Saturday, June 30, 2012

Not all interstate highways are perpetuated equal.

While transportation infrastructure has long elicited a highly politicized debate in the US, particularly in regards to government funding of alternative methods (Amtrak and rail, supporting the persistently ailing airline industry), only in recent years have the discussions migrated more heavily toward inadequacies in road and highway infrastructure.  The collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis in August of 2007 helped stimulate the Federal Highway Administration to probe into the quality, level of maintenance and fundamental stability of some of the nation’s most heavily traveled bridges, while it prompted the Minnesota Department of Transportation to increase the state fuel tax mildly to fund bridge maintenance appropriately.

Five years later, the debate on the adequacy of transportation infrastructure funding persists: the most comprehensive current authorization of funds is the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, better known by its acronym SAFETEA-LU.  First signed by President Bush in 2005, it expired in September 2009, but Congress has extended it more than a half-dozen times since then.  The latest (ninth) extension expired today (June 30, or yesterday, depending on when this blog makes it to post), and while Congresshad long aimed to pass a final reauthorization bill, it seemed more likely, in this heavily fractious political climate, that it would simply settle for one or two more extensions until the November elections.   However, to many people’s surprise, President Obama was able to sign into law a bill that at least for the next week (until July 6) assured that no interruption to federal highway funding would take place.  It now appears most likely that a new bill will emerge in the next week, rather than yet another short-term extension.  For most Americans, none of this is particularly earth shattering news: only institutions with strong ties to lobbying are likely to follow the development of this bill on a day-to-day basis.  My suspicion, in fact, is that over 90% of Americans would not know what SAFETEA-LU is.  Does this seem strange, given our overwhelming dependence on the interstate highway system for traversing this mammoth country?

It may be premature for me to accuse Americans of prevailing complacency in this matter, but obviously there is a far greater confidence that the legislature always will do something about this, and the impact of that decision is not going to cause widespread polarization among the constituents.  Compare the passage of this bill to the results of the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act: everyone has been glued to their TVs!  The “complacent” label may seem snide, but it was certainly a word Minnesotans heard a fair amount in the summer of 2007, and it wasn’t targeted at residents of that state: negligence and indifference toward infrastructural needs was a nationwide problem back then, and it remains so today.  After MnDOT devised alternative transportation routes during the reasonably fast paced (13 month) reconstruction of the I-35W bridge, did we resume our blithe disregard?  Was the loss of 13 lives during that collapse simply not significant enough to confront the problem the same way we have confronted the funding of health care?

Looking across the recent improvements in our highway system, it’s hard to conclude that improvements in the Federal Interstate Highway System operate under a consistent authority—most likely because they don’t.  I-65 as it runs through Kentucky offers an excellent example.
As the image above indicates, this stretch of the 887-mile highway weaves between Kentucky’s undulating hills and limestone beds.  Just a few miles later further south, the landscape is virtually unchanged.
Perhaps a little flatter, but not much different than before.   This is how most of I-65 in Kentucky looks: with few exceptions, the interstate passes through overwhelmingly rural countryside.  Kentucky in general is not a terribly urban state: only one metro, Louisville/Jefferson County, ranks in the nation’s Top 50 for size, and only four cities (Louisville, Lexington, Bowling Green, Owensboro) claim populations over 50,000.  The state ranks 22nd inpopulation density, but at 110 persons per square mile, it is less than a tenth as densely populated as some of the crowded northeastern states such as New Jersey and Rhode Island.  While traffic volumes for I-65 through Louisville are undoubtedly high at peak hours, the only two other communities of reasonable size (populations over 15,000) with exits along the I-65 stretch of Kentucky are Elizabethtown and Bowling Green.  These are the only communities outside of metro Louisville along the interstate that offer a choice of services (gas, food, lodging) beyond the bare minimum—quite a few of the already sporadic exits along I-65 offer nothing at all.

In short, Kentucky is not a particularly crowded state.  But most of its share of I-65 would suggest otherwise.  Through much of the Midwest and South, six lanes is reserved for more urbanized areas.  The only portions of I-65 in Indiana (a state with nearly double Kentucky’s population density) that are more than four lanes are the Indianapolis metro, NE Indiana around Gary and Merrillville, and the Louisville suburbs in southern Indiana.  Ohio, the tenth most densely populated state in the country, also claims huge stretches of rural interstate highways that are only four lanes wide.  But in recent years, Kentucky’s DOT has overseen the widening of nearly all of I-65, with the exception of a 43-mile segment south of Elizabethtown and north of Bowling Green, and the Governor articulates proposals for an upgrade there during the FY 2012 – FY 2018 Highway Plan.  Before long, all of I-65 in Kentucky will be at least six lanes wide.

Another noticeable feature is the superior lighting of I-65 in Kentucky across its exits.
Streetlights are numerous at the exit ramps, even if the intersecting street does not host a great deal of services or traffic.  In Indiana and Ohio, only the busiest of rural intersections get streetlights, and their number often depends on the traffic volumes: those with a variety of hotels and restaurants may have a dozen streetlights, those with only one or two gas stations may have a half dozen or less, and those that are the most rural will have none.  Conversely, in Kentucky, virtually every interchange on I-65 is now fully saturated with lights—urban or rural, and most are still resolutely rural.

When passing near Bowling Green, where the exits are often quite a bit busier, the streetlights are even more numerous.
Bowling Green is a moderately sized city of approximately 58,000 inhabitants.  Cities of such a size in either Ohio or Indiana are numerous, but in Kentucky, Bowling Green is the third largest city.  And between its three primary exits off of I-65, the segments of interstate remain consistently well-lit:
This stretch of highway deploys of stanchions in the median of the interstate, planted firmly in the Jersey barriers at short intervals.  Usually only larger metros of over 250,000 would integrate such a lighting technique, and exclusively when the interstate passes directly through the most urbanized area.  I-65 circumscribes the exurbs of Bowling Green, yet motorists still get some big-city lighting.  Indiana’s comparably sized cities—Anderson, Lafayette, Terre Haute, Muncie—only get lighting at the major exits.  Granted, the respective interstate does not pass directly through the hearts of those cities either, but the lighting is nowhere near as sophisticated.  Ohio shares the same condition as Indiana, with many lightly traveled interchanges remaining completely unlit.  Thus, Kentucky, despite being a significantly less densely populated state, has invested in highway infrastructure at a level that far surpasses that of its more urbanized neighbors to the north.  I have no doubt that I-65 through Kentucky receives a number of travelers passing through on this very important corridor that connects Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico.  But the fact remains that Indiana and Ohio also can claim significant trucking traffic in addition to their much larger population bases.  Both Indiana and Ohio, because of their proximity to other large cities inside and outside of the two states, have accommodated a significant ground logistical industry, suggesting that, in aggregate, their interstate highway segments will remain much busier than Kentucky’s for the foreseeable future, however well-used it may be.

This comparative observation by no means intends to criticize the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s transportation spending decisions, nor those of Indiana and Ohio.  It simply demonstrates the visible differences in states’ priorities.  Kentucky’s Highway Plan includes the proposal for spending Road Fund revenues appropriated in each new two-year period, which includes state and federal gasoline tax revenues.  This has proven a highly volatile source during the serious recession, due to reduced fuel consumption and purchase of vehicles.  The Federal Highway Trust Fund has been particularly unstable, not only because of reduced consumer spending but because Congress has not agreed on a suitable alternative to SAFETEA-LU since it expired; the series of resolution/extensions disburse about 20% fewer funds than before the act’s 2009 expiration.

Even if many fundamentals of a limited access highway (design, safety parameters) remain more or less the same from state to state, the “embellishments” will inevitably vary tremendously.  At least for now, Kentucky has some of the most luxurious interstates in terms of lane widths and lighting, particularly in relation to the fact that so much of the state is sparsely populated.  By contrast, signage is less developed in Kentucky than in other states: few—perhaps none—of the overpasses in Kentucky have any indicator of what the name of the road is, whereas in Indiana, most overpasses do.  And in Alabama, virtually every street has a particularly handsome sign:
These signs are relatively recently funded—probably simultaneous with the highway widening in Kentucky—and they closely approximate the Clearview font approved by the FHWA to phase out the older, splotchier Highway Gothic.  Notice this example here, with the new font on the overpass and the old one to the right of the road:

Alabama has the slickest signs I have seen among my own recent road trips.  And at this point, Kentucky interstate driving is about as comfy as you can get: roads as wide as you expect to see in Connecticut, but with a fraction of the population density.   Meanwhile, Ohio and the Mid Atlantic states have invested much more heavily in protective fencing to prevent injury when motorists on the overpass might throw objects out the car so that they could hit people below.  Ohio has these fences on almost all overpasses; Indiana, Alabama, and Tennessee have them on just a few; Kentucky has none.  Will we ever see a consistency among the states in all of the various infrastructural amenities?  I’m not holding my breath, and while I hate to end on a cynical note, it is clear that some states are devoting greater amounts of money to bridge maintenance than others—time will only tell where, amidst a decentralized transportation funding system, the next Minneapolis will take place.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Economizing and downsizing a city’s landmarks.

When navigating through an unfamiliar place, either urban or rural, we tend to seek visual points of reference to aid us in further wayfinding.  It is as instinctual of an action as folding the corner of a book.  Across the countryside, visual cues assume a variety of incarnations: a distinctive geological form, an unusual sign, an anachronism (particularly old-fashioned or unexpectedly contemporary), or an anomalous color or shape.  Rural reference points are frequently large, nearly always tall, but only occasionally are they part of an intentional effort to “stand out” as an explicit reminder of a particular location.

By contrast, urban reference points are nearly always manmade and deliberate, sometimes bordering on the point of ostentation.  In his famous 1960 book, The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch includes landmarks among his five fundamental elements people deploy in order to assimilate visual information that helps them navigate in an urban setting; the other four elements are edges, paths, nodes and districts.  Landmarks may be the least subtle because they are particularly geographically contained—neither linear nor planar and thus essentially uni-dimensional.  Distinctive height and appearance usually endow an edifice with an advantage as a landmark: it could be the tallest feature in a city, or, in a metropolis with numerous skyscrapers, it may simply be a monument of considerable size with a unique appearance.

In most Midwestern towns and smaller cities, the landmark fits both of these characteristics: namely, the architect conspired to give a certain structure both superior height or massing as well as a distinctive look.  It should come as no surprise that these landmarks tend to be county courthouses: in Indiana, Ohio, and just about anywhere else in the former Northwest Territories, the courthouse occupies the town’s central square, surrounded by other commercial buildings on most, if not all, four sides.  (The only exceptions are when the county/community is too small to justify enough commercial buildings to surround the square, or when town leadership has demolished a preponderance of these aging structures.) The clock tower, spire, or cupola typically ensure that the courthouse will be taller than anything else in the community, augmenting the building’s visual prominence and transforming the square into the town’s unquestionable center—the “node” by Lynch’s definition.

Anyone with more than a passing familiarity of Indiana landscapes can envision a county seat with its venerated central courthouse square.  For me, Crown Point, Greensburg, and Noblesville are among the first that come to mind.  However, despite being larger than any of the aforementioned cities, Muncie does not have a courthouse square that embeds itself in the typical visitor’s memory.  For the time being, this image from Google Streetview of the Delaware County Courthouse will have to suffice.  If this structure fails to convey the conventional image of a Midwestern county courthouse, that is quite obviously because it isn’t one.  The 19th century building that housed most Delaware County government functions met the wrecking ball in 1966, replaced shortly thereafter with this structure, now the Delaware County County Court administrative offices.  Here are some recent photos I’ve taken at approximately the same southeast corner, showing that landscape architects have spruced up the grounds since the above Flickr photo was taken, reducing the imperviousness of the plaza by adding rainwater gardens and a prominently located state/national flag.

By most estimates, it’s still not a very inspiring structure.  I’m hardly one to denigrate all of the brutalist architectural influences that this contemporary building evokes—after all, Muncie’s First Merchants Plaza is, in my opinion, a respectable brutalist building--but it’s hard to summon a great deal of love across the web for the new building: a simple Google Images search reveals far more links for the 19th century building that formerly stood at this site.   Quite simply, hardly anybody even cares enough about this building to photograph it.  And the actual courthouse, now called the Delaware County Justice Center and sitting a block north of this concrete structure (which is the actual original site for the historic courthouse), is hardly any better.

It, too, seems heavily fortified and uninviting, though at least it make some sense: this building also hosts the county's jail.

Aside from brutalism’s obvious precipitous fall from grace by the mid 1980s, what else is wrong with the first of these two buildings, which stands at Muncie’s implicit dead center?  Even with the flagpole or landscaping, it doesn’t convey the monumentality needed to make an identifiable landmark: not only is the court admin building the same height or smaller than some of the surrounding structures, the fenestration is fundamentally introverted and uninviting to passers-by.  The massing of the upper floors obscures any first-floor entrance in the shadows, so that the plaza is the only way to discern that this might be the building’s façade.   Not only does this new court lack a prominent apex that could attract the eye from a distance, but its intrinsic reticence nullifies any grandeur that could at least turn the courthouse plaza into a central node.  Here’s a view from the western side of the building:

Nothing more than a blank wall.  No lawn, no sculptures, no flags.  Visitors could walk or drive right by the courthouse without even noticing this building, and as a result, Muncie lacks the perceived core to its downtown that we have come to expect in most Indiana county seats.

The next contender for a central landmark, Muncie City Hall, built in 2005, achieves a certain stature as it looms over the bridge to the White River, directly to its northwest.

But it only functions as a hub by proxy: it is the next best thing, given the absence of the prominent central courthouse that visitors would expect.  Where does this leave a city in search of a landmark?  The Shafer Bell Tower at Ball State University certainly could function as a rallying point within the campus, but this relatively new structure belongs to the university, both de jure and metaphorically. 
It is virtually meaningless to the at least 60% of Muncie residents who have no affiliation with the school.

Not surprisingly, the community itself has attempted to place the crown on what it perceives to be the city’s presiding head, and two of the strongest contenders are particularly ironic.  The first, the Muncie Pole at the intersection of S. Tillotson Avenue and W. Jackson Street, has its own Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and it received media attention from as far away as Texas--all of it due to an engineering mistake during street and sidewalk improvements.  The utility pole actually sat in the right-of-way, with three reflective strips emblazoned along the lower part of the stanchion to keep vehicles from colliding into it.  Sure, Muncie has dozens of other poles to hoist traffic lights, but when locals referenced “The Muncie Pole”, everyone knew which one they were talking about: The Pole had earned its capital letters.  It was a landmark in itself, at least to the locals, and, due to its distinctiveness in a landscape that lacks prominent features, it may very well have stood out enough that visitors unfamiliar with Muncie could use it as a spatial mnemonic device.  The Muncie Pole gets the past tense treatment though; within the last month, city engineers and the public works department corrected their error and the pole was removed, leaving only a conventional traffic light pole, shielded from traffic by a grade separation and curb.  

Another oddly situated traffic light in the city may already qualify as a successor to the Muncie Pole, inheriting the name from its predecessor as it becomes this city’s most effective landmark and reference point.

Seeing a utility pole shellacked with postings is hardly uncommon, but this one doesn’t include want-ads, solicitations, meeting locations, missing pets or miracle weight loss strategies.  It’s devoted almost exclusively to decals reflective of the local “scene”, a region extending out to and including Indianapolis.  Local bands, festivals, breweries and non-profits all feature heavily.  Semantically, the content of this pole is a world apart from what one might expect to see in such a location: these stickers don’t carry precise, distinctive notifications intended to mobilize passers-by; instead, they tout brands which, in aggregate, appropriate far more visual significance than they would in isolation.  The pole is a repository for alternative culture—the touch-and-go pastiche approach is critical to its appeal, even as it might alienate others who merely see this as an act of vandalism.  (Eliciting a polarizing response is nearly always a good thing—fewer people are ambivalent, and the display thus becomes more memorable.)  While the earlier Muncie Pole earned its meme status through a variety of exogenous referential material (Twitter and Facebook, inter alia), this pole is a meme because of what it possesses and displays: that is, hands that have slapped the metal with adhesives have enhanced its role as a cultural signifier.

But why is this specific pole a contender for the NEW Muncie Pole when alternate poles abound?  What makes it so special?  It helps that it’s in a central location, near the heart of downtown Muncie.  But why not another downtown stop light pole?  Yet again, this pole earns its distinction through a probable error in calculating the point of installation, which is manifested by stepping backward several 

Usually a stanchion for a traffic light sits closer to the corner of the block; not at the halfway point of a storefront’s primary window.   Pivoting a bit to the right—
--it doesn’t remotely align with the handicapped ramp that connotes the crosswalk location.  It strangely hugs the building instead of the curb.  My estimate is the more practical location would be directly to the left of the manhole cover that sits closest to the building’s cornerstone.  But it clearly wasn’t meant to be.
The photo above suggests that the complementary pole on the other side integrates much better with the streetscape: it sits on a bulb-out in the sidewalk and enjoys a reasonable setback from the structure at this corner.  In fact, the photo below shows that this pole does not impinge upon either a building view or a pedestrian right-of-way along the sidewalk.
This pole--coincidentally in front of the bland, windowless court administration building--also lacks any of the stickers; it’s just another pole in Muncie, but certainly not the Muncie Pole.

The pole in front of Savage’s Ale House has already achieved enough salience in a small city like Muncie that it functions as a minor downtown meme.  If Ball State University students decide that it is the ideal point of reference downtown (“Let’s meet at the pole and decide where to go from there”), then it has, in the context of Kevin Lynch’s urban semiotics, essentially become a landmark—the substitute for the Delaware County Courthouse demolished decades ago, and ironically standing directly across from the forgettable modern courthouse of today, as the photos indicate.   Here below, is a view looking northward, with the intersection featuring the New Muncie Pole in the background and the modern Delaware County Courthouse in the foreground to the right.
And here's a close-up on the building with the Muncie Pole.  Although on the left in the above photo, in the photo below the three-story building is in the center.

Urban landmarks tend to include at least a little bit of architectural bombast; normally they are very deliberately the most prominent visible element from the built environment.  The architect intended nothing less than a centerpiece.  The Muncie Poles (both the deceased one on Facebook and its slightly more urban successor) owe their existence to what is most likely an unconscious err in calculation, but that is enough to make them an anomaly in a landscape riddled with sameness.  And for Muncie, a previously mundane metal pole has the potential to become the epicenter of pedestrianized student culture…at least until one of those sites of former buildings that are now parking lots becomes gets developed into bigger, better, more visually distinct landmark than a stop light post.  Economy notwithstanding, a hip, stickered pole shouldn’t be tough to outdo.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Elevating street art, through both the laws of physics and of popular taste.

Murals are a time-tested method of urban beautification that generally eschew political controversy, thanks to a number of factors: the low cost when compared to other capital improvement projects; the minimal disruption of other routine urban patterns (traffic, utility operation) involved in the “installation” of the mural; their persistent success at attracting private or non-profit sponsorship to fund part or all of the artwork (few murals depend exclusively on city taxes for funding); their apparent ability to deter graffiti artists or other vandals; and, quite simply, the unambiguous ability to replace a formerly boring or downright unsightly blank wall with artistic content.  While of course the actual content of a mural could occasionally arouse objections as easily as any other piece of civic art, I cannot recall any murals attracting public outcry in recent years.  Most of them go up quietly.  Conversely, the disapproval of Fred Wilson’s “E Pluribus Unum” sculpture in Indianapolis was enough to convince its original sponsors to discontinue it altogether.   One can only speculate if Wilson’s installation, in which a prominently featured emancipated slave elicited a variety of remonstrations, suffered precisely because it was a sculpture, whereas the Arts Council of Indianapolis oversaw 46 murals across the city in conjunction with Super Bowl XLVI earlier this year—hardly an outcry.  Do people worry less about murals because of the expectation that they won’t last forever?  Any mural could meet a very sudden end if a developer constructs a building in the adjacent lot, thereby concealing the wall and the artwork.  Meanwhile, a particularly unpopular mural will not likely face much opposition if another muralist receives a commission to paint over it.

The relationship between a mural and the space over which it presides is critical in understanding how this genre of civic art has been able to endure and proliferate over the years.  I have touched upon this topic in two previous blog articles: one about a mural in Indianapolis that predates the big Super Bowl Initiative; another surveying some murals in Philadelphia (the nation’s leading mural city, with over 3,000) in particularly distressed neighborhoods.  In both cases, the murals overwhelmingly rest on blank walls that front vacant lots.  More likely than not, those vacant lots formerly hosted a building that concealed the currently “muraled” wall, and thus, a sizable painting helps divert attention away from the structure that is now gone from demolition; it almost functions as a proxy.  (Particularly in Philadelphia, murals often suffer an association with the low-income neighborhoods in which they are the most prevalent.)  But is it a suitable alternative?  A particularly beloved mural will mobilize a community to preserve it, both when the paint begins to peel and when a developer purchases the abutting vacant lot.  But since the mural owes its existence to a demolished building—otherwise there would be no “canvas”—is it wise to hinder development solely for the sake of a mural?  In previous blogs I have argued an emphatic no; let the mural survive through photographs, but don’t sacrifice a chance to restore housing in a neighborhood long neglected by investors.  I have yet to witness a situation where development faces hurdles due to the potential loss of an adjacent mural, but I am confident that it will happen someday, if it hasn’t yet already.  This tacit dilemma in mural site selection makes this latest artistic incarnation in Philadelphia that much more impressive.  The photo below comes from a rental car parking lot at the city’s international airport:

“How Philly Moves”, a celebration of dance, apparently is quite new, with a dedication of October 12, 2011.  The site selection here is particularly savvy: even if Hertz itself owns rental lot, everything in the photo ultimately falls under a single supervisory force: the City of Philadelphia, and the city would control any major developmental or infrastructural changes.  If the parking garage and the adjacent car rental lot don’t remain under these land uses in perpetuity, I have no doubt they will at least survive for decades to come.  Thus, chances of a new edifice concealing the mural are unlikely.  Quite frankly, “How Philly Moves” does not owe its existence to a demolished structure nearby, unlike so many others.  A closer view emphasizes the prudence behind both the site selection and the beautification initiative:
Without the mural, it was a very run-of-the-mill parking garage—the design of the garage had about as much architectural interest and originality as an unintentionally exposed brick side wall.  I have no doubt that the artist had to take extra care to position the dancing figures across the gaps in the wall so that it still visually communicated a desirable message.  This mural looks tough, and it seems particularly accomplished as a result.  While it would have been interesting if the figures and the mural extended downward to the lower two ribbons of concrete, the absence of paint there also helps emphasize the contrast.

I hope, in the future, cities like Philadelphia abide by this model, seeking unorthodox painting surfaces if necessary, but recognizing that strategic sites boost a mural’s staying power, perhaps to the level of a stone sculpture.  Elaborate commitments such as this airport mural are unlikely to convey the sort of bottom-up community collaboration that the aforementioned murals all demonstrate—something like this parking garage is simply too elaborate, too difficult to implement, and (I have no doubt) too expensive to reorganize en masse.  But its durability and technical accomplishment may compensate for the slightly impersonal approach.  Then again, the content may fall under much greater public scrutiny if the content seems dubious.  After all, a mural like this is permanent, right?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Urbanism with blinders on.

When an instructor for a real estate and development class told his students, “You can’t own a view,” he said it with the nonchalance that suggested it should become a mantra.  What he was implying was that neither the developer nor the prospective property owner should stake all of an investment on the quality of a view.  No legal recourse exists to enjoin a landowner from building in a fashion that inhibits or weakens another individual’s perspective from the window or front door, regardless of how much that waterfront, mountain range or skyline gratifies the eyes.  Lines of sight are nebulous enough that private ownership of them is difficult to protect or enforce: if everyone was entitled to his or her view, nothing could ever get built.  Any collective attempt to protect a view loses its punch, because the magnificence or importance of the objects beheld is highly subjective.  Thus, the retention of the prized object itself will usually earn more legal credence than access to the “viewshed”, a contemporary buzzword appearing in Wikipedia (but not most dictionaries).  While it is possible that Landowner A could seek an injunction against Landowner B’s development permit under environmental, historic preservation, or public health considerations, in most circumstances, view deprivation does not evoke a judge’s sympathy.

Nonetheless, the private market continues to demonstrate how greatly people value a fantastic view in aggregate, regardless of the likelihood that something else in the future will impede it.  Waterfront high-rise residential buildings still command high prices, not only because of the proximity of the building’s front door to the water, but also because of the terrific views at the pricier higher levels.  The fenestration of many high-rise buildings exclusively orients itself toward the side with the great views, since windows on the other side are not worth a fraction.  Conversely, the market also tends to shun properties with particularly poor or unappealing views.  The price that consumers attach toward great views makes this fairly recent multifamily development in downtown Indianapolis, known as the Maxwell, that much more of an oddity.

The developer Kosene & Kosene completed this structure a few years ago, with the intention that it would function as condominiums, but it entered the market at the bursting point of the real estate bubble, when downtown condos sat empty and unsold.  Thus, the developers repositioned the building as luxury apartments, and the smaller units (studios and one-bedrooms) sold quite briskly.  The numerous chic Art Deco references probably aligned with young professionals’ tastes, and the location just south of the heart of the Lockerbie Square neighborhood was ideal.  In short, the Maxwell could command high prices as rentals.  And, as Indianapolis midrises go, it’s big, at 105 units occupying one quarter of a city block: with the exception of an interior courtyard, it covers nearly the entirety of its parcel, indicated through this side view:

The above photo also reveals that the designers devoted the entire frontage along Ohio Street to retail and saved the back for slyly concealed resident parking spaces.  Such a move placates urban advocates who have criticized other midrise developments in Indy for neglecting retail altogether; the Regional CenterDesign Guidelines of Indianapolis also stress the need for first-floor retail in residential developments.  However, the absorption of this retail space so far has been problematic.  As this December 2011 photo below indicates, most of it remains vacant, almost three years after completion:

Only the easternmost corner has a tenant—a total of about 25% of the Maxwell’s retail GLA.

To its credit, the Maxwell has successfully secured a highly successful temporary tenant for that large space in the past: the Indy Winter Farmers Market.  But it has never found a permanent occupant.  Why is the retail here so hard to lease, when it has a reasonably high-density concentration of well-heeled residents right above it?  Well, the building doesn’t sit at a prominent intersection: the north-south street at the corner, Park Avenue, is never more than a local road, with very low traffic volume.  This building sits right at the southern edge of a neighborhood, with an as-of-yet largely undeveloped ocean of parking directly south of Market Street, which weakens its opportunities for pedestrian activity.  Very few other buildings in this portion of Ohio Street support retail, so the Maxwell is largely alone in that regard.  But the biggest Achilles heel is what sits directly across the street from this upmarket residential building:

An electrical substation—not most people’s idea of the Eiffel Tower, the Chrysler Building, Lake Tahoe, or even the Hollywood(land) sign.  Such goliaths are commonplace in downtowns, since they provide a centralized source for the “stepping down” of voltage from the original (coal) power plants to a more suitable level that serves neighboring communities.  My estimate is that the average buyer would think this is ugly.  Who would want to view this from a front window?  Accompanying its ungainly appearance is the toxic perception—whether real or imagined—that they are noisy or potentially dangerous.  Given these considerations, what prospective business owner would choose this as a location for a restaurant or boutique when so many better alternatives exist?  While it’s hard to tell from the photographs, the one tenant (Civil Engineering Consultants, still there at the time of this blog post) has Venetian blinds which it often keeps partially drawn.  Despite the positive buzz the Maxwell generated when it was completed, I have my doubts that even during the best of economic times it would have worked as a condominium, thanks in large part to that view.  Renters are going to be less particular, but clearly an owner will just see this as one facet of the overall investment, and not a positive one.

Whether unconscious or not, it would seem that the folks at Kosene & Kosene who built the Maxwell took the aforementioned maxim “you can’t own a view” and inverted it to their advantage.  The location, just outside of the edge of one of the city’s elite urban neighborhoods, endowed it with an apparent strong potential to market as luxury or at least high-end housing.  But the appearance of the electrical substation across the street deflated the assessed value of the property and no doubt helps to explain why no other developer had stepped up to the plate in area that had been experiencing a multifamily housing boom for years.   Maybe the biggest element of risk was the attempt to build condos here; like most urban condominium projects, the developers have usually conceived of the viability of their structures as apartments as well—part of a safeguard against a soft ownership market.  And the Maxwell could continue to enjoy viability as a high-end apartment complex for years to come.  But my guess is that if it someone hoped to make it into a condominium complex, he or she would have to do something about that substation.

Three options come to mind.  The first, though widely implemented in Europe, is relatively rare in the US: to bury the substation.  Anaheim (California) Public Utilities received a fair amount of attention when it recently built a new substation under the 2.5-acre Roosevelt Park, with maintenance access points built inconspicuously into a hillside.  The inception of this new substation was a response to steady population growth—a contrast from the already existing one across the street from the Maxwell in Indianapolis.  Burying a pre-existing substation would amount to a huge expense for merely aesthetic goals, and since there is no financial incentive for Indianapolis Power and Light Company (better known as IPALCO, lesser known as a subsidiary of Virginia-based AES Corporation) to do so, the most likely resolution would be funding through a city subsidy.  Since a subsidy to improve aesthetics of a small, obscure substation is likely to prove hugely politically unpopular, this solution is probably already dead in the water.

The second of the three options would be to conceal it through a sheath, as has been attempted many times, with mixed success.  All too often, the resultant structure is an imposing, windowless titan of brick or concrete, surrounded by a chain-link fence—an marginal improvement over the exposed utility that is so architecturally uninspiring that online searches offer few examples (this one in Chicago is an exception).  But it doesn’t have to be this way: European cities have long sheathed their substations within chic façades, and, according to a 2008 New York Times article, Consolidated Edison found a way to hide a recent South Bronx substation within a multi-story sheath with “windows”, which proved so effective that passers-by asked when the condos would start going up for sale.  Cheaper than burying an existing substation, building a sheath would seem to be the best option if the owners of the Maxwell ever hope for a viable conversion of their apartment building back to condominiums at some point in the future.

The third and final option is a flight of fancy, but I have to mention it because it echoes an endeavor I proposed in this blog a few years ago, in order to mitigate the relentless prominence of utility cables across older New Orleans neighborhoods.  The following 2009 NewYork Times article references how electric substations “lack the perverse elegance of utility poles or transmission towers”, in order to bolster an argument for following Anaheim’s example by burying one under a city park.  Perverse elegance was exactly what I had in mind when I thought that New Orleanians should turn their tangle of poles and electric wires into a pop culture meme, much the way they already had with water meter manhole covers.  And trendy loft apartments have found beauty in exposed ventilation ducts for at least a decade or two.  Who’s to say substations are objectively ugly?  Surely a gifted spin-artist could turn the spiny monster across from the Maxwell into a suavely strummed chord from a twelve-string guitar, or an irregularly metered stanza from an urban poem.  Since it’s probably a bit dangerous to host a café, art installation, or a miniature skate park within the chain link fence (or even along the sidewalk adjacent to it), one can at least probe the substation’s intrinsically curious qualities, like the one in the photos below:


What’s going on with those railroad tracks that terminate abruptly at the chain link fence?  Do they serve a purpose, or did they have a function in the past?  Could they have linked to an old interurban line?  If this parcel of land offered even a trace of a sordid history, it could re-integrate itself to the public consciousness in a chic fashion that just might even allow it to transcend its perceived assault on the senses.  Obviously this option is a stretch, but it would undoubtedly prove cheaper than blotting it from the landscape, and it would earn a greater integrity because of the creative verve that generated it.  (Whether it would last a full decade as “hipster infrastructure” is another concern altogether.)

The act of brainstorming these potential solutions for the Maxwell Apartments in Indianapolis only serves to weaken the “you can’t own a view” assertion—even if it’s true from a legal standpoint, the psychological ownership of views are immutable.  Quite simply, people will think they own a right to this view if they own property that forces them to look at it.  They will manifest their sense of ownership in either planning and development hearings, or simply through deflated prices and reduced market demand.  Only steady persuasion of the reality of the real estate market stands any chance of convincing them otherwise.  In this downtown Indianapolis neighborhood, a small parking lot that sits immediately to the west of the Maxwell no doubt also suffers a reduced demand for residential development because of the utility substation across the street.  But perhaps, in the future, a potential developer of this parking lot could team with the owners of the Maxwell and IPALCO to build a safe, aesthetically pleasing sheath around the substation.  Any initial costs incurred would be recouped in improved property residential values due to the superior view, and IPALCO may enjoy reduced maintenance costs, since the substation would no longer be directly exposed to the elements.  The only other alternative is for them to higher a PR guru far more gifted than the writer of this blog.