Friday, April 3, 2009

Urban News Vol. 41

Today's news run-down is a mix of progress, dilemma, and proposal from across the traditional urban nation. The stories were brought to my attention by thethirdcoast and my wife and gel together as a three-part look into a city that gets it, one that doesn't, and what our city is trying to do about it.

by Christine H. O'Toole, New York Times
Article Key Points:
  • Pittsburgh has transitioned from a steel industry headquarters to a diverse economy encompassing health care, education, finance, and technology
  • The city was in the forefront of the movement to conserve existing structures and clean up brownfield sites
  • Pittsburgh topped Moody's state of commercial real estate report in the 4th quarter of 2008
  • Claimed most LEED-certified square footage in the U.S. in 2005
  • Their Green Building Alliance is the first nonprofit in the nation to encourage green commercial building
  • Century-old landmarks have been revived as energy efficient buildings
  • Public venues such as the Children's Museum and Convention Center incorporated energy efficiency into design
  • 41 more LEED projects expected in 2009
  • New home of the Penguins expected to be the NHL's first green arena

Pittsburgh is indeed a wonderful place, one that lucked out with respect to the scope of its urban renewal legacy (or perhaps they had the right attitude all along?). The city and all of its rehabilitation projects is a true example of form positively influencing behavior (Gateway Center is likely the most benign wholesale rebuild in the nation due to its positive impact on the waterfront and maintenance of the remaining street grid. The Civic Center Arena and I-579 is another story, hopefully soon to be rectified to reconnect the 5th and Forbes corridor into a meaningful relationship with 'dahntahn.'). This emphasis on sustainability is even more encouraging as it is indicative of a culture that values the reduction of waste, a critical trait in the new economy as the concept of 'growth,' as it was always known, is turned on its ear. Pittsburgh's strategic position on three navigable rivers will prove important once again as the nation weans itself from the trucking industry and a sense of place distinguishes itself from desert sprawlscapes.

Missouri Has Last, Clear Chance to Avert Mass Transit Collapse
by the Editorial Board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Article Key Points:

  • As of last Friday, St. Louis' mass transit system was to shrink by 2/3 by the 30th
  • They are facing an operating deficit of $45 million and will lay off 25% of a 2,300 employee workforce
  • Service will end at 2,300 of 9,000 stops and a 320 bus fleet will become 140
  • Most of St. Louis County outside the I-270 loop will receive no service
  • Daily ridership is currently 40,000
  • " part because state and regional political leadership always has put highways and roads first, treating public transit as a neglected step-child..."
  • St. Louis County voters narrowly defeated a half-cent transit tax in November
  • The system gets $1.4 million per year from the State of Missouri, the lowest state funding total in the nation

This article serves primarily as a calling out of the powers that be in Missouri in order to avert catastrophe, but sheds light on the attitude and culture of St. Louis.

As I understand St. Louis, it suffers from tremendous density issues. The downtown core is largely linear along Washington Ave/Blvd. North of downtown is an urban wilderness only rivaled by Detroit. Possibly sadder than the woe of Detroit is the manner in which Old North St. Louis came to this fate. According to the excellent website, Built St. Louis, buildings are not simply abandoned, but bought by a douchebag developer known as Blairmont Associates, 'harvested' for their bricks, and then left to rot. You can see what was not only a properly dense building style, but also a high standard of material and architectural excellence in these pages. Be forewarned, the whole thing makes me want to puke.

This type of behavior is indictive of the prevalent attitude of the area. While Pittsburgh has moved to the forefront in green building, St. Louis clings to the title of most clever execution of enforcing racial segregation and preventing economic mobility.

I refuse to attack the transit agency at all in this mess as some simple comparisons to what ought to be a much smaller Rochester system yield some interesting factoids. Rochester's ridership is roughly 41,000 per day. As seen in the key points, St. Louis' is slightly less in a metro area almost three times the size. The proposed bus fleet will now be dwarfed by Rochester's 265. The idea that anyone outside of the I-270 loop is entitled to service after making such a living arrangement is more shocking than the announcement that it will discontinued. Rochester, according to 2007 estimates, has an 18.8% city to metro population ratio, St. Louis - 12.6%. It seems like the option of urbanism was rejected long ago.

I am loathe to trash any cities on this blog, but it would appear to the casual observer that until the population of St. Louis snaps out of it en masse, that they are simply reaping what they have sown and their fragmented region will continue to suffer from the inefficiencies.

Rochester Seeks State Funding for Six Downtown Projects
by Brian Sharp, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

Article Key Points:

  • Projects list includes eight developments and would demolish 150 vacant structures
  • A $7 million overhaul of 44 Exchange would create 29 condos over first-floor commercial
  • Units would be priced between $120K-$190K
  • Growth of downtown from 4,000 to between 5,000 and 10,000 is considered necessary to entice more retail
  • Buckingham Properties to undertake $2 million renovation of 217 W. Main St. to bring 50 jobs downtown

I am never in favor of demolitions without knowing all of the details, so this seems like a net loss to the city, but the downtown activity is certainly encouraging. 44 Exchange is the ill-advised 1950's former bank building complete with drive-thru (!) located at an important crossroads near Blue Cross Arena, the D&C offices, and the Times Square Building. To make this building into anything useful will require a tremendous invest and likely a complete rebuild save structural elements. I can see this, as a residential address, creating some amount of buzz in this corner of downtown since new to-the-street radio studios have been finished in the Wilder Building just down the street. What I don't understand is the accounting in this article. Somehow six projects became eight, but then only two were talked about.

Thinking about a way to summarize all of this is difficult. I'd really like to believe that St. Louis is not too far gone, but unfortunately the character of those neighborhoods in their heyday can never be replicated. Pittsburgh was notable 4 years ago for its LEED pioneering, but it seems like other areas are catching up and this is of course how it should be. Rochester seems to be somewhere in the middle for now, understanding the need for downtown density while ripping holes in the urban fabric of peripheral neighborhoods. This seems like the likely course of action for most comparably sized municipalities, at least until market forces (Eg. Oil Prices) compel us to behave appropriately, accelerate infill, and appreciate the efficiencies of Urbanism.

1 comment:

Snowbag said...

Pittsburgh's "green" reputation also has a lot to do with its geography; in odd statistics like "trees per capita" it has always fared well because of the terrain. It is very hard to build on some of those slopes, which leaves a lot of green micro-space, particularly in the city & inner rings. Farther outside the city, clear cutting and hyper-landscaping has made for a horrendous, ill-designed, hilly suburban experience more like greater Scranton than anywhere else.

But the city proper did make a few good decisions, which you've noted, including the "subway" which was long considered a boondoggle. It helped to have some serious corporate headquarters downtown (like Chevron) there to justify that project. But most of those businesses, through consolidation, have moved their central operations elsewhere.