Thursday, February 27, 2014

A chip off the old bulb.

Seven months after the announcement, it still seems like the largest municipal bankruptcy filing (at least up to this point) is the stuff of legend—the culminating event, after successive blunders.  The apex.  Or the nadir.  No doubt those of us living here are guilty of a degree of chauvinism as we experience how it plays out firsthand, but it’s easy for anyone with even moderate media curiosity to see how much the city has hogged the headlines.  It may be for all the wrong reasons, but Detroit is prominent once again.

Yet it was only weeks—if not days—after the declaration made international news that, in order to convey to the world the magnitude of the city’s financial woes, journalists honed in on more mundane failures—failures that, by virtue of their banality, were all the more shocking.  Locals have known about them for ages.  A portfolio of abandoned public school real estate larger than many cities’ functional school systems.  An absence of snowplows, even after heavy storms.  A stonewall of silenced civil servants, hogtied from effectively carrying out duties by daily uncertainty about the security of those same jobs.  The virtual absence of any emergency response, resulting in two-hour waits for an ambulance or a police call.

But the one that crowds out the rest, no doubt at least partially due to its ubiquity and ordinariness, is the persistent non-functionality of those streetlights.  One of the editorialists for the Free Press has branded it “the city’s deepest embarrassment”.  By most estimates, up to 40% are out on any given night.  Anyone passing through can tell when crossing into the city limits for this exact reason: even huge stretches of the interstates are black, although they’re state or federal highways.  It’s hard to determine if these shadowy streets originate from a cash-strapped DPW’s inability to replace the bulbs—which obviously require periodic maintenance—or an oversight that far precedes the checkered Kilpatrick administration, when the city’s fiscal woes first garnered national attention.  All it takes is a trip down Mack Avenue on the city’s east side to postulate that the problem is a half-century in the making.

Silhouettes of streetlights punctuate the dusky penumbra, but even at a distance, the shape of these lights seems odd.  Antiquated?  Probably.  And a closer view confirms it.

To be frank, I can’t recall seeing lights like this before anywhere else in the country, and I’m well-traveled across some of the more economically deprived pockets.  From the baroque iron filigree work of the stanchion to the acorn shape of the light itself, my guess is this streetlight comes from an inventory that most cities had fully retired over three decades ago.  And there’s probably good reason for that: this one is broken.

And so is another one half a block away.

About half of the lights along this stretch of Mack use this design, and most are cracked.  A big distended bulb offers more surface area encased in glass—more space for something to wrong.  Whether hit by flying debris hit or (my suspicion) deliberately smashed by a passer-by, this streetlight is almost definitely non-operational.  And the visible hardware is only half the problem: inside that quaint, clunky bulb (your grandmother’s streetlight) is—or was—a mercury vapor lamp. Detroit is one of the few cities that still depends heavily on this less efficient, increasingly obsolete method of illumination; most other large cities have replaced their inventory with superior metal halide lamps.   USA Today also noted that Detroit and Milwaukee share the dubious distinction of being the only large cities that still deploy series circuits for much of the streetlight network, meaning that if one transformer box breaks down, the whole strip of lights goes dark, like an old string of Christmas tree lights.  While the Mack Avenue streetlight featured above remains attached to a wood, other lights in the city append to metal poles, presumably the same age as the lights themselves, characterized by rust, peeling paint, and sometimes even open cavities at the base.  The whole contraption has seen better days.

But viewing these cracked eggs through a cultural lens can help temper some of the scorn.  They might not work well as modern lamps and they’re much easier to vandalize, but they’re relics—they’re curiosity items.  And they’re particularly eye-catching along Mack Avenue because there are so many of them, yet they’re still interspersed with more contemporary designs.  This cool pic doesn’t win awards for clarity, but it still shows the juxtaposition of old and new streetlights, through their silhouettes.

Or on opposite sides of the street.

And on a depopulated residential street not so far from Mack, a different kind of lighting style emerges—perhaps not as old-fashioned but still an oddity.

Perhaps a style and technology that never caught on?

The irony of the 1950s-era (or maybe even 1940s) lighting that lingers on in Detroit is that, in a broader spatial context, it exemplifies technological advancements playfully defying shifts in taste culture for a particular design.  On Mack Avenue, ancient streetlights bespeak a broke, ineffective government.  And yet, elsewhere in the metro, they convey something else.

Forgiving the quality of the photo, it’s still easy to see a similar style of lighting to the ones on Mack Avenue, but this time they’re impeccable.

But this is the comfy suburb of Livonia, presumably part of a streetscape improvement along a thoroughly auto-oriented corridor of strip malls and big boxes.  And they no doubt were a deliberate choice from the Public Works Department because they look good—providing a vintage, old-timey feel.  Apparently they don’t worry in Livonia about ne’er-do-well pedestrians throwing rocks at these distended bulbs.  Maybe it’s because Livonia has few ne’er-do-wells….and even fewer pedestrians.  But even some of the economically healthier neighborhoods within Detroit have caught the bug, replacing older streetlights with a newly vintage design, like these twin lamps in Midtown, near Woodward Avenue:

This inversion of taste cultures pervades streetscapes across the country, where everything old is new again, in order to exploit nostalgia among a generation that never really experienced a normative walkable environment—a landscape that was still the standard during the era when city crew first installed those acorn mercury vapor lamps.  We’re seduced by nostalgia and novelty; a hybrid of the two is doubly sweet.  Just go to the French Quarter in New Orleans, where a city equally negligent in modernizing its utilities now capitalizes on this same inertia—the flickery gas lanterns that once were a backwater embarrassment are now ambiance.  Detroit isn’t yet so lucky to take similar advantage of its obsolete lighting (and the fact that most streets like Mack are a hodgepodge of styles doesn’t help), but that doesn’t mean that an emergent cultural voice won’t someday call those lights “genuine retro”, and the preached-upon choir will be listening.

The periodic “freshening” of basic urban infrastructure is only partly due to necessity, as it may very well be in Detroit.  But a great deal simply has to do with keeping up with the joneses, resulting in often needlessly costly capital investments.  For example, the standard for pedestrian signals at intersections now typically involves a “countdown” timer, telling pedestrians exactly how many seconds they have left to cross.  While useful, are these timer boxes essential?  Regardless, public works departments are rapidly phasing out the single-box approach for these new timer-boxes, with little evidence of public advocacy one way or another (despite the fact that the public inevitably is paying for most of these replacement costs).  From decorative viaducts to Day-Glo yellow road caution signs, jurisdictions hell-bent on an infrastructural one-upmanship should look to Detroit as an inverse exemplar—what might happen when profligacy goes perpetually unchecked.  Unless, of course, these granny-and-gramps streetlights become hip and cool again, in which case the Motor City might have the last laugh.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Plowing the factories to plant a field.

Cities large and small have borne the brunt of criticism from economic development experts for investing heavily in sports venues, in an effort to bring people back—and thus to help revitalize—their old downtowns.  I’ll admit it: I’ve been one of these critics in the past as well, heaping three successive blog articles of scorn to the City of Evansville in its decision to tear down a block of century-old commercial buildings in order to build a new arena.  To be honest, I directed my “scorn”—a pretty overblown word—mostly toward the decision to demolish old commercial buildings, rather than act of relocating an arena downtown in general.  Regardless, I’ve continued to receive comments from naysayers who think that the site of the Evansville arena was perfect, and that my criticism was unfounded.  Maybe I will eat crow someday, but I hold my ground that an indoor arena is hardly a panacea for an ailing downtown, especially when it replaces a structure that is superior from an urban design standpoint.

The City of Toledo offers another target for those venom-tipped arrows—a baseball diamond that precedes its basketball counterpart in Evansville by a good decade.  Though a larger metro than Evansville (at 650,000 to Evansville’s 350,000), Toledo still has a long way to go before it could become an alpha/first-tier city, either in the Midwest or even in Ohio.  And, based on the current trajectory, its not a likely aspiration: in recent decades, Toledo’s population has plunged 25%, while even the suburbs—most of which are comfortably middle class—have remained flat.  But in 2002, the MiLB’s Toledo Mud Hens christened the brand-new Fifth Third Field, a significant relocation from its predecessor, the Ned Skeldon Stadium in the suburb of Maumee.

According to a Toledo Blade article from 2002, quite a few civic leaders perceived Ned Skeldon Stadium as less than ideal, just years after Lucas County Commissioner Skeldon brought the Mud Hens back to Toledo in 1965 after a ten-year absence.  Teaming with a local banker, Skeldon had converted a county racetrack at the fairgrounds to this Lucas County Stadium.  Despite an abundance of parking, an on-site restaurant, several suites, and the MiLB standard provision of at least 10,000 seats, this suburban stadium never drew great crowds.  A Ballpark Digest article recognizes that the stadium suffered from uncomfortable bleachers, numerous seats behind support poles, and the complete incapacity to expand the luxury boxes critical to generating good revenue through corporate rentals.   In 1988, shortly before Skeldon’s death, the City renamed the facility after him in his honor.  And just weeks after filling the dirt over his casket, officials announced their interest in building a new stadium downtown.  Over the next decade, as more of the pieces fell into place, successful ballparks opened in Louisville and Indianapolis, further galvanizing enthusiasm for an equivalent edifice in Toledo.

Fifth Third Field Toledo (not to be confused with the identically named ballpark in Dayton, Ohio) sits snugly within the downtown warehouse district, tucked among sturdy brick midrises from the late 19th century.  Try as I might to probe the history of the site, I can find no evidence of any controversy to the location that Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and other officials ultimately decided upon for the ballpark.  The only conclusion I can draw is that, like the Evansville Arena, the City eliminated a block of public right-of-way in order to procure the needed contiguous space to build such a large facility.  The Google Map below shows the obvious gap where Superior Street used to continue uninterrupted.

Did the choice to locate in the heart of downtown ruffle any feathers? Did any prominent or historic buildings have to come down?  Or was the surrounding neighborhood so blighted and bereft of investment that few people questioned this decision?

The April 2002 Blade article announcing the Field’s opening only manages to expound upon the mild question of whether the City needed a new structure badly enough to justify over $30 million in expenditures, especially in the face of considerable demand for a new juvenile justice center and Sixth District Court of Appeals.  No hand-wringing over what got demolished to make room for the new venue.  But a partnership between the City and local businesses—coupled with lucrative advance sales of the luxury suites—helped to finance construction.  The result stands as a proud and lively achievement in harnessing energy back to the historic city center, manifested on a sunny Sunday summer afternoon.

While this The Atlantic Cities article speculates that city officials were originally chary to build a stadium without any explicitly dedicated parking, it might have been prudent in the long run.  Visitors to downtown Toledo must either seek garages a few blocks away or on-street parking in the surrounding neighborhood.  Which, apparently, is exactly what they do.

This same article also observes (again, quite speculatively) that the opening of Fifth Third Field represented the first time many Toledans had paid for a parking spot downtown, walking by buildings and storefronts that were slowly enjoying a mild rebirth, as investment began to recentralize through the installation of this new activity hub.  Many of the blocks immediately surrounding the ballpark now offer bars and restaurants.

Fifth Third Field undoubtedly helped breathe life into a downtown that ostensibly had tumbleweeds blowing across main street on weekends in the 1990s.  Nonetheless, few visitors would ever label today’s downtown Toledo “flourishing”.  While a few of the blocks in the immediate vicinity of the stadium are quite lively, any perspective of downtown more than two blocks further portrays an entirely different scenario.

To be fair, I could have framed my pictures so that they deliberately lack people, using that mise en sceneto demonstrate dishonestly that much of downtown Toledo isn’t vibrant.  And, of course, Sunday afternoon is never a fair assessment, because even America’s liveliest cities can appear sleepy on this day of rest.  But notice that most of the buildings in the above photos lack any discernible tenant.  Nothing is animating the structures from the inside, let alone the outside.  The energy simply remains so concentrated in an isolated portion that the resulting impression is that downtown Toledo has a lively little restaurant row right around its baseball field—not that the downtown is lively in itself.

In defense of Mayor Finkbeiner and the ballpark boosters, Fifth Ford Field really did arrive on the downtown Toledo scene with the best of intentions.  If the City had decided to finance a parking garage, not only would the end product cost much more, but it would have further steered motorists into a dedicated space immediately next to the stadium, unnecessarily concentrating human movement to a single facility.  By forcing suburbanites to find their own parking, they have no choice but to toddle around the adjacent streets.  Also, several of the stadium’s walls are completely permeable, meaning that the architects avoided turning the stadium into a fortress.  Notice, for example, this Google Streetview from St. Clair Street.  Passers-by can look right in, giving sensory appeal from the streetscape.

On two of the four corners, the designers maintained corner buildings with retail frontage, or else they decided to add some of their own, manifested by this photo:

Unfortunately, the portion of the stadium fronting Huron Street achieves an effect that is antithetical to good urbanism, as evidenced again by Google Streetview.  Here it does look like a fortress; pedestrians cannot engage with anything visually.  The walk along this block is empty and forlorn, and the buildings across the street show very little evidence of new investment.  Perhaps things are beginning to change since these summer 2011 Google Streetview pics, but obviously Huron Street isn’t picking up steam nearly as quickly as other blocks in Toledo’s Warehouse District, despite the fact that these old buildings are immediately across the street.

Like just about everything in life, Fifth Third Field endures both merits and deficiencies, most of which are intrinsic to stadia and their inevitable programming.  These facilities never offer the sort of day-to-day visitor intrigue that a museum or even a downtown department store might offer.  Their hours of operation are simply too limited.  Arenas and stadiums are moribund when a game isn’t in session.  But a downtown football stadium may be the most fatuous example, since it requires a titanic floorplate, a tremendous cost, and the space only hosts a dozen home games in a given season, at best.   At the very least, the Mud Hens’ 2014 schedule proves something that most of us knew already: that baseball convenes much, much more often than football.  During a given season, Hens get only five or six days off, giving many opportunities to bring suburban Toledans to the downtown on a given afternoon.  From this metric alone, it would appear easy to conclude that ballparks serve as a far better economic development tool than football stadia: they have more impact in a month than an NFL team can offer through an entire season.

But the ballpark only reigns supreme during the sunny summer months.  By early fall, the coach turns back to a pumpkin.  And, during the colder half of the year, an outdoor-oriented venue poses a distinct disadvantage.  Whereas the enclosed Evansville arena can host a variety of events through the dead of winter, Fifth Third Field is unlikely to attract Cirque du Soleil in January…or much of anything else.  The unconventional configuration of a baseball diamond—and its surrounding horseshoe-shaped seating/concession area—becomes a serious liability for most travelling performance companies seeking a venue, even during the summer season.  So it’s a good thing the Mud Hens stay so busy from April to September, because this stadium likely remains pretty empty during a succession of away games, or through the other six months of the year.  Downtown Toledo enjoys a moderately active entertainment district, thanks to Fifth Third Field and the cluster of bars and restaurants that it spawned.  But I suspect many of the nightlife spots seriously cut back on their hours of operation from October to March, unless the city of Toledo has devised a cold-weather counterpart.

Which it has, just two blocks to the north of Fifth Third Field.  No doubt the economic development team responsible for this one-two punch of sports venues thought a hockey arena (Huntington Center) and ballpark (Fifth Third Field) would complement one another.  And maybe that’s exactly what they’ve done.  But sporting events still fall far short of the magnetism that downtown Toledo could boast in 1950, when it survived as the hub of all commercial and retail activity for the metro.  Those days are but a memory, even in cities whose central city economies are surging.  Although the popularity of suburban shopping malls has seriously waned (supplanted by lifestyle centers, category-killing big boxes, or—most potently—online shopping), we have yet to witness a recentralization of downtown retail …at least anywhere near the levels after World War II.

Toledo and its peer cities have sought alternative means of replacing that consumerist energy by bringing America’s great pastime to the city center.  But for all that hubbub, sports venues are rarely the tried-and-true institutions that their champions make them out to be.  Toledans were lukewarm toward Ned Skledon Stadium, probably because at least a few could recall its predecessor, Swayne Field, home to the Mud Hens from 1909 until the club disbanded in 1955.  Demolished a year after the Hens’ departure, its convenient location (closer to downtown than Ned Skeldon but not as close as Fifth Third Field) is now a middling strip mall.  But even Swayne wasn’t Toledo’s first: Armory Park preceded it, at a site currently occupied by the civic center and government campus—and more less downtown.

So, with Fifth Third Field, we’ve come around full circle. How many more years before 1) civic leaders decide another part of town needs rejuvenation or 2) technological advances and shifting customer demand render the facility obsolete?  Will this ballpark last forty years?  Or will it eventually be as old as the surrounding warehouses are today?  I guess the answer depends on whether sports fans are any more or less capricious than shopaholics.  And I’m not willing to hedge my bets.