Gondolas to Gov’s Island: Breathtaking Inanity

February 23, 2006


Last week when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg made another plea for development proposals for Governor’s Island and revealed Santiago Calatrava’s vision for gondolas linking Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn to the Island, I was tempted to nominate this for another edition of Breathtaking Inanity. But I quickly realized it’s meant to be just a teaser, so I didn’t bother.

But today, the Times’ Nicolai Ouroussoff puts the gondolas into an urban planning context that makes this much more worthy of comment. Ouroussoff rightly points out that this latest plea for ideas is an obvious if not explicit admission that the city’s planning/economic development departments are bereft of ideas themselves and have outsourced planning to the private sector:

“[C]onjuring an image for the island’s future will be left up to developers. … Not all countries operate this way. In Spain and the Netherlands, city and regional governments typically organize elaborate design competitions for a major urban site, then hire a developer to figure out how to put the idea into practice.

An aggressive government role in galvanizing the best creative minds is virtually nonexistent in the United States, where political and financial power has shifted to the private realm. That’s why New York has fallen behind cities like Barcelona, Rotterdam and even London in terms of the level of ambition behind public works projects. In New York, the system can foster a poisonous mix of political self-interest and commercial greed, as it did at ground zero.

And there you have it, the problem in a nutshell. One of the first pieces I wrote as a brand new freelancer in New York City was for Metropolis magazine that touched on this very issue. An urban planning firm founded in Amsterdam had opened an office in New York in hopes of applying their waterfront redevelopment expertise here. As far as I know, since then they’ve had one New York client in four years because we DON’T PLAN HERE. We throw designs at the wall and see what sticks. Is it any wonder then that Governor’s Island, perhaps the most intriguing piece of developable land in the Northern hemisphere, has been collecting dust since the Coast Guard abandoned it more than ten years ago?

The final irony (did I just use that cliched phrase?) is that this Dutch-based planning firm has been trying to get involved with Governor’s Island since they first set up shop here more than four years ago — the same little island that a Dutchman purchased from Native Americans with two ax heads, a string of beads, and a handful of nails in 1637.

Rosewindow on the Passaic

February 22, 2006


I took the above picture in:
A) Chartres, France
B) Basilica, Italy
C) Newark, New Jersey

It’s the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, begun in 1899 and finished in 1954, in Newark. Who knew? I suppose a lot of people who live there.

New Blog, New World

February 21, 2006


I love the web. I love blogs. I love the whole damn digital thing. Why? Because it allows smart, interesting and cool people like David Zeev Krieger to get in contact with me. He has a new blog called Distressed Property, which consists of a handful of short videos he’s made of, you guessed it, distressed properties around New York City. You can read his quick bio for yourself, but it ends with this bit of real estate intrigue: “now living in new york working to encourage buyer driven real estate development.” I’m looking into exactly what that means, and might even do a real estate story about it. But in the meantime, Distressed Property has a handful of very cool short videos. Check them out here.

New York and Photography: Like Cabernet and Chocolate

February 18, 2006


A must-see photography exhibit is currently at the Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea. Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao won the 2005 “Capture the Times” photography contest by the New York Times Magazine, and Habitat 7 is his first solo show (it will move to the Queens Museum of Art from Feb. 26-May 24). The photos are taken around the Number 7 subway line in Queens using a large format camera. Several photos are taken throughout the day and then combined into one panoramic view creating detailed and sharp images that also have a time-lapse quality. The photos are so rich and detailed, I was able to take the above pic (which is just a section of one photo) using my digital camera. Aside from the technical prowess of the photographer, what’s so amazing to me is that, as absolutely saturated as this city is with photographers capturing every nook and cranny, there are still original and surprising ways to shoot New York.

Nor’easter 2006

February 12, 2006

I took this about 8:15 this morning.

And this one (facing the opposite direction on St. Marks Pl.) about 5:30 this evening. Apparently this was a record breaking Nor’easter.


Street Renaissance

February 11, 2006


I went to the Urban Center (at the Municipal Art Society) to see the New York City Streets Renaissance “exhibit,” an undertaking of The Open Planning Project. I don’t recommend making the trip, as it’s mostly just text and pictures posted on the wall with some video clips, all of which are available online. That’s not to say the project itself isn’t worthy, but the gist of it can be had by clicking over to NYCSR. One of the better videos is about Hell’s Kitchen under seige by traffic. But the best video is about how neighborhood activists forced DOT to redesign Canal Park, a triangular plot of land in Tribeca, and rerouted traffic entering the Holland Tunnel. The video really shows how these efforts can be a win-win for everyone: traffic flow is far better, pedestrians are no longer being run down, and the neighborhood gets a lovely park space.

The above photos are of Astor Square, as is and reimagined (click to enlarge the photos, and check out how they surrounded The Cube with seating and moved it to the north so it’s the first thing you see when you come out of the Astor Pl. subway station). Having criss-crossed this area hundreds of times, including the traffic island where The Cube currently is, I can attest to the fact that this is not a well designed space. NYCSR points out that Astor Square is an important transition area between one neighborhood and another (Greenwich Village and the East Village), and yet it’s a dead zone. And it really is.

My criticism is that many of the design recommendations start to look the same … umbrella seating here, there and everywhere.
The Astor Square redesign is probably the most detailed, but many of the other recommendations seem to be just about widening the sidewalk and reducing the space allocated to cars and trucks. There must be some cost-benefit analysis here about how reducing all this traffic space would affect the commerce of the city.

The other thing is, and I’m certainly not one to pooh-pooh streetscaping improvements, but there does come a point where prettying things up too much kills a neighborhood’s spirit. St. Marks Pl., for example, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues (the block I live on), is infuriating to walk on with all the kiosks and tourists and punk kids and drug addicts. But it’s St. Marks Place! What would living in the E.Vil. be if you weren’t infuriated on occassion? So, sure, let’s fix the dead zone that is Astor Square. But the litmus test, as I see it, is whether or not a space is actually dead or just “unattractive” to some eyes.