Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Urban News Vol. 31

October is believe it or not a busy month for Tia and I as she prefers the cooler fall temperatures and we do most of our festival-going during this month. As a result of this and continuing city home customization (spent last night getting the hang of spray foam insulation), I am getting a very late start on October blogging. Hopefully this news isn't already out of a reasonable discussion timeframe.

On Saturday morning, I made my way to the Public Market on the bus system. When I got to Midtown and was transferring from a #5 to a #9 bus, a headline caught my eye in the Democrat and Chronicle vendor box. It wasn't the passing of the much talked about financial bailout (and I have no plans to get into high finance on this blog, though today's story is implicitly linked to the economy), but rather a scale-back of the grandiose plans for Paetec's downtown headquarters.

I never agree with the blind criticism on the online edition of the D&C and this is why I boycott it in the first place, but I could understand and even get behind a light thrashing of Arunas Chesonis' quote that no one could have forseen the last 90 days. Regardless, the news going forward is of a commitment to downtown (though I think many businesses are going to be compelled to 'commit' when the suburban cost of doing business proves prohibitive) and a more human scaled/less speculative design that will contribute greatly to the downtown cityscape.

by Diana Palotas, RNews

Article Key Points:
  • Now a 9 story (rather than 37) story building
  • Space reduction involved leasable office components, Paetec now to be sole tenant
  • Filled with windows to improve solar/geothermal energy prospects
  • Retail on the 1st and 2nd floors
  • Will be wider than original plan, spanning from Main to Broad (350,000 sq. ft.)
  • Consideration was given to cancelling downtown build
  • Necessity to consolidate 850 employees under one roof and reality of 3-4 year economic/energy outlook drove commitment
  • Cost of project now $100 million

Admittedly this article reads more like a conversation than a news report, but I think I've summarized the key factors. I had always been in the Chesonis camp where adding prominently to the skyline makes a statement about a city. I have also been swayed over time by James Howard Kunstler's opinion on the reactivation of American cities and the realities of potential skyscraper obsolesence.

The idea is that buildings significantly greater than 6 stories tall, while dense, are not suited to the energy diet of the future. They are not built to take advantage of natural heating/cooling. In fact, they require immense HVAC systems just to circulate the air as the typical modernist skyscraper actually functions more like a greenhouse. They are heavily reliant on the electrical grid for the otherwise simple task of lifting people and supplies to the upper floors. A blackout or rolling brownouts would be render this type of construction functionless.

I feel this Paetec design is an excellent compromise. Leaving out the talk of LEDs, the brightness of the downtown, and other minor aesthetic details, the renderings I've seen generally look very good. The visual architecture certainly vastly exceeds the low bar set by modernism and there does seem to be an adequately engaging retail base to the structure that would certainly improve that block along South Clinton Avenue. The city is going ahead with the abatement and demolition plans previously discussed, but don't be surprised to see them now hold off on the idea of demolishing the Midtown Tower as fewer viable infill projects loom on the horizon. This would be a wise course of action.

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