Saturday, April 19, 2014

Boston Public Market moves one step closer to reality...

Time moves faster than most of us, your humble correspondent included, care to admit. So, it was way back in 2010 that RTUF first reported the news that the Boston Public Market folks had won the right to locate on the Greenway in the Haymarket Station/Central Artery Vent Stack/Parking Garage building at the corner of Hanover and Congress Streets. An ideal location, and one we hoped would build momentum and quickly result in something we've sorely missed in Boston for a long time (basically since Quincy Market died nearly 50 years ago): a true, appropriately sized public market to showcase local producers of foodstuffs of all kinds. Well, four years on, our friends at The Boston Globe reported today - BRA approves plans for public food market - that the project finally reached the point where they could secure approval from the BRA Board under the small project review process on Thursday. They now look to actually start construction this summer. It sounds like they still have something a funding gap to get the whole market up and running in a single phase, so they'll do a first phase now and then round out the space as funds come in. Hopefully within a year of this post, we'll be able to report on our first visit to this major new amenity:

Exterior proposed view (corner of Hanover & Congress streets) (credit: BPMA, Boston Globe)

Interior rendering (credit: BPMA, Boston Globe)

(Blog Post No. 2014-4)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Big News in New Urbanist Circles: Lynn Richards to lead CNU (Blog Post No. 2014-3)

You can find the press release here: Lynn Richards named new president of CNU. She replaces former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, who held the reins for a decade. As the press release indicates (and as this blog has shown), the tide is really turning broadly in favor of the kind of walkable, mixed-use development that CNU has promoted for over 20 years. I don't know Ms. Richards myself, but judging by the enthusiasm of CNU board members with whom I spoke about the decision recently (each of whom steadfastly refused to divulge the identity of the new president until it was finally made public today), I think we're going to be well-led at this critical moment.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sometimes a simple statistic about a simple thing tells you an awful lot... (Blog Post No. 2014-2)

Friend and colleague Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston here in the old Hub o' the Universe, recently pointed me to a Cities Blog piece from The Atlantic to the effect that In the U.S., a quick walk to the store is a rare thing indeed. Intuitively, anyone who gives the question any thought really shouldn't be surprised at what WalkScore found: even in cities with over 500,000 residents, the vast majority in America do not live anywhere close to the studied metric of a 5 minute walk from home to a store selling fresh produce. So given over have we been to motordom for really the last century that it's almost a shock that there's still anyplace -- outside of usual exception New York (which checks in at 72%) -- where more than half of the housing stock is that close to fresh produce. But San Francisco (59%) and Philadelphia (57%) make it, with a cluster of cities in the 40s, led by your blogspondent's home city making it to 4th on the list at 45%. From there, it gets ugly, and Indianapolis rates as the least walkable on this measureat at just 5%.

As this weblog has said before, to live in the United States over the last 100 years has been to be the subject of a massive social experiment to see what happens to people and their environments when physical activity -- especially walking -- is squeezed out of their every day routines. It has been systematic, it has been ruthless, and we've all been affected. One of the key benefits of the ultimate demise of motordom will simply be the chance for increasing numbers of us to access things like the fixings for a salad without being forced into our vehicles.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Thought this was kind of cool...

The other evening, I found myself on foot heading to an event at the Channel Center in South Boston and went under this overpass below Summer Street at First Street:

Pretty cool, at least to my mind. Not sure who put this here, or who maintains it, but it's one of those small details in urban life that can make a big difference and show that even something as purely functional as an overpass is something that is cared for and can contribute to the ensemble.

 (Blog Post No. 2014-1)

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A holiday 2013 becomes 2014 (Blog Post No. 2013-10)

Your humble correspondent had a ferociously busy fall, so the blogposting was a little thin on the ground the last couple of months. In any event, we here at RTUF Worldwide didn't want to let the calendar turn over without at least one final thought for 2013. And this thought comes with a mild and somewhat oblique ding on Geoff Anderson at Smart Growth America. I don't know Geoff, but I have seen him speak and have great respect for the work he is doing at SGA and the work he did when he was at the EPA Smart Growth office before that. That said, I received a fundraising email from Geoff on behalf of SGA and found the following passage worth commenting on:

One of my favorite holiday movies is a story about family, friendships—and smart growth. You’ve probably seen "It’s a Wonderful Life." If you’re like me, you’ve seen it more than once, and you know the story of Bedford Falls. Bedford Falls is more than just a town to the movie's hero. It's a community, it's home. It's the place where friends and family come together along tree-lined streets, sidewalks, businesses and houses. And when the movie's villain threatens Bedford Falls, the hero knows it is more than just a threat to his housing choices. It is a threat to his home. This is what smart growth is all about. Creating places where families, businesses and communities can come together and thrive. Towns like Bedford Falls need your help...Bedford Falls might be fictional, but it’s a story that plays out across the country every day. No town wants to become a Pottersville.

I have to say that appealing to Bedford Falls as depicted in "It's a Wonderful Life" as a symbol of all that is good and place-centered in urban America without any qualification misses the point by a good deal. As depicted, Bedford Falls is certainly idyllic. But at a deeper level there are unmistakable signs that all is not well, and the source of the impending tragedy that will be full-tilt auto-oriented suburbanization is not Old Man Potter but George Bailey himself. It simply cannot be denied that the new housing Bailey Building & Loan is financing in the movie is suburban tract, Levittown-style housing that appears unconnected from the main street and is reachable only by car (or at least, you only see cars in the scene when the Martini family enter their new "castle"). The unbridled greed of Mr. Potter may well be the ultimate source of the accompanying post-war American tragedy of de-industrialization that treated moving jobs to low-wage states and economies as a kind of never-ending parlor game. Yet it is also hard to deny that well-intentioned George is the point of the spear when it comes to the cul-de-sac McMansions that have come to rule suburban America in our time. While I view Jim Kunstler as a decided mixed-bag, his decade-old take on this is essentially perfect and I'm with him that Pottersville looks a whole lot more exciting than what Bedford Falls would almost certainly have become in our time under George's steady hand:

Frank Capra's 1946 movie "It's a Wonderful Life" has become the totemic American Christmas story over the last couple of decades. It was a box-office flop when it came out, but constant holiday-time TV exposure since then turned it into the classic it has now become. It has replaced Dicken's A Christmas Carol with an updated and more accessible American mythology. But a close examination shows that it contains strange, paradoxical, and disturbing messages for our time. 

The movie was made just after our nation's triumphal victory over manifest evil in World War Two, but it carries a heavy undertone of the Great Depression that preceeded the war. Indeed the story takes place from early in the 20th century to the middle of it and, in a way, can be viewed as a comprehensive social history of America's industrial high tide. To greatly simplify it, the story concerns the denizens of Bedford Falls, New York, a provincial main street town, and one George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who grows up to preside over a little Savings & Loan Association (a kind of bank that no longer exists thanks to the scandals of the 1980s). Over the years, George struggles with his family-owned bank, tries to help his neighbors, raises a family with wife Mary (Donna Reed), and eventually endures a great personal crisis of conscience and self-worth, from which he is rescued by an angel. In the end, the world is made right and Christmas carols ring out as the credits roll. Oddly, George Bailey's greatest accomplishment in the movie is shown to be the development of Bedford Falls' first suburb, Bailey Park, with a scene of much patriotic hoopla when the first unit is sold to the owner of a local restaurant, Mr. Martini, an immigrant. I say odd because of how innocently clueless our collective imagination was about the consequences of that seemingly benign transaction. Like vicious nano-bots, the little units of suburban America metastisized over the following fifty years to consume and defeat all the small towns like Bedford Falls in America, and all the rich local social and economic networks that the movie celebrates, including George's bank and Mr. Martini's family-owned restaurant. Along similar lines is the sequence in which George Bailey is shown, by the angel who saves him from a suicide attempt, how Bedford Falls would have turned out if George had never been born. The town is renamed Pottersville, after the movie's villain, a greedy rival banker played by Lionel Barrymore. How striking and odd, though, what a wonderful town Pottersville actually appears to be, compared to the real horror of what happened to American towns in the late 20th century. In fact, Pottersville looks like the kind of tourist town that demoralized suburbanites now flock to for country weekends. Standing on Pottersville's lively Main Street, George sees the sidewalks full of people. Some of them are carousing drunks. Some of the businesses are gin-mills, with hints of prostitution and all the other usual quaint human vices of an earlier day (including many that are now part of mainstream American culture). But the catch is that Pottersville is actually portrayed as a town brimming with life and activity! Only the content is considered bad -- too many gin mills and loose women, not enough soda fountains. 

As we really know, the many Bedford Falls of our nation have uniformly become hollowed-out ghost towns with no life and no activity. And the George Baileys of our world went on to become the WalMart moguls and real estate tycoons who sold out their towns and ultimately destroyed them. So, it really provokes me to wonder what Americans are thinking when they see this beautifully-crafted but deeply paradoxical movie. Do we notice what it is we really have lost? And how insidious the process was?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

This time, for once, not what McMorrow said... (Blog Post No. 2013-9)

In another of our series on what's happening in coverage of the urban fabric in local media ("they write about it, we give it the once over"), I come today to disagree with the generally very sound Paul McMorrow and his recent opinion piece in the Boston Globe advocating for the demolition of Boston City Hall and its sale as a development site for one or more high-rise towers to punctuate the High Spine's end in downtown west (the last bit about the High Spine is my reading into what Paul is saying). The piece can be found here - Boston City Hall Should Be Torn Down - and while it's as well written as usual, it's just not doing it for your correspondent.

I will stipulate that the building is an affront in almost every way (though it's thankfully not a high-rise itself). But the real problem with City Hall from the perspective of living and working and just being in this, our fair city, is its total lack of urban conviviality, its open hostility in the way in which it meets everything around it. Faithful members of RTUF Nation may recall that yours truly blogged about this issue some time ago in A response and a concern, and what I said then goes quadruple after reading the arguments offered by David Friedman, my fellow Bostonian living up the road in Jamaica Plain who happens, not without importance for the discussion there and here, to be a professor emeritus of architectural history at MIT, in his letter to the editors of the Globe in response to the article ("An American Classic"). Maybe he's more than just a "casual observer," but the good professor's letter merely proves, if there remained any meaningful doubt, the building's defenders are largely, if not exclusively, object building fetishists with virtually no regard for the consequences of foisting what amounts to an oversized modernist sculpture on a critically important urban location. And I quite frankly can't see that opening up the atrium at the middle of the building solves any of the problems with the building that matter to me.

All of that said, I'm not with Paul on tearing the building down. I may have been born and raised in New York and I am very comfortable with tall buildings, but I don't see big height as critical at this location. I'd rather see the city make a real go at opening up the building to the adjacent plaza and, as importantly, Congress Street and filling in the broad array of dead spaces on its perimeter before we decide to tear it down and go somewhere else.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Targeting New Urban Fabric Restoration, Installment No. 1: Cambridge Street at Blossom Street

View 1: Looking across mid-block, from N. Anderson Street to Blossom Street.
View 2: Looking up Cambridge Street toward Blossom Street.
View 3: Looking back across the corner of Cambridge and Blossom
with the main Mass. General complex in the background.

The Location: 239 Cambridge Street, Boston, MA. 

The Series: We've tended to come along after the fact and write about good moves after they've happened. While we here at RTUF will continue doing so, we also thought it might be interesting to point the camera at places that need restoration and give them some attention before that happens (and maybe even encourage something to happen sooner rather than later). So, herewith, Installment 1 of Targeting New Urban Fabric Restoration...

The Story: The Gulf gas station that used to stand at this site is gone, torn down pretty much immediately after the Mass. General bought the site a couple years ago. It looks like the hospital also pulled out the underground tanks at the same time, tossed on some gravel and leveled it off, so the site is ready for action. Unfortunately, there is no action, at least not yet. Let's hope it's not too long before something does happen here. Moving the gas station off was a good thing for Cambridge Street, especially given its suburban/pumps-out-front configuration, but this is an important corner that is now totally blank (MGH isn't even parking vehicles on the site itself, though they are doing it on the adjacent parcels). And it's not like MGH doesn't know how to take an underperforming street front and make it much better, as this weblog has previously reported in MGH creates an enhanced front door on Cambridge Street and as you can almost see behind the trees at the left in View 3, where a more-than-adequate liner building was constructed sometime in the 1990s (I believe) to hide the garage in the block between N. Anderson and N. Grove. The RTUF sketch below tries to point out the critical piece of corner frontage that needs to be created here too, and I do believe it will be important to go up at least a few stories to be a strong counterpoint to the relatively tall, aesthetically challenged hotel across Blossom.

The RTUF Sketch: The corner, as almost all corners are, is most important, though stretching the the building frontage along Blossom to come closer to or even meet the existing building also makes sense.