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NYC's chief urban designer salutes continuity and vitality of streets (and what about AY?)

The Director of Urban Design for the Department of City Planning, Alexandros Washburn, only joined the administration in January 2007, so he's presumably had little contact with the Atlantic Yards project, which got its final state approval a month earlier. (The City Planning Commission in September 2006 had endorsed the project, with minor changes.)

Still, it was remarkable how, in a recent discussion of the city's planning practices, he saluted the High Line project, which began with public infrastructure, not a private developer, involved multiple developers, and emphasized streets rather than demapped them. The contrast with Atlantic Yards is stark.

Washburn, who's had a distinguished career that included serving as the only staff architect ever working for a U.S. Senator (Daniel Patrick Moynihan), spoke October 18 at the Vertical Density Symposium sponsored by the Skyscraper Museum in conjunction with its Vertical Cities: Hong Kong | New York exhibition.

(I'll have more complete coverage of the symposium going forward.)

The park came before the rezoning

"We are thinking of things as pedestrian-connected infrastructure. Something like the High Line is a very good example of what New York is doing," he said, citing a "disused piece of infrastructure from the 1930s. It was about to be torn down, so real estate interests that owned land underneath it could build."

"Friends of the High Line was formed by two citizens, not planning officials, not even architects, just two very concerned and creative citizens, who instituted a whole program to save this infrastructure, convert it into a park," he continued.

It didn't hurt, he noted, that one of the early Friends of the High Line was Amanda Burden, who became Mayor Mike Bloomberg's City Planning Commission Chairperson.

Washburn (right) described a win-win solution: "And with that, and the support of the Bloomberg administration, rezoned the neighborhood, in a manner that allowed development rights to be transferred off of this new park and onto the surrounding territory, therefore allowing densification, but only in context of this superb new linear park."

(Photo from W Architecture)

The High Line, he suggested was "in some ways the paradigm." (Vishaan Chakrabarti, the Executive Vice President of Design and Planning for the Related Companies, also cites the High Line as an example of development compatible with density.)

Moses and Jacobs

"In my job, where I have to be the chief urban designer, we are given these tasks: the deputy mayor says we need 5000 units of housing over here," Washburn continued. "Well, how are we going to do that? Is it Robert Moses? I mean, that’s the normal approach, that’s the top-down approach. OK, we need 5000 units of housing; that’s a lot of high-rises."

"But we don’t want the Robert Moses approach only. We love Jane Jacobs," he said. "We really think that [Jacobs'] The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Death and Live of Great Vertical Cities--we’ve got to value our streets. Everything happens in the street. [Jacobs] called it the ballet of Hudson Street. But it applies to any street."

He cited a speaker from Hong Kong: "What you showed, that wonderful collage... it was a perfect example of that series of connections that happen at ground level among citizens."

It's all about the street

"It doesn’t matter how expensive the fabric is," he continued. "High-rise, low-rise. It’s the street itself. So we spend a huge amount of time battling with developers who in their sort of haste to put up the tower are trying to get past their responsibility to the street that needs to be shown by every building. So we believe in blocks. We believe in how the tower meets the block, meets the street, and it’s a remarkably complex streetscape...."

Note that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), in the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement, took pains to argue that the project--well, at least in its second phase, to the east--would have a better superblock. While Pacific Street would be demapped, the ESDC noted, the buildings would create street walls rather than be isolated in a park, like Stuyvesant Town.

But however much that make Dean Street and Atlantic Avenue better off than many streets at the perimeter of superblocks, Pacific Street would be gone.

(Graphic from NoLandGrab.org)

Seeking the fine grain

Washburn continued: "In school, it seemed so stupid to me, those trash cans and benches and light bulbs--what’s so difficult about that? But, it’s not, it’s actually where all your theories of urbanism come together."

"You’ve got to make the street a lively place. You have to get all these very pedestrian systems to mesh. And I think that’s technically our biggest challenge, is how do we have towers come down and support the type a street where... the grain absolutely becomes the fineness that Jane Jacobs would love."

The green solution

He concluded: "So how do we get the quantity of Robert Moses with the quality of Jane Jacobs? And the only answer to the question mark that I could come up with is to look to another New Yorker, to look to Frederick Law Olmsted, not in the sense of designing another Central Park, but in the sense of trying to bring nature and green networks into every scale of every development that we do."

"And the High Line is an example of that, because it’s a green network to revive a neighborhood, with a degree of density that’s adding thousands of housing units, but to the degree of finesse and complexity that Jane Jacobs would’ve wanted."

"So I’m hoping... that, in seeking the green future, we will marry those traditions and continue with, I think, urbanistically, [what] is our greatest, greatest asset, the continuity and the vitality of our streets."

It's not like Pacific Street has always been a great connector. However, critics of Forest City Ratner's superblock project, in devising the UNITY plan (right), have added new streets, emphasizing continuity and vitality, which would further animate Pacific Street.

Remember, Rockefeller Center, to which the late New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp misguidedly compared Atlantic Yards, added a street, while Atlantic Yards has subtracted them.

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