Don’t let the tall buildings fool you. It’s not a city.

2009 May 31

by Branko Mac

The New Urbanism movement is starting to gain acceptance in America, which thrills me, but I suspect that it will be implemented in a half-hearted manner. This would be a failure of vision and a lost opportunity not only for our generation, but for several generations into the future. Indeed, I have already encountered such failures right here in my own backyard.

I live in Hoboken, Hudson County, New Jersey, which means absolutely nothing to anybody located anywhere other than here. Hudson County is directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan and is dense with humanity in a way that few Americans truly understand. Hoboken has a population density of approximately 33,000 per square mile, which is (1) roughly equivalent to the Bronx and Brooklyn, (2) more dense than New York City as a whole after including the non-subway zones of Queens and Staten Island, and (3) on a par with urban Tokyo (give or take, depending on which Ku you are discussing, thank you to http://www.demographia.com/db-tokyo-ward.htm). So, when it comes to city living, and despite the crumpled paper and spit-wads that will assuredly be thrown at me by my old friends, I know what I’m talking about. And this week, I’m here to talk to you about New Urbanism.

Urban (re)development can be thought of as analogous to personal computers and the Internet. A freestanding personal computer is nice, but it doesn’t do much. The real value comes when the individual computer is seamlessly linked to hundreds, thousands, nay – millions(!) of other computers. Only when networked to millions of other users does the full utility of the personal computer reveal itself. Any hindrance in communicating, such as slow access (dial-up), walled-off proprietary areas (old bulletin board companies?), or broken links (what is this shite that the search engine is throwing at me?), impede the utility of the system.

The same principles apply to urban buildings. A single building is useful by definition, but its utility is limited by how easily the inhabitants of that building can interact with the inhabitants of other buildings. Much has been said about the problems inherent with suburban sprawl; I shall not tarry there. My discussion is more narrowly directed at the various New Urban projects that I have already encountered in this region.

It seems as if New Urbanism has sprouted at least two unlovely bastard stepchildren. The first is the apartment complex with a tiny strip mall on the ground floor. The second is the freestanding cluster of office buildings with a light rail. Neither works well, for a common reason. Despite building stuff one-atop-the-other, you still just can’t get there from here, and there ain’t much goin’ on when you do get there.

The apartment complex is a strange creature. The developer has tried to create a five to 15 story apartment building, chock-full of the usual accoutrements. Under-building parking, a gym, recreation lounge, granite countertops, etc. It’s like a little piece of the Upper East Side, only with breathing room and a community pool. Yeah, yeah, we get it. Then the builder thoughtfully filled the ground floor with retail space, which is currently occupied by the usual suspects … Janet Tylor, Pineapple Democracy, an overpriced steakhouse, an unjustifiably bland quasi-Asian (sorta, kinda) chain restaurant, etc. Sounds good so far, but what nobody considered is that parking for outsiders is limited and inconvenient, and the mass transit to service this apartment complex is significantly curtailed on the weekend when the prime shopping market has finally been unchained from the cube farm salt mines. So, outsiders still have to drive to get to this shopping Mecca, because it is two miles from the nearest residential neighborhood, flung down the bunghole reaches of an otherwise nasty, industrial wasteland. Or a suburban wasteland … pick your poison.

In any event, the actual population that will be shopping at the Flying Nutchicken Markkette Piazza is limited to five mommies pushing overpriced strollers, just because they didn’t feel like screwing around with the car seat this weekend, and one (pre)teenager who is not yet old enough to drive and not cool enough to convince someone else to come pick up his sorry ass to go to the big mall down the road.

Reading the tea leaves at the requisite YuppaCuppaJoe coffee shop (empty, but playing thoughtful mid-20’s folk-rock acoustic guitar), one can discern that the future for this retail outpost is limited. The mothership bureaucracies will eventually cut bait, pick up their anchors and go sailing in search of better fishing grounds. Whoopsie. Instead of high end retail and the hottest restaurants, in five years these spaces are going to be filled with dentist offices, pediatricians and the occasional DMV. The Nutchicken Piazza will be just like the desolate 1950’s shopping plaza down the street, only with granite countertops, five years older and in need of a re-sealing treatment.

The other misfit, the office cluster with a light rail, is even more depressing because there is no excuse for the design flaws. Especially in this part of the country, we know what makes a downtown. Tall buildings, an endless variety of ground-level retail, mass transit, large pedestrian population, shoe shine boys and a guy in a cart selling blue paper cups of coffee for one dollar.

So, the developer built half-way decent buildings. Lots of glass, revolving doors, perhaps green technologies for the HVAC, not bad at all. But he/it made several crucial mistakes. For one, there is zero retail space on the ground floor. Zero, zip, nada. Ten thousand office workers and nowhere to get a friggin’ sandwich. Just one big empty lobby with a lonely security guard in a blue blazer, and multiple elevator banks. That’s it. The rest looks like the killing floor from Logan’s Run, just as the unlucky old timers float up and get zorched. Shiny, new, and utterly devoid of life.

Adding insult to injury, the developer linked the several buildings in the cluster (it’s always a cluster) with an interior mall that has just a handful of retail spaces and no entrances from the street. The concessionary conglomerate runs the one cafeteria, there is a sorry-ass bar selling cold Eurobrew from dirty beer lines, three ATMs (two of which are not affiliated with any bank) and that’s about it.

To throw more crap on this pile o’ doo-doo, there are huge but overpriced parking lots ($250/month), while all the streets are no-parking zones (just wide enough to drive, but no curb parking). Put an unbroken fence around the parking lot while you’re at it, so that pedestrians cannot walk through on the diagonal. The office cluster – no doors to the outside, just a block-long wall of concrete and inexplicable wall-mounted standpipe for the fire department. Then, adding insult to injury, put a light rail through it.

“Great. I have a train that drops me off into the middle of an oddly dense but vacant and windswept space that presents me with absolutely nowhere and no reason to go except if I actually work here. Screw it. I’m going to the mall.”

It doesn’t matter if the fare on the rail is dropped from $1.50 to $1.00. The fare could be free and still nobody would come. There is still no reason at all for someone to go there unless they actually work in one of the office clusters. The rest of it might as well be a desert or the back roads of a rural farm district, as it is functionally useless to visitors.

If you’re still with me, you may be thinking, “Fine then, Mr. Know It All. What’s the solution?” The solution is that in order for New Urbanism to be successful, we must recreate the old streetcar Main Street and pedestrian-friendly grid of old. No more office clusters. No more isolated projects three miles from anything else. The Grid must return. There is a reason that cities were built as dense grids for thousands of years, from the time of Ur and Babylon until 1950. It worked. It just plain worked. This car-centric model that we now have in America? It doesn’t work. But, just like being half-pregnant or a sometimes nasty drunk, some things do not permit a fuzzy gray zone. Stochastic mathematics are in effect. Yes or no, on or off, black or white.

Half-hearted development projects are going to be economically unsuccessful in the long run because they remain isolated from the neighbors. One must be able to get There from Here. There is no substitute, no matter how hard the half-acre zoning freaks try to deny it. Half-suburban is all suburban. Half city is no city at all. Don’t let the tall buildings fool you. It’s not a city.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Sebastian Melmouth permalink
    June 3, 2009

    1. How do we reach critical mass? The Bull Moose editor and I spent the weekend driving around Cleveland and Akron having this exact same discussion. Blocks upon blocks upon blocks of beautiful buildings waiting for the Renaissance. But we cannot figure out how to reach critical mass. It’s as if we need one big Memorial Day move in when 10,000 residents all move into their new apartments on the same day that all the support infrastructre (grocery store, butcher, baker, hot-pecs-and-abs maker) also moves in. Because if it doesn’t happen at once, the grocer moves in, awaiting the customers, and is out of business a couple of weeks or months later. Chicken or egg?

    2. Mark it on your calendar, folks: June3, 2009. I am going to have to shoot myself because after 8675 consecutive days of rancor and disagreement, I actually agree with Branko.

  2. John Galt permalink
    June 3, 2009

    No, Sebastian, it’s not chicken or egg. One guy decides to open a convenient store so that he can capture profits. Another guy decides that the store is doing so well, he opens a bar.

    And if it looks terrible, then the area dies and we all move on. Deal with it.

  3. John Galt permalink
    June 3, 2009

    By the way, Mr. Know It All, what is the solution to recreate the Main Street of Olde? Gummint planning? Market forces? Everybody move to where it feels like that?

  4. WES permalink
    June 8, 2009

    Stop subsidizing petroleum and let the prices skyrocket naturally. Paying significantly higher premiums for gas will allow urban land to command much higher prices as people either stay in cities or move into cities because of high trnasportation costs. Likewise, when people move into urban areas, there is much more justification for good public transportation (not like the kind we have in Buffalo). In fact, if gas prices skyrocket, then there will even be economic incentives for private companies to do both development and transportation and exclude the government from the equation altogether, except of course for regular graft.

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