Thursday, February 10, 2011

On kitchen renovations, messiness, and economic development

About ten years ago, I received a call from a woman in the midst of a home renovation project. She and her husband were tearing down interior walls in their new house in Boston. "We're not sure how to lay things out or which walls are structural. Can you take a look?"

I knew it would be a mistake to get involved in designing a project already under construction. A successful home renovation typically requires a year of design effort before it is safe for anyone to go near a hammer. A lot of aimless "what if?" explorations have to be engaged without the pressure of making final decisions. There's a lot of practical stuff to figure out, too: budgets and building codes and building permits and which walls are holding up the roof. Homeowners who begin construction without first doing these things are digging a bigger hole than any expert will be able to dig them out of once construction has started. An architect foolish enough to step into this breach is likely making a grave professional error.
The late, great Jane Jacobs, who
understood the good kind of messiness
Naturally, I agreed to take a look. Perhaps I found it hard to decline because I knew the voice on the other end of the line. Elaine cut my hair every month, and I probably didn't know how to say no to someone who regularly stood over me with a sharp pair of scissors. 

I arrived at the house to meet Elaine's dust-covered husband. Except for being a little less rectangular, Tim was indistinguishable from the rest of the dust-covered house interior. He had already removed every wall except those he suspected guilty of holding up the house. They needed to go, too, and the sooner the better.

"No walls, anywhere," Tim said. "We hate clutter. We want a big open interior with lots of light and no junk."

"Where are you going to put things?" I asked. "Where will you put the mail and your coat when you come in the door? Where will your closets be?"

"No closets," he insisted. "No storage. No junk. Just open space."

"I hate junk too," I said. "But even the neatest person has some junk. Everyone needs places to put coats and boots and ski poles and the litter box and the dishes that get used twice a year. You need to figure out where those things are going to go so you can have other spaces that aren't messy. Otherwise, every piece of junk you own will be on constant display. Everywhere you look you will see clutter. That pristine dining room table you're envisioning is going to be covered with magazines and mail. You are on a course to realizing the exact opposite of your goal."

If it's difficult to say no to a woman holding a pair of scissors, it's impossible to reason with a man holding a sledgehammer. Tim would hear none of it, and he was looking ever more longingly at the wall dividing the dining room from the kitchen. I realized that the more emphatically I argued, the less likely I was to convince him of his error, and the greater the chance that the second floor would crash down on my head. I wished Tim well and left, and shortly thereafter I began looking for someone else to cut my hair.

I tell this story because of a larger lesson: A viable vision for any physical place, whether a kitchen, home, neighborhood, or city, has to incorporate and even celebrate the reality that life is inherently messy. Not all of life perhaps, but certainly some or even most parts of it. Life is full of change, invention, reinvention, false starts, unrealized what-ifs, dead ends, failures, losses, misunderstandings, and occasional successes, many of which do not last.

Here in Hudson, where so many are engaged in the arts, it is generally understood that creativity requires a willingness to indulge messiness. Even a modest blog post requires a writer to write down, sort through, and rework a lot of random thoughts, go-nowhere sentences, ugly irrelevancies, and rough drafts before there is any chance of a reasonably polished piece emerging. It is a foolish, self-destructive writer or artist who shuns the mess and attempts to deal only with fully formed ideas.

Likewise, the city planning process has to indulge a lot messiness before any clarity starts to emerge. But there is a crucial difference, and this does not seem to be well understood: the process of creating a city, unlike a literary or visual work, is never finished. The messiness of the creative process is always present in the urban realm, because the urban realm is a living artifact of life itself. People grow, change, get married, have kids, invent things, encounter rising and declining fortunes, and die. They move away and others arrive with different ideas. New products and technologies are invented to replace old ones. Government administrators and highway builders and others enact new visions before the old visions can be realized. Meanwhile, weather, fires, accidents, and other forces erode the built environment.

Interesting, truly alive cities and city districts are always messy in at least some regard. Something is always changing. No district is ever physically perfect or wholly restored or orderly twenty-four hours a day. It is a wise urban vision that allows, accommodates, and even celebrates messiness.

This frightens some Hudsonians. Some envision a future Hudson that is very clean and genteel, and they seem unwilling to make room for the messier aspects of a fully alive urban place. I touched on this point in a blog post a month ago, when I addressed what I and some other Hudsonians perceive to be an anti-industry sentiment among some members of our community. One or two commenters said my claim could not possibly be true; certainly all Hudsonians would be pleased to have industrial activity filling our empty industrial buildings. Surely, I was told, the widespread pleasure over the arrival of Etsy to the Cannonball Factory was evidence of this.

This is precisely where the problem lies: in the mistaken notion that a viable economic development model is mess-free, and that an economy can be built upon a clean-hands practice of having businesses that originated elsewhere fill Hudson's empty buildings. According to this model, Hudson does not need to make conceptual or physical space for the ad-hoc, root-level, messy creative processes that bring fledgling enterprises into the world in the first place. We don't have to allow homely little business endeavors to be tried out in the buildings on our back alleys. We don't have to consider a model of zoning that would allow a State Street resident of limited means to sell dresses or peddle calzones or run a repair service out of her house. No indeed, one city alderman recently explained to me. "We can't have that! Someone might complain!"

Hudsonianseven those who disagree about almost everything elseseem to almost universally agree that it would be best for Hudson if the majority of our businesses were created, owned, and run by Hudsonians. So why do we have in place a development model whose essential structure is built upon the attracting of businesses? Why does this model essentially insist that the people who are already already here create little to nothing? Why do we define economic growth as something that arrives from beyond?

Let me be clear: I am not saying Etsy shouldn't be here. That is not my point or my belief. What I am saying is that the model that brought Etsy here is not a sustainable one. It is not in any way a creative model, although some mistake the fact of Etsy's dealings in creative wares for the underlying fact that the economic development model behind its arrival is non-creative. Frankly, I wonder how it can be considered a development model at all, when it amounts to cherrypicking the fruits of a development process that took place somewhere else.

The great, unrecognized poison of American economic development today is the ubiquitous notion that localities need to "attract businesses." At some level, the notion is absurd. As E. F. Schumacher once noted, "We did not start development by obtaining foreign exchange from Mars or from the moon. Mankind is a closed society." [Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered] Yet the belief that economic growth necessarily comes from without drives the mission statement of the nonprofit Hudson Development Corporation: "[We] promote and assist current businesses and provide opportunities and assistance to attract new businesses." Note that there is no acknowledgment of the genesis of new businesses. Ditto for the Columbia-Hudson Partnership: "We act as a facilitator... for businesses seeking to expand their current operations in the county, or locate new facilities here." Both mission statements allow only for the growth and attraction of existing businesses. To wander a bit farther afield for a moment, New York City's Director of Planning, in the first paragraph of her website statement, writes, "I welcome the opportunity to plan and develop places in which people will love to live and workthe vibrant places that will attract and hold creative talent." How poisoned our development well must be when the planner for a city of more than 8 million people thinks it essential to attract anyone at all. But this is the default economic development mentality in America today.

Like every city, Hudson has talents and ideas and manpower within its borders, but we are forbidding them to flourish. "Cities," the late Jane Jacobs wrote in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, "have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody." Why are we unwilling to build from within, allowing everybody to create? Why are we not willing to develop our own resources? Why aren't we encouraging the messy stab at new businesses instead of outlawing them? To seek economic development by attracting fully formed businesses is to sell your own people short. It is to tell themeven if you say otherwisethat you don't want them to be productive, involved members of the local culture. It is to tell them you don't want the mess that comes from seeing them live creatively. It is, in essence, to order the twenty-somethings out of your community until their ideas are fully formed. Then, and only then, are they welcome to come back.

To close with a somewhat finer point: not all messiness is of equal value. Not all messiness is constructive. The point is not that messiness is inherently good, but that messiness in life and in cities cannot be escaped. One can choose either the good messiness that is part and parcel to the creative process, or the bad messiness that comes from prohibiting creative endeavor. In other words, we can have either a messy Columbia Street or State Street that results from its residents becoming creative, self-directed entrepreneurs, or we can have the kind of messiness that blights a neighborhood and destroys its buildings when its residents aren't able to generate wealth for themselves. Wouldn't you rather have the good kind of mess than the bad kind we now have?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

300 block of Columbia buildout

Keeping the county in the city: a closer look at Site #5

Here's a somewhat closer look at a potential buildout for county offices in the 300 block of Columbia Street (Site #5 on my recent post.). This is a particularly prominent and complex site with significant design challenges. It consists of two parcels bisected by Columbia street. The southern parcel lies adjacent to the PARC Foundation pedestrian way and is quite visible from Warren Street. Any building constructed here would have to bear significant civic weight, as it would lie on axis with City Hall Place and the Opera House.

The northern parcel also abuts the "PARCway," although it appears that the park has not been fully developed at this location. The parcel is somewhat less prominent than its southern companion, but also presents significant design challenges. The grade on the back/alley side is two stories higher than Columbia street, which would make it difficult to get adequate daylight into a building interior. This, combined with the possibility of using the sloping grade to conceal part of the building mass, suggests it might be more suited to a parking garage. However, this would still introduce a scale problem vis-à-vis the handful of wood frame houses nearby.

This exercise, however, is charged with the simpler task of determining if the site offers adequate space for a new Columbia County headquarters. Given that it is located adjacent to an existing 30,000 s.f. county building, it has a bit of a head start on the 100,000 s.f. target. However, with a garage on the northern parcel and a 3-story office building to the south, the scheme falls about 25,000 s.f. short. A 4-story building might produce enough space but almost certainly would be too massive. An alternative would be to build an additional office building on the northern parcel (assuming the daylighting problem could be solved), and to site a garage somewhere nearby.
I wouldn't rule this site out for county offices, but given its complexity, it can be properly analyzed only in context with other nearby sites and other city development needs. Its civic visibility and size might make it more suited to a police station or courthouse than to county administration. Too, there has been talk of creating separate senior housing when the Bliss public housing project is redeveloped. Perhaps one of these parcels would prove suitable.

Friday, February 4, 2011

4th and Columbia Buildout

Keeping the county in the city: a closer look at Site #6

I've taken a closer look at a potential buildout at 4th and Columbia Streets (site #6 on my previous post) for county offices. The scheme might also be able to incorporate a new city police station and/or courthouse. My main goal was to see how much space could be created with buildings comparable in scale to the existing county office building at 410 State. In other words, I wasn't trying to make architecture or engage the nuances of a more proper urban design undertaking.

The exercise yielded three buildings of about 30,000 s.f. each (3 floors @ 10,000+/- s.f.) for a total of about 90,000 s.f. of new space. This is within spitting distance of the county's 100,000 s.f. target, and it exceeds it when the existing 30,000 s.f. building is included. With a more accurate site plan, it is conceivable that only two new buildings would be needed to meet county needs, with the third used for the police and/or court.

As noted in my previous post, the county also needs about 200 parking spaces. The garage I've drawn below is probably generous (although not so generous to TSL, whose parking lot I've commandeered), perhaps as much as three times that size. So if the TSL site were to become available to build on, the garage likely wouldn't be as offensive as what I've shown.

If compelled to live in separate buildings, the county would like them to be linked. Overhead connectors must be ruled out, however, as they improperly territorialize public streets. Instead, city infrastructure allowing, I'm suggesting underground connectors (right), which would be suited to use by employees on foul weather days. The rest of the time, it would be better if workers used the outdoors in moving between buildings to activate city streets. I would discourage any such connector between any of the buildings and the garage, however, as morning and evening commuters should likewise walk the streets.

Next time I will look at the buildout potential of the mid-300 Columbia site (Site #5 on my previous post; left side of above photos). 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Will they stay or will they go?

A look at some possible sites for Columbia County offices

Because ofor perhaps despiterecent events having made the intentions of Columbia County officials cloudier than they already were, I decided to take a look at sites within Hudson that might be suited to new county offices. The county estimates it needs about 100,000 square feet of space, and likely a parking garage for about 200 workers. I haven't been systematic in my site search or analysis, I've been partial to sites located within or immediately adjacent to the grid where street life stands to most benefit, and I might be engaged in a colossal waste of time, but here goes.
Several possible sites for new Columbia County offices

1. X-tyal site. This waterfront site, with a new building complementing the existing large brick warehouse, could make for a very attractive project. (Note: the foreground building in photo has been demolished but the one at left remains.) However, the owner may have a more commercial use in mind. From an urbanistic perspective, the city might not get much bang for the buck here, as whatever benefit county offices might bring would be limited by the fact that the city fabric barely touches the site. The success of a project here probably would depend on the development of a holistic vision for this part of the city, incorporating Bliss redevelopment and other projects.

2. Empty parcel, north side of State Street. I think the western part of this site belongs to the city, the rest to the Hudson Housing Authority. HHA has suggested locating a portion of the Bliss redevelopment on the parking lot at lower right, and also has expressed interest in building at Front and State (upper left of yellow area). However, the Bliss situation is fluid, so this site may be available for development. A building here would make State Street a somewhat more proper two-sided street, although the weak suburban housing on the south side is far from ideal. The site slopes fairly steeply in the rear, which would allow concealment of a parking garage.

3. Riverfront industrial area. I don't have a specific site in mind here. The area is so shapeless that it's difficult to know what a large county building would mean or where it would go. But the train station and Eric Galloway's proposed restaurant need neighbors, and additional new buildings are going to have to be built somewhere if the riverfront is to have the activity that many are envisioning.

4. Power Avenue. Two buildings in this declining industrial area are on the market. The sites appear large but they are removed from the waterfront and the life of Hudson, making these locations unappealing. However, their isolation might be precisely the thing that appeals to an apparent suburban preference among county officials.

5. 300 block of Columbia Street. This is an interesting location for a few reasons. It's a block from Warren Street and the Opera House. One parcel, now a parking lot, is adjacent to the existing 30,000 s.f. Columbia County Mental Healther, Behavioral ServicesBuilding. The Parc Foundation linear park would run between it and a new county building as continues to State Street; handled properly, this could be a dynamic space. Across Columbia Street, an existing tiered parking lot could be the site of another office building or garage. But are these sites large enough to give the county an additional 70,000 s.f. plus parking?

6. Multiple sites near 4th and Columbia. I find this location very interesting, as it offers a potential synergy between county offices and a future city police station, court, and parking garage. Also, it lies near Time and Space Limited, Helsinki, Musica, and the library, as well as the aforementioned sites in the 300 block of Columbia site. All in all, the location offers a wealth of space and flexibility.

Three to five parcels are involved, depending on how the counting is done. A former school building at the southern corner of 4th and State is currently occupied by the county, and this would presumably be incorporated into an overall development scenario. The empty parcel at the west corner of 4th and State is city owned, and the empty parcel at 4th and Columbia north is owned by Eric Galloway. The latter parcel was at one time the subject of a discussed land swap with the city, for a police station. At the east corner of 4th and Columbia is a county parking lot, with a private parking lot adjacent, owned by Time and Space Limited.

It should be easy to provide the desired 100,000 s.f. in this area via several smaller buildings that would be appropriate in scale for Hudson. The county, if compelled to use separate buildings, would like them to be linked. This should be done with underground passages (city infrastructure allowing) rather than overhead bridges, which improperly territorialize public streets.

7. Municipal parking lot and former shirt factory. The parking lot looks to be in excess of 40,000 s.f., while the shirt factory, currently for sale, is listed as 22,000 s.f. interior space. It's in the heart of the city, which from an urbanistic perspective is either ideal (right where the action is) or not so ideal (better to put the county in a dead spot to give it life).

8. Railroad Avenue. County Social Services are currently located in an existing 28,000 s.f. building on this site; presumably it would receive a very large addition. However, despite appearing fairly large, the site is long and narrow, which may make it difficult to develop more intensively. Also, a large building might have an undesirable visual impact on Oakdale Lake, adjacent. And somewhat like the X-tyal site, this site hardly interfaces with the city fabric, thereby limiting its benefits to Hudson.

I will look at these sites in greater detail as I am able. If I've missed some worthy candidates, please let me know.