Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Hudson master plan?

The present is a particularly pregnant time for urban development in Hudson. Within the next several years, the following major projects could rise from the ground: a Hudson Senior Center (to be built as an addition to the Youth Center), a city police station, a city court, a consolidated headquarters for the Columbia County Department of Social Services (if the department stays in the city, as it should), a new parking garage (to serve social services and the general public), a new housing development to replace Bliss Tower, a new restaurant on the waterfront, and the restoration of Washington Hose.

I think it likely that five of these projects--the police station, courthouse, social services, parking garage, and Bliss II--will be built within a several block area between Columbia and State Streets, from around First Street to just above Fourth. Their combined impact could be wonderful, but I have a sinking feeling that the default course of events will lead each project to be conceived and built in isolation from all the others. If so, in a few years we will be stuck with a number of aloof, oversized, badly designed buildings, and a permanent affliction of the What ifs. Many of us already know the feeling; it's the one we get when we walk past the Hudson City Center: it's in Hudson, but it isn't an integral part of Hudson's extraordinary fabric.

And if we do things right? Columbia, our most abused street despite being one very short block away from Warren, will become an asset to the urban experience of Hudson. Its toothless gaps will be filled by thoughtful buildings that shape the public realm, generate streetlife, and foster community. The Fourth Street axis from the county courthouse to the library will become an elegantly walkable procession. The Parc Foundation's pathway from lower Warren Street to Columbia Street will engage new buildings and become a highly trafficked, way cool pedestrian way. And the residents of our public housing, instead of dwelling in isolation, would have an opportunity to be far more active players in our community. (People living in towers do not interact with life on the street to the same degree that people in three story buildings do.)

Even a well sited, well designed parking garage could be an asset instead of the blighting bunker that garages usually are. For example, if the garage is located a little ways down the street from the social services building (instead of being right next to it or underneath it), the several hundred drivers arriving to it each morning will turn into several hundred pedestrians that need coffee, newspapers, and a drycleaning dropoff.

There are many more opportunities to discover, if a real masterplanning effort were to take place. To this end, I've been contacting as many of the parties involved in these projects as I can in the hope of encouraging a coordinated planning effort. If everyone is willing to step back and look at the big picture before plunging further ahead, each will get a much better project for their efforts. And the rest of us will get a better city, not just a handful of new buildings.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Ten things I love about Hudson

1. great architecture
2. rough edges
3. big sky
4. the grid
5. no one asks why the new guy (me) is calling them with a thousand questions about the city
6. two hours to Manhattan
7. the sound of the train whistle
8. cheap rent
9. alleys
10. (tie) The post office is five doors from my front door.
There's a coffee shop 200 feet from where I shower.
My electrician lives 1 block away.
My plumber is located 1 block the other way.
I got my computer repaired 2 blocks from home.
I walked 2-1/2 blocks to register my car.
I walk 3 blocks to the movies.
I got my business cards printed 2 blocks from my home.
I walk 2 blocks the other way to city hall.
I walk 6 blocks to the Amtrak station.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Who gets to control development? Part 1: SLC redux

Miriam Silverman, Stopping the Plant: The St. Lawrence Cement Controversy and the Battle for Quality of Life in the Hudson Valley. SUNY Press, 2006. 176 pages, $24.95 paperback.

I just finished Miriam Silverman's Stopping the Plant. A short book, it provides an intelligent retelling of the Hudson community's struggle against the mammoth Greenport plant proposed by Saint Lawrence Cement. But Silverman goes beyond a mere he-said-she-said rehash, illuminating how Americans' relationship to the natural environment has evolved over several centuries. Ultimately, it came to inform and shape the arguments on both sides of the SLC debate.

Early European settlers of the Americas were necessarily fearful of the natural environment, as it presented a continual threat to their well-being. Nature was seen as something that needed to be "conquered" for the sake of survival. In the industrial era, this evolved into a desire to exploit natural resources for economic development and material gain. But as our comfort became more assured, the attitude that produced it became less necessary. No longer fearful of the natural world, we became open to appreciating it aesthetically. This appreciation found expression in various endeavors, such as the Hudson River school of painting (celebrating the beauty of nature and its peaceful co-existence with humans), the national park system (formally protecting large areas of the natural environment from economic interests), and more recently the mainstream environmental movement (calling for personal accountability to nature). Such attitudes didn't evolve uniformly; those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder have perhaps (perhaps!) valued economic development over environmental aesthetics, while those on the upper rungs have had the freedom to embrace the opposite. For instance, the greater mobility of the wealthy might allow them to designate geographic areas of their choosing as worthy of aesthetic protection over economic development. Such was the label often hung on the anti-SLC faction: wealthy outsiders or recent arrivals to Hudson who aimed to impose their personal aesthetic vision on the region at the expense of Hudson's more indigenous working class.

There is plenty of room to pick nits in this model, and Silverman herself is willing to do so. As she pursues the ramifications of her model, she ultimately moves beyond it and turns to the longer term, more deeply embedded conflicts in the Hudson community. Here she finds commonality and sympathy in the needs and values of the two sides: Saint Lawrence Cement, a Swiss and Canadian company, is itself an outsider to our region. Thus, writes Silverman, "the overriding question, to which there is not always an easy answer, is who gets to determine the direction of development in the community."

Who, indeed? Stay tuned.

THE Holcim?

Is the sponsor of this design competition for sustainable construction the same Holcim cited by the EPA as one of the state's top polluters?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Shameless Commerce Division

If you are looking for a holiday gift idea, could there be a better idea out there than a book from the 101 Things I Learned book series, by yours truly? 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, one of the bestselling architecture books in the world over the past three years, has been joined by four new titles--Business, Culinary, Fashion, and Film--from Hachette Book Group. You can check them out at the official 101 Things I Learned website and purchase them at bookstores everywhere, including The Spotty Dog on Warren Street. And if you stop by my office in Hudson before the holidays, I will personally autograph your purchase for the recipient.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

New City Jail, er, Senior Center on tap

Last week I attended a meeting on the proposed Hudson Senior Center. The meeting brought out over 30 seniors as well as a number of local officials, including Mayor Richard Scalera and Common Council President Don Moore.

The Senior Center is to be built as an addition to the existing Youth Center building at Third and Union Streets. If well conceived it promises to be a boon to seniors as well as others using the building and this part of Hudson. But from what can be discerned about the project at this point, there are many reasons for concern. Chief among them are a weak design concept and, I believe, an unrealistic schedule.  

The existing building (above) is not a classic beauty; it is rather brutish in scale and is not in the best of repair. It appears that some detail has been stripped over the years and replaced with mismatched brick. The upper windows have been replaced with bronze aluminum storefront while the front entry was mismatched with anodized aluminum. Nevertheless, it is a building of substantial presence in Hudson, and it lies at a significant entrance to our small city. As such, the addition needs to give far greater respect to its location than the proposal (below) allows. The addition put forth is badly proportioned (squat height, a meager 8’ ceiling on the first floor, windows more scaled to a suburban split-level than a public building, oversized rather than standard brick, and more) and arbitrarily detailed. Note, for example, the quoins pasted onto the corners of the addition and the dentils applied along the cornice line; no such features appear on its predecessor.
Existing Hudson Youth Center. Senior Center addition will be at left.

Proposed Senior Center: Cherry Alley elevation
I have to think that these aesthetic problems point to some more elemental problems in the design process. How carefully have the needs of the building’s users been considered when, for example, this proposal was put forth without benefit of a single meeting with the seniors’ group? How practical can the design be when it was created without knowledge of the specific programs that may/should/will go on inside? To what extent did the designers put themselves in the shoes of the elderly when they didn't think to put an overhang above the door? How much study was made of the relationship between the seniors and the youths who share the building? What opportunities and problems was this found to present? The apparently unaddressed design issues go on from there.

To be frank, this is what happens when a city hires an engineer instead of an architect to design a building. I do not mean this as a swipe at my colleagues in the engineering profession. Engineers can do things that architects cannot do; thank goodness for that. But the opposite is true as well; architects do things that engineers cannot. We are trained to work closely with a building’s users to uncover the core issues--practical, psychological, historical, material, all the rest--that need to inform the design process. Only after some real understandings are attained do we move the process forward. Crucial to this process is an understanding that architecture is not something that gets applied to a building after it is "engineered"; if anything, it is the other way around: The engineering of a building is but one of many concerns the architect integrates holistically into the design process.

As for the schedule, the mayor said the building will be ready next fall. Buildings can be designed and built in this time frame, but most often the process takes much longer. In fact, the more one rushes a design and construction schedule, the more things are likely to cost. The city will have to hire the first available contractor instead of taking time to find the right one. Cost increases during construction will be more likely, as oversights are discovered as a result of having rushing the design process. ("Oops, I didn't realize we'd have to relocate that utility pole...")

At the risk of parting with a cheap shot, I found myself wondering what this building will look like in three dimensions, so I Photoshopped the engineer's drawing onto a photograph. I then asked myself, if I were to drive by this building unawares, what would I guess it was? The only answer that came to mind was the city jail.

This isn't the right image for our seniors or our city. So before we walk farther down this path, can we all take a deep breath, step back, and engage the design process the right way?
New city jail? A three dimensional view generated from the engineer's drawing

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On foosball tables and economic development

Photo by Jon Cockley
A few weeks ago, while riding my bike in the vicinity of 5th and Washington, a friendly voice flagged me down. Jamal asked if I was lost; my stopping and starting and aimless observation of the neighborhood must have lent that impression. We ended up talking at length about Hudson, in particular the Hudson known to citizens like Jamal--young, minority, and living north of Warren Street. Jamal didn't tell me anything surprising, but it was nonetheless saddening to hear him say that "kids around here think that only white people are allowed to have businesses."

Jamal appeared to be in his mid-twenties. He works in construction doing odd tasks, earning enough to pay the rent on a basement apartment while supporting his young daughter. I asked if he had any business aspirations of his own. He thought briefly, then offered, "I'd like to run a gaming place. You know, people would come in, play video games or ping pong, I'd serve food and drinks." He presented his idea in a way that suggested he had not revealed it to anyone before.

What would Jamal need to realize his dream? 

"Money," he said. It's the same answer the economic development experts give, except they call it "capital." Jamal would need a big loan in order to rent or buy a suitable commercial space, renovate it to his needs, purchase games, equipment, and lighting, hire staff, engage lawyers and accountants, pay for advertising and insurance, and so on. Before opening his doors for business, Jamal would be in for a couple hundred thousand dollars, easily.

Which makes it very unlikely Jamal will ever realize his dream, at least according to the conventional, capital-intensive business development model. But there is an alternative model, and it provides a far more natural and less expensive path to economic growth, urban development, and self-actualization. My own recent experience, if you will indulge, will illuminate.

My partner Sorche and I rent the second floor of a house on Union Street. In addition to a comfortable apartment, we have access to a large, unfinished attic. A couple weeks ago, in anticipation of hosting visitors for Thanksgiving, Sorche perused craigslist for some entertaining diversions. She found a foosball table for $40, a ping pong table for $65, and a dart board for $35. We had to rent a van to bring everything home, but for a little over $200 we turned our attic into a pretty cool entertainment space.

Now to intersect our comparatively privileged reality with Jamal's: A century ago, folks like Sorche and me--and Jamal--would have been free to think, "You know, a lot of people in this part of Hudson would enjoy a place like this." We could have hung a cheap sign on the front of the house and charged folks a few bucks an hour to play games. Perhaps we'd have made a few sandwiches in the kitchen and sold them for a couple bucks each. And before anyone could say "business plan" we'd have a running version of the business Jamal can only dream about today.

While this might seem like merely a stray, if interesting, notion of how someone might start a business, it was how nearly all urban businesses in America got their start a century or more ago. You can still see the evidence in and around Hudson today: innumerable old buildings whose ground floors were converted to retail or business use a long time ago, only after they were built as residential buildings. These conversions allowed ordinary folks a way to make a good living while simultaneously enriching the urban landscape.

Such conversions occur occasionally today, but only within districts formally designated by zoning as mixed-use. Otherwise, the built examples you will find tend to date no later than the early 1900s. It was then that modern regulatory codes--building, labor, health, zoning, and so on--made it difficult and eventually illegal for Americans to open most types of businesses in their homes. The businesses taken off the table by regulation were not only the ones that helped make urban places urban--hair salons, laundries, restaurants, retail stores, repair shops, even taverns--but they were the businesses that citizens on the lower rungs of the economic ladder were most likely to want to open. This is why the explosion in home-based businesses over the past two decades has been limited to professional enterprises--financial consulting, software development, and other clean-hands undertakings: unlike the aforementioned, they aren't illegal to do in your spare bedroom.

The incremental economic development model is not perfect; I can think of a dozen reasons why it might not work in any given instance. But there are dozens more reasons why it generally works very well. The initial investment is small; so too is the disruption to the entreprenuer's life. Jamal wouldn't have to leave his daughter behind just to tend to his business. He wouldn't even have to leave his weekday job right away, if he wanted to try out his business idea on the weekends. And he could easily change his business if he discovered it needed to be something different from what he originally envisioned, or he could pull out altogether if he discovered it wasn't what he really wanted to do. Compare it to the oppressive situation Jamal would find himself in were he to gain access to the capital-intensive model: He'd wake up every day burdened by debt and committed to an obligation to run perfectly a business he hadn't tried out for even a day. It's a terrible set of commitments to visit upon either a city or an individual, when all anyone wanted to do in the first place was play a little foosball. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

More Hudson pix...

A tree grows in Hudson

Man in window

Blue bags

Close quarters


Kip goes house hunting

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Social Services moving out of Hudson?

According to Wednesday's Register-Star, the majority of the county's social services may be moving out of Hudson to the old WalMart on Fairview Avenue. Among the departments being relocated: Environmental Health; Mental Health; Healthcare Consortium; Office for the Aging; Planning/Tourism; Youth Bureau; Central Services with storage facilities; Department of Public Works/Facilities; DSS; Columbia Economic Development Corporation; Probation; Public Defender; County Historian, and Backup 911 Center.

As a newcomer, I cannot see all sides of an issue as it affects Hudson. But it seems to me that the removal of several hundred jobs from Hudson will have an unfortunate echo effect on the city, our needy residents, and our economy. My guess is that Hudson, given its density, has the greatest concentration of the county's needy population. If social services move, our needy citizens will have to schlep out to the suburbs to get what they used to get within a few steps of home. Factor in the several hundred people working in social services, and some fundamental city dynamics will be altered. Imagine the negative impact on the local coffee shops and restaurants that serve these workers every day, and the decrease in commercial rents that will result from a glut of empty space.

There is a point to make here that may seem a bit abstract and even cynical, but my loathing of suburbs requires that I make it: Social service agencies exist to provide formal--that is, government sponsored--social benefit. This is a good thing, to the extent they provide things that society is not inclined to provide on its own (i.e., informally). However, urban places provide informal social benefits that suburbs absolutely cannot. In cities one can walk rather than drive to the ordinary needs of life, a benefit to the young, blind, poor, infirm, and elderly. Similarly, cities provide the able-bodied a greater opportunity than suburbs to stumble upon an odd job for a few dollars pay. Certainly, cities have their problems, but all in all they do things suburbs cannot do without cost to taxpayers.

Because suburbs are motivated by a desire to minimize social connectivity ("I like being out here, away from it all," is the suburban refrain), they quietly beget a need for formal government programs to do what they cannot do informally. Moving an agency and its people from a city to the suburbs makes the needy even needier because it simultaneously reduces society's ability to help them informally while physically distancing them from fomral services. It is a form of positive feedback loop, by which government justifies its continual enlargement: Government makes decisions that on the surface appear to make it more efficient, when they actually beget even more government. Witness an early echo effect of the proposed move: according to the Register-Star, the county will provide monies to Hudson businesses adversely affected by the removal of social services. “If businesses are hurt by the relocation of employees," says Ken Flood, county commissioner of planning and economic development, "I’ll provide necessary resources to help those businesses out.” These resources would come in the form of loans, technical advice, refinancing, and the like. Thus is a bad decision by government "solved" with more government.

Those wishing to contribute an opinion on the proposal are urged to attend a public session on December 8 at 5PM at the Elks’ Lodge on Harry Howard Avenue.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Park Falafel and Pizza

I've enjoyed two trips to the relatively new Park Falafel and Pizza, on 7th Street facing the Park. The falafel was very good, the pizza a tick above average. I'll give the pizza a second try soon in case I happened to have it on an off night.

I remember seeing this building on the market earlier this year. As I recall, it was a foreclosure, asking price of 89K (I think). I am told that the building was pretty bad inside, but the location is excellent. So it was good to see it turned around so quickly, particularly given the demise of the pizza joint across the park sometime after my first visit to Hudson in 2009 and before I moved here in September 2010.

The storefront renovation is simply and effectively executed--a good lesson in hitting one's design marks without breaking the bank. Inside, large color blocks, muted somewhat from primary tones, strike an appropriately jaunty note for informal dining while helping create a brand identity. (Note to Kennedy Chicken: If you ever renovate, look here first.)

From what can be seen on the MLS, it appears that the apartments on floors two and three were renovated--good to know when there are so many substandard units in the city. But I am left wondering why most of the building exterior was ignored. While I don't expect the uneven settling of the brick facade to have been repaired (rarely a cost-effective undertaking), the rest of the building should not have been left in such a shabby state. 
Perhaps the building owner (I don't know if this is the same party as the restaurant owners) has plans to address this and hasn't gotten to it yet. With a bit of work, the building could be an amenity for the whole city, not just for those seeking a reasonably priced dinner, given its prominence at the busiest entrance to Hudson.

Personally, I'd like to see the signature color blocks used as a bold color scheme for the building exterior. The more visible the building, the more people will visit the restaurant and the more interesting and alive this little stretch of Hudson will become.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Windows, doors, and fences

I hadn't used my camera for purely aesthetic purposes in a really long time (years), so the other day I took a walk around Hudson to exercise my eye. The camera frame compels one to make the most elemental and important decision about a composition: what's in and what's not.

I noticed the clothes iron in the upper middle window while having coffee at Swallow, and liked that it disrupted and humanized the repetition of the facade. I came back later with my camera.

Workers at the Union Street Guest House

A lonely spectator... wish I had had my polarizing filter with me.

Doors on Partition Street

No parking, no parking, no parking, no... oh good, I can park in front of this one.

Window mannequins

This house looked unoccupied... who put the pumpkins on this second floor sill?

This shot of some tarps on Partition Street is my favorite. They look like flowing water. Someone came onto the alley and seemed surprised I was there. I told him I liked the way the tarps looked, and he said, "Well, you're the only one."

A peek over a fence.

And another... the "leaf" at upper right is actually a rotting piece of fruit with an insect on it.

Another favorite. I like how the organic jaggedness of the foreground fence counterpoints the more regimented pickets behind it. Not sure if I should edit out the tree at upper left.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Imperfect, but OK

I came across this nifty little house on lower Union Street the other day. It is only about ten feet wide and the ground floor looks barely tall enough to stand up in, but I found it rather appealing. Note how carefully it is composed, with all elements in perfect symmetry: the center of the porch, the bay window, and the brackets above align precisely. Even the squatness of the ground floor contributes to the whole, as it makes the bay above it seem all the more ambitious.

Actually I'm fibbng; the image above was Photoshopped. The real house looks like this:

Notice that almost nothing lines up. While the bay window seems to be centered in the facade, the bracket above it, which one would expect would be centered, is several inches to the left (see below). Meanwhile, the middle porch column stands obtrusively in front of a window (I deleted it from the first image) and is even farther left of center than the roof bracket. And the left and right ends of the porch roof overhang differ from each other.

Why do such flaws occur? Why can't architects or builders get things lined up?

The reason is that when buildings abut, as they often do in urban environments, architectural features such as roof edges cannot turn the corner as they would on a freestanding house. The roof overhang on the front of this house couldn't be continued on the right side, because it would intrude on the neighboring house, which would create not only an aesthetic problem but a legal one. So the bracket on the right was pulled in a bit from the edge(below), even though the bracket at the left side is flush with the left edge of the house. To make the whole assemblage look more three dimensional, that is, to give a sense that at least part of the assembly turns the corner, the topmost molding was returned 90 degrees into the facade.

The abutment problem in urban places has a domino effect on the design of a facade: if you can't place a roof bracket quite where it wants to be, do you adjust all the brackets so they are evenly spaced, or do you let the spacing of the end one be mismatched? Do you place the windows so they align with the roof details or do you place them symmetrically in the facade without regard to the roof? Which "mistake" would be more or less noticeable?

No answers here, but on a completely different note, as I played with this facade, I found myself wanting to grow something out of the top of the bay. I had no idea why, until I realized that in removing a porch column I had turned the porch into a de facto table... a good place for a vase?

Mmm, maybe not. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Thus begins...

Having moved to the remarkable city of Hudson, New York two months ago, I will be using this blog to provide graphic and written commentary on the physical design and planning of my new home town. I am a practicing architect and urban designer, so I will aim to provide a professional perspective on topics from specific buildings or details (e.g., suggestions on improving an unattractive or underperforming storefront) to major projects and sites (e.g. Bliss Tower) to large-scale planning issues (the LWRP, truck route, open space, hospital growth, etc.). At other times I will offer a more general commentary on American urbanism, or I might discuss how architects and planners think about urban design problems. Along the way, I will be trying to get up to speed on Hudson's social and political terrain; I hope a few readers will show up and help me get this on straight.

My commentary won't be neutral, which no one in this city really seems to expect of those around them anyway. I like urbanism that is truly alive, and I err toward messiness over tidiness if it helps a city become a richer, more inclusive place. I love historic buildings, but I also believe in freedom of architectural expression--wouldn't it be better if people made good buildings on their own rather than being told how to do it by government?--and think Hudson would benefit from having a few provocative modernist buildings. I'm an outspoken advocate for home-based business enterprise, and I want to see more of Hudson's residents--particularly those on the economic margins--become business owners in their homes and economic players in the community.

Incidentally, I wrote a short article on Hudson for Architect magazine, a national publication, last year; you can read it here. I've already been told by one Hudsonite (Hudsonian?) that I got some things on wrong. I also wrote a piece on "messy urbanism" for Architecture Boston Magazine; it is here. And the next time you wander over to the Spotty Dog, you might see 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School or one of the other books in my 101 Things I Learned series... many thanks to Kelley Drahushuk for getting them in stock.

Thank you, Hudson, for reading. I am looking forward to getting to know you much better.