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Saturday, January 28, 2006
Freestyle Parking Enforcement

For years, city agents have been affixing florescent green stickers to cars that breach the alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations in an effort to make their owners' feel guilty for hindering the city's ability to sweep the streets. The other day, I noticed that someone, somewhere, had adopted the technique. Here's a car with New York tags that was plastered with three red and white stickers that read YOU ARE PARKED HERE ILLEGALLY. It's hard to know whether these stickers were put on by a legitimate governmental authority or an individual anti-parking crusader (i.e., vigilante). When I saw this car, it was parked in the driveway of the modernist Washington Square Southeast complex in the village. It was unclear whether it was parked there legally or not, but it appeared that the stickers had been attached for some time, and it was the only car around to have the stickers.

I'm not sure what to make of this. I tend to side with the aggrieved party. It's probably a sign that some municipality somewhere is failing to fully enforce parking regulations somewhere. Maybe someone should create a sticker that reads YOUR CAR ALARM DOES NOTHING TO STOP THEFT BUT ANNOYED SCORES OF PEOPLE.
- Posted at 7:04 PM | Permalink | Comments: 3 | Post a Comment |  

Thursday, January 26, 2006
Dreaming of a New Penn Station

On a train ride to Maine two weekends ago, my girlfriend, Susan, and I thought a lot about Penn Station, the once grand station whose destruction ranks alongside the building of the Cross Bronx and Gowanus Expressways as one of the worst urban planning misfortunes to befall New York City during the 20th century. But the expressways at least serve a purpose: They allow motorists to drive through the city with greater ease than existed before. In hindsight, the demolition of Penn Station in 1963 seems to have happened for no good reason. To lament the loss of Penn Station is a cliche of the first order. Every New Yorker who thinks about it mourns the loss of the old station at some point, and I will do it now.

Susan and I always seem to find ourselves in Penn Station, and for good reason. Due to the fortunate east-west alignment of the tracks underneath it, Penn Station today remains far and away the busiest train station in the United States. The Long Island Rail Road is the busiest passenger railroad in the country, and Penn Station is its busiest station — and the LIRR is just one of three of the nation's leading railroad to use the station. It is also Amtrak's busiest station, and New Jersey Transit's, especially now that NJT has added Midtown Direct service and the Secaucus Junction station. The busiest station ought to be the greatest. In fact, it's the worst. "A pit," in the words of Maura Moynihan, an advocate for a new Penn Station. "A disgrace. The worst we could possibly have." Hoboken and Cincinnati have better train stations, not to mention Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.

So given the enormous use of this particular spot in the world, why was Penn Station torn down? What were they thinking? The question returned to us again and again as we rode to Boston.

What were they thinking?

Did they seriously think that it was possible to run a city the size and density of New York without trains? Were they so certain, in those heady days of cheap, domestic oil, that the automobile and the airplane were going to make trains obsolete? Did they look at that building and see something that seemed to be a vestiage of the past? Did they look at it and think it was ugly? Surely many can answer these question better than I can. So if you can lend insight into this, please leave a note in the comments.

Penn Station was torn down 12 years before I was born, and 16 years before Susan was born. We simply cannot understand the mindset that led to the station's destruction. But that train ride and the discussion of the old station led us to be grateful that there is a serious effort to restore a dignified and grand Penn Station. One has to marvel at the good luck we have that the Farley Post Office (seen above, getting a facelift in October), the gorgeous classical building designed by the same architects and built at nearly the same time, is just a block away from the old (and present) station, and served by the same underground platforms.

We have here in New York, the rarest of opportunities: A second chance. The construction of the new station will, in the words of Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for the New Yorker, who spoke at a forum on this subject Wednesday evening, "not literally correct" the demolition of the station, "but compensate for it, and at least engage in a noble act of public repentance for it."

Peter Stangl holds up renderings of the new Penn Station as Alex Washburn and Kent L. Barwick discuss them.

The purpose of the Penn Station forum, held at the Municipal Art Society, was to raise awareness of the project's status. In order to move forward, all projects, it was noted, need stars to be aligned in three categories: Politics, finance and design. In terms of politics, this project is a winner unlike any other in recent memory. Unlike just about every other project to be built in the city now or in the memorable past, there is no public opposition to it. Finance is also farily solid. The great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan worked for 15 years to secure many millions of federal dollars on this project, and, while that money could be yanked away during these dark days of budget deficits in Washington, it is there for the time being. A modest amount of additional private or City financing needs to be found, said Ms. Moynihan, the late senator's daughter, and who is leading the movement to create the new Penn Station. This leads to design issues, which consumed most of last night's talk. In particular, the question now is how to incorporate the public space with the retail and do justice to the original station. Without going into detail, I'll just say that there are some issues that remain to be resolved. But the design is in the hands of Vornado Realty Trust and the Related Companies, who are working to develop the station and create retail space that is profitable for the future tenants while not in any way diminishing the station's central civic space.

The next meeting of the Friends of Moynihan Station will take place at 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 22 at the Regional Plan Association. Anyone who can't attend the meeting should support the group's efforts in other ways.

- Friends of Moynihan Station
- When People Cared About Place [S&F]
- Posted at 12:32 AM | Permalink | Comments: 5 | Post a Comment |  

Monday, January 23, 2006
A Disaster Narrowly Averted
I took a ride up to Times Square today to buy the International Herald Tribune, which published my letter to the editor today in response to more nonesense coming out of the pen of David Brooks. On the way back, I was crossing Broadway at 42nd Street with a throng of other pedestrians. A driver in a BMW convertible was so dazzled by the lights in Times Square that he forgot to pay attention to the traffic lights. He flew right through a red light just as the cars traveling both directions on 42nd Street started to roll forward. The speediest of them, a cab, honked at the guy and nearly hit him. The beemer driver freaked out and swerved to the left, but continued speeding forward, into the crowd, which had managed to part just before he rushed through. He brushed past a bunch of people, narrowly avoid maiming or killing them. A few more feet, and people could have died.

Everyone who was walking sort of paused. One guy sort of yelled something in the general direction of the errant driver. Then we collectively sighed and just kept going. No big deal. Imagine if someone had pulled out a pistol and shot into the crowd, but missed by the same narrow margin that this driver missed the folks walking in front of me. There would have been stories all over the front page of the tabloids: GUN-SLINGING MADMAN FIRES IN TIMES SQUARE! The Mayor would have a press conference assuring tourists that its safe to walk in Times Square. But a swerving lunatic behind the wheel? That's just the risk you take when you venture out in public.

Oh, back to the letter. David Brooks finally admitted that the suburban sprawl he's been praising for years had flaws (lack of "community" among them), but he wrote another over-the-top column praising unsustainable development, this time in the form of "new urbanized" subdivisions in the parched deserts of Arizona that will probably never be built. The IHT has already taken this morning's letters down from its website, so I'll repost it here:
In his latest paean to exurban sprawl ("A nation of villages," Views, Jan. 19), David Brooks is right to note that people are demanding community amenities instead of golf courses and strip malls, but he's wrong about where and how American growth will occur in the years leading up to 2025.

Simply extrapolating from present trends isn't the best way to predict that Americans will continue to flock to deserts made habitable through water piped in from a great distance. The difficulty southwestern states have finding water has been well documented. How will there be enough to propel the amount of growth Brooks predicts?

Brooks also ignores the coming energy crunch. Despite the patina of "amenity-rich villages — pedestrian-friendly streetscapes," the type of growth Brooks describes so enthusiastically guzzles huge amounts of energy.

It won't be economical to build sprawl in the desert. Revitalizing cities and towns built by the generations that preceded us will be the economical option.

Aaron Donovan, New York
It is nice to know that some people right here in New York are becoming aware of our energy problems. This evening, after returning from Times Square in one piece, I went downtown to buy some more bacon for the war effort, and I saw a new sight. Every evening where I live, here in the Financial District, there are rows of black sedans idling in lines that snake around whole city blocks, waiting to drive the stars of Wall Street home (or wherever they ask to be taken, actually). I've been observing this phenomenon from time to time over the years, and today, amid the black Town Cars, was the first pug-nosed, squat-looking Toyota Prius that I've seen in livery service. I wonder whose car that was. Probably someone who analyzes the automobile industry, or the oil industry, and is a step ahead of the public on issues of energy consumption. Maybe it was Arjun Murti's.
- Posted at 11:06 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |  

Sunday, January 22, 2006
Rebirth of the Dwyer Warehouse

Back in March, I bid a sad farewell to the Dwyer Warehouse, standing partially demolished at 123rd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. It had for years been my favorite building in New York City — a building that harkened back to a time when people invested serious money and care into the exterior appeal of a building so lowly as a warehouse. Weather-worn and neglected during the decades when nobody wanted to maintain a old warehouse in Harlem, it had fallen into disrepair until a nonprofit group called the International Communications Association began restoring it and converting into apartments. Tragically, a worker renovating the building fell to his death inside the water-damaged nine-story building on April 2, 2002. The City Department of Buildings ordered the building demolished, an order that the developer appealed in court. The developers lost their appeal, and had to tear down the old shell, which stood for three years in a netherworld of partial demolition as we waited for word on the site's future.

That future has arrived in the form of a new apartment building that will recall the form and massing of the Dwyer Warehouse, its color, and its name. The new Dwyer looks like it will be an updated, post-industrial version of the old, right down to the bay windows at the obtuse-angle corner. Starts & Fits remains disappointed that the old warehouse had to go, but this new version is as close as one can come these days to a re-creation of that grand old building. It will be great to see life at the northeast corner of 123rd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue for the first time in many years, especially when it comes in the form of a mixed-use, infill building that fortifies the street wall. This new Dwyer is another example of the housing resurgence going on in Harlem, which is reinvigorating the neighborhood with infill buildings and rehabilitation on what seems like every block.

- A Farewell to the Dwyer Warehouse [S&F]
- Dwyer NYC
- Posted at 8:27 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Boston's Busy Downtown Retail District

In my continuing quest to bring you photos of all the surviving buildings designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh, startsandfits.com took the train most of the way up to Rumford Falls, Me., last weekend to photograph the Rumford Falls Power Co. Building there. It's in a charming old mill town, its mill still operating. We had to transfer between South Station and North Station in Boston, and scheduled some time to walk around downtown to shop and eat.

The Downtown Crossing area seen above in front of Macy's is simply a wonderful joy to walk around. A European-style crazy patchwork of streets is empty or nearly empty of cars. An occasional street had one lane of traffic in one direction, which is just the right amount, or reserved exclusively for buses. And here and there you'd see an odd parked car, which injects visual interest and makes the place seem less like a theme park and more like the real world. The streets are paved with bricks, sending the message to pedestrians that they have access to the whole street. Signs warn motorists to keep out for much of the day, so there are no car alarms accidentally going off, and no useless honking.

Monday was one of those bone-chilling, super-cold days January days in Boston, but a good space will attract people in any weather. There were lots of people out shopping the other day, in clumps of three or four, or bigger groups, or as individuals or couples. This is a great example of how its possible to have healthy urban retail without cars, and without the sterilizing enclosure of a mall. It's also a great example of how many other old, dense cities have come to grips with the fact that they just have to eliminate cars from some areas more or less all the time. Sure, we have South Street Seaport, the Fulton Mall, and a few streets here and there that are closed off from time to time. But these closures fail to create the distinctive district feel that Boston's Downtown Crossing has. Our pedestrian zones are too small or too time-limited, or both. Our grid patterns hinder efforts to close streets to traffic, but there are ways to do it.

The Municipal Art Society and the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign are putting on an exhibition from Feb. 1 to March 29, and a lecture series next month that look to be worth attending, including "Better Streets, Better Business: How to Attract the Walking Shopper."

- Posted at 1:09 AM | Permalink | Comments: 5 | Post a Comment |  

Friday, January 13, 2006
SUV's Either Are or Aren't Safer For Children
There was an odd combination of information that hit the Internet last Monday. First, a study from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia published in Pediatrics and reported in the Ivanhoe Newswire, in which "researchers examined crashes reported to State Farm involving 3,933 child occupants between ages 0 and 15 who were in either an SUV or passenger car." The results concluded that
Children riding in SUVs have similar injury risks to children riding in passenger cars.
A doctor was quoted as saying: "People who use an SUV as their family vehicle should know that SUVs do not provide superior protection for child occupants and that age and size appropriate restraints and rear seating for children under 13 years are critically important because of the increased risk of a rollover crash."

Seemingly simultaneously, an item moved across PR Newswire with the headline "The Truth Finally Gets Told: SUVs are Safest for Child Passengers." It began:
Children are at least twice as safe in SUVs than passenger cars when properly restrained according to an analysis of a July 2005 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) performed by SUV Owners of America, the organization announced today.
That thing about restraints seems like a pretty important qualifier, no? I guess the important thing to remember from these studies is this: Restrain your children properly when you put them in an S.U.V.

- SUVs not Safer for Children [Philadelphia Children's Hospital via Ivanhoe Newswire]
- Risk of Injury to Child Passengers in Sport Utility Vehicles [Pediatrics]
- The Truth Finally Gets Told: SUVs are Safest for Child Passengers [S.U.V. Owners of America via P.R. Newswire]
- Posted at 8:15 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |  

Monday, January 09, 2006
The Dow Hits 11,000!

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, composed of 30 securities traded on the New York Stock Exchange, which this evening is decorated with a patriotic display, closed above 11,000 today for the first time since June 2001. That's great! This is a sign that by the time President Bush leaves office, the Dow might actually be higher than the 10,732 it was when he took office. (The stock market has typically done better under Democrats than it has under Republicans, but the difference between the Dow's 187 percent increase under Clinton, and its stasis under Bush, is particularly stark.)

The good news for the stock market isn't going to help one small business a few blocks from the exchange. The New York Stocking Exchange, a mom-and-pop lingerie shop at Broadway and Dey Street, is going out of business after 14 years.

- Which Party in the White House Means Good Times for Investors? [Hal R. Varian @ the NYT]
- Taking 'Stock' [Kevin Drum/Steve Benen @ the Washington Monthly]
- MTA Sends Notice To Businesses Being Forced Out By New Transit Hub [NY1 News]
- Posted at 9:30 PM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

Sunday, January 01, 2006
A Suburban Defender's 800-lb. Omission
I received a copy of "Sprawl: A Compact History" by Robert Bruegmann (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005), for Christmas, and have so far read only the introduction. This book, received a glowing review in, where else?, the Wall Street Journal from, who else?, Joel "Rule, Suburbia" Kotkin. The book attempts to refute the many commentators — in Mr. Bruegmann's words, apparently "every right-minded individual and organization in the country" — who in recent decades have criticized sprawl as "economically inefficient, environmentally detrimental, socially deplorable, and aesthetically ugly — in short, an unmitigated disaster." Mr. Bruegmann ends the introduction with this:
It is hard for us to imagine today the existence, in the industrial cities of one hundred years ago, of millions of urban dwellers who were obliged to endure cramped and unsanitary tenements, traffic, and pollution-choked streets and deadly factories. Today, by comparison, most residents of affluent metropolitan areas live in relatively low-density suburbs, areas that are much cleaner, greener, and safer than the neighborhoods their great-grandparents inhabited. They also have a great deal more affluence, privacy, mobility, and choice. At very least, it seems to me, our highly dispersed urban regions deserve some respectful attention before we jump to the conclusion that they are terrible places that need to be totally transformed.
It's a fair point. Many commentators see absolutely nothing of value in the suburbs, and this book, hopefully, would bring about a sober discussion that admits that the 'burbs may not be as bad as all that. But this is a fair point only when taken with an enormous, 800-lb. caveat: The pollution choked streets and deadly factories haven't disappeared. We've sent them to the Third World, where they have multiplied to numbers beyond what would have been found in the 19th century industrial American cities. Mr. Brugemann admits that he isn't interested in those impoverished Third World toilers who furnish our sprawl with Wal-Mart purveyed socks and underwear and picture frames and everything else.
The story that I write about in this book is primarily the story of affluent parts of cities in the developed world. I say little in these pages about the poorest residents of American public housing projects or the hundreds of millions of inhabitants of the shantytowns and "informal" communities of Latin America, Africa, or Asia.
That's a giant omission. Affluent sprawl does not exist in a vacuum, and is impossible to understand without an equally deep look at the favelas and similar slums throughout the world. Recently, Peter Maass noted that Americans, wealthy as we are, are able to afford environmental regulations that keep the North Slope of Alaska and our offshore waters pristine and free from oil drilling rigs. We've outsourced the pollution of oil exploration and drilling to poor nations, but imported the oil, which is used to fuel our sprawl.

Also worth noting: For the most part, our cities are no longer the polluted, overcrowded rookeries they once were. That's why the post-industrial New York, for one, is coming back with surging housing values and a record population. If people are fleeing cities because they have the image of turn-of-the-20th-century belching smokestacks in mind, they're fleeing an imaginary menace.

- "In Praise of 'Burbs" [JoelKotkin.com]
- "Rule, Suburbia" [JoelKotkin.com]
- Exurban Oil Users and Far Away Consequences [S&F]
- The Price of Oil [PeterMaass.com]
- Posted at 11:26 PM | Permalink | Comments: 6 | Post a Comment |  

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