Thursday, April 29, 2010

Removing the gauze.

If you've tuned in the past few days, I've been gradually tweaking the appearance of the blog to give it a bit more personality. This announcement serves as an indicator that I'm finish making these adjustments for now. No doubt I'll alter the appearance again in the future, but too frequent appearance changes only serve to erode the identity. So, this is all for now.

As I approach my tenth month with this blog, I again want to thank the followers, commentors, and general supporters--thanks for helping me stay alive with fresh posts, even as my own workload has grown a great deal. Keep it up, and I intend to keep the dialogue going for many moons.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mall rot: how they do it in Dixie.

This blog is due for another photo montage, and while the subject this month is hardly original, it remains one of my favorite: the always fascinating dying mall. I’ve explored several examples in the past: two in Indianapolis and one outside of Detroit. But dying malls are hardly relegated to the Midwest—all across the country, a number of regional enclosed shopping centers have met their demise over the past twenty years. So now it’s time to focus the lens on one in the South. I’ve referenced the Cortana Mall at Baton Rouge obliquely through a previous post; this time I finally visited it with a carefully hidden camera.

Dedicated in 1976, the Cortana Mall (formerly Mall at Cortana) opened about 6 miles west of the Baton Rouge City Center, in a section from the old Cortana Plantation parcel, at the intersection of two arterials, Florida Avenue (U.S. 190) and Airline Highway (U.S. 61), indicated by the purple letter A on the map.

Originally nearly 1.4 million square feet, it was the largest mall in the state, and in 1981 it expanded by over 200,000 more square feet, when one of the early department stores added a second level. A more detailed history of the mall is available at Mall Hall of Fame.

The mall endured several battalions of new competitors over the ensuring two decades, but nothing unseated Cortana from its dominion as the pre-eminent mall of the Capital City region. However, in 1997, developer Jim Wilson and Associates opened the Mall of Louisiana to the southeast of the city center, along the mercilessly well-traveled Interstate 10 corridor, at its interchange with Bluebonnet Boulevard, indicated by the blue B on the map. Cortana Mall was dethroned.

Cortana didn’t die overnight; thirteen years after the unveiling of the Mall of Louisiana, it remains open. Within a year after the competitor stole the spotlight, Cortana Mall underwent a mild renovation and changed its name to Mall at Cortana; it returned to Cortana Mall last year. Truthfully, this Mall has persevered as the “other mall” in Baton Rouge metro for a remarkably long time. Aside from the Mall of Louisiana, other formidable competitors include the lifestyle center Towne Center at Cedar Lodge (2005, just a little over 2 miles away, the green letter C on the map), the Tanger Outlets in Gonzales (an outer suburb 21 miles to the southeast along I-10), and the recent lifestyle/apartment/office hybrid Perkins Rowe (2008, just a mile south of Mall of Louisiana, also on Bluebonnet Boulevard at the purple letter D on the map). It is no doubt a testament to the solid population growth of metro Baton Rouge that Cortana Mall has been able to endure this long. When I first visited in 2005 (which I briefly referenced a few months ago), I could tell that it was the downgraded mall—quite simply, it lacked the upscale stores such as Banana Republic, Brookstone, Talbots, and any of the other solidly upper-middle tier stores present at Mall of Louisiana. Nonetheless, it seemed generally bustling around Christmastime, with relatively low vacancy except in the wing of in-line stores that lead to the notorious Sears. But that was nearly five years ago. How does it look today?

It’s seriously hurting, with about 50% occupancy, I would guess, among the in-line stores. And in answer to the question posed by the title of this blog, they don’t really do mall rot that differently in the South than anywhere else, by my observation. Among the few tenants currently entering the mall are fourth-tier brands without any major advertising presence, like Famous Labels seen below:

This is precisely the sort of tenant that seeks a struggling retail outlet, because that caters to the lower income market that still shops here. The well-heeled of Baton Rouge stopped patronizing Cortana long ago, and now the foot traffic and ensuing sales per square foot are so low that the place cannot ask for high rents. Famous Labels is a discounter that feeds on the rejected space of former top brands; no doubt this space once held a Lane Bryant or New York and Company. Notice from the photo above how much of the space inside the store is vacant; the tenant doesn’t even need to stuff the premises with merchandise because rents are low. Stepping back several feet from the store’s entrance reveals its less-than-lucrative surroundings:

Beyond this, many of the other in-line tenants are most likely locally owned and operated. They would never be able to afford the rents in a thriving mall.

The tenant in the background of the photo below is a convenience store, with gas station merchandise. Would you ever see that in a successful mall?

Cortana hasn’t lost all of the big names; a few are hanging on. The neon is barely visible on the photo below, but the two tenants seen here are Pacific Sun and Journeys.

And two more mall mainstays, Hot Topic and Wet Seal:

The targeted demographic for these stores suggests that, at the very least, teenagers still frequent the mall. But how much are you willing to bet that not one of these will renew its lease when the term ends?

And then there’s Aeropostale, another bit of a surprise.

But for some reason, I’ve noticed Aeropostale hangs around dying malls longer than its perceived competitors. I’ve never shopped at the store, but I used to think it was comparable to American Eagle or The Gap; however, those two retailers tend to dart out of a mall at the first sign of failure, while Aeropostale does not. Most likely that means Aeropostale has cheaper merchandise. Bath and Body Works and Victoria’s Secret, both present in Cortana (though I did not take a photo), also hang around longer than one might expect. And shoe stores like Foot Locker are usually among the last big names to jump ship. I enjoy what the property managers of Cortana, creatively named Mall Properties, have decided to do with some of the vacant storefronts:

These TV screens advertise the remaining in-line stores still standing in the mall.

What about the department stores? At its peak, the mall boasted six anchor tenants, an incredible four of which were housed in two-story structures. Today, four occupied department stores remain: Sears, Macy’s, Dillard’s, and J.C. Penney. Mervyn’s closed a few years before the company went out of business in 2008, while Steve and Barry’s prevailed at the mall until near the end of the company’s life; it was defunct in 2009. But what about the surviving anchors? Since anchors typically pay little to no rent in a mall, they have less at stake and can often break even as long as they sell enough merchandise to pay their employees and cover basic operating expenses. But the Dillard’s at Cortana is clearly feeling the pinch. It’s housed in one of the two-story spaces, but the second floor seems to be receding.

The partitions are blocking about 1/3 of the gross leasable space on this level. A conversation with a clerk revealed that they were liquidating the central portion of that floor as well, seen below.

Before long, only the other 1/3 of that floor would remain open. Access to the second floor is already limited, as witnessed by this barricaded escalator.

How much longer before Dillard’s vacates its second floor altogether? And then, of course, how soon before it bids adieu to Cortana Mall?

Perhaps one of the clearest indicators that this mall is a goner is one of the smaller wings leading back to the parking lot.

The theme of this wing seems to be Public Sector.
It houses an Army Recruitment Center, Navy Recruitment, Air Force, and a US Postal Service Branch. No doubt these government agencies wouldn’t be paying the rent at Mall of Louisiana. While I hate to bring the specter of social class into this argument (and certainly don’t want to politicize it), the presence of all these recruiting centers can’t help but recall Michael Moore’s trip to an Army Recruiting Center in his hometown of Flint, Michigan in Fahrenheit 9/11. He recognized that the recruiting centers never appear on the “good” side of town, where the teenaged shoppers are most likely to have college aspirations.

So, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest and most successful, Cortana’s placement is probably about a four or a five. It’s not dead yet, a few strong tenants remain, and some recent news that a Sam’s Club proposes locating at an outparcel on the mall premises offers a whisper of good fortune in this bad economy. But the fact remains that any mall that sinks below about a 7 out of 10 is likely past the point of no return, and what this means for Baton Rouge is the confirmation that the growth patterns are veering further away from the eastern suburbs and more to the southeast, along the I-10 corridor. It makes sense, in a way: living closer to a limited access road such as I-10 (rather than a busy six lane highway like Florida Boulevard) helps the commuter. And Louisiana State University, the true heart of Baton Rouge, already lies to the south and southeast of the city center. But the housing around Cortana Mall—particularly to the immediate south—is still solidly middle class. How long will it remain that way if the families have a blighted mall presiding over them? Will they be able to sell?

The decline of Cortana is more remarkable because it remains a larger shopping center than the successful Mall of Louisiana, which is about 50,000 square feet shy of its predecessor in GLA. But it’s clear that the decentralizing forces in Baton Rouge have long favored the southeast. The northern section of Baton Rouge is overwhelmingly lower income minority. The western suburbs, across the Mississippi River, are mostly working class and growing slowly. The eastern suburbs comprised a middle class boomlet as recently as the early 1990s, but they haven’t been able to compete in desirability of the I-10 corridor. And since the Mall of Louisiana is the second biggest in the state, it has even become an attraction for folks in New Orleans over 70 miles away; it’s proximity to the interstate makes it far more accessible than the Cortana Mall ever was. But the poor folks in the north and west of Baton Rouge have always had a long hike to get to any major shopping; before long, even the sprawling suburbs of the east will have to travel much further to get to any major retail node. The death of Cortana Mall represents the culmination of some of the most lopsided decentralization patterns of any metro region I have seen. It is an apotheosis of Homer Hoyt’s sector theory, in which settlements expand in wedge shaped patterns along principal transportation routes. There’s nothing wrong with this per say, but the problem with most urban growth theories is that few cities actually live up to any of the proposed patterns. But here’s one example that has followed it almost hook, line, and sinker. Maybe that’s just how they do it Down South?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Repelling criminals and just about everyone else.

A few years ago I was assigned to collect demographics on the downtowns of a number of different American cities of varying sizes, from Detroit to Lafayette Louisiana, using carefully defined census tracts that correlated as well as possible from 1970 to 2000. We were hoping to find similar characteristics to the downtown dwellers across the country, whether the central business districts had mature and thriving residential populations or were largely moribund, with only a handful of brave souls claiming such an address. Most of our conclusions were unsurprising: downtowns typically had a higher percentage of poverty than the metro areas as a whole, significantly smaller households, more foreign-born persons, a higher percentage with college degrees, as well as those without a high school diploma, and (particularly in the economically healthy town centers) a high concentration of empty nesters and childless singles. However, one contingency we did not recognize until halfway through our research—and then had to double back and include—was the high percentage of incarcerated or institutionalized persons in downtowns. This segment of the population—usually the mentally ill or prisoners—can not participate in free enterprise to any large degree, so they are unable to partake in any of a downtown’s commerce or amenities. Despite their general sequestration from downtown living, the incarcerated undeniably exert an influence on urban culture.

And we’ve all seen the telltale hints that we’re in close proximity to a county jail, even if we aren’t always aware of it: bail bonds services will inevitably cluster nearby. In some instances, the prison is relatively inconspicuous, but the bail bonds companies nearly always announce themselves in neon. They drew my attention to the prison in downtown Chillicothe, the original capital of Ohio and a minor city at the edge of the state’s segment of Appalachia.

These storefronts dominate one side of Paint Street, the principal north-south arterial. Directly across from them sit the expected public buildings:

The Ross County courthouse is an archetypal center of Midwestern county seats, but the building adjacent to it (featured in the second of the two photos) is perhaps more interesting in the context of this discussion. The sign announces that it is the Ross County Chillicothe Law Enforcement Center—in short, the local jail. But the generously sized and plentiful windows, the multiple entrances directly off the sidewalk, and the absence of any plainly visible security measures betray the building’s confining intentions. It doesn’t look like a detention center, and I believe that two factors have influenced this deceptive appearance: it is a mere county operated jail for those in temporary custody while they await bail or a criminal trial; also, the designers intended for the building to be pleasing to the eye to avoid the negative impression people have of jails, both in terms of aesthetics and their punitive function.

Urban corrective centers pose a question that a cost-benefit analysis would most likely attempt to answer: does the logistical efficiency afforded to positioning a county jail adjacent to the courthouse supersede any efforts to revitalize a downtown? Chillicothe, I’m afraid, does not provide a clear solution, but at least it thoughtfully attempts to address this ostensible Catch-22. Detention facilities, it seems, carry with them a perception of making bad neighbors; it is rare that a community will rally in support of locating a penitentiary on the vacant land a block away. To a certain degree, this is understandable: virtually no one voluntarily chooses to live in an area with a high concentration of criminals. Yet at the same time it is ludicrous: with such intensive security infrastructure (not to mention armed guards) it may be one of the safest places in the region to live. But private developers are consistently chary to invest in real estate adjacent to correction centers, particularly when it comes to new residential construction. The perception is almost insurmountable that the area adjacent to a county jail has been compromised by the slight chance that a prisoner may escape and wreak havoc there. Without having researched the probabilistic comparisons, I’m willing to venture that the chances of a prisoner escaping then behaving violently in the vicinity are on par with a prisoner successfully concealing an escape tunnel behind a poster of Rita Hayworth. Nonetheless, it is not hard to spot a city jail because, besides the reliably austere architecture, it has the economic development impact of fertilizing a lawn with gasoline, thanks in no small part to our movie- and television-fueled perception of prison breaks.

So a corrective facility is a nuisance, more or less—not entirely different from a noisome hog farm or a noisy airport. But it is undeniably practical to situate a city or county jail immediately next to a courthouse, and it is inevitable that a courthouse will sit relatively close to the center of town—after all, it is one of the first buildings to appear in a community or jurisdiction of any reasonable political scale. Up to this point, I have measured my words, in order to apply the nomenclature correctly: the downtowns of cities like Chillicothe (and anything larger) typically host jails, not prisons. The distinction is critical. Jails are operated by a county or municipality and are thus numerous; the typically incarcerate individuals who were arrested within that same jurisdiction and are held in custody while awaiting a trial. Conversely, either the state or federal governments manage prisons, where the inmates have committed a crime of much greater severity, usually with sentences of at least two years. Prisons are much rarer, and—particularly in the federal ones—the incarcerated most likely came from significantly farther distances. It understandably follows that jails lack both the amenities (vocational training, drug rehab, work release) that prisons have, nor can they claim the same level of security infrastructure; they don’t usually need it the way prisons do.

The past few decades have witnessed a widening spatial dichotomy between jails and prisons. While jails have justified their place next to other municipal government buildings, prisons have become an increasingly rural phenomenon: they host the inmates who have committed more serious offenses, receiving longer sentences for crimes that are far more likely to be violent in nature. Imagine the nuclear-sized NIMBY rupture if a state or the federal government tried to locate a maximum security prison in a densely populated urban area. Needless to say, the downtown Ross County Chillicothe Law Enforcement Center is a short-term jail. But the much more sizeable Chillicothe Correction Institution (operated by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction) sits several miles north of town on State Route 104…next to the Ross County Airport.

Traci Huling’s essay, “Building a Prison Economy in Rural America
from the larger work Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, explores the simultaneous decline of rural America with the emergence of federal penitentiaries over the last forty years, often perceived as an economic development strategy to rescue these regions from persistently low wages and high unemployment. Towns much smaller and more remote than Chillicothe (which is about 45 miles south of Columbus) “have become dependent on an industry which itself is dependent on the continuation of crime-producing conditions.” Huling does not attempt to conceal her cynicism, as she recalls communities entering literal bidding wars to win the rights to host a new penitentiary (always safely removed from the city center), often for the added benefit of improved Census figures that will in turn earn them more political clout and federal financial aid, even though the source of the population gains are incarcerated residents who cannot vote. Small towns have even on occasion offered tax abatements for private prisons.

Yet Huling has no difficulty exploring the speciousness of recruiting a prison: many of the well-paying positions require skills not available among the local workforce so the management must import talent; the push to keep prisons safely ensconced amidst low-density farmland means the staff will have long commutes; the multiplier effect rarely applies and few prisons generate spin-off industries. Her litany of the negative impacts of rural prisons continues through many additional vignettes, all substantiated with citations that demonstrate the discomfort of this “Norman Rockwell meets Quentin Tarantino” scenario, but these vignettes remain at odds with the reality on the ground. The fact is, rural areas continue to entice private and public sector prisons for reasons often as simple as 1) it helps re-endow the community with a reason for being; and 2) it is far less likely to arouse objections than in a major city. Huling complains that small-town prisons rarely offer quality retail, instead encouraging Wal-Marts and McDonald’s that help kill the local businesses. But the fact remains that a Wal-Mart offers far greater tax revenue to a town than a whole host of small mom-and-pop establishments on Main Street, and affordable big-box retail may be exactly what such a community needs to keep its own population shopping and spending money within the municipal boundaries.

Chillicothe seems emblematic of the sort of economic push-and-pull that transpires when two corrective facilities sandwich the community. The small city no doubt struggles with many of the challenges that Traci Huling reveals in her essay, but its other alternative could be the objectively undesirable continued population decline. (In fact, Census figures suggest that, after losing population since 1960, the city has finally recovered slightly since 2000, based on recent American Community Survey estimates from 2008. Could it be a boom from the Chillicothe Penitentiary stimulated job growth in the area?) The rural prison might actually exert a measurable influence on the raw numbers, despite the negative social impacts—meanwhile the downtown jail only stymies the growth of preferred retail. As observed earlier, the blocks immediately surrounding the Law Enforcement Center aren’t exactly lively. We see the attractively disguised “jail” on one side of the street:

And on the other?

A domestic violence non-profit, criminal defense attorneys, and of course, the predictable bail bonds. I am by no means criticizing these essential services which will always accompany a county jail, but they hardly attract the foot traffic that more desirable retail would, and they’re not the stuff that vibrant smaller cities are made of. Joel Kotkin mused with equal cynicism when a verdant suburb of Philadelphia called Media, PA banned anything but retail on the first floors of buildings along Main Street . He recalls how this divisive zoning ordinance depends, by many locals’ perceptions, on a misplaced nostalgia for what a Main Street offered when the American economy was less dominated by services (or automobiles). He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t prevent a community for appropriating that nostalgia as the cornerstone for economic development; sometimes accessing the charm of yesteryear is the only opportunity for Main Street’s structures—and the small communities that host them—to get a second lease on life.

Thus, Chillicothe precariously situates itself between two potential economic development loci: a seemingly recession-proof incarceration industry and the heritage tourism of vibrant downtown filled with specialty retail. Can Chillicothe shoot and score with both? Downtown today is mixed bag, hardly flourishing but active enough to stay reasonably occupied just a block further from the county jail:

But then one encounters beautiful old buildings that seem incapable of finding a new identity, such as this one rotting on a prominent corner:

Chillicothe has to face the same question numerous communities of its size and smaller must confront: is the Wal-Mart/prison/Native American casino worth the potential drawbacks? It’s hardly a profound question, but the answers vary greatly from region to region, and it may be unfair of me to conflate them, since many small town economic development leaders would perceive a casino as an attractive alternative to the prison (or vise versa), and the Wal-Mart a suitable supplement to them both. When an observer regards the cultural shift of the incarcerated from urban to rural America with unfettered disapproval, he or she fails to account for the limited capacity small towns have at reinventing themselves with dwindling resources. At least most of our dying cities have a suburban bounty close at hand which, however impenetrable, still can add clout to the metropolitan region. Isolated rural communities might need the cataclysm that a prison offers in order to effect any change—and, for some of them, all change is positive. To criticize a small town for attract a Wal-Mart smacks of sneering paternalism.

My prognosis for Chillicothe is positive. It is undoubtedly trying to cultivate its history as Ohio’s original capital by linking it to some of its surviving building stock, some of which is in fairly good shape. It has an abundance of state parks nearby. And most importantly, it is growing closer to the current state capital of Columbus every day. Even though Columbus’ decentralization overwhelmingly favors the northern burbs and Chillicothe sits to the south, the town still rests on the outskirts of the successful capital’s sphere of influence and may soon re-emerge as a distant commuter suburb; it’s already part of Columbus’ Combined Statistical Area. Thirty years from now, the presence of a prison and a jail in Chillicothe may be a moot point. This small city may enjoy a renaissance as a bedroom community. And the prisons may have relocated to a new region in far greater need of an economic shot in the arm.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A view of the slump. . .from within.

It’s not just the domain of rambling old men in seersuckers on front porches. Everyone knows that New Orleans is sinking. The Tragically Hip even wrote a song about it. The idea of a post-apocalyptic New Orleans submerged in the Gulf of Mexico entered folk parlance long before Hurricane Katrina. But is it really doomed to settle so far below sea level that the “bowl” in which it rests becomes visible to the naked eye? Or do we simply equate the process of subsidence—a legitimate concern recognized throughout the country in Hazard Mitigation Planning—with widespread land loss? The discovery that Louisiana was shrinking reached the discussion table long after the discovery that it was sinking. But the forces acting upon these two geologic processes are, for the most part, quite different.

Land loss in Louisiana, though recognized among scientists for half a century, did not achieve much awareness outside of the region until Hurricane Katrina revealed New Orleans’ increasing vulnerability to storms. Coastal erosion, largely exacerbated by the comprehensive levee and flood protection system, is rapidly depleting South Louisiana’s wetlands, which serve as the first line of defense from storm surge for cities like New Orleans, Lafayette, and Houma. These days it seems that Louisiana’s shrinking coastline is a topic on which everyone has an opinion. On the other hand, subsidence—the continued sinking of the land on which the Big Easy rests—has always enjoyed a marriage with the city’s provocative eschatology. In order for it to be part of the New Orleans mythos, it must have alarmed the citizenry for quite some time. But how did the earliest settlers know the city was sinking, before engineering tools allowed for precision in construction or the reinforcement of building foundations? Ordinary occurrences might offer a few hints: the way a single window shutter keeps slamming shut, or the tendency for things to roll off the kitchen counter. Some of these no doubt proved only mild inconveniences, and people may have still attributed them to construction faults. But my recent trip to a hotel in the city revealed proof of The Great Sink in a far more disturbing manner:

The crack in the wall could roundly be dismissed as an indicator that the building is comfortably settling into its old age. But the “settling” going on here is too literal; it’s ripping the wallpaper apart, and the fissure is almost big enough to fit one’s fingers into it.

My impression is that this means that the edges of the building are sinking at a more rapid rate than the middle, perhaps because of the added weight of load-bearing walls—even though it would seemingly make no sense to put such walls on the perimeter…at least, in this day and age. The builders of this 150-year-old structure—hardly a masterpiece commissioned by the city’s most celebrate architect—may not have known better. But how are today’s owners supposed to respond? Given the option of shoring up parts of the building or the laissez-faire approach, it would appear that they have hedged their bets that flaws add a certain charming patina...a contributing building to the city’s “character”. Perhaps these owners are comparatively lucky; in many New Orleans buildings, the subsidence is plainly visible from outside.

What causes the city to sink so alarmingly, creating an added burden to homeownership while compromising structural integrity and safety? An article by Morton and Bernier (2009)—and Morton, Bernier, and Barras (2006)—concluded that historical subsidence rates in the southern Mississippi Delta have been induced by the withdrawal of deep subsurface fluid, reducing the pressures in associated reservoirs and further compacting the dense soil. The oil and gas reserves that were discovered in the mid-20th century reached a climax in drilling at about 1970, then slowed to comparatively low rates today. Incidentally, subsidence also peaked in the mid 1980s, paralleling the proliferation and retreat of large-volume resource extraction in the region. Whether subsidence rates will continue to slow—and this hotel owner will have fewer reasons to worry about the property—may ultimately depend on reducing the rate of land loss along coastal Louisiana. Even though land loss and subsidence are entirely different phenomena, they’re linked to the point that localized land loss unfailingly exacerbates subsidence. Diminished wetlands also intensify hurricane damage, storm surge, and wind shear, by scouring topsoil and weakening the ground support. Finally, continued subsidence only puts places like New Orleans even further below sea level, widening the gap between the lowest points of the city and the protective levee system, so that the bowl becomes deeper—and that much more laborious to drain—in the event of a flood.

Fixing the crack in this hotel room is in itself an exhausting process, but it pales in comparison to the metaphoric schism that separates the lowest points of this ill-fated city from the adjacent high ground. Cracks in the wallpaper helped sound the alarm for early French, Spanish, and American settlers that this city’s location would prove problematic, but its ability to flourish in spite of so many challenges demonstrate that the location—always ideal for international trade to upstream locations—could also transcend its shortcomings. That it has continued to do so in the face of the nation’s costliest national disaster is proof that even as the city’s vulnerability has grown, so has its mystique.

Morton, Robert A., and Julie C. Bernier. “Subsidence-Rate Reductions in the Mississippi Delta and Their Geological Implications.” Journal of Coastal Research, Issue 0, December 2009.

Morton, R. A., Bernier, J.C., and John A. Barras. “Evidence of Regional Subsidence and Associated Interior Wetland Loss Induced by Hydrocarbon Production, Gulf Coast Region, USA.” Environmental Geology, 50, 2006, 261-274.]

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The heart of a state, encased in stone.

The average well-traveled person who looks at the remarkably uniform street wall below will likely draw a conclusion that the photo comes from Washington DC. After all, with the alabaster facades, the prosaic fenestration, and—most tellingly—the uniform height of all the structures, the photo could capture a typical avenue in the sprawling central business district (the “Golden Triangle”) of the nation’s capital.

But it doesn’t. The first hint that the photo derives from another city should be the complete absence of pedestrians in this streetscape; Washington would be full of people during daylight hours. The second clue should be the blog itself, which—as some readers are aware—has shifted its original focus, as I have moved for the time being to the Deep South. This photo comes from Baton Rouge, at the southern boundary of the Louisiana State Capitol Complex.

The map above demonstrates this to a certain degree. North Street, circled in red, forms the edge between the central business district and the large city park that hosts the Louisiana State Capitol and the many other associated government buildings. But the key word here is “edge”, which is clearly what the city’s designers have crafted and no doubt hope to cultivate further.

How do I know this is an edge? Just take a look at the buildings that front North Street. Here again is the north side with the Capitol Complex:
And here is the south side:
None of the architectural uniformity, no consistent height, no discernible design standards to speak of. Obviously this isn’t a coincidence: the developers and builders of structures on the south side of North Street clearly receive a much wider berth for designs, heights, building materials, and so forth. But why? Did the city planners zone the area specifically to encourage different architectural styles along the two sides of North Street? According to the zoning map, the classification applies to both sides of North Street: C5, for Central Business District. And according to the Unified Development Code, the specifications for this classification are remarkably simple: “This district allows office and commercial uses within the Downtown Development District without setback and parking requirements. There may be any uses in the preceding sections including restaurants, which involve the sale or serving of alcoholic beverages for consumption on premises.” Surface parking is a conditional use.

So why did the developers on the north side choose to build such similar looking structures? My quick visit to the Louisiana Tax Commission for a glance at the parish tax rolls reveals that no property on the north side of North Street from the riverfront to the 700 block falls under the assessor’s purview, suggesting that this is all tax-exempt public property. Since all other land to the north of these structures falls within the Capital Complex, it is safe to assume (without having spotted signage from my visit) that these pearly white buildings belong to the State of Louisiana. If I have chosen the tedious, clinical method of determining ownership, the typical passers-by can most likely come to the same conclusion without having to dig through several websites. They can just use their eyes.

It doesn’t require a great deal of scrutiny to conclude that these properties fall under one owner, and, as evidenced by this street wall, the persons at the State responsible for development have decided to emphasize that singularity of ownership through a purity and uniformity in design. The buildings don’t appear widely variable in age, further suggesting that they collectively fall under a broader master plan for the campus-like Capitol Region just north of downtown. And the fact that they look so different from the other side of the street helps to emphasize the bifurcation of uses, between commercial to the south and civic/governmental to the north. These urban design gestures are not subtle, but they don’t need to be. The planners and the state government have heralded from the highest office that North Street is an edge, visually embodied through the Capitol that protrudes in the distance.

I have featured this remarkable building before, one of the few high-rise statehouses and an enduring symbol of Louisiana, ranking up there with its state bird, the pelican, which famously wounds herself to feed her hungry young on the distinctive state flag. (Contrast this with the fleur-de-lis, which usually holds far greater cogency in French-descended south Louisiana.) The building seems to embody populist Governor Huey Long’s desire for Louisiana’s reinvention, as its construction under his term replaced the old “Louisiana Castle” that still sits as a museum on the other side of downtown, just south of the city center. Governor Long’s most enduring edifice remains the tallest state capital in the country, and it presides over the aforementioned complex, which includes gardens, an old Spanish fort, a lake, and, of course, these many ancillary government buildings. The photo below demonstrates how the structures along North Street form an architectural gateway, when viewed along the perpendicular Fourth Street, which terminates at the tower:

I generally shy away from design criticism, because, in terms of knowledge and experience, I’m hardly the best equipped to do so. So rather than focusing on the aesthetic details, I will at least speculate how well this edge (particularly embodied in the definition of “edge” from Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City) operates as a means of navigating and interpreting the visual cues that the built environment elicits. At the beginning of this post I remarked how much this row of buildings reminded me of Washington DC, where the strict design controls have promoted a certain architectural unity. Use Google Streetview to find a few examples in the downtown of the nation’s capital, or take these two examples, also seen below:

Washington has clearly enforced height limitations, so that nothing within the District can surpass the 555 feet of the Washington Monument. The law has imposed constraints on development—both public and private—unlike anything else in the country: the demand for real estate in the central business district of Washington is extreme, and most developers would undoubtedly hope to maximize their Floor-Area Ratio (FAR) by building up as highly as possible. But height restrictions prevent it, so a developer is likely to seek the only alternative by building out as much as possible, achieving the highest possible FAR through minimal setbacks as it extrudes a building’s massing through the original floorplate, which most likely coincides with the parcel lines. What does this mean in normal English? Buildings look thick and bulky—like the ones in the photo.

And how does this enhance the “readability” of Washington’s urbanism? Well, by many people’s perspectives (including my own), it doesn’t. Throughout downtown Washington, the visitor encounters one street after another with buildings of almost identical height and massing. Few structures have recesses—a developer cannot afford to sacrifice leasable space when land values are so high—so the buildings have nearly the same height and general cubic shape. This homogeneity makes it difficult to distinguish one block from the next. Navigating and familiarizing one’s self with the streetscape becomes particularly challenging and far less rewarding because fewer individual landmarks or design features will jump out. And, as anyone who has visited the city beyond a touristic tryst can tell you, DC’s central business district is unending. The inheritors of Pierre l’Enfant’s legacy—those who conceived and have continued to enforce height limitations—have created their own urban design challenge through these restrictions, which creative architects zealously confront, compensating for the monotony through embellished fa├žades.

These deliberate photos I have taken of the north side of North Street in Baton Rouge may seem monotonous when divorced from their context, but I think this strategy of architectural homogeneity in Louisiana’s capital city may work a bit better. It is likely that some portion of the Unified Development Code requires that no building surpass the State Capitol in height, but beyond that, architects in Baton Rouge suffer few of the constraints imposed by high demand and ultra-valuable real estate. Setbacks and recesses are an option. The design parameters of North Street also do not apply across the downtown, or the city, or the region. Thus, the change in architectural character creates a powerful delineation, signaling to visitors that they are entering a new district, as seen in the earlier photo with the Capitol building in the background. The view from the opposite direction, at the foot of the stairs of the Capitol and looking onto the government buildings (or the downtown just beyond it) reinforces the visibility of the implicit edge.
It may improve over time as well, as downtown Baton Rouge continues to build upward, stretching above the structures to which the State has constrained their height.

The biggest negative, in my opinion, is the way this effort at monumentality weakens the overall street vitality. Unlike DC, pedestrians rarely crowd the sidewalks. The government district is divorced from the business district, while only the latter has restaurants, retail or most daily services. Thus, one major employment hub (the commercial/retail downtown) fails to earn any full advantage from the other employment hub (the State). The Capitol Complex is too sprawling to encourage many government workers to walk southward for lunch; Huey Long’s statehouse is so far away that I’m certain it must have a built-in cafeteria, or else its staffers would have little choice but to bring their own lunch. Baton Rouge downtown is thus a separation of uses writ large. It has a few lively blocks of restaurants, but with no thanks to the government workers, who would most likely only patronize the downtown stores after hopping in their cars. And who wants to deal with downtown parking during the weekdays at noon?

The scale and positioning of Baton Rouge’s most important civic buildings may help the city achieve a level of monumentalism that surpasses most other state capitols. These gestures certainly make the visitor aware of its importance within the state. The bold simplicity employed by the architects of the Capitol Complex, coupled with the sheer size of the surrounding green space, endow this part of city with an unmistakable centrality. But why would it boast such an elevated position in a nation famously suspicious of government? The grounds around the Louisiana capitol are hardly Versailles, but they do convey a power uncharacteristic of the citizens’ aspirations, many of which credibly align with a smaller, limited government intended to serve and represent the people rather than preside over them. (Incidentally, it appeared that a local rally for the Tea Party Movement was winding down at the time that I took the last picture.)

Both Baton Rouge and Washington (and many other capitals) have attempted to reconcile two somewhat contradictory forces: the urge to instill prestige in the sub-region that most clearly signifies the district governed; and the recognition that a grandiose display of plazas, gardens, and monumental buildings must still humbly preserve and embody democratic ideals. The National Mall of Washington DC is the United States’ front yard, and it remains the enduring image used to represent the country as nation-state with a clearly definable system of governance. The Capitol Complex achieves much the same purpose for Louisiana. As Baton Rouge fills some of its remaining vacant lots with new structures or civic uses—and as downtown DC becomes even denser with stout edifices packed along the broad avenues—the design of these cities will continue to evolve, with both agreed-upon successes and specious remedies to mistakes from the past. Most critical is that the urban design leadership continues to aspire to that balance between monumental grandeur and ecumenical representation.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Blurred vision.

My apologies for the rather arid posting period. I have been at a conference that has consumed much more time than I expected, and on top of that, I have come down with a mild illness. While I promise to post more profoundly in the near future, I interrupt the dry spell with another of my favorites--public signage with a mystifying intent. If anyone else has a good reason why this sign was posted in the inside of the men's restroom at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, feel free to enlighten me. Perhaps they expect some women to be sufficiently drunk to mistake the restroom, but sober enough to understand the sign?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hurdles on the runway.

For the most part, the scale of a city’s major institutions correlates directly to the metropolitan area’s size and economic power. Metros like New York and Chicago win the flagship luxury department stores, they have the highest number of super-tall skyscrapers, the biggest libraries, movie theaters, power plants, and so forth. Obviously Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field prove an exception to this trend, since the humble sizes of these stadia belie the heft of their respective cities. However, both cities claim many more alternate sports venues than much smaller communities such as New Orleans, Indianapolis, or Salt Lake City, so the total square footage of athletic facilities in the major metros roughly parallels the number of people.

One of the few major industries, however, where the importance within a locale routinely defies the city’s relative size is in commercial airports. For example, Ohio’s Port Columbus International (CMH) sits squarely in the center of the country’s seventh most populous state and is within ninety minutes’ flying distance of over half of the nation’s population. It is by far the fastest growing and most economically healthy city in Ohio. Yet the passenger traffic (measured by the FAA) at the airports of Cleveland (CLE) and Cincinnati (CVG) eclipse Port Columbus by far; despite being a relatively slow-growth metro of similar size, Cincinnati’s passenger traffic nearly doubles that of Columbus. Future forecasts suggest this is unlikely to change. Conversely, Salt Lake City’s metropolitan area is only a little over half that of metro Columbus; its vigorous economy suggests that it will grow increasingly prominent over time, but at this point it has a long way to go to equal Columbus’ size. Yet its airport (SLC) receives triple the passenger traffic of its Midwestern counterpart.

These disparities make fundamental sense, and it doesn’t require much scrutiny to see why. The biggest factors influencing the prominence of a city’s airport are 1) its historical size in relation to neighboring cities; and 2) its geographic proximity to other centers of commerce. In terms of both of these factors, the deck is stacked against Columbus. It was historically nowhere near as large of a city as Cincinnati just 110 miles away; the latter community achieved prominence at a much earlier date and therefore justified the aviation infrastructure worthy of its size. Columbus has only risen to the higher echelon of Midwestern cities in recent years. Meanwhile, Cleveland surged in the early 20th century to become Ohio’s largest metro, which it remains to this day (though if growth patterns in Columbus and shrinkage patterns in Cleveland continue, Columbus may eventually dethrone the Forest City). And Salt Lake City’s prevalence has less to do with its current impressive growth—it certainly didn’t demand a major airport forty years ago—than its relative isolation, with no other major city of any reasonable size within a 350 mile radius.

Such aviational curiosities culminate with the unlikely prominence of Memphis International Airport (MEM). The metro area is not growing at anywhere close to the pace of Columbus or Salt Lake City, or, for that matter, the state of Tennessee’s booming capital Nashville, which has surged past metro Memphis in population. But the Memphis airport still averages at least a half million more passengers than Nashville’s in any given year, it remains a hub for Delta (formerly Northwest) and routinely flies to Amsterdam, and, most significantly, its role as the super-hub of FedEx Express has substantiated the airport’s reputation as the number one cargo operator in the world. In spite of these logistical advantages, Memphis was a higher profile city several decades ago, back when the local leadership assembled parcels for this moderately busy airport. Since the mid 19th century, several other urban centers (Nashville and Charlotte in particular come to mind) have shimmied up the ladder at a faster rate, but Memphis Airport still retains its extensive infrastructure—with room to grow—and its unsullied title as the capital of the Mid-South. As the map above indicates, no city of comparable size sits within three hours’ drive; even Nashville rests over 200 miles to the east. But its central location within the South in general makes it a remarkably convenient midpoint; most Southerners have undoubtedly experienced a layover in Memphis when flying Delta.

But is the Memphis Airport Authority thinking in terms of future growth? Some urban prairies to the west of the terminal, where eminent domain allowed the purchase and demolition of private residences, suggest that newer or larger runways form a part of the airport’s future. But the airport’s interior features suggest otherwise.

This photo, taken near the end of one of the sections to Concourse A, while looking back toward the central terminal, reveals an unlikely impediment: a short stairwell. About seven gates operate on the side of the stairwell from which I am taking the above two photos, while the vast majority of the concourse’s gates are on the inner portion of the concourse, closer to the vertex of these lengthy halls. Seen from the other direction, the stairwell and its respective change in elevation offer a distinct visual contrast.

Fortunately, the authorities at Memphis International aren’t dodging the stipulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act; an alternative to the stairwell and escalator is nestled in a corner just to the right of the above photo.

The elevator helps to avert a potentially serious problem for disabled persons with a reasonable solution. But this reasonable solution isn’t exactly modern. The elevator is only conspicuous from the lower level—the most likely destination for those using the stairs—and most people, unaware of its existence, struggle to negotiate their wheeled luggage down the stairs or escalator.

Now I’ll be bold and draw a broad conclusion from this minor obstruction. The leadership at Memphis airport, aware that their city handed the flag to Nashville long ago, has stopped thinking of itself as a critical airport for a prominent city. Its role as a cargo hub remains auspicious, but other cities with lesser airports may soon surpass Memphis’ infrastructure to support commercial flights. The airport’s tidy but faded interior—and its casual negligence of inconveniences such as the one captured in this photo series—collectively diminish the sense that this airport is scrutinizing a future in which it remains a major player in the field of commercial aviation.

Perhaps I’m splitting hairs by pointing this out. But a stairwell in the middle of a concourse is downright weird. I can’t think of where I might have seen it before. While persons in wheelchairs will always have the elevator, what will they do if a sudden evacuation precludes them from using electrically operated conveyances? Why didn’t the authorities at Memphis International install ramps? Ramps would benefit customers with suitcases, strollers, and Segways just as much. The absence of another, better way of managing the grade change here suggests that airport leadership made an effort to fix its problem by installing an elevator with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and then hasn’t thought about this part of Concourse A ever since. And the ADA passed during the George H. W. Bush administration. As is often the case, this nonchalance toward humdrum spaces dampens the overall appeal of this otherwise perfectly decent airport, while capital improvements apply disproportionately to the showy centerpiece of Concourse B. Memphis may not be an Atlanta, but it also pulls a lot more weight within the south than Little Rock these days. One can only hope that the leadership of this Super-Hub for the Mid-South will prioritize universal design as an aesthetic the next time the place is due for a renovation.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A new shade of pastoralism.

An exploration in unfamiliar territory can often make the typically mundane landscape features pop out. This doesn’t require a great understanding of psychology: when we don’t know our surroundings that well, the employment of the senses becomes more of a conscious act. Much of western Kentucky, of which I am more familiar, is embedded in the agrarian traditions of the lower Midwest, with endless acreage of cornfields, presided over by lumpy foothills that usually sit some distance from the road. Eastern Kentucky’s highways capture some of the most august Appalachian vistas, with nary a square foot of land that could truly be considered flat—the sparse population merely draws more of the visitor’s gaze to the topography. And what remains is central Kentucky, south of Cincinnati and east of Louisville. This Inner Bluegrass Region may offer one of the most powerful agglomerations of industry in the country that still falls within a rural milieu. Kentucky’s enduring icon—the thoroughbred—owes its association with the state primarily through the pastures surrounding Lexington. A simple Google search using some combination of “Kentucky”, “horse”, and just about any third word of choice reveals an incredible concentration of establishments in the center of the state.

The emergence of “horse country” no doubt explains why a new painterly accent emerges upon the landscape as one travels along Interstate 64, west of Frankfort, toward Lexington.

Fencing along the interstate is virtually unheard of in the Midwestern Corn Belt, for obvious reasons. But along this stretch of highway, it is ubiquitous.

So the horse farmers and breeders of central Kentucky need to protect their most critical assets through a predictable, straightforward impediment. But is that all that is distinctive about these fences? Though hardly the dominant use of the land, cow pastures are still relatively commonplace throughout the lower Midwest, and yet the fences around dairy farms are unlikely to leave as strong of an impression. They only occasionally punctuate the verge of a road that is otherwise overwhelmed by cornfields, and the fences lack uniformity—farmers adapt a hodgepodge of structural approaches to prevent cattle from escaping or predators from intruding. Horse farms in central Kentucky not only dominate the landscape, but they seem dependent on a single design for the fencing. The lines of charcoal leave a powerful impression against the tepid green backdrop of early spring.
The fences straddle both sides of the highway, and I offer my regrets that I failed to capture this in my photos. So why black? I think it looks fantastic, but is it solely to impress people as easily impressed as I am? Surely it’s not aesthetics—the plots of land are too vast for that to likely even enter into the consideration of the proprietors.

In his book, Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845 [Yale University Press, 1982], John Stilgoe observes that early English colonial fencing strategies borrowed heavily from European design, echoing the old continent’s need to conserve wood when under constant threat of scarcity. But as soon as the settlers realized that North America enjoyed an abundance of forested land—within a decade of Plymouth’s founding—wood quickly replaced stone as the principal means of containing livestock. And before long, topography and climatological differences across the eastern seaboard prompted further ramifications in fence design, so that various regions used distinct vernacular fencing styles, with appearances as divergent as the construction and architecture of their homes. New Englanders were more conservative by necessity—only the infrequent valleys and plains between granite protuberances supported much agriculture, so farmers had to engage in careful crop rotation, while staying put on their smaller plots of land. They couldn’t move frequently to stake new territory because there was virtually no fertile land nearby. Southern colonies, particularly the Mid-Atlantic tidewater and piedmont regions, enjoyed an abundance of rich soil suitable for the increasingly lucrative cash crop of tobacco. These settlers moved routinely because tobacco exhausted nutrients quickly, yet it paid so well that they had little incentive to rotate the land with less profitable alternatives. Thus, Virginia and North Carolina (and eventually the less mountainous parts of Kentucky) hosted a much more transient population, farr less likely to cluster in large settlements than the booming mill towns to the northeast of the Hudson Valley. Essentially, bad soil helped accelerate the industrialization of New England, while doing the opposite in Jefferson’s Virginia.

The fencing designs reflect this remarkable divergence in settlement patterns between the North and South. As Stilgoe continues:
“[S]outhern colonists firmly believed horses, cattle, swine, and sheep could fend for themselves in the temperate climate and lush woods. Men turned out livestock to graze on native grasses and cane. . . Although conservative settlers warned that such stock would become almost wile, Virginia and later Maryland, the Carolinas, and later Georgia made official the open-range system and required all settlers to fence in not their livestock but their fields of corn and other crops” (p. 62).
The coupling of this ethos with the almost nomadic approach to tobacco cultivation elicited the archetypal worm fence, a seemingly crude stack of split rails that join at obtuse angles, creating a zigzag pattern. It required no vertical posts. To the untrained eye, the worm fence seemed shamefully flimsy, but it required little time investment due to the ease of assembly, and it generally achieved its goal of impedance—particularly when it was used primarily to protect crops from intruding wildlife rather than to retain grazing livestock. Worm fences could last for over twenty years, and they were easy to dismantle when farmers had exhausted their soil of nutrients and needed to move on. New Englanders did not have it as easy: they needed to extract numerous fieldstones from the ground and continued to depend on difficult, laborious stone walls as enclosures (p. 189-90).

My speculation is that the post-and-rail fences that stretch across central Kentucky loosely fuse the northern and southern colonial paradigms. Early settlers attempted dozens of varieties of post-and-rail fencing; while this design wasted the least space of all the varieties, the vertical posts tended to rot quickly. The limestone beds that saturate the Ohio River valley endow the soil in central Kentucky with a high concentration of calcium and foster the growth native bluegrass, making particularly suitable pasturelands for horses. But horses apparently have a greater tendency to wander than other, grazing livestock, placing them in particular danger of high-speed traffic along the interstates. Regardless of the history of the open-range farmsteads further south, Kentucky horse farms need fences. My research indicates that black color of the fencing in the above photos is probably due to the layering of creosote, most likely of the EPA-approved wood tar variety. This widely used preservative can protect the wood fences from rot, mold, shrinkage, and termite infestation. In addition, some forms of creosote serve as a repellent to horses, who may otherwise try to chew or eat the wooden posts.

Kentucky’s horse fixation is indelible, but horses themselves are easy to come by in just about any place where they can survive the climate. Horse farms—the breeding of thoroughbreds as an industry—are the portal to the state’s unique relationship with animal. The Lexington area has managed to massage a bit of cultural tourism out of the concentration of horses there, but is it really as visible of an opportunity as it could be? With an unemployment rate hovering around 11%, even Kentucky’s venerated horse industry is feeling the pinch, with reports of a spike in abandoned animals across the Inner and Outer Bluegrass Region. While I would hate to devalue the industry by reducing it to a tourist commodity, it could offer a chance for proprietors to connect with horse-lovers at a time when revenues are down. Advertisements along the highway are non-existent. No doubt the state has prohibited billboards, and I won’t begrudge the citizens for defending the pastoral character against commercialization.

I don’t know if Kentuckians hold their creosote horse fences in the same regard as the British do with their fences made of stone, or New Orleanians prize their gas lamps. But the remarkable sprawl of immaculate charcoal fences between Frankfort and Lexington offer an excellent opportunity for expanding upon the horse farm brand to inevitable curiosity seekers. It could serve as a gateway for the entry to horse country—it already feels a bit like one—but it isn’t necessarily conspicuous to those who aren’t attuned to it. The potency of the image is already there, but the associative linkages remain tucked away. Reinforcing this association without overt advertisements may be challenging, but the most difficult aspect—to interrupt the landscape’s monotony with something new—already sits there as an organic piece of agrarian vernacular. Kansas has its yellow brick road; Kentucky already has the interesting topography to surpass it.