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.