Tag Archives: public space

The Real Story of Sleepy Hollow

 

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The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane (1858) by John Quidor.

Washington Irving (1783-1859) was the Stephen King, or perhaps even the Jay-Z, of nineteenth century American. His book, Life of George Washington, cemented in public memory the iconic image of “the founder of our country.” His Tales of the Alhambra was an international best seller and is still widely sold and read in Granada, Spain. The short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, has created a cottage industry in the river towns of Westchester County, New York – focused on Halloween. Not only was Irving a wildly successful author, but he was also a U.S. Ambassador to Spain, which led to his travel by donkey from Seville to Granada, where he visited the Alhambra and camped out in a room there for several months providing the material for his highly entertaining Tales. My recent trip to Granada persuaded me to download Irving’s collected work and to read the Tales, as well as his ridiculously silly history A History of New York, written under the nom de plume of Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving was also our Homer – the bard of our national myths.

I crossed paths again with Irving this year when I was invited to be a part of an Urban Land Institute Technical Assistance Panel for the Village of Sleepy Hollow, New York. The panel was brought to the Village by Mayor Ken Wray, and ably led by Developer, Kim Morque, President of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, LLC. The panel was made up of eight talented and congenial real estate professionals, from a variety of disciplines, who spent two days in Sleepy Hollow, walking the study area, interviewing stakeholders, and ultimately presenting to the Village Trustees. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and our presentation seemed to be well received by the Trustees. I am grateful to Kim, my panel colleagues, and Felix Ciampa, Mara Winokur and Kathryn Dionne of the ULI staff who organized the panel, as well as to my good friend and colleague, Dave Stebbins, of Buffalo, who recommended my participation (The complete report will finished in a month or so. When it becomes available I will link to it here). Continue reading

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

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

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

The Fountains of Andalusia

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The Alhambra and the Generalife, Granada, Spain

One principle that I’ve tried to communicate with this blog is that the temptation to begin the revitalization of public spaces and downtowns through major capital expenditures is one that is well avoided. I’ve also tried to stress at the same time that there are no hard and fast rules to successful placemaking; and that flexibility and balance are at the center of creating and maintaining great public places. The interplay of these ideas was brought home to me during a recent ten-day trip to Andalusia, Toledo and Madrid where I experienced a number of public space practices that impressed me with their effectiveness.

The presence of water and fountains in parks and on streets has a delightful positive impact on making places more inviting. People love running water. You can put a water feature in the most barren and under-programmed plaza, and it can make that place draw people – despite all the space’s other limitations. Kids like to play in them. Even adults like to throw off their shoes and socks and put their feet in them. In hot places like southern Spain, fountains provide cool. Fountains have a similar effect to plants – they are a visual and aural cue that a place is under social control. In order for the water feature to work someone must be taking care of it: keeping it clean, keeping the pumps running. Continue reading

Putting Out in Public Space

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Thomas Hart Benton, Instruments of Power from America Today, 1930–31 / The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Providing a great experience to visitors to public spaces is something we know that Disney gets for its parks. It’s also essential to the hotel business. Even museums and other cultural institutions are focused today on being responsive to visitor needs – to providing great customer service. They do this because the visitor experience is essential to generating repeat visits and building brand loyalty. At not-for-profit institutions treating visitors well is also part of their development strategy – happy visitors are more likely to become future donors.

In the world of public space management we don’t talk much about the visitor experience – but we should. Most public spaces are operated by government agencies, and the incentive systems of government bureaucracies are oriented towards different goals – minimizing costs, preventing graft and corruption, minimizing risk and avoiding political problems (analogous in some ways to good consumer relations, but not exactly the same thing). Those goals can often be in conflict with providing park visitors with a positive time. Perhaps those of us in downtown revitalization and public space management ought to think a little more about how the individual visitor is treated in our spaces. Continue reading