Sunday, September 23, 2012

Blop Post No. 2012-14: What would possess us to outlaw...

...long-standing and generally satisfying built environments?

That's a question that's always begged when you see a graphic like this one, which my friend and fellow panelist Ted Brovitz included in a presentation at this past Thursday's Southern New England APA regional conference in Hartford:

Figure: Conformity/Non-conformity Map for Merrick Neighborhood,
West Springfield, MA. Credit: Ted Brovitz, Howard/Stein-Hudson.
The neighborhood shown here is the Merrick section of West Springfield, Massachusetts, which Ted described in his presentation as a typical turn-of-the-last-century mill neighborhood wedged between railroad yards on the west and the Connecticut River on the east. A substantial swath of the neighborhood was leveled by a tornado that swept through this and other parts of western Mass. a year ago last June. In addition to the tragedy of losing everything to the storm, the event also seems to have been a kind of "regulatory revelation" to the Town and the neighborhood's residents, who suddenly discovered the meaning of the image shown above.

Properties that are colored reddish-brown are non-conforming (i.e., they are currently in violation) of the minimum lot size requirement for their location as set forth in the West Springfield Zoning By-Law. Properties that are colored blue are conforming for lot size and properties that have been left white do not have sufficient information to establish whether they are conforming or non-conforming. In other words, the approximately 80-85% of the map shown in reddish-brown could not be legally rebuilt after being damaged by the tornado because the lots were too small. Without the changes to the zoning rules that Howard/Stein-Hudson has been helping the Town sort through, the owners of those properties would, in many cases, have to obtain zoning relief (possibly including variances, which would, according to the extremely strict standard in the state's zoning act, be both improperly granted and legally indefensible in virtually all cases) just to build what was there before the tornado. In other words, the Merrick neighborhood as it has stood for 100 years was quite simply outlawed by local regulation. Sounds kind of crazy, doesn't it?

Well, it isn't, at least if you understand the basic thrust of the vast majority of the zoning ordinances and by-laws that control development in our country. Put simply, almost all of these regulatory enactments were first adopted more than 50 years ago and were then premised indiscriminately and with almost no meaningful planning on auto-oriented suburban residential and commercial development. Neighborhoods like Merrick, with houses and business built in a traditional, pre-automobile form, close to the street and in a relatively tight pattern, were given the equivalent of death sentences by zoning. Whenever and however they finally succumbed, as the neighborhood ultimately did to the tornado, they simply weren't going to be allowed to come back. Luckily for Merrick (if anything in this episode can be called lucky), their calamity came after the discussion of this phenomenon has become widespread and well-understood and no longer tolerated without question. New Urbanists have long tried to raise consciousness about this issue, warning anyone who would listen that beloved places like Nantucket or Alexandria or [pick your favorite neighborhood] could not be built under today's zoning codes and were just one natural disaster away from extinction. The work in Merrick indicates that these warnings have finally made an impact.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-13: An interesting way to shake up the "figure-ground" view of cities

My friend and R&C colleague Dwight Merriam shot me the following link last week and I finally took a look this morning:

Odd things happen when you chop up cities and stack them sideways

It takes you to "Krulwich Wonders - an NPR Sciencey Blog," a weblog maintained by Robert Krulwich on NPR's website. Krulwich's post is a comment on the work of Armelle Caron, a French artist who has performed an act of desconstruction on a total of 6 major cities (the 2 not shown in Krulwich's post are Le Havre and Montpellier). 

The starting points here are known as "figure-ground" views of the described cities over a set area in which the buildings are solid, colored shapes and everything else is white space. I must confess that I have always enjoyed the immediate, intuitive information conveyed by figure-ground graphics, so much so that when my kids were younger and we found ourselves at the beach, I wouldn't build sand-castles but instead lay out rock and shell versions of figure-grounds (Roslindale Square was very often the subject). Figure-grounds convey, perhaps better than any other method, the way in which buildings and how they are arranged in relation to each other create or fail to create meaningful and satisfying places, and they're especially good for comparing cities:

New York Figure-Ground (Credit: Armelle Caron)

New York deconstructed (Credit: Armelle Caron) 

Istanbul Figure-Ground (Credit: Armelle Caron)

Istanbul deconstructed (Credit: Armelle Caron)
 The deconstructed version is also interesting, and the method of laying out the separated pieces is obviously an art, not a science. Interesntigly, Krulwich's vote for most interesting deconstruction goes to Istanbul, and he indicates almost-disappointment with New York. I must say I'm not entirely with Krulwich that the city of my birth comes off that badly, especially considering that if the area shown were dropped another half mile or so, it would show more variety since it would take in all of Lower Manhattan.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-12: Making the Hynes behave on Boylston Street

Photo 1: Looking east on Boylston Street, Hynes in the midground, and
the Hancock Tower in the far background.

Photo 2: Looking diagonally across Boylston Street, at Hynes' NW corner
and The Capital Grille.

Photo 3: towne restaurant, at the NE corner of the Hynes
Convention Center (sorry for the delivery trucks).

Photo 4: The eastward facing entrance of towne, shot from the
sidewalk in front of the courtyard adjacent.
Photo 5: The courtyard adjacent, with towne's outdoor seating.
Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2010.

The Story: We have spent no insignificant amount of time and digital ink here at RTUF talking about the many changes, large and small, that have been made over the last decade at the Prudential Center (of which the Hynes Convention Center is not technically a part, though it is directly adjacent), including in both Blog Post No. 2009-3: The Mandarin Oriental Hotel (discussing the Mandarin's success in replacing what had been a particularly lifeless cluster of auto access drives along Boylston Street between Essex and Fairfield Streets), and Blog Post No. 2010-21: Seizing the presently available opportunity to continue the campaign to bring the Pru out to meet its neighbors... (highlighting a then-proposed residential rental tower that filled in a major gap along Essex Street, and also pointing to the still-proposed 888 Boylston Street tower that would fill in the last plaza space next to towne as well as several other changes around the complex's perimeter such as 111 Huntington, the Belvidere residences, and the two-story section along Huntington to which Shaw's supermarket was moved). It has been an impressive string of improvements, and one to which Cityscapes of Boston itself pointed with anticipation even as far back as 1992. After lamenting the "wasteland of grim towers and empty plazas" by which "Boston's Prudential Center blights everything around it," Robert Campbell expressed hope at the then-new ownership's plans for "filling the worst of its dead plazas with new shops and offices," concluding that "[i]f all goes well, the Pru may some day be a revitalizing agent for the very street frontage it now kills." (pp. 208-209)

That day can now be said to have fully arrived, two decades on. So much so that even publicly-owned buildings are getting in on the act. Your RTUF correspondent will stipulate that we are looking in this case at a fairly subtle, kind of small bore change to the formerly long, blank Boylston Street frontage of the Hynes Convention Center. For our non-Boston readers, the Hynes is the erstwhile main convention center for the Boston region that ultimately became too small and was replaced by the massive Boston Convention and Exposition Center (or "BCEC") out in what is now the Innovation District in South Boston. (Of course, there's already a proposal floating to expand the BCEC beyond its current footprint because it is already in danger of becoming too small itself, less than 10 years after it was completed (!), but I digress...)

Now, to return to the Hynes and the subject of this blog post. The convention center authority has retained the Hynes and kept it operating as a venue for smaller conventions and meetings that don't compete with the BCEC. At least one source from around the time of towne's opening ("towne makes Hynes tastier") indicated that the authority's impetus for bringing in both towne and The Capital Grille was to improve dining options for visitors/convention-goers. I also suspect that part of the discussion around keeping the Hynes open after the BCEC came online might have included running some numbers and trying to figure out a way to enhnace non-event revenue, including from such things as then underutilized space along the Boylston Street frontage. Whatever the reason, the insertion of both restaurants within the existing footprint of the building at its two corners was a very good move. No, not earthshattering, but a smart decision and one recognizing a couple of key imperatives in creating a workable urban fabric: first, avoid long blank walls along important street frontages, whatever is going on behind them, and second, pay special attention to corners. The result is that this stretch of Boylston now has activity on both sides of the street, something that almost has never been the case (recall that before the Pru was built, there were extensive railroad yards all the way from Mass. Ave. to Dartmouth St.), but which Campbell rightly pointed out in Cityscapes (at p. 208) is critical for a successful commercial street, though being located opposite the Hynes was never quite as bad as being located opposite the un-reconstructed Pru's plazas. Note also that both restaurants have extensive outdoor seating, which used to be dismissed in Boston as simply incompatible with a region that has as long a winter season as we typically do, but is now recognized as a highly desirable amenity for any urban eatery.

RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: