Author Archives: amanshel@gmail.com

Holly Whyte Resources

Here is a link to a page I have added to the blog with links to resources about the life and work of William H. (“Holly’) Whyte.

William H. (“Holly”) Whyte Resource Page

Holly was the source of most of the ideas underlying the success of the Bryant Park restoration. After a visit to The Rockefeller Brothers Fund by Vartan Gregorian and Andrew Heiskell (President and Chair of the New York Public Library) in the late 70’s seeking funds for the restoration of the Library, the President of the Fund, William Dietel recommended that a study be made by Holly of the conditions of the public space surrounding the library. The study that Holly produced is uniquely perceptive, fascinating reading and available as a link on the resource page.

There is also an excellent obituary from the New York Times of Holly linked on the page. But an often forgotten part of Holly’s significant impact on Urban Life is that while he was a senior editor at Fortune Magazine, my understanding is that he commissioned Jane Jacobs’ first published work, and he continued to support and encourage Jacobs’ writing.

I would welcome the contributions of others for the page – particularly links to archives of the time-lapse photography that was at the center of Holly’s work. Holly’s thinking was based on careful observation of how people actually behaved in public space; and he used time-lapsed photography to deepen his ability to observe people in public space over time. I’m particularly interested in finding the film observing the almost comically prolonged process of people saying good-bye on street corners. They keep shaking hands, starting to walk away, and then continuing the conversation a bit more. We all do it!

Island Magic

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A rendering of the proposed redesigned Pier 55. Heatherwick Studios

The decades-long saga of Hudson River Park recently took another twist when prominent philanthropists withdrew their promised gift of as much as $250 million to the park for a new facility citing prolonged litigation as making the project no longer viable (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/nyregion/diller-hudson-river-pier.html). The Park’s story began with a proposed sub-surface Westside highway topped by commercial development and a park. The plan was opposed by a historic lawsuit challenging the environmental impacts of the project (https://openjurist.org/732/f2d/253/sierra-club-v-united-states-army-corps-of-engineers-c). The most recent episode ended, at least in part as a result of litigation (involving some of the same individuals, half a century later) citing the process by which a proposed replacement for the decaying Pier 55 was approved.

Like many recent disputes about the development of public space, the issues arose in large part out of attempts to generate income to support the operation of a new park. Considering itself stretched for resources to manage its portfolio of existing properties, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) is loath to take on continuing responsibility for new public space without a dedicated income stream for maintenance and operations. Most of the largest recent park development projects have called for economic activity generated on parkland to pay for their operations (i.e., Brooklyn Bridge Park). The City’s inability/unwillingness to dedicate sufficient resources to maintain operate and program its parks is essentially a political problem of prioritization, and to some degree of imagination of what the benefit of a fully funded parks program might be like. The DPR budget is almost $500 million out of an $82 billion total city expense budget. Given the political forces involved, most people concerned with New York City’s public spaces take the existing level of funding more or less as a given. In the twenty-five years I have been involved in public space management in New York City I have never heard a serious discussion of a material increase in DPR operating funds. This leaves new facilities like the High Line, Governor’s Island and Hudson River Park (HRP) scraping around to find sufficient money to maintain their physical plant as well as for operations and programming. Continue reading

Why Cleveland should become “Amazon City!”

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Cleveland skyline

Downtown Cleveland has an anomaly I am not aware of existing in any other major North American downtown. While there is a great deal of street life, especially at night, it has a remarkable amount of empty office space in architecturally interesting structures. It has restaurants, theaters and a downtown baseball stadium but not many downtown offices. At the same time, Amazon recently announced that it is searching for a site for a second “headquarters” outside of Seattle, and the race is apparently on among municipalities to woo them (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/07/technology/amazon-headquarters-north-america.html). I assume that cities and states are falling over each other to offer them developable sites and all kinds of tax and financing incentives. I have a better idea: Cleveland.

My suggestion is that Amazon create a campus in Downtown Cleveland; adaptively reusing the millions of square feet of empty office buildings and taking advantage of the existing dense social and transportation infrastructure already in place. Cleveland’s “Nine Twelve District” alone has as much as two million square feet of vacant office space (http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2010/11/downtown_advocates_aim_to_rebr.html). This count does not even include of the empty commercial space in the Center City district around Terminal Tower. And what a great executive headquarters Terminal Tower itself could be. Cleveland even has an entirely empty brand-new airport concourse that had to be abandoned when United Airlines dropped Cleveland as a hub. Continue reading

Sharon Springs, New York – A Great Place: A Long Hard Pull

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The view of Main Street, Sharon Springs, New York from the porch of the American Hotel

The appealing village of Sharon Springs, New York, about three hours from New York City, roughly between Cooperstown and Albany, has a strikingly unusual history. The town’s unique feature is a set of mineral springs that became a draw for New Yorkers in the second quarter of the 19th Century (http://sharonspringschamber.com/history/). Sharon Springs was supplanted as a spa for the socially prominent in mid-century by Saratoga Springs, the institutions of which had anti-Semitic policies. As a result, Sharon Springs became a destination for well-to-do Jews. This evolved in the twentieth century into a visitor population of recently immigrated Eastern European Jews, who were less financially well-set than their “Our Crowd” predecessors and who found in Sharon Springs echoes of home – the bath resorts of Central and Eastern Europe. When we first stayed in the town in the early 90’s it had a large summer population of Hasidic Jews, who stayed in rooming houses and the one gigantic dilapidated kosher hotel, the Adler (at which, it is said, Ed Koch was once a summer busboy). At that time a number of younger folks had purchased run down properties in town with the idea of restoration and adaptive reuse. It was an unusual and yeasty mix. We stayed in a very comfortable Victorian bed and breakfast that is still in operation by the same owners. We came to really enjoy Sharon Springs, and it became our regular place to stay on our annual visits to Cooperstown.

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The current state of the Imperial Baths

I am proud to report that I actually experienced the mineral baths at the Imperial Bathhouse in one of its final years. It had an old world sensibility, which my spouse pronounced as disgusting. It was staffed by strong Eastern European women who provided the spa massage services. One passed through a subway like turnstile in order to enter and pay. The towels were transparent and the shower curtains around the tubs were covered with mold. One exited the tubs reeking of sulfur. I loved it. Just after that experience the place closed, as did the decaying Adler Hotel (which we also visited – kind of like out of The Shining). Continue reading

Placemaking as Policy: Gloversville, New York: A Laboratory for the community impact of public space revitalization

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Main Street with the Co-op Market

Gloversville, New York is about fifty miles northeast of Albany at the edge of the Adirondacks. For 150 years it was the center of American glove manufacturing and a thriving commercial hub. Being Gloversville was not unlike being, say, Buggy Whip-ville, and by the last quarter of the twentieth century its classic “Main Street” was hollowed out, with limited economic activity. Today, Gloversville has a population of about 15,000, with a median household income of about $35,000. The downtown has a dollar store and a large number of social service providers – and a lot of empty space. There are a few small industrial firms outside of the downtown, and several long time retailers on the main street. There are more than a half-dozen empty multi-story former glove factories in or immediately adjacent to the downtown.

Glove making must have been a highly lucrative endeavor for many, many years because the architecture and design of the commercial buildings are of very high quality; and most of that built legacy remains – waiting to be reused. The elegant, private Eccentric Club (http://www.eccentricclub.com/wordpress/) looks to be well maintained and is in the middle of the downtown – evidence of the wealth that was generated, and at least some of which, remains there. Continue reading

The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is … What Exactly?

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Tympanum of Conques, France – the damned

The bedrock principle of restoring public space is making people feel safe there. Visitors will only return to a downtown or park if they perceive it to be safe (and, of course, it must actually be safe!). The principal reason people avoided Bryant Park before 1990 was because they were afraid to go there. But why did they feel unsafe? What makes people afraid to spend time in certain places? I suggest that what makes people afraid to be in certain public spaces is a feeling of being unable to predict how other people they see in the space are going to behave, which makes them concerned for their physical safety. When people go outside of places where they feel they are in control, they look for certain markers that communicate to them that the other people they encounter in the space will behave in ways that they expect – and make them feel more certain that they will not be physically threatened.

People feel safe with what they know and people they know. If they don’t personally know the people they are going to encounter, they sense that people who have traits that are as much like theirs as possible are going to behave towards them in ways that they can anticipate. In prehistoric times, perhaps, one had circles of trust: your family and then your tribe were much less likely to pose a physical threat to you then those outside your tribe. Maybe in that environment, we developed carefully honed sensitivities about the cues that told us who was a threat and who wasn’t. As a result, we are suspicious of difference. Sameness generates feelings of predictability and therefore safety. Continue reading

Delivering Compassion to the Homeless

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Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis

Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis has a lot going for it. Its anchor institution is the Hennepin Theatre Trust, which runs three of the historic theaters on the street. It also has a number of dining and hospitality options. There are some wonderful facades of early twentieth century structures. It is also a block from the Nicollet Mall, one of the first urban revitalization/pedestrianization projects of which I am aware. Construction on a rebuilding of the Mall is in the completion phase. The city’s Department of Public Works is now in the planning stages for a similar reconstruction of Hennepin.

On a recent visit to the Twin Cities at the invitation of the Trust I learned that the perception of safety in Downtown Minneapolis and specifically on Hennepin is poor. A good deal of this negative perception seems to be driven by a sense that the street is “overwhelmed” by homeless individuals, clients of local social service providers, occupying the public spaces of the street. In fact, an attendant at a parking lot in the neighborhood told me that working there was “bad” and that he was often required to break up fights that take place on the sidewalk adjacent to the lot. Continue reading

Housing Market Myths and Truths

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The Moda development on Parsons Blvd in Jamaica. A model of mixed-income housing — with a 50/30/20 affordable housing mix. 20% of the units are low-income and 30 % are market rate.

The New York Times recently reported that the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC) has promoted rather than reduced the racial and economic segregation of housing. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/02/us/federal-housing-assistance-urban-racial-divides.html.) This should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the program’s requirements. There are programs and incentives that increase diversity– but the LIHTC does the opposite by design! It subsidizes only housing for very low-income people, and incentivizes the construction of housing in low-income areas. The LIHTC program by its structure produces economic and racial segregation.

The idea behind the program is to spur housing production for the most economically distressed by requiring that the income requirements for residents be set at a very low cap on family income. In order to provide a preference to low-income people, it also gives increased benefits for housing built in neighborhoods that already house low-income families. This produces the effect of segregating those with the lowest incomes both by building and by neighborhood. Continue reading

The Triumph of The Creative Class

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“On The Staten Island Ferry Looking Toward Manhattan (L’Embarquement Pour Cythere)” Richard Estes – Louis K. Meisel Gallery

The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It

By: Richard Florida

Perhaps no writer has had a greater impact on the thinking and practice of downtown revitalization than Richard Florida. With “The Rise of the Creative Class” in 2002, Florida created a paradigm shift in how we talk about the changing nature of the urban core. At the time, a professor in Pittsburgh, Florida identified a movement of young artists and knowledge workers back to center cities and noted that those cities that were attracting creative people were experiencing an increased uptick in economic activity. As a result, there was a rush by cities of all sizes across the country to adopt strategies to attract highly educated young professionals to their downtowns – like the adaptive reuse of abandoned formerly industrial buildings as working and living spaces. Florida’s ideas became the common currency of real estate developers and mayors.

Now writing from his post at the University of Toronto, Florida’s new book argues that the rebirth of cities around the country and across the world has actually created a crisis of affordability and inequality. Cities have become theme parks for the rich and have failed to create upward mobility for the poor. Florida has a sophisticated view of “gentrification.” He looks at the data and does not see much displacement of lower-income families actually happening, but he reviews mountains of data and describes what he calls “winner-take-all” urbanism which benefits an elite group of the highly educated and makes life increasingly difficult for the less well off who face long commutes, a lack of essential services and a lower quality of life. Outside of the North America and Europe, Florida sees a massive movement of the poor to cities without even basic infrastructure. He describes the construction of massive favelas made up of poorly constructed, minimal housing where residents live in grinding poverty. Continue reading

EATING ON THE PAVEMENT

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The Plaza Mayor in Madrid. Tables and chairs everywhere!

In the cities of southern Spain it seemed like some restaurant or other kind of eating and drinking establishment was using every square inch of paved space available for tables and chairs. They were even in narrow alleys and traffic triangles. They weren’t even directly in front of the bars and restaurants – some were across the street or around the corner. The logistics of serving tables that weren’t directly adjacent to the storefront didn’t seem to be a problem. Most places had three sets of prices, the lowest one for the bar, a second for tables, and third and highest for the “terrace;” tables outside.

The impact that this has on public spaces is enormous. It makes the urban centers incredibly lively: and not just centers – out of the way corners are animated by outdoor dining. It does make a difference that for most of the year southern Spain has daylight late into the evening – but these outdoor spaces are at their busiest from 10 P.M. to midnight, the Spanish dinner hour. While there is outdoor dining in North America, its informality and ubiquity amplifies its impact on Córdoba, Seville and Granada – even in Madrid (or maybe especially in Madrid). And, in observing outdoor tables when we returned to New York – most of which are behind barriers and lined up in rows – it struck me that the informality of the tables in Spain was essential. They are scattered about on the pavement – in just the way movable chairs are scattered – with a similar effect. People move the tables and chairs around – they control their own experience – which is so important to drawing people into public spaces. Continue reading