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Posts Tagged ‘Infrastructure’

China Goes Back to Bikes? Not really.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8538221.stm

Apparently, according to this BBC news story, the fastest growing form of transportation in China isn’t high speed rail or cars, it’s electric bikes. It’s more likely that the electric bikes are a stop gap measure for people as they upgrade from regular bikes to cars on the old ladder o’ material prosperity, so I won’t dare believe our environmental problems are going to be mitigated by this development.

“In China, electric bicycles are leaving cars in the dust. Last year, Chinese bought 21 million e-bikes, compared with 9.4 million autos. While China now has about 25 million cars on the road, it has four times as many e-bikes.”-Times Magazine

I think electric bikes are probably a nice intermediate step for those hundreds of thousands of Americans looking to downgrade from a car (hopefully for lifestyle choices and not just because they’re going back down the old ladder o’material prosperity). Supposedly, there is a contest right now in China over their safety between ‘cycling activists’ and the urban planners of China. Having never ridden one myself, how do they function with some of the newfangled bike infrastructure being built out there? Do they increase the area people feel comfortable traversing on bike, in terms of distance and not just for hills?

SOS USPS Oregon Art Deco Post Office for Sale

Eugene Post Office Up For Sale–Murals and All

I took some pictures of the Eugene Post Office and the context of its neighborhood, and would like to just give a few thoughts about why buildings should be preserved and reused, this structure’s situation to its environs, and some ideas for potential future use. I liked what Gary Jarvis, a local employee, gave as a reason why he did not want the building sold “That’s the face of the post office the community has come to know,”. Indeed, many post offices like this one in Eugene is a face of government once known, but now fading. Unfortunately, the United States Post Office is going to sell hundreds of buildings like these because the USPS just isn’t going to need as much capacity going forward. Yet, these structures are strikingly unique and immediately recognizable symbols of our civic culture. The facades and foyers, made up of expensive materials expertly executed, have value beyond the inner sorting rooms and empty offices (33,000 sq. ft. worth in the case of this building). It’s listed on the National Historic Register of Places, not just because of the larger architecture design of Gilbert Underwood, but due to the interior art murals by Carl Morris. It’s a quintessential example of FDR’s public works projects and an expression of optimism in government.

Walking around the building, as with many buildings from this time period,  the individually designed fixtures stand out. Objects such as the iron fences, window grills, and lamp posts–all of the kinds of details that once they disappear, the effect on an observer of the artifacts is simply impossible to replicate. People unconsciously pass by these sort of details everyday, but even if they aren’t consciously thinking about the history and culture these objects link to, I believe their existence alone can foster awareness within individuals of the cultural norms they participate in day-to-day. They remind people that societal conventions are invented and they have a role to play in their reinvention. From the solidity of iron materials with slight imperfections indicating the work of human hands, to a hanging lighting fixture patriotically marked with star, or a sign to the Nuclear Fallout Shelter that recalls for the psychologically of the long cold war period, and to the polished marble walls that are actually expression of common cause with Greek and Roman republican virtues–together they manifest continuity with the past and mnemonically mark the plans and labor of previous generations in our present consciousness. And by preserving, reusing, and ultimately enhancing the shared inheritance of these structures that link to the past, we are also creating a connection in our present time to the future. Only by renewing the old can our society hope to orient its present day efforts to long-term planning and goals.

As for the building itself, I believe much can be done with it once it finally loses all postal functions. There is a large addition of a mail sorting room, replete with docking bays for mail trucks. This large open floor plate area is strategically located in a neighborhood of several successful historic buildings being commercially reused, and near the train station, so altogether is very well positioned to survive.

The foyer of the building is beautiful in some of its finishes. However, I have noticed that the immediate surroundings are perhaps already high on public uses. There is a prison, and a probation office, and several other social services leasing office space near adjacent to the post office already.  Eugene already has a very crowded indoor farmer’s and crafts market in their convention space on the other side of town, but its only accessible by car. The location of the post office is eminently walkable to many businesses on Fifth and Sixth Avenue, including the performing arts theater and the Hilton Hotel. The area is prime for more dense residential structures in the future, and even if rail doesn’t becomes more a popular  commuting choice, the location is near the highway, a new bikepath to the river and its parks, and some of the best restaurants and shops in town (I’ve found it peculiar that these things coexist at ease so closely to the prison, but they do. I suspect this is an East-West culture shock moment). Indeed, this region between Fifth Street and the Train Tracks and 6th Ave, is taking on a more lively downtown center feeling than, well, the current CBD which is quiet, dead, and slightly menacing in character, but only a short if unpleasant walk across Rt. 126. The city has labored hard over decades to revive the downtown, but really I think there should be a shift in priority to this area, where although there are some vacancies indicative of the current economic situation, there is positive activity year-round and at night. Nighttime bars, restaurants, a movie house, an overabundance of parking (ripe for development), bookstores, gift stores, apparel shopping like Buffalo exchange, lunch hour traffic from the Federal court houses, and several home goods stores.

If the area were to be developed more densely with more residential uses, I think the Post Office is an excellent candidate for relocating the Thursday and off-weather Farmer’s Market. Currently, the indoor markets at Lane County Fairgrounds, are entirely self-contained affairs with little to no spillover effects. Personally, I think once the Post Office is at last completely finished with the building, it should be turned over to the city for a rehab. Punch out the ceiling of the mail room to bring in some light and expand the feeling inside, and move some of these successful markets into the post office, where their traffic can spill over and effect the large amount of local businesses in the area and improve the viability of more, dense residential structures (the ability to walk to a farmer’s market for food is highly desirable for people who want to walk, bicycle, or perhaps in the future, take the train to work). This is an attractive, interesting area, and is more likely to vitalize downtown from the outside-in, rather than trying to shoehorn things into the unappealing, lifeless buildings and streets of downtown.

The other local venue that could serve as a model is the W.O.W. Hall—

only that structure simply isn’t as nice.

Adjacent Restaurant and Residential structures near Train Tracks and PO

Amtrak Station Visible from rear docking bay of PO

Rehabbed Ag. Warehouses are Popular Coffee HangOut and Store

View from Shop, Post Office on Right, Prison Off shot to Left

Loading Docks for Future Indoor Farmer's and Flea Market?

SOS USPS: Post Office Buildings Going for Sale

Eugene Post Office for SaleEugene Post Office for Sale

Photo Taken 3/18/2010 Built in 1938

When the Federal government determines buildings are no longer useful, they put them up for auction through the GSA. Other Federal agencies, nonprofits and educational uses are supposed to get first dibs, but if nobody wants it, the GSA does have a whole department to support its “good neighbor” policy by facilitating local planning efforts to  reuse federal buildings. Whether or not they’re first consulted in disposing of Federal buildings, or if they wait to act only when the local community or citizens approach them, is something I will have to investigate further. As I wrote in a previous post, I would love to see the thousands of soon-to-be-vacant post offices turned into new public facilities rather than just all be turned into restaurants, sit empty, or fall to wrecking balls. In the case of the Eugene Post Office (seen here,) a property in seemingly exquisite condition and on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as in a neighborhood of older buildings put to new commercial uses, I think the worst case scenario is off the table. However, I doubt this will be the fortune of all the closing post facilities.

Now, the GSA website has up a list of success stories, by state, of successful property donations. Oregon’s case example was the provision of an emergency school when the one in the town of Sheridan burnt down. I found this a bit short and pretty lame–maybe the GSA needs a publicist, or maybe despite their desire to find local partners to take these buildings, most federal buildings/infrastructure just end up in the marketplace.  It leaves me to wonder if there is going to be a thoughtful process of divesting the U.S. Post Office of its infrastructure, or if in the end it will be completely ad hoc. In this case, I think opportunities are going to be missed because of the lack of any federal leadership. Localities–not all but many–will most likely scrap to keep their particular offices open for as long as possible, and then will be completely apathetic as to the final outcome for the post offices.

Wallis-Annenberg Center...Courtesy ArchDaily

Some of our wealthier places, as here in Beverly Hills, might be able to not only secure funding but recreate the historic building into something noteworthy for the community. However, these will most likely be the exception to the rule. Also, if the thought is that these structures should be put to purposes of economic revitalization in depressed regions, I believe the default option of making new community theaters, performing arts places, and the like is sort of played out, or at least overhyped. Building new cultural and arts institutions makes sense for many medium to large metro-areas that are most likely starved for these sorts of local opportunities, but I think the strategy of just building these edifices in the hopes of creating bohemian clusters is oversold to many places that it isn’t likely to take. Also, much like the arguments made in behalf of public funding for sports stadiums and arenas in the name of economic development, the idea that these spaces will automatically create spillovers for downtowns does not comport with reality. But this is clearly a topic for another post.

Back to the subject of how the GSA is most likely to dispose of hundreds, and thousands, often uniquely designed, federal post office buildings in the near to medium term. There is, of course (as usual), an argument to be made that leaving things up to local markets to decide the fate of these buildings is the finest, truest method for determining the maximum utility these structures will have for society. I’m divided in my opinion because while I would prefer localities to take the lead (they will best know optimum use and needs) many places lack the sort of informed citizen engagement necessary. In addition, I believe these post offices are going to come up onto the market without much far warning, and as a surprise to local historic preservation or booster groups. Furthermore, thinking from a good government perspective, I would question whether other agencies have thought creatively about how they could take advantage of these thousands of retailing centers strategically located nationwide. It’s understandably not a priority at this time, and expansion has costs. I think it would be desirable for the GSA to analyze each property its disposing, and then shop the building, recommending uses, to targeted agencies and local actors.

For instance, given the GSA’s other mission to provide child care centers, and given the open floor plans post office mail sorting rooms offer, a systematic approach to convert mail rooms to Head Start centers , might be an option. Another might be to help close the digital divide that still persists by the creation of library branches dedicated solely to access to computers, the internet, and multimedia. Other community “3rd place” options would vary greatly by building and location, but include dedicated voting centers (no more closing school early to turn the gym into voting location), fitness centers, clinics, etc. As is the case with the Eugene, Oregon Art Deco structure, Post Offices were designed to grandly express the civic virtues of our republic with Greek temple like entrances. Even with their musty post office odors, I believe the foyers and entrances of these buildings is inspirational and instructional, and we must aspire to fill them with programs and frequent uses that befit their design and influence future generations. These future functions might be private and commercial, but besides the niche bistro I doubt it. I prefer a hold on the sale of former USPS buildings, a thorough and systematic examination of these buildings for continued public use, and if it could be managed, funding for their retrofits and conversion. I photographed the Eugene Post Office and the context of its neighborhood and will soon be posting some thoughts about the structures situation to its environs, and potential future use.

What makes the mundane marvelous?

I really think this kiosk rendering has hit on something. I think this design is simple, beautiful,

functional and uncluttered (but not boring or unadorned). It’s the kind of design for the built environment that I don’t think can be ‘planned’ or forced by any sort of government action, but can only be achieved through the values of average denizens to demand that everyday things in their lives reflect cultural values. I find it pretty rare for the day-to-day commercial structures or infrastructure in America to be built with such an obvious concern for surroundings. In NYC or a national park you might find some concession stands making forced attempts to be inconspicuous, but that isn’t exactly what I like. The post offices of yesteryear I think more closely hit the mark–but their commercial nature is debatable.

When we look at streetscapes in many contemporary East Asian cities we often see pictures of a forest of neon calligraphy, advertising this or that product or shop. In America, we see a similarly motorized version of this, as Robert Venturi so famously has described. These kinds of commercial streetscapes can be functional and still beautiful, since much depends on your subjective understanding of what constitutes a beautiful landscape. However, they contrast strikingly with Victorian commercial buildings, American Main Streets, or Italian gallerias of earlier eras for reasons that go beyond new materials, new construction methods, and new technological demands. There was more going on in these approach of building small shops. There was pride of ownership and individuality evident that is different than the pride of ownership we see in small businesses today, especially and obviously when they’re franchises. There were normative ideas about how to relate your building to others without government direction. Yet, today, too many planners and designers are finding it necessary to rigidly demand less inspired designs to achieve this lost sense of place that attaches to an area or neighborhood that is working individually but in concert with one another to beautify their street. Usually this is in response to blight, sometimes in response to long, windowless walls from modernists.

Binghamton NY

Personally, I prefer when there is a demanding public who, perhaps almost unconsciously pursues an infusion of a particular aesthetic or humanist appeal into mundane structures of everyday life. Many places still seem to engage in this effort to beautify effortlessly, without prodding from local boosters or government, but as a matter of course of doing business. Not surprisingly, I’ve encountered this taking place in self-styled fashion cities like Montreal. In the early 20th century, American cities were full of businessmen who were criticized for their vulgar displays of wealth by building ornate facades of eclectic styles on even the most ordinary buildings. Bakeries and banks alike felt compelled to make architectural statements. Today, some painted numbers inside a window suffices. There are many imaginative people amongst us who can find a charm to these sorts of scenes. However, the beauty in the public realm is really being left to individuals to perceive, and is not consciously made. This salumeria might have once unconsciously arranged meats in the window this way, but that was perhaps centuries ago, and there is definitely an artifice to these arrangements today ( no less lovely for being so ). The comparison to an average American meat market (those that survive I suppose) or the local bodega is obvious. Is it a matter of money, or a cultural difference in taste or panache? There are two trends in our supermarkets today, either to update the interiors to resemble cafes and high end food markets (like Wegmans, some Whole Foods, etc) or downgrade to Super Wal-mart, Costco warehousing. Some would argue the Wal-Mart model is on its way out after peaking, but their profits haven’t shown this–yet.

The more extreme among us (Americans, not British or Dutch) would try to rectify this lacking attention to visual appeal through city adopted design codes. I think there is some validity to discouraging or even outlawing things we know are deadening to the public realm (long, uninterrupted spells of wall facing a sidewalk or public street, , max. setbacks instead of minimum ones, for instance).  But when it reaches the point of dictating what kind of eaves a building should have, we have perhaps gone too far. Admittedly, this is a fuzzy standard, and too much relies on what is ultimately just the considered opinion of experts (subject to constant change) and nothing further. What is it going to take to make everyday, vernacular architecture of things like gas stations, retail outlets, concession stands, etc to become more design conscious? Is it recognizing some hidden economic cost of ugliness, or is it just an awakening of values?  Or am I missing something already around me?

What’s more Pathetic? U.S. Transit Systems or the Hipsters Who Use Them?

March 17, 2010 1 comment

I suppose I have to be the one to say this. Only in America could taking the bus somewhere else be considered “an adventure” worthy of podcast…a podcast tens of thousands actually watch. I appreciate somewhat the point the ‘film makers’ might be making, but its rather absurd prima facie. If taking greyhound buses makes you an extraordinary adventurer, then I’m Uncle Traveling Matt. I mean, I get it, that taking the bus from car-centric LA seems like ‘counter culture’ and tragically hip. And I would personally be interested in making such a trip myself just to see up-close and personal the function and dysfunction of our ‘alternative’, apparently ‘counter-culture’ transit system. Indeed, many more people need to do this, they might learn a thing or two about how this country does and doesn’t work, especially for the small minority without ready access to a vehicle. But is it that exciting and adventurous, really? I guess that’s the point, that our investment has been so uneven that its even come up for discussion, but ultimately they’re doing something that hundreds of millions of people do everyday (riding a bus), videotaping it, and calling it an adventure. Maybe if they didn’t have passports I’d find it more of one. The self-importance involved in its presentation here is probably what set me off.

This video clip sits as well with me as a field trip I was forced to take to Canal Street in Lower Manhattan when I was in junior high. We were shown where all the sweat shops were and meant to ‘ooo and ahh’ at the ethnic diversity. While we either gaped, or impatiently stood about kicking pavement, our NYU tour guide dutifully explained how this diversity, (but not necessarily the sweatshops?) made NYC the greatest thing ever to exist on the face of the earth. But  I mean, really, the people that lived and worked in that neighborhood had as much right to come on a field trip and gawk at the suburbanite shoppers of CT making their commute to the mall or the office as we did taking pictures there that day: a bunch of CT brats strutting down an ordinary urban street as if it was a trip to the zoo or the moon. No less absurd. Anyways, maybe I’m being too harsh, but you can judge for yourself whether this ‘jumps the shark’ or ‘nukes the fridge’.

Don’t Wait for DOT to Build the High Speed Rail in the Northeast

I see that the NY Times is catching up to what’s been discussed on several blogs already. Maybe the “Infrastructurist” people took note of the discussions on that anti-HSR viral video on YouTube which relayed the information to the Times that this issue is still hot. People care about the HSR plans, which should be a tip to the government that indeed they are spending far too little on HSR. Unlike much of the stimulus, the HSR would produce a tangible product that is easy to explain and whose benefits could be felt by hundreds of millions. It can create public momentum if the government behaved in a way that showed it was serious about it, and did not lead people to believe it’s just another false start like in the 1970s.

However, reading this op-ed contribution in the Times this morning, you get the feeling that the author is naive about the Northeast Corridor’s congestion problems or thinks that those involved did not know“Money is needed to improve the overhead electric wires, straighten out curves and upgrade the track. And more trains are needed to increase trip frequency, reduce overcrowding and offer flexibility.” Before they do this, they had to replace 100 year old bridges. There just isn’t enough money, and there won’t ever be enough money, from the Federal government to get this accomplished. I’ve wanted HSR since I was in High School, I”m already past graduate school, have some grey hairs, and I don’t expect it completed in America until after I have children of my own who have graduated high school.

If the Northeast really understands that a European/East Asian HSR service is needed, they’re going to have to clear the right-of-way and find a majority of the money themselves. Heck, they didn’t even get the 2nd or 3rd most out of the stimulus bundle of money because they hadn’t put together any serious plans. There’s going to be a new governor in Connecticut, and hopefully no matter which party he or she is, they should promise to start organizing with the regions governors to get this built or it just will never happen.  If you think Obama and the Federal government is going to upgrade service in his political base’s swing house first, well, I got a bridge I think you’re going to love…

SOS USPS: Save Our Postal Infrastructure Legacy for the Public

News: Local | “ART DECO GEM” | The Register-Guard | Eugene, Oregon.

How did I miss such a fine example of what I was discussing about in my previous posting, right here under my nose!