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Reading Metropolis on infrastructure, preservation, and localism

The March issue of Metropolis magazine had three essays, under the rubric Local Flavors, that resonate with issues raised by Atlantic Yards and waterfront development. Collectively, they suggest a concern with infrastructure, preservation, and sustainable building that hasn't yet acquired criticial mass.

Kotkin on infrastructure

Joel Kotkin's Back to Basics: Manufacturing is still more relevant to long-term economic development than glitzy museums or massive sports stadiums, notes:
Over the past decade many city leaders have gravitated toward what might be called an arts-and-culture-led strategy. Even though most cities—including ballyhooed places such as San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Boston—have achieved mediocre (or even negative) job growth and continue to lose middle-class families, they’ve celebrated reviv­als of their urban cores based on the migration of largely affluent “hip” residents. Much of this misplaced focus on culture is related to the decline of blue-collar jobs in fields like manufacturing and warehousing, a shift that many experts have long considered all but inevitable. It has been 17 years since futurist John Naisbitt casually described manufacturing as a “declining sport” that Amer­icans could easily outsource to Japan and other Asian countries. Reflecting this widespread belief, a number of mayors began focusing on glittering new culture and sports palaces, convention centers, and often publicly subsidized luxury-condo developments. But the limitations of this approach are becoming obvious, particularly now as the real estate “bubble” begins to deflate.

...In many cases these expansions are rooted in the recognition of each city’s natural assets along with a willingness to invest in ways that take advantage of them. ...These approaches are in stark contrast to cities like New York and Los Angeles, which invest far below the rate to even maintain their basic transportation, roads, and bridges.

...But the “back to basics” model may not be an easy sell in these first-tier cities, where the educational establishment often disdains skills-training as a hidden form of ethnic or class discrimination, and the political elite tends to be dominated by central-city real estate interests. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who promotes New York as “the luxury city,” appears to place relatively low priority on such things as the city’s once bustling port and his­torically powerful role as a warehouse-and-distribution center. Of course, New York may never recover all of its blue-collar jobs, but there are promising niches—food processing for ethnic communities, “green” manufacturing for local construction, even furniture design—that play off the city’s natural strengths, such as its location, large immigrant workforce, and cutting-edge design community.

Note that Cooper Union's Fred Siegel, in a 4/11/08 AM NY appraisal of Bloomberg's terms, sums it up in two words: "luxury city."

Gratz on preservation

Roberta Brandes Gratz, in an essay headlined Urban Virtues: The values of historic preservation go far beyond the clich├ęd notions of nostalgia and NIMBYism, uses the example of the restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side:
Restoring landmarks and renovating existing buildings provide all of the economic benefits inherent to localism; these strategies are also far more sustainable (in the truest sense) than most new construction. As architect Carl Elefante has said, “The greenest building is one that is already built.”

(This has already been said about the Ward Bakery, undergoing demolition for the AY project.)

Gratz notes some unraveling from rezonings:
Despite the obvious local benefits associated with the synagogue restoration, many of the firms involved say their ability to stay in business is threatened by recent zoning changes and intense real estate speculation, which has shrunk both the supply of industrial space and housing opportunities for the skilled workforce these companies depend on. Dawn Ladd, who moved her lighting company from New Haven, Connecticut, to Brooklyn 18 years ago, says that “after a three- to four-year breathing spell, the big up-zoning of Williamsburg is weakening the web of different shops we work with and support. In one efficient local trip, I could go from the metal spinner to the lacquer finisher with a stop at my supplier.” So far, at least five firms she worked with have been priced out and left town.

...Given the impor­tance green-building experts place on “embodied energy,” it’s curious that the industry standard barely acknowledges preservation. LEED for Existing Buildings emphasizes main­ten­ance and upgrade but not restoration; LEED for New Construction awards just three points out of 69 for “building reuse,” with all sorts of caveats attached. In contrast, providing bike racks and access to public transit earns one point for each. No penalties accrue for demolishing a viable structure and sending it to a landfill. You even get points for recycling elements from that lost building.
Mayors and governors around the country are appointing commissions to develop sustainable policies, but they’re doing it with little or no in-put from preservation leaders. New York’s PlaNYC 2030 is silent on preservation and merely asserts that the city “will seek to adapt unused schools, hospitals, and other outdated municipal sites for productive new housing.” Where’s the commitment to leaving viable buildings out of landfills? Local and state governments are not entirely to blame here since the environmental movement has been slow to recognize the value of building conservation and preservation.

Kunstler on local materials

James Howard Kunstler, known for jeremiads about "Peak Oil," writes an essay headlined Going Local: When oil becomes scarce, our current way of life will become obsolete, noting:
A reality-based view of all this suggests that localism and green economic practices will be taken up more broadly and earnestly only when we don’t have a choice about it and can no longer manage our bad old ways. My serene personal conviction is that we are much closer to reaching that point than most Americans realize.

...What’s roiling backstage, itching to shove climate change out of the spotlight, is Peak Oil, which is currently understood poorly at best by the public. For one thing, it’s not about running out of oil. It’s about the complex systems we depend on for everyday life in this country becoming unstable and failing, as we enter the slippery slope of global oil depletion—a point that we arguably are already at. By “complex systems” I mean the way we produce our food (oil-reliant agribusiness), the way we do commerce (Wal-Mart et al.), the way we do transportation (extreme car dependency), the way we do finance (Ponzi-style), and so on.

...Living much more locally will increasingly be the only choice. We are utterly unprepared. We’ll have to grow food differently, at a smaller scale, closer to home, with fewer oil-and-gas-based “inputs.” It will surely require more human attention. National-chain discount shopping will shut down as its economies of scale dissolve and formulas like the “warehouse on wheels” and just-in-time inventory lose viability. Happy motoring will fade into memory, and the entire suburban equation will wilt along with it. And just about everything else you can name, from centralized high schools to professional sports, will be cruelly affected by problems of scale and energy.

...Our big cities will contract, not grow. The fortunate ones will densify at their old centers and waterfronts, but overall the trend will be severe shrinkage, really a reversal of the 200-year-long demographic movement of people from farms and small towns to megacities. (Places overburdened with skyscrapers will prove to be exceptionally troubled. The skyscraper is an endangered species that will, like the Baluchitherium of yore, soon go extinct.) In my opinion the overall trend will benefit the smaller cities and towns, but only those that can maintain a relationship with productive farming hinterlands or trade via water.

...I happen to believe that our zoning laws and land-use codes are unreformable. Instead, they will simply be ignored. We’ll return to traditional modes of inhabiting the landscape by default because we’ll no longer have the choice of doing it twentieth-century style. We’ll discover the hard way that the New Urbanists won that argument. It will just not be called “New” Urbanism anymore because it will no longer stand in opposition to other practical ideologies like suburbanism or Modernism. We’ll just have plain ­urbanism—and design disciplines to go with it. Architects ought to prepare for a return to traditional local materials. Modular snap-together panels and frame systems will be increasingly unavailable due to the prohibitive cost of fabrication as well as that of exotic metals such as Frank Gehry’s favorite, titanium. It is hard to say how severe this problem may become—a whole new industry will surely arise dedicated to the disassembly of old structures and salvaging of materials—but, personally, I’d say that we’re headed back to mostly masonry for the best new construction.

Even without the point made by Kunstler's jeremiad, AY may be part of Gehry's last round.


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