."Andrew Manshel, who used to work at Bryant Park, runs a great web site called the Place Master, with all sorts of finely detailed information about how to create great public spaces. Mostly likely, in almost any city in America, Andrew would be the #1 guy in town in placemaking." Aaron N. Renn, Urbanophile
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 →
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 →
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 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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
Georgia O’Keeffe, Radiator Building, Night, New York 1927
The Magnetic City, By: Justin Davidson, Spiegel and Grau, 2017
Justin Davidson’s, “The Magnetic City,” purports to be a walking guide – like the wonderful “Paris Walks” book of the 80’s that got you poking around inside gates and down narrow alleys to discover fabulous hidden architectural and historical treasures. But it is much more than that. It is a beautifully written elegy to one citizen’s city and culture (perhaps the mirror image of J.D. Vance’s hillbilly one), a sophisticated series of essays of architectural criticism and an overview of contemporary ideas about city planning and development. It’s most important quality is its quiet, serious thoughtfulness about many issues where partisans can be highly polarized, the rhetoric is often hot and hyperbolic and there is mostly heat generated without much light. Davidson holds these questions up in his scrupulously careful hand, turning them slowly and examining them from a range of angles – all informed by a deep, deep knowledge of New York City history, literature, buildings and neighborhoods.
Davidson has done an astonishing amount of both walking and reading in and around New York City. The book is full of wonderful nuggets of information. It makes a grand walking companion in some of the city’s most economically and architecturally interesting neighborhoods – with a particular focus on downtown Manhattan. But it is also a fine companion for the armchair tourist. Davidson colorfully conjures up the places about which he writes – and his deeper goal is to talk about preservation, development, architectural quality, gentrification and the changing city. Continue reading →
The Borough Office Building, formerly occupied by a title company, and now owned by Greater Jamaica Development Corporation.
An important, but underutilized, tool in the economic development kit is being the buyer of last resort for distressed property. This strategy isn’t frequently used because it requires equity capital (which many/most NGO’s don’t have) and carries the risks inherent in carrying debt and managing property. But it can be incredibly powerful. By purchasing (or long-term leasing), improving and repositioning an abandoned or derelict real asset, not only are the negative externalities associated with that parcel removed from the neighborhood and the market, but the purchaser now has an ownership stake in the community it is working to improve and will have the potential to reap some economic benefit from the success of its efforts. In addition, ownership of key sites gives the local development entity the power to influence what gets developed on the site. In my experience, this is one of the more potent forms of “nudge” to the local market that a not-for-profit can exercise in advocating for neighborhood improvement.
Community development organizations tend to shy away from the risks associated with property ownership. I’m not aware of any business improvement districts, for example, that actually own any property. But I would argue that this is a form of downtown revitalization that ought to be seriously be considered by more of the professionals who are working on downtown improvement. Continue reading →
Jamaica Transit Center Master Plan Rendering: Fox & Fowle — what’s not going to happen
In the last week, I’ve had a couple of occasions to visit Jamaica and was delighted to see progress on a number of fronts. What was most interesting to me was while there is not much happening on the sites we at Greater Jamaica Development Corporation (GJDC) assembled over fifteen years and sold in 2015, there is significant activity on other projects. The conclusion that I draw from this is that what we did to improve the perception of the Downtown through placemaking had more of an impact on its revitalization than our site development projects.
Also, I recently became aware of twenty-minute film about the changes in Jamaica over the last fifty years which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJP0BzmG90I&feature=youtu.be. The film is a nostalgic look at the businesses that were lost from the Downtown from the 60’s through the ‘80’s and the deteriorated conditions Downtown. A good deal of effort was put into this video and I enjoyed watching it. It contains lots of material that was new to me. The film was apparently made by a community member. In the end it raises concerns about possible gentrification brought on by the more recent changes in Jamaica. Continue reading →