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Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Oxymoron of the Day: Wal-Mart Saving Energy
Wal-Mart is expected to announce today a broad plan to reduce energy costs. The Times reports that the company intends "to reduce energy use in its stores, double its trucks' fuel efficiency, minimize its use of packaging and pressure thousands of companies in its worldwide supply chain to follow its lead."

These are short-term steps that do little to resolve the fact that Wal-Mart's very existence is based on consumption of enormous amounts of energy. How? Let me count some ways. 1) The sprawling one-story stores leak huge amounts of heat or coolness through their roofs and walls. 2) Their stores, usually located far from any rail lines, must have their goods delivered by trucks, which guzzle far more gas than SUVs and are much less efficient than rail freight or barges at moving goods long distances. 3) Their huge free parking lots cater to drivers, thus putting the company at the mercy of a suburban customer base that itself will be struggling with higher energy costs in the form of higher heating, cooling and gasoline bills. 4) By importing their goods from China instead of making them here in the USA, the company is substituting transportation costs for labor costs, a model that works so long as oil — and the trip across the pacific — is cheap.

The marginal savings Wal-Mart's executives can eke out by fine-tuning this or that operation are a drop in the bucket of energy waste that the company's business model depends on. James Howard Kunstler, the author of the Long Emergency and the Geography of Nowhere, sees bleak prospects for suburbia in a high-energy future. But he says Wal-Mart is one of suburbia's most vulnerable elements:
The whole system of continental-scale big box discount and chain store shopping is headed for extinction, and sooner than you might think. … Operations like WalMart have enjoyed economies of scale that were attained because of very special and anomalous historical circumstances: a half century of relative peace between great powers. And cheap oil - absolutely reliable supplies of it, since the OPEC disruptions of the 1970s.

WalMart and its imitators will not survive the oil market disruptions to come. Not even for a little while. WalMart will not survive when its merchandise supply chains to Asia are interrupted by military contests over oil or internal conflict in the nations that have been supplying us with ultra-cheap manufactured goods. WalMart's "warehouse on wheels" will not be able to operate in a non-cheap oil economy.

It will only take mild-to-moderate disruptions in the supply and price of gas to put WalMart and all operations like it out of business. And it will happen. As that occurs, America will have to make other arrangements for the distribution and sale of ordinary products.
Phew! I'm not sure it will be as bad as all that, but if this is a first round of belt-tightening related to increasing energy costs, it vindicates his position. But really, Wal-Mart trying to conserve energy is like an elephant trying to conserve oxygen. It can't happen without a radical restructuring.

[Update: Oct. 31, 2005; 9:26 a.m.] The Oil Drum has a lively discussion about this news.

- Wal-Mart to Seek Savings in Energy [NYT]
- Remarks in Hudson, N.Y., January 8, 2005 [Kunstler.com]
- The End of WalMart? [The Oil Drum]
- Posted at 12:39 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Traffic Reversal

Here are two photos of the northwest corner of 89th Street and Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side. The first is from 1913. The second is from today. In 1991, the new owner of the corner building upset neighbors and preservationists by altering the building in preparation for retail use. Seven years later, the building and six others were designated the smallest historic district in the city, preventing further alteration of the buildings without permission. It is nice to see the buildings preserved, but the real damage to them came many years earlier, when the sidewalks were narrowed and the stoops were removed. What was each building's first floor is now the second, and each one has an odd-looking window where the door used to be. Though preserved more or less intact, these buildings are another in a long line of casualties of Autotopia, the prevailing fascination with the benefits of automobile travel during the 20th century combined with ignorance about the problems cars create when overused.

The history of the 20th century is one in which every square inch of land that could conceivably be put to use for the movement or storage of automobiles was. Streetcars were removed from the tunnel under Park Avenue south of Grand Central Terminal, at right, so the space could be given over to drivers. Brooklyn's Third Avenue elevated train was replaced with the Gowanus Expressway. Bridges carrying subway and trolley lines were converted to automobile use, even though that led to fewer people to using the bridges. Walkable neighborhoods with three- and four-story buildings were razed for towers surrounded by parking lots or perched atop multi-story concrete garages. Central Park's loop drive was opened up to traffic.

The trend continues to this day, as bulldozers in the countryside convert forests and farms to ever more cookie-cutter housing subdivisions and strip mall parking lots. The result is traffic. Automobiles, parked or moving, invading your space everywhere you go — on city streets, on the highway, in vast parking lots outside Wal Marts, even wizzing past us in the park.

But we have the chance to take back some of the land that was given over to traffic. Transportation advocates may be nearing another milestone if they can persuade New York City officials to try banning cars from using Central Park's Loop Drive for a summer. The ban wouldn't affect traffic on the Transverse Roads. Submerged by Olmsted and Vaux for a reason, these east-west roads were designed with traffic in mind.

Cars enjoy a free pass throughout the rest of the city and country. Central Park is no place for cars. I'll be at a rally next Monday that will press this issue. I hope you'll be there too.

- Car-Free Central Park Campaign [Transportation Alternatives]
- Posted at 12:37 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |  

Friday, October 14, 2005
How a Parking Lot Squashed a Beloved Building

I am cataloging the New York City works of the great turn-of-the-20th-century architect Henry J. Hardenbergh, in preparation for a Starts & Fits feature section on his important legacy and impact on our city's built environment. This post is a result of that research.

The New York Times said this parking lot, across 40th Street from the New York Public Library, is "perhaps the most elegant one in Manhattan." The picturesque iron fence and stone wall force drivers to use the back entrance (where they belong), save the pedestrians on the near side from having to dodge out of the way of moving vehicles, and partially hide the view of the parked cars. But the fence exists only because it was required by the City Planning Commission, and still, it borders a parking lot — the most wasteful use of space in the city center. The story of how this lot came to replace a much beloved and heavily used building is a sad tale of a city deteriorating and a preservation apparatus that didn't reach a building in time to save it.

A nine-story Flemish-style clubhouse designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh was built here in 1907 as the home for the New York Club. The building had a limestone base on the ground floors and a brick facade with carved stonework on the upper floors. Arched windows were framed by four pairs of Doric columns between the second and fifth floors. The club, adjacent to the Republican Club and the Engineers Club, formed a little row of clubs across the street from Bryant Park. When the New York Club withered, the building was purchased in 1945 by supporters of Freedom House, a nonprofit organization "devoted to strenghtening free societies," in The Times's words. Freedom House named the building in honor of the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie, and used the building for its offices and to provide low-cost space to numerous other nonprofit organizations. By the mid-1980s, ownership of the building been handed down to the Willkie Foundation, which shared all its directors with Freedom House. Late in 1984 or early in 1985, the Willkie Foundation sold the building to the Republic National Bank of New York for $5.7 million with the understanding that the bank would assume ownership on July 1, 1985. The organization sold its building in part, it said, because it could not keep up with the costs imposed by Local Law 10, a law passed by the City Council in 1980 after a Barnard College student was killed by falling masonry. The law required owners of buildings more than six stories high to have their buildings inspected every five years and make prompt repairs if needed.

As early as 1979, it had been suggested in a citywide survey that the building be put on the list of buildings under consideration for landmark status. It is forbidden to alter the structure or facade of any landmarked building, or even one on the list to be considered a landmark. Owning a landmarked building is often viewed as a burden by landlords, who must comply with heightened upkeep regulations and most importantly, are generally unable to build a larger building on site or enlarge the landmark. Contrary to what one might think, landlords often lobby strenuously against landmark status for their own buildings. Perpetual preservation loomed over the Willkie Memorial Building in early 1985, when, shortly after completing the deal to buy the building, but before even taking ownership, Republic National Bank offered to perform the work necessary to, er, keep the building up to code. In 1983, the bank had completed construction of its new $55 million skyscraper headquarters at 452 Fifth Avenue, two doors down from the Willkie Memorial Building. The bank had plans for this nearby site that didn't include preserving a 1907 clubhouse, no matter how architecturally meritorious.

On the frigid evening of Feb. 15, 1985, a crew of workers took jackhammers to the facade, stripping balustrades and stone carvings around the windows and chipping into the four pairs of Doric columns. A spokeswoman for Freedom House said the work was needed to comply with Local Law 10, but the City Building Commissioner, Charles M. Smith Jr., said the work on the facade "had gone beyond safety-compliance procedures," as The Times paraphrased. But they had a permit for daytime work, so there was nothing the commissioner could do aside from temporarily halting nighttime work. The Landmarks Preservation Commission hadn't acted quickly enough, and preservations were furious that the building hadn't formally been listed. "We have a small staff of 50 persons, and we're not able to move quickly to protect all buildings identified as significant," Lenore Norman, the commission's executive director, told The Times.

Preservationists noted that by vandalizing the facade, the workers had ruined the chances that the building would be landmarked. Perhaps that was the point of all that haste. Even before the destruction of the facade, Freedom House had asked tenants in the building, which included the Public Education Association, the New York City School Volunteer Program, the Citizen's Housing and Planning Council and American Movement for World Government, to vacate by mid-June. The tenants sued Freedom House later that year. The suit was settled out of court, probably with Freedom House putting money into a housing fund for the nonprofits it made homeless. Meanwhile, the building stood vacant and shrouded by scaffolding. Not long afterward, it was demolished, leaving only the parking lot and a nine-story outline where it had stood against the adjacent building.

Public word of Republic National Bank's plans for the lot first surfaced in 1991. Eventually, we learned that they intended to build a 16- or 17-story tower that would have been connected to the building at the rear, which is or was the bank's data center at 1 West 39th Street. The tower, to cost a reported $2.6 million in 1994, was to have been desiged by Fox & Fowle and have had "a limestone facade, recessed flanks, a two-story entry and a pyramid top," as The Times described it. But the effort to build that tower seems to have stalled before December 1999, when Edmond Safra, the 67-year-old billionaire owner of Republic National Bank, was killed in a fire set by his nurse, and Republic was bought by HSBC for $9.8 bllion. The parking lot's new corporate owner seems not to be in a hurry to develop this site, as a temporary permit for the parking lot has been extended for some years now. The Willkie Building will never return, but one would be happy to see something fill this void in the city's fabric.

- The Republic Bank Building [The City Review]
- Freedom House
- Citizen's Housing and Planning Council
- American Movement for World Government
- Posted at 10:42 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |  

Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Maybe Break Up the Paragraph?

From time to time, I receive various pieces of architectural literature in the mail. The images above are from a final project submitted by graduate architecture students, who thought that for some reason they needed to clarify them with text. Here's that text. Emphasis added.
With the capacity for genetic propagation that is neither intrinsically good/bad nor primarily destructive in its function, an architectural virus is a parasitical unit of self-replicating system, a nano-computational monad with built-in mechanisms for absorption and transformation of a given host organism into a new state of affairs or a possible world. It is predicated on the logic of micro-intervention that leads to macro-transformation. Viruses usually operate collectively as a distributive system within a symbiotic whole. In the process, viruses re-configure and re-organize the metabolism of a host organism into a new organizational entity with a different set of interstitial vestibules and vestigial traces, which, in turn, establishes conditions of possibility for further transformation and differentiation. New forms of power structures and organizations have emerged through viral interventions that are symbiotic in nature. Even though viral interaction is aleatory in scope, it is deterministic in function. Consequently, autocatalytic reaction of viruses could lead to the conjunctive synthesis of emergent morphology that is fundamentally cohesive. A viral theory of architecture therefore is based on the premise that collective transformation derived from distributive systems whose internal elements or population is embedded with a high degree of generative autonomy could potentially lead to the emergence of a new kind of possible world, one that is intrinsically democratic in its performance and aspiration. The meaning of globalization is radically incomplete and inadequate without an architectural theory of viral infection.
O.K., let's see here. A vestibule, I've heard of one of those! Emergent morphology, autocatalytic reaction, intrinsically democratic aspiration. This has to do with, like, designing buildings … right?
- Posted at 12:46 AM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |  

Saturday, October 08, 2005
Always Park Near the Curb
I just got back from brunch, where an 18-wheeler was stuck at the narrow and crooked corner of Fletcher and Pearl Streets in the Financial District, in front of the parking garage I just blogged. The space between the cars parked parallel on both sides of the street was too narrow for the truck to get through. The driver leaned on his horn for a while, but that of course accomplished nothing. A little while later, I look over and see six burly, vaguely amused guys lift up the front of a minivan and move it a foot closer to the curb. After that, the truck was able to get through.
- Posted at 3:17 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

Saturday, October 01, 2005
211 Pearl Street: An Appreciation

Here we have a row of old walk-up tenements that have survived amid the skyscrapers of Wall Street. Which one of these buildings is an entrance to a parking garage? It's not immediately obvious unless you see the modest signs advertising parking. At right is a picture of what remains of 211 Pearl Street, between Platt Street and Maiden Lane in the Financial District. The building was demolished to make way for a 100-space parking garage for 2 Gold Street, a new residential tower in the building's backyard. But the developers of the building saved 211's pedestrian-scaled facade, which now cleverly hides the garage as far out of sight as possible and keeps the street wall intact. They even went so far as to put some kind of stuff behind the windows to make it look like there's something in there. Of course, it would have been better to have built a tower without a garage at all, or to have kept 211 Pearl intact as a walk-up. But those restrictions may have prevented 650 apartments from being built in a 51-story tower that helps to bring a 24-hour presence of activity to this central business district, and densifies residential patterns above mass transit. This project shows how balanced preservation and development can work together to improve the built environment. There are reports that the developer, the Rockrose Development Corp., is planning two more buildings on that block. One hopes that they'll continue to develop with the historical context of this area in mind.

- 2 Gold Street [Rockrose]
- Rumblings & Bumblings Responses: Lotta Shit [Curbed]
- Rockrose plans two more buildings near 2 Gold [The Real Deal]
- Posted at 1:31 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

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