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Monday, June 26, 2006
Contested Streets Premier
Everyone who cares about New York City should watch Contested Streets, which premiers on Tuesday and compares the public environment of New York with those of London, Paris and Copenhagen. I will give the movie the full review it deserves at a later point. For now, I'll just say that this is a movie that was put together by people with a broad vision for how New York's streetscape should be significantly transformed and a many-layered theoretical underpinning on why it ought to be. In thinking about what could be, they are not bound by what is.

Two images from the film:

Trafalgar Square transformed from a traffic nightmare into an enjoyable public space that attracts people to the city.

The logical result of decades of planning for the car above all else.

- New Film Shows Route to Livable, Gridlock-Free Streets [TransAlt]
- Posted at 11:53 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

Monday, June 19, 2006
New Hope in the Bronx

The building pictured above, a block south of Crotona Park in the Bronx, is one of those rarest of buildings that has the same address on two streets: It is located at 1500 Boston Road and 1500 Louis Nine Boulevard. Neat as that may be, though, this building is more remarkable for a reason that becomes apparent when you notice that the modest cornice and detailing end abruptly at two unfinished facades. It is as if the building was once just a piece of a greater whole.

Indeed, it was.

No. 1500, known as New Hope Plaza, survived the 1970s in the very epicenter of Bronx disinvestment. By the end of the decade, arson and abandonment had taken every one of its neighbors, and No. 1500 was the only building standing on its block.

From the mid-1910s through the mid-1960s, the eleven-block area you see in the map at right was a bustling neighborhood of businesses and five-story walkup apartment houses southeast of Crotona Park. "With a density of well over 500 units per acre, it was a vibrant neighborhood, consisting primarily of New Law tenements built after 1901," wrote Richard Plunz in A History of Housing in New York City (Columbia University Press, 1990, and the source of this map and the next). Three thousand people lived in 51 apartment buildings on the two blocks at the center of the neighborhood. Today, only one of those buildings remains standing, No. 1500, built in 1915, at the corner of Boston Road and what was then Wilkins Avenue.

Then came the destruction wrought by the arson and abandonment of the 1970s that came not long after Interstate highways began offering their promise of the benefits of the city and the country at the same time. This left a lot of rubble-strewn empty lots in the neighborhood. Not content simply to bring people to suburbia, planners also set about to bring suburbia to the people. Charlotte Street, where President Carter and Candidate Reagan famously stopped to promise to rebuild, was rebuilt by Ed Logue as a subdivision of detached single-family dwellings that offered housing for a relative handful of people at an enormous cost of valuable urban land.

No. 1500 once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with its neighbors, but now it looms over them as a lonely reminder of the once busy city neighborhood.

An aerial photo from local.live.com reproduced below shows the block where No. 1500 stands.

I'm not sure there is an image that better explains the spatial inefficiency of suburban development. New Hope Plaza at the corner has homes for some 100 people in 38 households (and three stores too), while the entire rest of the block has just 18 housing units, fewer than half the number in New Hope Plaza.

Despite the 1980s efforts that produced Charlotte Gardens (or perhaps because of them), the need to produce affordable housing remains a major goal of the city and state governments. Their agencies, along with banks, developers, nonprofit community-based development organizations and the "intermediary organizations" that fund them are all under enormous pressure to satisfy a demand for affordable housing that never seems to slacken. Thankfully, in the decades since Charlotte Gardens was built, the prevailing wisdom of this group of organizations has come to acknowledge that the only way to solve the housing crunch is to build at a greater density.

As a result, high-density apartment buildings are returning to the periphery of the Charlotte Gardens area, restoring a bit of that neighborhood that existed before. I've already written about a building called Urban Horizons II to be located just off the map above. Even closer, a big mixed-use building is nearing completion at 1490 Boston Road, just across the street from New Hope Plaza.

Designed by Hugo S. Subotovsky Architects, this red and tan brick building embodies a back-to-the-future understanding that the best and most useful built environment for the Bronx was the one that was being neglected and actively obliterated for much of the second half of the 20th century. No. 1490 shares many of the same characteristics as 90-year-old No. 1500: Six stories, a solid streetwall, ground floor retail. Even the rounded facade serves to compliment its neighbor.

1490 Boston Road will contain more than 9,000 square feet of ground floor retail space and 95 apartments (most of them two-bedroom units), all restricted to households earning no more than 60% of the New York City median income. It was financed in December 2004 with $9.5 million raised by the sale of tax-exempt bonds issued by the New York City Housing Development Corporation, underwritten by Bear Stearns and secured by KeyBank. The Housing Development Corp. lent an additional $4.18 million from its own budget to finance this building's construction, which is being developed by the Atlantic Development Group.

There are still vacant lots in the Bronx that can be built upon, but if present trends continue or accelerate, there will come a time when the land underneath Charlotte Gardens is more valuable for what could be there than what is. Now that lots near Charlotte Street are being put to use for apartment buildings, what will become of Charlotte Gardens? Will it be a permanent reminder of shortsighted planning policies and low urban land values, or will it give way to a restored dense urban fabric?

The zoning for the area, shown in the map below, makes these single-family detached houses a permanent fixture. In fact, if New Hope Plaza fell down in an earthquake, rebuilding it would be illegal.

As shown by the map, the area is zoned R1-2, which is almost the lowest density residential zone that exists in New York City. As described by the city's 1990 Zoning Handbook:
R1 districts permit only single-family detached houses on lots at least 100 feet wide (in R1-1 zones) or 60 feet wide (in R1-2 zones). These zones limit population density by allowing only four to seven families per acre. Usually, the houses are on large landscaped lots. Many of these areas are far from public transportation. Most families in these districts own at least one car. One parking space is required for each dwelling unit.
The R1-2 zone corresponds almost exactly to the area occupied by Charlotte Gardens, which is near the Freeman Street and 174th Street stops on the elevated subway line served by the 2 and 5 trains. The area all around it, including the site of 1490 Boston Road, is part of a much higher-density R7-1 zone, which corresponds with the density of the Charlotte Street area before its apartment buildings were razed.

A 1980 article about New Hope Plaza describes it as having at one time been "an elegant building," and quotes a resident, Helen Steiner, as saying, "It used to have stained-glass windows, overstuffed furniture in the lobby and a chandelier." What good luck that it has survived into the 21st century. It's survival has provided 38 homes, 37 of which could not legally be replaced. How did the people responsible for this building manage to keep it up?

The residents of 1500 Boston Road stayed in their building as many others were fleeing the neighborhood, and one big reason may be the tenacity of the building's superintendent, George Lascu, who in 1977 was 82 and toothless, and had lived in the building since 1937. "All the people here are just like a family," he told the Times in 1977, "my family."

Because it still stood while other buildings were empty shells or reduced to rubble, this No. 1500 began attracting new residents. As the Times described it:
There is little turnover in the multiracial apartment house. Those who have been there stay because the building is like an anchor in a sea of desolation; those who have come recently are also there because of the stability.
Around 1980 even No. 1500 was abandoned by its owner, and it fell into city ownership. Tenants remained but lacked heat and hot water. Led by a 73-year-old grandmother named Alice Myers as well as Helen Steiner and Mary Jones, and with assistance from the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, the tenants organized and formed a cooperative to buy the building and get their utilities restored. In 1983, they rehabilitated the building with $25,000 from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and another $25,000 from the J.M. Kaplan Fund. That led to a grand reopening, which the Times covered this way:
For four years it was Last Hope, the only building still standing, and still occupied, in a block of urban rubble in the South Bronx. With speeches, balloons and a marching band, Last Hope yesterday formally became New Hope Plaza and was welcomed as another sign of revitalization in a once-proud neighborhood.
Twenty-three years later, one looks forward to the grand opening of New Hope Plaza's big new neighbor at 1490 Boston Road.

- For New Hope Plaza, a New Look [NYT 5/29/1983]
- 3 Women Who Led Rescue of Building in South Bronx See Hopes Fulfilled [NYT 9/14/1983]
- The Bronx's Green Housing Boom [S&F]
- Posted at 10:41 PM | Permalink | Comments: 4 | Post a Comment |

Sunday, June 18, 2006
Cars Give Way to People in SoHo

The Tunnel Garage and its 188 parking spaces, built just as the Holland Tunnel and the automobile were first offering their promise of a quick exit from the city, is ancient history. In its place will rise an 8-story apartment building with 48 apartments, 7,340 square feet for stores (and 117 parking spaces). Because of this land use change, a net of 71 motorists each day will find it harder to park in SoHo, more or less removing that many cars from the roads. Meanwhile, households and businesses will find space in the building, further enlivening this pedestrian-oriented neighborhood.

I've been glad to see automobile-related uses vanishing from Manhattan, including many West Side gas stations and this garage, at the corner of Broome and Thompson Streets. In this case, there was an argument to save the garage on aesthetic reasons. Actually, there was something to be said for that old, pleasantly rounded facade and its "proto-Art-Deco" Model T medallion at the corner (pictured). But the traffic decongestion and strenghtened neighborhood fabric easily outweigh the loss.

- Landmark Status Sought, For This? [S&F]
- See Ya! [S&F]
- Posted at 9:20 PM | Permalink | Comments: 6 | Post a Comment |

Monday, June 12, 2006
Moving the Sidewalk at 96th Street

As pointed out by Aaron Naparstek and the good people at Curbed, folks from the Upper West Side are upset that the sidewalks are going to be shaved by nine feet for the redesign of the subway station at 96th Street and Broadway. Nine feet of space where people walk would become one lane of traffic in each direction on Broadway. A classic case of taking away space from pedestrians and giving it to cars? Not exactly. As Curbed's commenter No. 8, "Dave the City Planner," retorts:
Yes, the sidewalk on the east and west ends of Broadway are being narrowed, but there is basically a new sidewalk being created in the median. At the end of the day, the same amount of sidewalk space will exist exist [sic] - it'll just be distributed differently. … This is not about cars vs pedestrians.
Dave the City Planner's point is mathematically correct — the amount of roadway devoted to traffic will be the same — but his point assumes the fungibility of walking space, i.e., that sidewalk space can be replaced one-for-one by the same amount of space in a median. That ignores the fact that a sidewalk takes you to stores and apartments and the far end of the block, while the median is the place you stand when you're waiting for the light to change.

The MTA's PDF'ed proposal, which comes to us via Community Board 7, notes that streetscape impacts will include "Reductions to sidewalk widths" and "Removal of 96th St subway entrances in sidewalk." I fail to be bowled over by Dave's appeal to mathematical precision. I am inclined to agree with the people who spoke in Clarence Eckerson's video who are upset about the sidewalk narrowing. But an even more important concern is the related removal of the subway entrance in the sidewalk.

Because elevators take up a sizeable amount of space on the sidewalk, the issue of allocating sidewalk space is going to come up again and again as the MTA continues its federally mandated mission to make renovated subway stations ADA accessible. Subways move a lot more people than roads, and we as a city should make the decision to make avenues that have subways underneath them (like the narrow-sidewalked Lexington Avenue) as pedestrian friendly as possible, even if that means taking space away from cars.

Right now, if you are taking the train to a destination on Amsterdam or Columbus, you get off at 96th Street and walk through an underpass to the eastern exits, walk up the steps, and proceed directly to your destination. But if the only entrance was to be placed in the median — enlarged though it may be — you will have to wait to cross three lanes of traffic before you can proceed. It turns out that this is about cars vs. pedestrians, because subway-riding pedestrians will be endangered so that no lanes of traffic will be sacrificed. Anyone who has ever ridden the West Side IRT knows that it can get insanely packed, and the express stations are especially busy. Think of crowds of people waiting to cross the street, some people running to catch the light, some not making it so quickly. This whole setup magnifies the risk of accidents, all to avoid taking away a lane of traffic.

The MTA and the DOT should look to their own earlier work in evaluating how to make an Upper West Side IRT express station ADA-compliant. Five or six years ago they expanded the 72nd Street station, and in the process took away all three of Broadway's uptown lanes between 72nd and 73rd Streets. The result is a greatly expanded Verdi Square, and a well used public space where there had been parked buses and traffic.

Drivers who want to continue northbound on Broadway have to make a left at 73rd and Amsterdam and then wait for a right-turn arrow. This new obstacle has caused a big reduction in traffic.

There is now so little uptown traffic on Broadway in the 70's that the next logical improvement would be to reduce these three lanes to two by widening the median and creating a series of true walking gardens, or maybe by widening the sidewalks in front of the Beacon Theater to accomodate all the concert goers.

On the Upper West Side, Broadway should be a street for people. It already has the most attractions for pedestrians — dense apartment buildings and popular stores and restaurants. For cars, Broadway is already two-way and so its light timing encourages through drivers to take the Amsterdam and Columbus one-way speedways anyway. Why not take this a step further? Elevators and stairway entrances on the Broadway median at 96th Street are fine, but the sidewalk entrances should not be removed. Doing so would inconvenience and endanger pedestrians.

To round out this post, I asked Futurebird to graphically depict her view of what would happen under the proposed plan. In her "before" view, pedestrians walk easily along wide sidewalks that are adjacent to their destinations. People with stollers and grocery carts don't obstruct the movement of others.

In her "after" view, chaos has set in. Much of the sidewalk has been lost (or rather, "relocated" to the useless median), a slow moving older person is now delaying a group of people rushing to catch their train but who can't get by her, and a crowd of people waits to get off the median.

BONUS! There is a public forum about this plan on Tuesday night at 7 o'clock at the American Bible Society, 1865 Broadway at 61st Street. People who have a say over what happens here are still listening.

- How to Spend the Next 5.5 Minutes of Your Life [Curbed]
- The 96th Street Sidewalk Nibblers [Naparstek]
- The Sidewalk Nibblers [Clarence Eckerson]
- 96th Street Station Rehabilitation Proposal [MTA via CB7 PDF!]
- Traffic Reversal [S&F]
- Retrofitting Bridges for Inefficiency [S&F]
- Posted at 9:23 PM | Permalink | Comments: 11 | Post a Comment |

Sunday, June 11, 2006
264 Hours in a One-Hour Space

Remember back in March when Starts & Fits' roving correspondent Gary Roth discovered a car parked in a one-hour space for two weeks? Mr. Roth has an uncanny ability to find these vehicles, and on Friday he outdid himself by finding another car long overdue for a tow. This one is parked in front of the Stage Restaurant at 128 Second Avenue (between 7th and St. Marks). According to Gary's conversation with the guy behind the counter at the Stage, this car had been parked there for three weeks as of Friday. To ascertain the veracity of this claim, Gary rifled through the many parking tickets on the windshield. Let's have a look at those tickets, shall we?

Got 'em under both wipers. That's pretty impressive. How about a closer view?

Tickets under the passenger's wiper.Tickets under the driver's wiper.

Here is another sign that something here is a little off:

So has it really been three weeks? The earliest ticket that Gary found was dated Wednesday, May 31. I found the car this afternoon at about 3 o'clock. Let's say for the sake of easy math that that ticket was left at the same time of day. That's 11 days in the spot, or something like 264 hours parked in a one-hour space. Of course, it could be more if the car didn't get ticketed on the first day it was parked here, or if tickets were given before May 31 but have been removed.

A stack of parking tickets under the left windshield wiper. A stack of parking tickets under the right windshield wiper. A florescent green sanitation warning about parking obscuring an entire window. None of this seems to be deterring the owner of this car from keeping it parked here. Why doesn't the NYPD tow it away?

- Welcome to New York [S&F 3/18/06]
- Parking Math: Tow It Yourself [S&F 3/19/06]
- Did the Indiana Minivan Get a Good Deal? [S&F 3/29/06]
- Posted at 9:09 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

Thursday, June 08, 2006
Induced Traffic and Central Park

The Gates public art exhibition in February 2005 closed the Loop Drive of Central Park to automobiles and attracted millions of visitors to Central Park (and spawned at least one other public art idea pictured above). But it did not cause the kind of traffic calamity that Starquest expects to see from a closure of the Loop Drive.

Starquest, better known as Henry J. Stern, is a thoughtful person who not only wishes the best for the city, but has dedicated enormous amounts of energy in his former job as the New York City Parks Commissioner and more recently as an urban philosopher to improving the city's built environment. Having seen him deftly moderate a contentious public panel on the possibility of reopening a waste transfer station on the Upper East Side, I have grown to respect his abilities to navigate the city's political landscape and I enjoy reading his columns, which he kindly e-mails out to me (and anyone else who signs up to receive them).

He recently wrote a surprising column on the idea of banning cars from Central Park that appeared in the New York Sun and shows a misunderstanding of the results of a full closure of the Loop Drive (which would go beyond the partial closure announced last month). He wrote:
Although banning automobile traffic in Central Park would be pleasant from a park point of view, it would be disastrous for neighborhoods on both the East and West Sides of Manhattan. The cars prohibited from using the park at rush hour would not simply disappear; their drivers would use alternate routes, going south on Columbus and Fifth Avenues, north on Amsterdam and Madison Avenues, and both ways on Central Park West and Park Avenues.
As a former Parks Commissioner, one might hope that Mr. Stern would take the "park point of view," and let the Transportation Commissioner worry about the traffic impacts outside of the park. A parks commissioner should perhaps be advocating for better parks. But he's no longer in that role, so this isn't the main point of my criticism of Mr. Stern's opinion.

His view that rush hour traffic "would not simply disappear," for which he provides no supporting documents, is a hypothesis contrary to history. The more surface area of the planet that you devote to the movement and storage of automobiles, the more traffic you have. Adding lanes upon lanes to Los Angeles freeways has not helped that city avoid traffic congestion. It has encouraged a built environment that requires the car for all trips, thus boosting traffic congestion there. In L.A. and elsewhere, when you build lanes, cars will fill them. People are induced to drive by through public investment. This is called the "induced traffic effect." Central Park's use as a major traffic artery encourages people who would otherwise take the subway to drive instead.

The converse is also true. When you reduce the roadway space given over to automobiles, you discourage driving, causing traffic to disappear by squeezing it out of existence. We're not talking about Los Angeles here. This is New York City, where people evaluate each trip they take before they take it and select a mode according to a host of factors. Of course, closing the Loop Drive would eliminate a great deal of the north-south traffic at 59th Street's intersections with Sixth and Seventh Avenues. (Ditto for 110th Street's intersections with Lenox and A.C. Powell.) The benefits of this would radiate north and south from the park for many blocks.

But beyond these localized benefits, closing the loop drives would cause a percentage of the people who formerly would have driven to take the subway instead. Nobody is talking about closing the depressed east-west transverse roads. The loop drive is a north-south route that is parallel to no fewer than 10 subway lines, namely the A, B, C, D, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. The air quality benefits of this modal shift are enough to make this a valid public policy decision, regardless of the improvement "from a park point of view," reduced asthma cases, better social interaction of the people who will come out of their metal-and-glass shells, fewer traffic deaths and injuries, a lowered demand for parking spaces south of 59th Street and increased revenue for the MTA.

The Gates went off without a traffic nightmare, and a regular closing of the loop drive will not either. History is filled with dire predictions of traffic nightmares that would result from street closures but that have failed to materialize. Why not test it out with a trial closure and see what happens?

- Horseless Carriages [NY Civic]
- Disappearing Traffic? The Story So Far [ContextSensitiveSolutions.org]
- 'The Buckets' [S&F]
- Partial Car-Free Trial in Central Park [S&F]
- Posted at 12:45 AM | Permalink | Comments: 6 | Post a Comment |

Sunday, June 04, 2006
Why New York City Hurricanes Are Rare
The 2006 Atlantic hurricane season started last week, as we all know by now. Since reading Aaron Naparstek's Big One last year and following what happened after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the rest of the 2005's hurricane-season-on-steroids, I've been pondering the possibility of a hurricane hitting town. After all, New York City is adjacent to the very same Atlantic Ocean as Hurricane Alley. An Inconvenient Truth portends future devastating hurricane seasons like 2005 as high sea surface temperatures continue to rise. Could New York City get hit by a Katrina?

Possibly, but unlikely. As I see it, there are two factors that keep New York relatively safe.

1) The Prevailing Westerlies
One reason that the Pacific Northwest has the cleanest air in the country is that the Prevailing Westerlies, the winds that, north of 35o north latitude, tend to blow out of the west. In Oregon and Washington State, these winds blow in from the vast Pacific Ocean, carrying air that has with no trace of pollution. But here in New York, the Westerlies carry all the emissions from midwestern power plants and other sources of pollution across the American continent right over us. But the Westerlies also steer hurricanes away from us. The typical track of a hurricane is to be carried toward the northwest by the Trade Winds in the tropics. But by the time a hurricane gets to the Horse Latitudes, between 30o and 35o degrees north latitude, it will gradually veer toward a track that takes it north and east (i.e., away from land). Here's an image of the track for 2000's Hurricane Isaac, a category 4 storm that I think illustrates as close to a "normal" track as possible for an Atlantic storm.

Of course, it is not impossible that a storm could hit New York, but the Westerlies make it unlikely, because by the time a hurricane gets as far north as New York City, it should be embedded in the Westerlies pushing it out to sea. So the Prevailing Westerlies send us impure air but also steer hurricanes away: If we have a love/hate relationship with them, it's easy to understand why.

2) Low Sea Surface Temperatures
Hurricanes need sea surface temperatures in the low 80's Fahrenheit to gain strength. Luckily, our seas are cold and cloudy and not amenable to Hurricane strengthening. I've put together a page that displays charts produced by three NOAA buoys that track sea surface temperatures in the waters off New York City. (Unfortunatley the most southerly of the three got pulled from its mooring. It was retreived, but it hasn't been put back on line yet.) As of this writing, our waters are in the 60s, so it looks like we're in the clear for the moment. These are the kind of temperatures that cause people to avoid swimming, but also weaken hurricanes: another mixed blessing.

- Sea Surface Temperatures in the Waters Off New York City [NOAA via S&F]
- Posted at 11:51 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |

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