Sunday, August 30, 2009

Waterfronts that fail to make waves.

[NOTE: I have added a few photos to my recent blog post on the Marriotts at the Canal Walk, providing further graphic representation of some of the design failures and successes along the canal. The text of article itself I have only changed minimally.]

For those Indianapolis residents who remain forlorn about the current state of the Canal Walk—or for those who think it stands as an archetype for urban development—I present another waterway below street level that demonstrates similar challenges: the Providence River in downtown Providence, and its man-made tributaries.

In some ways the Rhode Island capital has followed an almost identical trajectory as Indianapolis, in terms of megaprojects used to stimulate the downtown. One could almost argue that Providence mimicked Indianapolis, or vise versa, except that these are broadly general urban revitalization gestures implemented in a number of cities. Indianapolis and Providence simply seem to be yielding remarkably similar results. Among the projects: a carefully disguised multi-story shopping mall (which is still successful, unlike downtown malls in many cities), an expanded convention center nearby, and—most germane for this analysis—the subsurface waterway allowing for running, biking, and gondola rides. The pictures below show the riverfront in Providence at its widest point.

However, much of it is comparable in scale to the Canal Walk, if slightly wider and a bit closer to the surface.

Though the Providence riverfront does not emphasize museums and monuments to the same degree as Indy’s Canal Walk, it features at least one restaurant with a similar pedestrian engagement to Buggs’ Temple, as well as a small amphitheatre with terraced seating. Most significant, however, is the seasonal WaterFire event. The objects you see floating in the river in the photos above are braziers that support aeromatic wood which burns heavily on event nights, drawing people to the river’s banks to watch the reflective glow as gondolas veer precariously among them, stoking the flames and dousing them at midnight. Artist Barnaby Evans introduced this spectacle in the early 1990s and it has evolved to a local tradition along the river, supported largely through voluntary donations (it operates as a 501(c)(3) arts organization). For almost anyone who hasn’t visited Providence, it behooves you to coordinate a visit during the selected Saturdays twice a month from May to October that the city hosts WaterFire. To me, it represents public art as a triumph of semantic ambiguity. It attracts all strata in a city that, across many neighborhoods, is scarred by decades of class tension and deindustrialization, and it would not have half the appeal if people could clearly describe what they’re looking or what it means. Evans has shrewdly avoided instilling it with a metaphoric content, but it nonetheless brings as many people to the Providence River as a typical Independence Day fireworks display…despite the fact that it happens multiple times a year. Unfortunately, WaterFire can no longer brand itself as unique—Columbus and Kansas City have introduced it to their rivers at a smaller scale—but Providence is the city where it began, and the crowds it draws surpass anything I’ve ever seen along the Indianapolis Canal Walk.

Despite this creative infusion of art and design largely accredited to Providence’s revitalization as a city (no doubt hyperbolically so), I am not convinced that Providence’s riverfront development is any more successful than that of Indianapolis. It still suffers from poor land use management after the initial implementation, so it, too, offers its fair share of blank walls and uninspired office buildings along its banks. The above pictures should reveal much of this. Despite a relatively straightforward layout—it encompasses part of the Providence River and an associated canal—the clean visual path of the water clashes with a cluttered, unarticulated pedestrian infrastructure, filled with superfluous twists and turns, changes in incline and programmatic use (ramps and stairs are everywhere) and inconsistencies where the path drops off on one side of the river, or dead-ends altogether. Many of these impediments can easily be remedied, but at this point—unlike Indianapolis’ Canal Walk—they make it hard for bicyclists or runners to use, and, while Providence thus shares this feature with San Antonio’s similarly labyrinthine Paseo del Rio, at least San Antonio offers a lot more commercial activity alongside its banks, as well as uses on the river that enhance the pedestrian’s mobility options. The visual message of Providence’s riverfront is less pronounced than either Indianapolis or San Antonio, despite the fact that the original designers seem to have crammed the walkways with activities—or perhaps the diluted impression the waterfront leaves is a direct consequence of all of those extra details. WaterFire provides the strongest articulation of the Providence’s River’s centrality in the city, though that only happens a few times a year.

In case my argument has failed to convince that Providence’s waterfront falls short of greatness—and it is by no means a bad effort—one only needs to observe real estate trends in the immediate vicinity. Just two blocks away from the river is this sad plot of land:

For those who can’t read the cardboard sign resting in the pile of dirt, it says “Garden of Failure”. To me it recalls the ocean of parking lots just a bit more than a block to the east of the Canal Walk in Indianapolis. At one point, many years ago, some students at Ball State University hoped to stimulate condo development into these parking lots by actually grafting new parts of the canal at right angles to the actual waterway, thereby creating artificial “inlets” that would encourage condo construction, because, hey, everybody wants to live next to water. It’s actually a valid proposition, but I’m relieved it never materialized, because I remain convinced that if either Providence or Indianapolis had made their sub-surface waterfronts the fully vibrant destination they intended to be, market forces actually would have claimed the vacant land nearby, serving as a second-tier commercial/residential to compete with the truly top-of-the-line developments that directly front the canal. Alas, it has thus far failed to ignite in either city. But at least the Providence “Garden of Failure” still offers a more ecologically sound demonstration of moribund real estate—no impervious surfaces and some mild biodiversity.

Providence has, like Indianapolis, attempted high-end residential development directly along the river.

The Waterplace Condominiums—also visible to the far left in the third photo on this blog posting—generated considerable fanfare at the initial ribbon-cutting a few years ago, signifying that Providence was entering the big leagues for generating enough demand for downtown living to justify these formidable structures. By 2007, rumors abounded the preliminary sales were worrisomely slow. In today’s era of the subprime meltdown and ensuing foreclosure crisis, demand for luxury condos has plummeted to the point that the developer has demoted the building to an apartment/condo mix. But Providence made bigger news when a neighboring development, Capital Cove, signed a three-year agreement with Johnson and Wales University to lease the 96 condos as student housing—before the structure was even completed. Aside from this agreement providing to university undergraduates an unparalleled luxury compared to typical dorm accommodations, the Capital Cove negotiation has irked city leaders who see it as a violation of a tax treaty. The developer, who simply couldn’t sell the units, claims the only other option was to sell the building to Johnson and Wales, which would effectively remove it from the tax rolls, thereby crippling a city already falling short of anticipated tax revenue. On top of this, rumors abound that Waterplace may suffer the same fate: a short-term demotion to dormitory use.

The much less grandiose structures along the Indianapolis Canal Walk suggest that it has not yet suffered from residential overbuild, at least in this section of the canal. But developers in Providence have ostensibly overestimated the desirability of the waterfront, constructing units at a scale that even the San Antonio River Walk market might not be able to absorb. Clearly the design and development communities in both Indianapolis and Providence could share a slice of humble pie, acknowledging that they are now reaping the consequences of development and design carelessness from the past. Rather than expanding the magnitude of their respective cities’ waterfront plans, civic leadership should now concentrate more on improving what’s already there.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Where the Canal Walk first went wrong.

Up to this point I have generally shied away from design criticism, largely because I think the blogosphere is filled with far more well-versed, better qualified voices (or keyboards) than mine, but also largely because opinions on successful design remains rooted to individual preferences. No matter the erudition or rhetorical gifts of an architecture critic, he or she generally contextualizes personal taste culture to shroud those opinions behind the veneer of objectivity. So in this posting, even as I essentially deconstruct a building, I will fixate most on its effectiveness as an edifice at engaging with its surroundings far more than its aesthetics. I know urban design hardly embraces a different critical ethos than architecture criticism (or film or music criticism), so I concede now that my opinion of this building, regardless of the historical or spatial context that I provide, remains quite simply my opinion. But, like the most capable critics of any discipline, the skill of argumentation coupled with an advanced knowledge of the subject might very well infuse the opinion with a perceived objectivity: in short, that the critic convinces its audience of his or her case so effectively that his or her highly opinionated artistic judgment takes on the tenor of a unquestioned fact. In all likelihood, I am far from achieving the airtight argument that endows this critique with an air of objective authority—feel free to challenge my assertions here. But be warned: as in all my blog posts, at least I come armed with photos.

For those who are unaware, the Central Canal emerged as part of the nationwide canal boom of the 1820s and 1830s, when Indiana was still among the youngest states. The early pioneers witnessed the economic success in New York State of the Erie Canal, at the time the most high profile civil engineering initiative in the country, a transportation route that linked Midwestern granaries to coastal ports and helped put the city of Buffalo on the map. Hoosiers wanted a similar waterway to reinforce the centrality of the newly established capital city of Indianapolis, after Corydon IN had been deemed a too southerly location. The Internal Improvements Bill of 1836 authorized the construction of the Central Canal through state bonds, intended to enhance existing linkages between northern Indiana (where the Wabash River transects the state) and the southwestern city of Evansville. The Central Canal predominantly intended to improve upon the navigability of the Western Fork of White River, which flows through Indianapolis and was a critical incentive for locating the city there, but proved specious after early settlers discovered the river is too shallow to be navigable for half of the year. Thus, the 1836 bill intended to include Indianapolis as part of a greater network of a canal.

Implementation was a failure. Nine miles linking the remote village of Broad Ripple to Indianapolis opened in 1839, but the nationwide Panic of 1837, cost overruns, incompetent management, and inadequate revenue caused the state to default on interest payments and brought work to a halt. Although other projects in the state such as the Wabash and Erie Canal achieved some success, the railroads soon eclipsed the demand for canals. While a minor source of water power, the canal never served as a transportation artery. The state sold the Central Canal a decade later to pay off debt—it passed through the hands of several utility companies until 1881, when Indianapolis Water Company transformed some of the land into Fairview Park and used part of the waterway as a recreational ferry. While the park survives today as Butler University’s Holcomb Gardens, the more urbanized sections, particularly south of 16th Street, languished as more or less an open sewer. The upgrade of an urban freeway system in the late1960s forced several blocks of the canal into underground culverts, where West Street converges with I-65 through a tangle of exit ramps. Only in the 1970s did the Central Canal earn recognition as an American Water Landmark, no doubt attempting to preclude any further burial. However, the canal continued to blight the landscape in this area, only intermittently allowing water flow but consistently filled with garbage. (A slightly more detailed overview of the canal up to this point can be found in the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis by Bodenhammer, Barrows, and Vanderstel. The Canal Society of Indiana provides further information.)

Only in the mid-1980s did plans really begin to percolate for the revitalization of a portion of the canal downtown. The $10-million process of draining the canal, lowering the waterway 10 to 12 feet (well below street level), reinforcing it with improved culverts, sidewalks, fountains, landscaping, and pedestrian paths reached the end of its major phase in 1987, from a base south of Ohio Street up to St. Clair Street. The 1990s saw extensions and improvements on the north end (up to 11th Street) and south end (to meet with the White River at the White River State Park). Generally speaking, the local population has visited the canal quite heavily in the warm weather for the activities one would expect with any waterfront, while private businesses involving the rental of paddleboats, bicycles, and, most recently, gondolas have emerged over the years.

Not surprisingly, the Canal Walk stimulated plenty of development along its banks. But have this development enhanced the success of generally well-appreciated water feature?

The structures featured in this photo series, a Marriott Courtyard and Residence Inn, were among the first major developments to break ground on the canal after the first phase of improvements. At this point, they have been standing in the area for about 20 years and apparently remain quite successful; I believe Marriott has owned and operated them continuously. However, one can see the design standards that Marriott applied from the first photo. (My apologies that some of these photos, taken from a cell phone originally, suffer in graphic quality; I have tried to replace the most critical shots with better ones.)

Both hotels share a block in which the western side of the block directly abuts the canal. The Residence Inn streetwall directly parallels the canal, whereas the Courtyard is built on the easternmost side of the block, away from the canal. Therefore, half of the Residence Inn’s views (in its traditional double-loaded corridor style) overlook the canal, while none of the Courtyard’s views do. This in itself seems like a foolish oversight on the part of the developers. Even if they were operating under height restrictions due to zoning (and my research on the zoning code at the time suggests that they were not), one would think they might have sought a variance or some special approval, so that the farther of the two hotels (the Courtyard) could capitalize on the views through a greater height beyond what is blocked by the closer hotel (the Residence Inn). I suppose the Courtyard may see its excellent views of the downtown skyline (across three full blocks of surface level parking) as an asset. Or it could be that hotel developers don’t particularly care about views, since they are typically catering to a transient population with very little loyalty to the place in which they are spending the night—interior amenities are far more important. However, it most likely did occur to the Marriott developers to give the direct canal overlook to the Residence Inn, an extended stay hotel for more long-term guests who might actually look out their window.

Height is ultimately a minor complaint. Beyond the height, why build along the canal exactly? Everything else about this hotel complex indicates a determined effort to shut itself off from the surrounding area. Witness the entry point on New York Street, taken from a point standing directly on the right side of the prior photo:

The interior space between the two buildings—the middle third of the block—is devoted to surface level parking, and the primary entrances to the two buildings overlook this interior parking lot. You see the Courtyard in the above photo, the one farther from the canal. Here is a photo of the Residence Inn’s entrance:

Having cropped any of the peripheral streetscape, this could easily exist anywhere else in the country. To add insult to injury, they gated the New York Street entrance. Cars must flash their room cards to raise the lift arm gate, then walk across a parking lot to either hotel lobby. And here’s what pedestrians get for an entrance:

The three-foot wide aperture and its sidewalk may be attractively landscaped, but it hardly encouraged passers-by to pop in and look at rates. Far more critical, however, is what the canal perspective offers. Here’s a view looking down at the Residence Inn from the street level:

From a distance, it might not seem too bad: the designer provided some embellishments resembling arcades, and the central one, though under shadow in the above picture, at least offers broader windows to take in the views, as a gallery for viewing and relaxation atop one of the arcades. But here’s what this hotel frontage looks like at the canal level:

And walking alongside it:

The view inside is of a game room with a pool table, but those people indoors only have one nondescript exit:

In the interest of fire safety codes, the designer was solicitous enough to add exits at the foot of the stairwells, but they predictably offer even less dialogue with the Canal Walk:

Thus, we have no storefronts, no retail, no restaurants, and minimum engagement between the building and its waterfront setting. It could just as easily have been looking at a parking lot. Which brings us to the other building, the Marriott Courtyard; its frontage along Senate Avenue undoubtedly has less to offer (after all, much of what it overlooks actually is a parking lot). But the view is abysmal:

Completely impenetrable—a brick wall to for pedestrians to walk along, and the obvious butt-side of the building.

If anything, the only thing that distinguishes these two structures from their equivalents in the suburbs—or at interstate highway exits in rural America—is that the developers took additional pains to sequester the hotels’ activities from their environs. To be fair, one must evaluate these hotels in the context of the time in which they were built. As some of the earliest development after the completion of the canal, the developers no doubt perceived the Canal Walk as risky. At that point, the area was largely windswept and blighted, most of downtown closed down after 5 pm, and no one was certain that the canal would become a major attraction, or that it would even be maintained. These structures date from around 1990, give or take a year, and the second (away from the canal) was built only after the assured success of the first. But the canal, and the area, no longer carries any stigma of high crime, the condos along it command a high price, and pedestrian traffic can be quite high on a good summer day.

The failure here is partly a by-product of an unimaginative, conservative hotel development team, but also reflects city leadership that lacked either a long-term vision or a backbone. The original dream of the canal was praiseworthy; the execution of the redevelopment was accomplished; the follow-through was a disaster. Though the Canal Walk is often listed as a principal cultural district downtown, I can find no evidence of a zoning overlay district that subjects developments in the area to greater design scrutiny. In the absence of an overlay district (which may come closest to real heart of the problem here), the city could have at least made recommendations or requirements that developers provide better activities to animate the pedestrian space along the canal. But they didn’t, possibly out of fear that draconian design standards would deter any developments. And now that the canal has little remaining vacant space, it provides an amenity that is largely akin to a suburban corporate park: jogging trails, pond graced with willow trees and Canada geese, et cetera. When the weather gets cooler and the bike/boat rentals shut down, the Canal Walk rolls up its sidewalks. A few runners continue to train along it in the winter, but it has no year-round appeal. Could this be why it has failed to attract retail along its banks? Of course not. The building design has failed to stimulate anything of interest directly along the canal’s banks, and the zoning regulations have not held designers to any higher standard. Making a truly vibrant canal requires adapting many of the same standards of a good main street, but at this point the Canal Walk offers no lateral interest; it is simply a bidirectional path that works as long as one parallels the water itself. Any attempts to deviate from this linearity leave a pedestrian staring at a wall.

Here’s the pedestrian view from across the canal, at the other side of Residence Inn:

Lots of windows to offices filled with cubicles, though the Venetian blinds are almost always drawn. Few doors to the outside. It is a back entrance to these offices, clearly occupied by businesses that have no use for the frontage along the canal, but it provides a pleasant amenity to their workers during a lunch break—the same offering as those duck ponds in the suburban corporate parks.

Even the State of Indiana got it wrong with its own development! Part of the government center fronts the canal, a particularly lushly landscaped area in the summer that offers a great deal of opportunity for recreation and people watching. Here’s the frontage:

Here are some close-ups of the frontage along the canal. Along the northwest face, pedestrians get part of an attractive waterfall (to the far left) but most of it comprises a blank concrete wall used to support the unloading area above it, at the street level.

Further along the canal, at the west side of the complex, is a recessed arcade that looks into a cafeteria for city workers, with two—yes, two—picnic tables outside.

The building offers no other means of opening the windows in warm weather, no table service to the outside, and passers-by are most likely unsure whether it is even a public eating area. It is, but think of the additional revenue the City might have made if it had leased that space to an enterprising restaurateur.

Because I don’t know the exact chronology of developments along the canal, I can only point to the Marriott and the government center because they are among the oldest, and have tacitly set the standards. The luxury condos have followed them hook line and sinker. Some at least provide patios that overlook the canal, but further north of the Marriott are some particularly egregious examples:

An ivy covered wall fronts the canal, because this lowest level was ostensibly used to give the condo residents covered parking. And across the canal are the ones that win the “Most Suburban” award:

While these offer slightly better canal frontage than the condos in the previous photo, these are still the back side of buildings whose frontage includes two-car garages behind an elaborate gate system. Deplorable from an urban design standpoint.

Fortunately, other developments offer glimmers of hope. A few of the museums along the southern portion of the Canal Walk have cafés that overlook the river, though two of them still suffer considerable weaknesses. Here is the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art:

And here is the Indiana State Museum:

In both cases, the museum cafés are on elevated terraces up a flight of stairs , but still offer blank walls to passers-by along the canal. At their current locations, they are far less likely to attract random passers-by and must depend more heavily on museum patronize to support the eateries. At the very least, these two institutions provide cafeteria-style dining clearly targeting the general public, which is a far more generous provision than virtually any other structure along the Canal Walk.

A new apartment development, Cosmopolitan on the Canal, is taking one of the last unoccupied parcels and will feature retail at both the canal level as well at the respective street corner when it is complete. It will hopefully compensate for the significant oversights among the two aforementioned museums. And this one lonesome tenant below opens itself up to the canal while all its neighbors turn their back:

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a non-profit whose mission is “to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.” Though not retail, it offers a reading room and is open to the public during regular business hours. It is among the few office tenants that has clearly seen the visibility of the Canal Walk and has seized it as an opportunity.

While most Indianapolis residents perceive the Canal Walk as an urban asset, many have complained in recent years about the lack of restaurant and retail offerings, not to mention the difficult in finding a restroom. It is no small irony that the one structure so far that offers the sort of amenities that pedestrians are seeking is a structure that existed long before the revitalization of the canal.

Buggs’ Temple was a long vacant structure that developers adapted in 2006-07 into two stories of restaurants with terraces and spectacular views of the city skyline. It sits at the northern terminus of the Canal Walk and comes closer to presenting its offerings to pedestrians as they walk by than any of the museum cafés on the south side of the canal. It’s too early to prognosticate the two restaurants’ long-term success, but if it has whetted the appetite for increased canal-side dining options, any subsequent development on what little remains of the Canal Walk should capitalize on this.

Modeled after San Antonio’s River Walk (Paseo del Rio), Indianapolis wisely does not attempt a carbon copy of the appearance of what may still be the most aesthetic waterfront in the country. But it also falls far short of the cultural offerings of the River Walk. While San Antonio offers more consistently comfortable weather than Indianapolis, its River Walk also offers a greater density of activity, multiple paths, and a patina that makes it appear as though it has existed since the city’s founding. (Plans for the River Walk date from the 1920s, and implementation began during the New Deal through WPA funding.) Other efforts in Providence and Oklahoma City also clearly saw the River Walk as the best and original; their initiatives have also met with mixed success. Is a waterfront development below street level so difficult to implement that only one in the country can get it right? Even the success of the River Walk is a mixed blessing to San Antonio; it competes with the Alamo as the number one tourist attraction in the city (and, according to my tour guide, in the state of Texas as a whole), but the rest of the city does not share the River Walk’s commercial or pedestrian vibrancy. Emerging back to street level onto San Antonio’s “real downtown” can be an almost demoralizing experience. While every city has drab sections of their downtowns, the real life of San Antonio is 15 feet below the street; Indianapolis’ downtown has other, superior nodes of activity.

The Central Canal of Indiana was a failure upon its first implementation in the 1830s, and, by many standards, success continues to elude its second implementation as well. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic about the Indianapolis Canal Walk over the ensuing years. Buggs’ Temple may be the real impetus, but many of the remaining structures along the canal show evince the possibility for retail retrofitting along the canal. Perhaps the City should engage a feasibility study evaluating each of the buildings for the ease in which their canal frontage could be converted into restaurant or retail space with minimal structural changes. Or maybe the market will provide the incentive on its own. While the condos with the ivy-covered brick wall will most likely never enjoy canal-side retail, many other residential structures could convert to retail quite easily—the challenge may be less architectural than political, neighbors in the same condo complex raise objections. And even that trailblazing design fiasco, the Marriott Residence Inn, could find room to offer retail at the Canal Walk—whether it requires major surgery will be irrelevant if management learns, in true corporatese, how much it will impact its bottom line.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Maybe Memphians are on to something the rest of us don’t know.

Following the post on a parking signage predicament in Indianapolis, I continue with a city that has a bit more sanguine attitude toward the great discipline of finding parking in an urban setting.

This may also rank as my shortest post; I’m at a loss for further words. Parking and fun? Who knew? If it works for that management company, I’m sure it should be having the last laugh.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pedestrian hatred rears its ugly head in the humblest of ways.

One of my readers pointed out that I made some inaccurate observations in the post listed below, in which I used a picture provided by another blogger but failed to identify some of the details correctly. Specifically, the sign below refers to a surface lot and not a garage, and it is blocking a bicycle lane and not a pedestrian one. While they don't significantly alter the spirit of the analysis, I want the essay to reflect accurately the content of the photograph, so I am re-posting to account for this.

In meeting my goal of using other people’s photos for occasional blog posts, I submit this recent pic from John, a local blogger and contributor, who made this observation of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail earlier in August, looking southward down Alabama Street:

The metal sign advertising rates at an adjacent lot is blocking a portion of the bikeway. The trail, one of the most innovative pedestrian improvement projects in the country—let alone in Indy—clearly doesn’t rate highly among the owners of the surface parking lot, which, sadly, happens to be the City of Indianapolis. Not only does the car trump the bicyclist yet again, but even signage accommodating the car and promoting the parking lot takes precedence.

My use of the word “hatred” in the subject here is clearly hyperbole, and this was probably an isolated incident reflecting one city parking services employee. It’s unfair to assert that this episode reflects the overall status of bicyclists or pedestrians in urban settings, but it does demonstrate profound negligence on the part of city employees. Unfortunately, public servants with far greater decision making power have made similarly poor judgments in regards to the pedestrian environment; the results are often far more permanent. This link on Skyscraper City shows the catastrophic results when two other city agencies (most likely Public Works and Utilities) fail to correspond their plans with one another. The area is impassable for someone in a wheelchair. (Conversely, the parking debacle in Park Ridge that I blogged about earlier suggests a single department failing to see that its regulatory plans correspond internally.)

After seeing this photo, someone else essentially remarked that such a sign would not survive fifteen minutes if it were blocking the vehicular right of way. Most walkers, of course, can maneuver around this without infringing upon another person’s safety or personal space, while a car could pose an extreme hazard by swerving to avoid this. The less solicitous drivers would no doubt simply ding it off the front bumper. Bicyclists fall somewhere in between, in that they could probably avoid this particular obstacle but may endanger themselves or another cyclist in the process. Both bicyclists and pedestrians have developed a tacit reputation of extreme adaptability: witness the "goat trails" of worn grass at the verges of some roads that have no sidewalks but clearly get used frequently by walkers (or mountain bikes). Most will find a means of getting around by foot or two wheels regardless of the meager infrastructural support. This in itself may have far more to do with the reason so many urban roadways remain auto-oriented--cars are among the most demanding means of transportation, generally requiring specific surfaces, gradients, and traffic management devices to operate safely and efficiently. Even in urban areas where the population density and environment come closest to supporting bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure with little intervention, one often witnesses road repairs while sidewalks continue to crumble--if they exist at all.

This is hardly a profound observation, but it can manifest itself in banal and thankfully ephemeral ways. A few days later, John, our fearless photographer, revisited this site and another area where the Cultural Trail was partially blocked by a scissor lift, and both barriers had been removed.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Cheapened by the nosebleed view?

If you want evidence that the economy of the Pittsburgh metro area has long been in the doldrums, you can use any variety of studies: year-to-year changes in GDP provided by the Bureau Economic of Analysis; job growth patterns there in relation to the rest of the US by the Bureau of Labor Statistics; the correlation of economic health to net population growth with figures provided by the US Census Bureau….or you can just use your eyes.

For those who don’t know the topography of Pittsburgh, it is fair to say it is one of the most dramatically hilly cities in the US outside of San Francisco. The original Fort Pitt stood at the terminus point of the Ohio River, where it diverges into the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, like a fork in the road. Today this location, known colloquially as the Golden Triangle, comprises downtown Pittsburgh. Though I never was there to witness the “before” scenario, it has apparently witnessed a remarkable transformation—a beautification by most metrics. Gone are the steel mills that dominated the tip of the Triangle after the collapse of the industry in the 1970s and 1980s; in replacement is the verdure of Point State Park. While the Golden Triangle is relatively flat, it is sandwiched between two majestic bluffs on the opposite sides of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, which at some points, are so steep that pedestrian access is essentially impossible. (Cars often have to wind their way up the hill through lateral arcs or bypass the bluffs altogether though tunnels.)

Atop the bluff south of downtown is a neighborhood overlooking the Monongahela River; both the bluff and its associated neighborhood are called Mount Washington. From the perspective of a person in the Golden Triangle, this is what it looks like:

To the right in the second photo (and central in the first photo) is a funicular railway just across the river, known broadly and locally as the Duquesne Incline, which allows pedestrian access to the top of Mount Washington, in which, clearly, a number of houses lean precariously on the edge, capitalizing on the august view. At their peak in the late 19th century, Pittsburgh had nearly two dozen inclines; now the city has two, and the Duquesne is popular among tourists. While riding the incline upwards, passengers understandably gain an increasingly panoramic perspective of the city center, so at the top they are treated with this lookout point:

A few more, to show the density of the Pittsburgh skyline as it fronts the Monongahela, with its numerous bridges:

Returning to the ground level photos, one can easily see from the housing on Mount Washington that at least two large condo buildings have taken advantage of the view, which is understandable.

While some people can very legitimately claim that such edifices are a blot to the landscape, just as many will see a development opportunity for residents seeking a view. However, these two multifamily buildings are an exception rather than the rule. Up there in the Mount Washington neighborhood, just a little down the road from the lookout point, are houses such as this, also benefiting from the view:

This house, too, is an outlier—most in the area don’t appear so downtrodden. But, judging from the graying color of the plywood, those boards on the windows in the lower level aren’t recent. The very fact that even a single house looks like this in what should be extremely desirable real estate by virtue of the view alone is an indicator of the profundity of Pittsburgh’s economic malaise. Walking around the Mount Washington neighborhood away from the overlook (and thus deprived of the view) is a generally well-kept but hardly affluent community.

Our impression of the neighborhood from views of front porches and patronizing a local deli was that it was dominated by elderly white people. Nothing wrong with that. But think of this view transposed to San Francisco or Seattle; it would have been dominated by ultrawealthy yuppies or baby boomers walking their dogs, maybe pushing children in strollers. These pictures were taken in 2006; perhaps the neighborhood has become a hot commodity in the ensuing years, in which case a Pittsburgher could easily refute my argument.

But that dilapidated house—with fenestration clearly intended to absorb the spectacle of the Pittsburgh skyline—burns in my memory. Even in 2006 that would not have happened in a city with a robust economy; it would have never happened, and Mount Washington wouldn’t remain sleepy, geriatric, and lower middle class.

One could easily accuse me of being unfair here—of failing to take into account the complex socioeconomic forces that have shaped Pittsburgh into the consummate Rust Belt city, with a subsequent recovery that, while undeniably aesthetically improved, has failed to stimulate any subsequent job growth. Perhaps I’m indirectly being a shill for gentrification. No, I am not offering a very sensitive urban analysis. But I am trying to think like a realtor. (And if that sounds like a dig toward realtors, I’m also trying to think like a homebuyer.) Realtors and buyers often have cosmetic priorities that scarcely penetrate the nuances of a neighborhood’s cultural history: I mean, who cares?! It offers a killer view! If the neighborhood really is filled with senior citizens, then it probably doesn’t have a high crime rate, and it looked clean, even if most of the homes could benefit from a renovation. For many with the disposable income to buy a home solely because of the view, these attributes may suffice. The multifamily buildings mentioned before seem relatively isolated and sequestered from the neighborhood around it: perhaps the demographics of these condo-dwellers are so radically different from the long-term residents of the simple homes that they have completely failed to generate any dialogue with one another. At any rate, Mount Washington isn’t saturated with such structures, so clearly few enterprising developers have jumped on board—these two buildings may very well have inordinately high vacancy levels.

This worm’s eye view, which evaluates prime real estate that has failed to ignite, undeniably paints the economic scenario with a broad brush. But such a view comes closer than any bird’s eye statistical analysis to capturing the palpable economic reality of this distinctive, often beautiful but ailing city. A city with the topography of Pittsburgh undoubtedly offers numerous opportunities for spectacular views. But so does San Francisco, and any home such as the one seen above would easily fetch $2 million, if Pittsburgh had San Francisco’s change in GDP, or its job growth, or internal in-migration, et cetera.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Keeping up with the Vicksburg Joneses.

With this post I break with my longstanding (almost two months!) tradition of featuring primarily outdoor landscapes—here I include my first interior. You see below a fashionable bar I visited on a trip with a few friends:

The photo quality is poor, but anyone can tell it is scarcely a dive bar. From the plasma screen on the exposed brick wall to the leather chairs, it made us think of a swanky bar along the Sunset Strip. And I’m scarcely a good critic of interior design. But this isn’t Los Angeles; it’s Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Clearly I was being unfair to Vicksburg, a hilly, reasonably well-preserved Southern river town about 35 miles west of Jackson. My apologies for lacking the foresight at the time to make this a good panorama.

The small city of about 25,000 people has refashioned itself in recent years as a retirement destination. And I vouch from having spent the night there that it has more than enough to offer for a weekend trip.

But this bar still seemed like quite an anomaly in Vicksburg, not because its sophistication was incongruous with the town as much as the extravagance. What serves as a perfect entertainment venue in one location could undoubtedly flop in another; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out. But the upscale vibe at this bar wasn’t isolated to the décor: a single cocktail cost $12.

The few pictures I have of Vicksburg that ended up being of reasonably high quality suggest that this sybaritic den along the main street in genuinely is out of character with everything else in the vicinity. One of the oldest cities in the Deep South, Vicksburg was home to a notoriously long siege during the Civil War that, upon succumbing to Union forces, marked a pivotal turn events favoring the North, as they gained control of the entirety of the Mississippi River. However, like the town of Natchez to its south, Vicksburg was spared the widespread pillaging during General Sherman’s raids, so a fair amount of its architecture survives. I can only say “a fair amount” because there are also gaping holes in the main street that would be perfect for good infill development if economic conditions for the Vicksburg region favored it:

With the topography of San Francisco but a fifth of its population in poverty, Vicksburg cannot escape its geographic proximity to the fecund, alluvial flatlands of the significantly poorer Mississippi Delta, just a handful of miles to the north. The city’s principal economic engine seems to be tourism derived from gaming, though beyond its three casinos it offers several museums, an extensive military park, and riverboat tours. No doubt the money from gaming has infused the city with enough cash for extensive streetscape improvements in its completely wi-fi downtown. It derives much of its white-collar work force from the sizable district offices for the Army Corps of Engineers. But do these potential clients generate a big enough market to support a highfalutin bar with twelve-dollar cocktails? According to the bartender, they do: though the night we went was as slow as the photo indicates, apparently it had become a popular happy hour destination for local lawyers, and sometimes casino goers like to celebrate there if they’re flush with cash. At the time of our visit, it had been open for a month.

Nonetheless, I compare this to one of the other retailers we patronized during our overnight stay in Vicksburg, which seems far more congruent with the character of the city.

Yes, it’s an old soda fountain, with original countertops, an assortment of vintage Coca-Cola paraphernalia, and a gorgeous marble dispenser. Popular among visitors, too.

If I recall, the bartender at the posh place seen at the top of this posting said it was started by a local chap who lived for many years in Los Angeles, and wanted to bring some of the glitz back to his hometown. He had done his research and believed Vicksburg was ready for it, if I remember correctly.

Less of an analysis than an anecdote, this entry still offers an interesting demonstration how much we surmise of the character of a town from its storefronts. One of my old instructors believed, fairly simply, that retail is everything in defining how an outsider will form an impression of an area. Clearly I’m already guilty of it myself, as previous postings on mall tenants will prove, in a much more suburban, auto-oriented vernacular than the commercial district of Vicksburg. This may explain why Main Street associations have proliferated across the country in nearly every state, aiming to lure not just any retail but the “right” retail back to their downtowns; it is hardly profound to suggest that, even in the most decentralized of cities, the central business district operates as the implied front yard.

I have deliberately left this bar in Vicksburg anonymous, partly out of necessity because I’m not confident I remember the name correctly, but mostly because one could easily misconstrue this dissection of the bar’s interior as criticism both of the venue as well as of Vicksburg myself, which is not my intention. Clearly I was confounded by the existence of an opulent cocktail lounge in a humble Southern river town, but that probably has more to say about my own embedded, prejudicial expectations. We didn’t stay long at this bar: we couldn’t afford the drinks and felt underdressed, so we went to a local pool hall down the street (which was fairly crowded). I will never know if the owner of the bar was genuinely committed to bringing a flavor of Los Angeles to the citizens of Vicksburg; my suspicion is that he was just as easily preening by offering a decadent palate cleanser to the city’s many weekend visitors. At any rate, these photos date from almost exactly two years from the time of this posting; if I do recall the bar’s actual name, it has a website and is still in business.

Monday, August 17, 2009

When plural isn’t needed to describe power line(s).

City dwellers may have to take a second look at the photo below even to recognize what it is:

Yes, it’s a utility pole. But while we’re used to seeing a double (or triple or quadruple) masted pole carrying an assortment of parallel electric wires, this clearly isn’t necessary in rural, sparsely populated areas. In much of the country, population is scattered so thinly that, while the demand for electric transmission naturally remains, only a few conduits are necessary. Thus, we see a stanchion here but it only needs to elevate a few wires to residences in these far-flung locations. Judging from the picture, it would be fair to conclude that this is in an extremely rural part of the country, far removed from any major settlement.

Incidentally, though, this image is still within the city limits of Indianapolis. It is in Franklin Township, about 10 miles to the southeast of downtown. And this is what a significant portion of Franklin Township looks like.

As mentioned several postings ago, Indianapolis merged its city and county boundaries in 1970 with the passage of Unigov, resulting in a significant portion of undeveloped land suddenly falling under the City’s jurisdiction. Franklin Township, which occupies 42.1 square miles to the southeast of the central business district (which rests squarely in Center Township), has been the last of the nine major townships to witness any major urbanization. Though it has grown considerably in the past two decades, it remains a largely rural subcommunity within the larger city: 2008 estimates are that the population remains below 40,000 for this township, giving it a density of less than 1,000 persons per square mile. The infrastructure of the area largely supports this rural nature. The entire township has less than a dozen stop lights. Few roads beyond the interstate highway are more than two lanes. Only one bus route traces the eastern edge of the township, along Emerson Avenue. Roads such as east Edgewood Avenue (where this photo was taken) have visibly narrower truckways than the same road does in the much more heavily urbanized Perry Township to the west. Outside of the new developments and subdivisions, which are required to place sidewalks on all roads (including the perimeter ones), almost all vehicular infrastructure anticipates a very low average daily traffic volume.

Nonetheless, if one were to project Franklin Township’s existing development trends into the future, it stands at a point of divergence. It is one of the fastest growing areas in Indianapolis, having nearly doubled in population since 1990. Each township in Indianapolis has its own school district, and Franklin Township’s district currently rates near or at the top in terms of student performance on standardized tests. School performance is one of the strongest metrics at gauging the desirability of a jurisdiction, which helps to explain why the township is growing steadily: for people wanting to raise children within Indianapolis city limits in a township with strong schools, Franklin would seem a natural choice. By many regards, the schools in Franklin Township do not have to face the challenges of other districts due in large part to the existing demographics: it is the most homogenous of the city’s nine townships. With few foreign-born residents, the township’s need for English Language Learners’ (ELL) curricula is lower than elsewhere in the city, though the district still releases informational material in Spanish and Punjabi. Homeownership is extremely high; the township only has a few apartment complexes along its western edge. Poverty in Franklin Township is quite low, and the median household income is above the city’s average. In general, the township has effectively functioned as a bedroom community for white-collar homeowners without the long commute of the more distant suburbs or the congestion and crime with which other, more urban townships must contend.

All of the aforementioned variables augur well for Franklin Township to grow steadily over the next ten to twenty years, which forces the civic leaders in the township to confront a problem: how much do they want to grow? If the area remains desirable and the City continues to approve new subdivisions, the township may suffer an erosion of the rural character that currently stands as one of its major selling points. The street with the simple power line in the photo above demonstrates this predicament perfectly. My photograph on east Edgewood Avenue is, I admit, a bit deceptive. Despite the fact that the utility poles in that picture suggest a virtually uninhabited, agrarian landscape: a significant substation sits immediately beyond these poles, fifty feet away from the street.

And across the street from the substation, electric wires of a greater density and sophistication slice across the pastoral horizon:

This picture demonstrates the calibration of Franklin Township’s rural/urban settlement pattern. A cow grazes near a narrow country road, with gently rolling hills of corn in the background—not a house to be seen. Yet the elevated utility towers point in the direction of a much larger community not so far away: the urban neighborhoods of Beech Grove and central Indianapolis. Few other Midwest cities have engaged in such aggressive annexation as Indianapolis did; many of them were already hemmed in by incorporated communities at their political boundaries, so cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, and Detroit have remained more or less the same size that they were at the turn of the 20th century. Indianapolis’ vast stretches of countryside in Franklin Township are therefore a relatively uncommon phenomenon outside the Sun Belt. Much of the current development in Franklin Township is along its western edge, where it abuts the heavily urbanized Perry Township. As one travels further toward central and eastern Franklin Township, approaching the edge of the Indianapolis city limits, the infrastructure gets increasingly rural. Witness McGregor Road, even further southeast than the above pictures:

This time there is no substation nearby. But Franklin Township is changing profoundly at the western boundary, where shopping plazas and office parks along Emerson have induced enough traffic to mandate street improvements, with widenings and sidewalks at various locations. Elsewhere, older communities in Franklin Township retain the feel of rural villages: Wanamaker, for example, has one stoplight, while Acton in the far southeast corner has none.

These power lines therefore beg the question: how does Franklin Township want to grow? Despite steady development, the township’s growth pales in comparison to some of the more desirable suburbs to the north and west of the city. If the leadership in Indianapolis as a whole wishes to control rampant urbanization or to fight sprawl, Franklin Township provides an excellent point of scrutiny. Farmland preservation, already a common practice in Shelby County immediately to the southeast of Indianapolis (and partially abutting Franklin Township), could prevent this bucolic corner of the state’s largest city from becoming completely overrun with suburban development. Then again, prohibiting growth here only encourages it in the more far-flung outer suburbs, and Franklin Township at least benefits from some road/water/sewer infrastructure—however crude—and reduced need for utility extension that might transpire in the unincorporated exurbs. Perhaps development in Franklin Township is a form of urban infill, in this day and age when the suburbs are growing much faster than the city as a whole (and parts of the city are shrinking in population). Basic laws of the economies of scale would suggest that it is currently more costly to provide electricity to people on these simple, mastless electric poles than it would be to attach masts and more wires to the existing system. It also raises the question of burying electric cables, which is generally preferred in modern subdivisions since overhead wires often stymie marketability. However, it would be cost prohibitive to bury cables in sparsely populated areas such as this section of Franklin Township, and from what I am aware from my limited research on the subject, transmission across great distances is far faster and superior when the cables remain above ground.

The leadership in Franklin Township may need to converse with the city to determine what identity it plans to perpetuate itself as a community. It most likely will not remain the domain of affluent, white exurbanites, but it may also never develop as quickly as Plainfield, Carmel, Fishers, or Greenwood. A few weeks ago when blogging about Complete Streets, I devised a rudimentary prioritization plan for improving the pedestrian infrastructure along Indianapolis roads. Few roads in Franklin Township would rate high priority for bike lanes, sidewalks, or handicapped ramps; the density is simply not great enough and is unlikely to be for many years. But Franklin Township’s utility poles that punctuate the farms and roadsides embody the problem posed by collective attitudes toward exurban growth in the United States. The affluent originally sought the area as a rural sanctuary to escape the crime, noise, and congestion of the city, but soon everyone begins to seek these amenities. Neighboring Perry Township was once almost as rural as Franklin but passed that tipping point long ago; now people in Perry Township are moving further south, to communities such as Whiteland and Franklin to recapture that rural character. Soon those communities will urbanize to the point they will cease to think of themselves as small towns, and the cycle begins again.

Essentially, suburbanization—or “sprawl” if you prefer the pejorative—transpires as a friend of mine put it: “Everyone wants to be the last one in the club, and to close the door behind.” Farmland preservation may be a means of preserving a community’s rural character, but local officials can also wield it as an elitist and exclusionary gesture. Franklin Township is showing no signs yet of trying to shut out growth—the city wouldn’t want it because Franklin’s growth helps counteract population decline in other, poorer parts of the city. It offers a fertile and reliable tax base. But if it welcomes too much development it will squander the essence of its current desirability. Solutions might require a more nuanced evaluation of the land. Franklin Township currently occupies about one-ninth of Marion County (i.e., the City of Indianapolis); splicing the township into another grid of subunits can determine where, if at all, the land’s highest and best use may be to remain agriculture in perpetuity. Other parts of Indianapolis also have stretches of uninhabited land, but as far as the demand for greater decision making goes, Franklin Township is where the rubber hits the road.