in Manhattan, where one building often directly abuts another.)
Given this soaring endorsement of our model of urbanity, one might expect praise from James Howard Kunstler, the most withering and unrelenting of all the American critics of suburbia. He and Mr. Owen both have the same primary target of their criticism, suburbia, and they both are critical for the same reason. Further, they both chide Amory Lovins of the exurban Rocky Mountain Institute for misdirecting his pro-environmental energies toward fuel efficient cars and photovoltaics instead of promoting walkable communities.

But Owen and Kunstler diverge on their thinking about Manhattan as an appropriate form of settlement in an energy-scarce world. Despite New York City's obvious efficiencies, Kunstler, who is promoting his forthcoming book, recently told an interviewer that the prospects for New York City are dim in what he sees as a looming, permanent and enormous energy crisis. In his words,
We'll discover that our largest industrial cities will not work very well in an energy-scarce economy. New York and Chicago pose particular problems because they are so overburdened with skyscrapers, a building type that will soon be obsolete. As a general rule, our industrial cities have assumed a scale that is just unsustainable, and I believe will see a period of painful contraction. Many of these cities are already well advanced in that process: Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, et cetera — the list is very long.
While he is prescient about many things, on this point, Kunstler is dead wrong. Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore would enjoy a resurgence in a future energy crunch because of the reasons outlined by David Owen. They are energy efficient. They were emptied out precisely because of the suburban expansion that is Kunstler's primary target and was fostered by the cheap oil extravaganza that he sees as running dry. These cities have declined, but it's because of an abundance of cheap oil, not a lack of it, and things may be changing. There may be a correlation between rising oil prices and increasing real estate values in most of these cities. Meanwhile, New York and Chicago will be saved by their skyscrapers, as corporations find that it's less costly and more productive to locate their offices in them. The seven cities Kunstler mentions experienced their growth when people traveled in horse-drawn carriages and trolleys. They'll grow again if motoring becomes all that hard.

- The Long Emergency [Excerpted in Rolling Stone]
- Global Warning [AlterNet]
- Posted at 9:21 PM | Permalink | Comments: 7 | Post a Comment |  

Friday, April 08, 2005
A Lose-Lose Proposition for the Automakers

As everybody who follows the global financial markets knows by now, Goldman Sachs issued a report last week that said oil prices would be entering a years-long period marked by a "super spike," of high prices that could reach $105 per barrel. Some have scoffed at this report, though the market reacted immediately as people bid oil prices up. But regardless of whether or not the oil prices are entering a "super spike," gasoline prices already have, as seen above. During the past three years, there have been four spikes in the average price of regular gasoline, each of which lasted for two months or so: Feb.-March 2003; Aug.-Sept. 2003; May 2004; Oct. 2004. But now, gas prices have been rising steadily and quickly since the 2005 began, and the "summer driving season" hasn't begun yet. The spike we're in now dwarfs those four earlier spikes, and we could potentially be in the early stages of its upslope.

Given this climate of rising prices and volatility, I draw your attention to a news report about Congressional action in Washington on Wednesday. Two things of note happened at a meeting of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

First, the committee voted to extend daylight savings time for two months a year so as to save 10,000 barrels of oil a day. If that estimate is correct, this tremendous step would save our nation — hold on to your seats — 0.05% of our daily oil consumption, which is some 20 million barrels a day. This is a trivial, negligible amount of oil.

Second, as the article states:
The committee voted down, 39 to 12, a separate amendment to require the federal government to find a way to cut U.S. oil demand by 1 million barrels a day by 2013. The amendment offered by Democrat Henry Waxman of California aimed to reduce imports of crude oil.

Lawmakers with automakers in their districts led the fight to defeat Waxman's proposal, arguing it was backdoor way to require U.S. mini-vans, sport utility vehicles and pick-up trucks to improve their fuel efficiency.

Here is why the U.S. automakers are stuck in a lose-lose downward spiral right now. To increase the average fuel economy of their products, they would have to spend money and eat into their already low profits. But by keeping the average fuel economy at the low point where it is now, the automakers will encourage gasoline consumption, which will drive up gas prices. As gas prices rise, fewer people will buy the gas guzzling SUVs, mini-vans and pickup trucks that are the only profitable thing for Detroit these days. In the meantime, we will have sent more of our national earnings over to Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf States than we would have if our legislators had done the right thing in the first place and required higher fuel efficiency.

The automakers had a dismal choice: spend money now (in a way that would help consumers who buy gas and help any component of the economy that depends on gas prices, which is most of it) or save money in the short run but dampen long-term demand for the source of their profits! Rather than pause to think about their own long-term interests, or the interests of our nation as a whole, the auto industry defaulted to corporate inertia, and asked for more of what it has always asked for in the past, even if in effect that meant it was lobbying against its own best interests. Meanwhile, our men and women in Washington made a symbolic gesture but avoided the opportunity to take real action.
- Posted at 12:58 AM | Permalink | Comments: 3 | Post a Comment |  

Tuesday, April 05, 2005
The Right Way to Rebuild a City
Here a project that exemplifies the best execution of infill development and affordable housing production that I have seen. At West 120th Street and Mount Morris Park West, a row of nine brownstones built in 1891 and 1893 was allowed to decay during the 1980s and 1990s to the point where the houses were mere empty shells known as "the Ruins" and seen here in a photo from the Community Preservation Corporation. The state of the buildings was so dismal that the AIA Guide to New York City, 4th edition (2000), seemed resigned to their perpeptual disrepair:
Ruins with a future? Perhaps New York deserves something equal to Tintern Abbey or Heidelberg's castle, reminding us of the ups and downs of urban life.
Today, the buildings have been completely rebuilt.

These buildings won McGraw Hill Construction's 2002 Residential Project of the Year award, and for good reason. Here is part of the citation:
Mount Morris West Condominium is the triumphant tale of nine Victorian brownstones that were once the centerpiece of the Mount Morris Park area. The site, at 120th St. and Mount Morris Park in Central Harlem, is part of an historic district.

The brownstones were considered ruins, challenging the project team to repair, reconstruct and restore the existing facades, construct contextual infill facades where existing facades had been demolished, installation of landmark-quality wood windows, replacement of metal cornices, repair, replacement and/or restoration of decorative brownstone cornice details and reconstruction of the brownstone front stops and yards.

The buildings opened in 2002 with 36 apartments. Units in here would easily sell today for, I don't know, probably anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million. But they were built to be housing for middle-income people. (Prices started at $195,000 for 18 two-bedroom units and $243,000 for three-bedroom ones.) So here is a project that increases the housing supply at reasonable rates and preserves stately historic architecture and does both at density levels that sustain their neighborhood.

Much of the affordable housing production during the 1980s and 1990s, like the Partnership Houses and the Nehemiah Houses, consisted of cookie-cutter, sometimes cheap-looking rowhouses that provide opportunities for home ownership but eat up too much land to house too few people. Each with its car pad out front, these strips represent creeping suburbia, making permanent the depopulation that came when these once-bustling neighborhoods burned in the 1970s. All over the city you find two- or three-story rowhouses standing among to the older five-story apartment buildings that a city district needs to support walkable retail and mass transit. Cutting against this trend, here is a project that keeps the density that made Harlem a great place to be during its heyday from 1880 to 1950.

Today, a plaque adorns the buildings. It reads:

Restoration of 1-9 Mount Morris Park West Brownstones was made possible, in part, by a NYS Department of Transportation grant secured by Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright and a historic preservation grant from The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. This project was sponsored by Harlem Community Development Corporation.
- 2002 Residential Project of the Year [McGraw Hill Construction]
- Sold Out! (pdf) [Harlem Community Development Corp.]
- Posted at 10:43 PM | Permalink | Comments: 3 | Post a Comment |  

Monday, April 04, 2005
Hamilton Place Revisited

Something is happening at Hancock Place. The exact spot that I suggested should be turned into a greatly expanded sidewalk is filled with construction equipment, as seen above. It's unclear what is happening there. A city project planned to be completed in November lists work at this spot, but about the work to be done, it says only, "Expand multi-use areas of the existing Lenox Hill Senior Center." Something about this description seems to not make sense. First, the map lists the location of work as including Manhattan Avenue from 120th to 124th Streets, a seemingly long stretch of work to expand a senior center. Secondly, Lenox Hill is on the Upper East Side, miles away from West Harlem. The Lenox Hill Neigborhood House Senior Center is located on East 70th Street. Perhaps the website is wrong. Perhaps there is another Lenox Hill Senior Center in West Harlem. Whatever the case, it is impossible to know whether the work crew at Hancock Place is building a great new pedestrian plaza or simply using the overly wide street as a staging area. Time will tell. In the meantime, the traffic coming through this street is no longer speeding around an obtuse corner, but traveling carefully.

- How to Fix an Overly Wide Street [Starts & Fits]
- Project HWM1667B [N.Y.C. Dept. of Design & Construction]
- Senior Center [Lenox Hill Neighborhood House]
- Posted at 9:39 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

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