Friday, August 21, 2009

Urban Resources Vol. 7

Inexcusably I have not posted once in August. Now that my introductory drawing classes are complete, I have several site plan massing/architectural rendering projects in mind that I hope to unveil over the coming weeks and months. In the meantime I've got three weeks worth of riffing ready to escape.

I have several things I want to cover in today's post, but decided to resurrect the series entitled urban resources since the lion's share of material will focus on the availability, efficiency, and individual cost-effectiveness of public facilities both recreational and instructional. Examples cited will largely be from Rochester, but there is likely to be a parallel in any mid-major to large metro area.

Other topics covered in a sort of free form will be national deleveraging of debt and its impact on the increment of urban redevelopment and the relationship between geography/terrain/climate and the sustainability of land development.

Informal and certainly non-scientific observations seem to assert that the vast majority of U.S. Americans would rather wear a winter coat on a 90 degree day than step foot in a public swimming pool. I wasn't pre-programmed this way. While many of the families of my childhood friends had pools, and we made great use of them, there were times when we utilized the public option at Nay Aug Park.

Fast forward to this past Monday when the mercury hit 90 in town. After the Red Wings' shellacking at the hands of Syracuse, my wife and I took the #4 Genesee Street bus to Genesee Valley Park's Sports Complex. For just $2 (TWO DOLLARS!), citizens can swim for hours at varying levels of seriousness (lanes are blocked off and can be reserved for individual training). The sports complex itself does an excellent job of seasonal metamorphosis. I've actually been there many times before to utilize their ice skating rink, the cheapest indooor rink in the area for open skating. Immediately adjacent to the building and pool is a regulation size baseball field with lights for nighttime adult amateur games and beyond that the Genesee Waterways Center where one can rent a canoe or kayak to paddle on the Genesee or Erie Canal.

The complex gets excellent bus service as buses 4, 12, 8B, 18, 19, and 6 (in the evening) pass by along Elmwood Avenue. It is also located an easy bicycle ride away from residents of the South Side (19th Ward, South Wedge, Strong). My sincere hope is that institutions like this can weather economic woes during any restructuring period that American culture is likely to go through during an oil depletion phase. Their value will remain high and likely increase in a more community oriented society.

Some other City of Rochester funded or sponsored public resources:

The recent political destruction of the Renaissance Square project and the seemingly increasing difficulty regarding the expediency and execution of the Midtown Plaza demolition/redevelopment both point to a trend in urban development that sounds the final death knell for "Superblock" projects.

I cannot claim to have any kind of education in high finance, but I feel its patently clear that there has been enough of an attitude shift among the masses regarding savings that economic "recovery" to levels seen at the height of the easy credit era may never be on the table. The idea that the base consumer can spend enough to reinvigorate an economy largely based on wealth transfer instead of tangible production is not only unrealistic but undesirable if we are ever to shake our materialistic mindset.

How does the spectre of a deleveraging depression affect the built environment? It seriously limits financing available to speculative developers in turn driving down the scope of needless development. You'll remember I sang the praises of the new South Hickory project in Urban News Vol. 46. In addition to its architectural and programmatic quality sorely lacking in this nation for the last 50 years, the project is emblematic of the increments of financing and construction scale of a type of society regaining a sense of standards as well as restraint. This design respects traditional urban scale over grandiosity -- energy common sense over constant convenience.

I side with the predictions of those who posit that this is the manner in which urban infill will continue. A manner not dissimilar to the original traditional development of our urban cores and neighborhood commercial corridors. Midtown Plaza was a knee-jerk reaction to suburban encroachment on the retail share of traditional downtown shopping. It ultimately did little to serve the public realm. While the elements of Renaissance Square may have had individual virtue, the impetus behind their clustering was an outdated attitude about clearing away large swaths of 'blight.' And I think all of this is a good thing for the concept of urban 'vibrancy' that politicians bandy about. Take a look at the programming of Chase Tower (and bunker) downtown to see what the alternative gets you.

The last thematic thing I plan on rambling on about is the concept of the speculative city and more specifically the desert city. With no geographic significance, unforgiving climate creating a reliance on imported goods, and requiring huge energy inputs and engineering feats to deliver something as simple as drinking water, cities such as Las Vegas or Phoenix are quite possibly a tragic misallocation of resources destined for ultimate failure.

My interest in saying something on the subject was piqued by an article sent to me by a friend that told the tale of California City, California (very original). The jist of the piece, which I won't link to since it was on a motoring forum and had somewhat of a slant, is well summarized in this paragraph from Wikipedia:

California City had its origins in 1958 when real estate developer and sociology professor Nat Mendelsohn purchased 80,000 acres (320 km2) of Mojave Desert land with the aim of master-planning California's next great city. He designed his model city, which he hoped would one day rival Los Angeles in size, around a Central Park with a 26 acre artificial lake. Growth did not happen anywhere close to what he expected. To this day a vast grid of crumbling paved roads, scarring vast stretches of the Mojave desert, intended to lay out residential blocks, extends well beyond the developed area of the city. A single look at satellite photos shows the extent of the scarred desert and how it stakes its claim to being California's 3rd largest geographic city, 34th largest in the US. California City was incorporated in 1965.

Seriously? I think the lessons here are self-evident. But what of California City's more established brethren? Phoenix and Las Vegas are considered major cities, but their lack of sustainable arrangements is rather alarming. Lake Mead, the very thing that allows there to be a Las Vegas is down to 43% of its capacity, threatening to render the raw water intake system inoperable as quickly as 2010. Compounding this major issue is the mechanism by which goverment in Clark County, Nevada has been able to escape reality for the last 40 years, taking other people's money, is in irrepairable decline. July marked the 13th straight month that the number of visitors declined. The fallout from this includes a de facto moratorium on obscene casino/resort construction decimating the true fundamentals of a leisure economy, that is building more leisure destinations.

Phoenix, billed as the new low-tax retirement haven of choice for the last 25 years or so also has an issue with construction. A poster child for drive until you qualify, Phoenix is our national monument to an economy of new home building, one seemingly with no limits, but now revealed to be heavily vulnerable to oil shocks and the home devaluing seen in exurbs across the land. Two convergent events have conspired to turn the Phoenix Metro into L.A. East: Diminished retirement accounts and loss of equity has created job seekers out of those thought to be in early retirement at the same time as boundless growth is catching up with municipalities in terms of the services provided and maintenance performed (not something done heretofore in such a relatively new place) versus tax dollars collected.

The near-term future of these places has long-term implications on the direction of national policy with regards to resource squandering. While state governments have almost no choice but to mount a campaign to sustain the unsustainable, it remains to be seen if national officials will allow places with no future in a non-growth economy to dematerialize as they seemed hell-bent on doing to city centers across the heartland in a more 'prosperous' time.

There are two things I'd like to address/correct with less formality.

First, the main entrance of the Canandaigua National Bank branch opening on Alexander Street on the grounds of the old Genesee Hospital IS going to face Alexander Street. I saw the partially completed building as well as a publicity rendering on August 1st.

And because I won't participate in the hate-fest that is the D&C commenting section I have to come to the defense of RGRTA. I really never want to make anything personal on this blog, but this needs to be said.

Andrew Stainton, quite possibly the staunchest private citizen critic of the entire Renaissance Square effort continues to spew needless and uneducated hate toward our current transportation system and its administration.

In an article regarding Mayor Duffy shutting out public stakeholders from a meeting with the private development sector intended to spur a different type of Main/Clinton development, Stainton chimed in with, "Hopefully no one turned away had to endure a painfully slow rts busride in the heat." This on the heels of endless criticism of 'thousands of buses per day driving in circles,' which is simply not backed up by the facts leads me to this:

Andrew, I admire your opposition to Renaissance Square on the grounds of preservationism and limited/embodied energy. I am an enormous proponent of regional rail transportation and battled futilely for it at the Broad Street Aqueduct public sessions. I am also a monthly RTS pass holder who rides over 50 buses per month on average. You are way off-base. The buses are not slow, and they are certainly not hot. They are probably the only justifiable use of vehicular air conditioning from an energy conservation standpoint. The current downtown deployment system makes infinitely more sense than moving the main junction to Central Avenue. The station as proposed would have improve conditions for the riders and made the service more attractive, it would not have added one bus to Main Street traffic. It doesn't sound like you make use of the transportation system we have, but you are quick to bash it. This is counterproductive. It is incumbent on the citizenry to increase ridership to levels that provide incentive for alternatives. The transit authority is certainly stubborn, but we as Americans have largely rejected transit out of hand in favor of personal entitlement.

I've certainly blown a lot of smoke today. Here's to some new and interesting urban development news in whatever increment of finance. Otherwise, I'll be working on a Humboldt/Winton site massing plan.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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