Friday, January 28, 2011

The style trap

Carole Osterink has a way of beating me to the punch. While I am still processing raw thoughts or gathering background information for a blog post, it seems she's already captured most of the issues on her blog, and more elegantly than I would have done.
     Her post today, Rebuilding the Second Ward, speaks to the housing to be built on Columbia Street, something I've been looking into for a while. The buildings will include three units by Habitat for Humanity as well as the eventual replacement for Bliss Towers by Omni Development, which will total about 132 units. What should these buildings look like? From where should their designers derive their design cues, given that the neighborhood is so broken apart? How can these buildings be contextually responsive when it's hard to say what the context is and whether some of it even should have been put there in the first place?
from 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School
     Carole covers these issues well, so I will only add one point: Style is the last thing we should be thinking about in addressing these concerns. When architects dwell on style, they invariably neglect more essential considerations such as proportion, massing, and texture. A building can be compatible with its surroundings if it hits all or most of these marks, even if it is in a different style. Likewise, it can be very incompatible even if its style is "correct." Certainly, we've all seen bad additions to old buildings that were built in the same superficial style but that simply look wrong.
     Important as such visual considerations are, however, they are merely thatvisual considerations. The underlying reality of a building is far more important than its outward appearance, and this is where the design process is properly rooted.
     When I was a student of architecture a long time ago, this was the last thing I expected to hear. Architecture is a visual art, after all. As a confused student it only made my life worse to hear an instructor define architecture in a way that seemed to have little to do with bricks and mortar: Architecture is the physical manifestation of a social order.
     This didn't seem particularly helpful or relevant at the time, but I've come to realize that it's the most important value to bring to the design process. What is the social order the building needs to accommodate? How do the people who will dwell in it need to live their lives? How do they sleep and eat breakfast and raise their kids and relate to their neighbors? What about the people walking by the building and living near it? How might they get to know the occupants? Should they be able to look directly into the house and see them? Or can this social relationship be accommodated and enriched by creating gradations of private-public space?
     Such investigations of social order, when considered sensitively, knowledgeably, and patiently, ultimately will lead to the building that needs to be. Appearances will tend to take care of themselves if you do the rest right, but the doing-the-rest-right part is very difficult. And so far, I am concerned that the developers of the aforementioned properties don't seem to have the inclination to engage the design of their buildings in this way, or perhaps more dangerously, that they believe they are designing this way when they really aren't. I don't know how to convince them otherwise; maybe this is another thing Carole can do better than me.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Quantifying the unquantifiable: relocation of county offices

Two months ago, Columbia County floated a proposal to move most of its operations, currently housed in four separate buildings in Hudson, to an empty Walmart building on Fairview Avenue. The proposal was widely criticized, although perhaps not as much as an earlier proposal to move social services to the Ockawamick School in Claverack. More recently, the county issued a Request for Proposals to attract a qualified firm to formally study its spatial needs and recommend how and where county offices (save for those legally mandated to remain in Hudson) ultimately ought to live.
 The Ockawamick School in Claverack [photo from ]
I briefly considered throwing my own hat into this ring, but quickly realized I would not be capable of the objectivity required. I am partial to county offices remaining in Hudson and I wouldn't be able to conduct a study that might have to conclude they should move out. Too, I think any formal study of the matter is automatically stacked against Hudson on two crucial counts:
  1. Parking. Any suburban site wins against Hudson, unless someone figures out how to get a parking garage built in the city for short money. Although there are probably few fans of parking garages in these parts, Hudson may have reached the point where it needs to get serious about building onefor the county, for police vehicles (in concert with a new police station), for seniors (if/when a senior center is built), for visitors to Club Helsinki and TSL, for our general tourist population, and for us. Presumably a number of these players would fund it, but garages don't come cheap. I plan to blog on this in detail soon.
  2. Culture. Hudson wins a cultural face-off against any suburban location, in no small part because suburbs don't have and don't desire to have cultureat least, not of the shoe-leather-meets-the-pavement variety. A properly located and well designed county headquarters in Hudson could be a great help to Hudson's culture, and also would bring the cultural benefits of Hudson to many of its employees. (Although I suspect a fair percentage of county employees are hardcore suburbanites that see no benefit to being in Hudson.) But how does one objectively measure culture?
The objective measurements such studies have to use are important, but they may work against Hudson. "Efficiency" has been trotted out repeatedly by the county to justify its previous proposals to move to the suburbs, and the word appears five more times in the RFP. Implicit in such usage, I believe, is a simplistic notion prevalent in American culture for decades, that a suburban building is inherently more efficient than an urban one. There's something about that unfettered, freestanding building in the middle of a parking lot that leads too many decision makers to conclude that real work is being done there, while the same operation in an urban setting is believed cluttered with irrelevancies that compromise operations. I found it telling that at the county's December 5 presentation on possibly moving to Walmart, "efficiency" was used dozens of times as an ostensible justification for the move, even though no data of any kind was provided to back up the argument. Suburbs are efficient, urban places are inefficient, is the assumption.

Efficiency is an important consideration, but it's very easy for those who control the things being measured to leave out factors that are oblique but nonetheless important to the efficiency equation. In this case, I am wondering if and how the needs, costs, and inefficiencies that a suburban location will visit upon departmental clients will be measured. Hudson mayoral aide Carmine Pierro (via Gossips of Rivertown) states that forty-six percent of Health Department clients and fifty-five percent of Department of Social Services clients live in Hudson. What costs and inefficiencies will they incur in driving or schlepping to a suburban location? This alone would seem to cancel out the efficiencies presumed inherent in a suburban location, and that's before we get to the fossil fuel burning and air polluting and paradise paving aspects of the picture. 

Ken Flood, Columbia County's Planning and Economic Development Commissioner, was careful to note in my conversation with him on Monday that the county will not use bottom line cost as the sole basis for making a decision on relocation. The county knows there are benefits to being in Hudson that aren't about efficiency. So keep your eyes and ears open as to whom the RFP is awarded, and make sure you get on them to include in their study all the stuff they might not know how to measure, but that we Hudsonians know are important to both us and the county.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Waterfront compromise scheme: follow-up

I've received a number of questions and comments on the scheme I presented last ThursdayI had proposed the construction of a private rail spur from the existing north-south rail line to the Greenport quarry via the South Bay causeway. My goal was to give the City of Hudson and the Greenport quarry owners/operators the better part of what each considers most essential. It was and remains a shot in the dark, as the issues involved are complex and I made a number of blind assumptions. Anyway, here goes.
Did you find out if rail-based loads from Greenport can be delivered to O&G's manufacturing facilities in Connecticut? Or would they have to be transferred to a barge?
O&G's facilities in Stamford and Bridgeport (I don't know if the gravel is currently sent to one, the other, or both) appear not to accept rail loads. Gravel is directly unloaded from barges at the plants, so the scheme likely works only if the rail loads are transferred to barges somewhere south of Hudson (I still do not know if there is a place to do this) OR (a new suggestion) if the rail loads are sent to O&G's facility in Danbury, as an existing train line leads there. This latter scenario seems highly unlikely, however.

A train can transport only a fraction of what a barge can transport. Doesn't cost inefficiency rule out rail right away?
It might. But I did some research on this, and the results were interesting. A rail hopper car carries about 225,000 lbs., while a barge carries from about 2,000,000 to 6,000,000 lbs. This means you would need between 9 and 27 rail cars to do the work of one barge. (O&G uses mostly smaller barges with an occasional super-jumbo.) In this scenario, barges probably win over trains.
     However, there is an inefficiency embedded in the current model that can't be ignored: the efficiency of barging is compromised by the inefficiency of having to truck the gravel to the barges. Even using the largest end-dump gravel truck at capacity (25,000 lbs.), at least 80 truck trips are needed to fill one small barge, 240 trips to fill the largest barge. Per above, 80 truck trips can be replaced by a single 9-car train. 
     Update, 1/19/2011: According to the LWRP, 183,458 tons of aggregate were shipped through the port in 2007. This would have required 1,631 rail cars, or a little over 6 cars per day from Monday to Friday.

If you're looking for a rail-based solution, why not go with the old idea of trucking gravel to the ADM facility on Route 66, and use that rail to bring gravel to the Hudson port?
This may be a more viable option than what I've put forth. However, it would bring more trains through Hudson's 7th Street Park, which I was trying to avoid. Also, the ADM proposal—at least as previously put forthcontinues to transfer gravel to barges at the Hudson waterfront, an activity that many in the city would like to eliminate. And finally, the ADM scheme suffers from greater operational inefficiencies than either the current practice or my scheme, as it requires three modes of transporttruck to train to barge.

How about trucking the gravel to the ADM facility and transferring it to trains, but sending the trains the other way (eastward/south eastward) to Connecticut?
The ADM line, which apparently used to continue to Claverack, has been abandoned and removed east of ADM. Incidentally, it is often thought that the ADM line is the active line that passes through Chatham; it is not.

The scheme uses the South Bay causeway, which is precisely what some Hudsonians oppose. How do you justify this?
The scheme is a compromise, so some things could not be achieved. But in many regards the scheme gives environmentalists more than what they have asked for. The city would own the entire upper half of South Bay and land on both sides of Route 9G. The city would have full ownership and control of the port, which would not be used for gravel transfer. And there would be no gravel trucks or trains in the immediate vicinity of people using the waterfront park or the train station.

Is it realistic to have a new rail crossing of Route 9G?
Politically, new crossings can be difficult to pull off, as highway departments don't like them. But if it can be demonstrated that greater overall safety results from getting gravel trucks off Hudson's streets, it might have a shot. Remember, we'd be looking at one 9-car train in lieu of at least 80 trucks. And if the trains can run off-hours, all the better.

Is the conveyor you've shown crossing Route 9 the one currently in place (but apparently not in use)?

Your scheme would solve part of the truck route problem, but not all of it. What about all the other trucks traveling through Hudson, say from the Rip van Winkle Bridge to the malls on Fairview Avenue?
I don't know at this point. I would hope the scheme would head off opposition from those affected adversely by a truck route relocation, as it would reduce the number of trucks traveling on the new truck route, wherever it ends up.

This proposal is interesting, but ultimately it seems naive.
That's more or less why I put it out there. I think if one pursues only obvious, safe solutions, he'll miss alternatives that turn out to be viable, or the alternatives that grow out of the "naive" proposal. I have heard others say that Sarah Sterling's proposal to have the city negotiate the purchase of the dock and land from Holcim is also naive. But her proposal helped me develop a new alternative. Perhaps my own naive idea will lead to a workable solution. Naïvete is useful and even necessary to problem solving, as long as you know you're being naïve.

Is there any possibility Holcim would sell their waterfront land and dock to the city?
If I were Holcim, I wouldn’t be interested in selling my port to the city and then having to use it under the city's watch. But
what if the city offers Holcim a good-sized chunk of change for the port and land, while showing Holcim that it can move as much material as it currently moves without interference from the city, and without having to run eighty trucks to fill a single barge? Does that become appealing to Holcim?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A compromise scheme for the waterfront?

Alderman Sarah Sterling's proposal that the city negotiate with Holcim to purchase its waterfront industrial property was a brilliant stroke, the first fresh thinking on the impasse in a long time. Even if the proposal does not move forward as conceived, it pushes both parties to boil down their needs to their absolute essence. Workable compromises only become possible when parties are willing to let go of a few things cluttering the debate and to focus on what is most central. When that happens, the resulting compromise usually doesn't give each party 50% of what they want, but much more.

What is the quarry operators' most essential desire? To move gravel to locations beyond the city without the city's interference.

What is the city's most essential desire? To have control and use of South Bay and the waterfront for aesthetic, recreational, and environmental purposes, and to get gravel trucks off city streets.

With the above in mind, I developed the scheme below. It is based on a major assumption that if wrong would immediately void it, but I figure it is worth putting it out there. The assumption is that the quarry operators move gravel by train to points south instead of transferring it to a barge on the Hudson waterfront. I have no idea if this would be safe (would the loads be allowed on the North-South rail line?), cost feasible (what are the efficiencies of moving gravel by train versus barge?), politically workable (would CSX, whom I presume controls the lines, allow the proposed use?) or operationally convenient (do the train lines go where the gravel needs to go, or is there a railyard downstream where an intermodal transfer could occur?). But here's how it would work.

A new private rail spur would be extended from the existing north-south railroad line, travel along the existing South Bay causeway, and terminate at the existing quarry facility on the west side of Route 9. Quarry operators would load gravel there and move it by railcar to points south without transferring it to barges at the Hudson waterfront. Holcim's ownership of the northern half of South Bay and the waterfront land and port (shown in green, and extending to the east of 9G, so that both sides of 9G remain natural) would be transferred to the city.
Rail-based scheme (click on image for larger view): A new private rail spur would allow gravel to be transported to points south without bringing it through crucial parts of Hudson and without using the deepwater port.
Again, the scheme requires a big assumption. But if it holds, both parties would get most of what they most want. The quarry operators would get to move gravel more freely and Hudson would get a larger, more peaceful waterfront and no more gravel trucks through the city.

Some details would have to be worked out. The new rail line would have to cross Route 9G at grade. The configuration of the line east of 9G would have to be more complex than what I have shown so the rail cars could be loaded. Environmental regulators and the City of Hudson probably would want to limit and meter the amount of gravel moved via the new line. But these details seem solvable if the larger picture makes sense.

A final point: As I have written elsewhere, I do not wish for the greening of Hudson's waterfront to become part of a large scale eviction of industry from the city. Real industrial activity (locally owned and operated, not the conglomerate variety) needs to be accommodated and even intensified in some areas near the waterfront for the more general well-being of Hudson. It's another compromise that is necessary to give everyone most of what they most want. A topic to be expanded on another time.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

If you build it...

When I'm not exploring the city on foot or having coffee with other Hudsonians who know the city much better than I do, I often find myself studying aerial views of Hudson on Google or Bing. I'm usually trying to make sense out of aspects of the city I don't yet understand, to identify hidden patterns, or to find ways to make Hudson a physically, experientially, and socially more coherent place. The mishmashed street geometries at the eastern corner of the street grid (are there sensible ways to realign them?), the truck route (any alternatives not yet identified?), the Promenade (can it be extended north-south?), and a million other things spill through my mind, only occasionally leaving me with greater clarity than when I started.
The other day I found myself studying the Second Ward, looking for physical factors that contribute to the social isolation of its residents. A few were easy to identify: It has more vacant lots and more random open space than are found in the rest of the Hudson grid, making for a less comfortable milieu for strolling, hanging out, and having casual social encounters. Too, the buildings sit farther back from the sidewalk and are much lower, taller, or longer than the Hudson norm. Such physical differences in low income neighborhoods tend to stigmatize their residents, increasing their sense of alienation from other city residents.

High-rise buildings are especially problematic, as it is harder for their residents to participate in the social life of the city than it is for residents of four-story-and-under buildings. Above the fourth floor or so, it is difficult to recognize a familiar face on the street or to call out a warning to a child endangered by a passing vehicle. One's visual field tends to be oriented away from the immediate street environment and more toward the distant cityscape and landscape.

Social interaction in high rise buildings is also limited by their internal corridors. No doubt there are valuable friendships and social interdependencies within Bliss Tower, but such relationships tend to arise despite the physical environment, not because of it. The biggest problem with corridor buildings is that their residents are either completely inside their apartments or completely outside them; there's no in-between. A solid fire door on a blank-walled corridor eliminates gradations between in and out, between the private world of the home and the public world of passersby. This reduces the opportunities people have to meet each other. The single woman in 7A hoping to "accidentally on purpose" bump into the handsome guy living in 7G, or the elderly woman looking for a friendly greeting from the maintenance man won't even know when they have come and gone. Such might not sound like a big deal, but it becomes a big deal for those living with it day after day. By comparison, apartments in buildings with porches and stoops and that open directly to the street offer many more opportunities for their residents to casually interact with neighbors and strangers.

As I further considered the Second Ward's isolation problem, I looked at the city's structured public spaces. Structured spaces have built edges on two or more sides, and are usually located on or next to a highly used pathway. Thurston Park on lower Warren Street is an example, and a similar one lies adjacent to Mexican Radio. The Seventh Street Park and the Courthouse Green are much larger examples, and the buildings that enclose them are across the street. Such spaces are valuable for fostering social interaction; they are the spaces people go to to take a break from work, eat an ice cream cone, feed the pigeons, or people watch. They are also the spaces people incidentally pass through, all of which fosters the casual encounters that build familiarity and knit a community together. Soft public spaces (such as Promenade Park, Waterfront Park, and the Cemetery) are also important to cities but they tend to be located more on the periphery of neighborhoods or districts and to support somewhat different social purposes.
A structured public space: Thurston Park on lower Warren Street
If my informal survey is accurate, Hudson's structured public spaces consist of the four mentioned above, plus the Parc Foundation park. As you can see below, all five spaces are south of Columbia Street, and three of them are south of Warren Street. There are no structured public spaces in the northernmost area of the city, where the Second Ward is located. (I couldn't find a ward map, otherwise I would have shown the ward boundaries.)
Structured public spaces (in red) are important for fostering casual social interaction.
This suggested to me a somewhat different approach to weaving the lives of Second Ward residents into the life of the city, particularly if Bliss Tower is eventually replaced by low-rise development as is often discussed: We shouldn't only be looking for ways to bring Second Ward residents toward Warren Street and the rest of Hudson, important though this is; we need to create reasons for the rest of Hudson to go to the Second Ward. Indeed, there are only dead-end streets beyond the Second Ward, which means many city residents almost never pass through it incidentally. But imagine a new structured public space in the Second Ward with a few mom and pop storefronts along the edges, some benches for the elderly to sit on, some shade trees, and all the neighborhood kids coming and going.

I would sure go there to people watch.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Sad days in Hudson

The past few days have been the first days since I moved to Hudson that I have felt really sad. The trigger was my exploration on Monday of Hudson's barren industrial areas—Hudson Avenue, Route 9, Power Avenue, Dock Street, and the waterfront. I've wandered into these areas many times over the past four months, but in seeing all the empty, underused, and falling down buildings in the space of an hour, and in realizing how many lives have been hurt by the loss of jobs, I felt overwhelmed.

[photo from]

But if it is overwhelming to be confronted directly by a big problem, it is truly dispiriting to not be allowed to talk about it. Such a prohibition seems to hang over Hudson today. In the wake of the defeat of the Saint Lawrence Cement plant, some Hudsonians now oppose all industry within Hudson's borders, regardless of its size, shape, or ownership, and will not tolerate any conversations on industry. They seek to ostracize those who suggest that industry might deserve a place in Hudson's future, and greet even the most neutral comment or question with suspicion. Any view that is not stridently anti-industry risks being construed as evidence that one is a closet SLC supporter, a hater of the natural environment, and an enemy of all that is good and beautiful about Hudson and the Hudson Valley. You're either with us or against us, the anti-industry crowd seems to think, and if you go looking for gray area between those two positions it’s probably because your secret goal is to sneak a 400-foot-tall toxic smokestack onto a nearby mountaintop.

I do not know what legitimate social, economic, cultural, or moral basis there could be for staking out an ironclad anti-industry position. Even ecology-based arguments against industry (e.g., prohibiting industry on the waterfront will allow the causeway to continue returning to a more natural state) are of dubious merit when considered in a broad global context. Banishing industry from Hudson simply means its negative impacts will be felt somewhere else in the world, because consumer demand for manufactured goods persists. And its new location likely will be within the borders of a nation that lacks the environmental oversight we are capable of in the United States. Which means that banishing industry from Hudson ultimately causes more ecological damage than it prevents. Which turns the ostensibly high-minded, ecology-based argument into little more than a provincial argument: "I don't want industry here because it's where I am."

NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard-ism) has a multiplier effect that even further endangers the natural environment: As one American city after another banishes industrial activity from its borders, those activities become consolidated in their eventual locations as larger, more singular entities. The resulting mammoth projects produce the worst environmental and aesthetic nightmares: Instead of five thousand scattered factories producing five thousand comparatively small sets of environmental issues, one enormous factory in one place brings more harm to its local environment than it can reasonably be expected to absorb.

This brings us to a painful irony: because industrial prohibition increases the scale of industrial development elsewhere, the eviction of industry from Hudson increases the likelihood, however incrementally, that some other small city will have to fend off an SLC-scale nightmare. Such would be the worst possible legacy for our victory over SLC: to have realized it at the expense of another city.

There is only one valid way for a city to assert an anti-industry argument, and that is to reduce its demand for manufactured goods to zero. Since Hudson is not doing this, we need to accept the moral and practical weight for how we live. We need to match our demand for manufactured goods with the responsibility for producing them. I don't mean we should have an automobile factory because many of us drive automobiles, or knitting mills because we wear sweaters. But we need to be willing to match our overall demand for manufactured goods with a willingness to manufacture some goods here in comparatively large numbers. We need to manufacture more storm doors or wigs or buttons than we use ourselves, as we once did, to keep our manufacturing responsibility on balance with what we demand from the rest of the world. To refuse to do so is to consider oneself, or one’s city, a special case. Perhaps you will want to argue that we are a special case, but every other municipality, county, and river valley in the country has its own reasons to make that same claim. We can either wait in line with the rest of them in the hope we will be anointed the holy one, or we can start getting realistic.

What does getting realistic mean? That we ought to accept the next outrageous SLC-scale proposal that comes along? Not at all. In fact, we need to get entirely past the ridiculous, widely accepted notion that economic development means "attracting" businesses from somewhere else. Real, meaningful economic development—the kind that not only provides jobs but that interweaves basic human needs for self-actualization, creativity, and cultural enrichment—has to come from the community itself. Further, if economic development is to be genuinely creative and meaningful, in the words of the late Jane Jacobs, “you can’t decide ahead of time what activities you want to see. Economic life is full of surprises, and if you decide what you’re going to base your economy on — what do you have to think about? Things that already exist. You’re ruling out innovation right away, and yet innovation is of the essence for a live and prospering economy.” I am sure Jacobs would have agreed that innovation is of the essence for a truly vibrant culture as well.

I arrived in Hudson at an interesting time, to say the least. It is a time at which the city is very, very unsure what it should become next. This uncertainty is itself a big part of what drew us here. The only certainty that seems to exist is that Hudson will not be the home of a mammoth cement plant. But the struggle to not be something is very different from a concerted effort to be something, to shape and pursue a genuinely inclusive vision of the future, to work as a community toward it, and to willingly accept the headaches that come with it. The anti-industry, arts and recreation-based vision of Hudson's future really isn’t a vision at all, it’s a simplistic extension of the what-we-don’t-want-to-be mode of thinking with a few innocuous activities thrown into the mix. The resulting picture appeals to a small, influential group of Hudsonians that do not directly depend on the making of things for their own well-being, and they somehow seek to translate this narrowness into a model for everyone else to adhere to. But if a gallery walk, some window shopping, and dinner at a waterfront restaurant constitute a full urban day for this set, it is incredibly self-centered of them to think that an urban community can subsist on such a narrow range of activities. I enjoy these activities myself, but to turn them into the totality of the future of Hudson is to subject much of the city to a dearth of employment opportunities, not to mention a first class yawn festival.

In my recent review of Miriam Silverman's Stopping the Plant, I ended with a question posed by the author toward the end of her book: Who gets to determine the direction of development in a community? I think most reasonable people would agree it should be the community itself—the entire community, not just a vocal fraction whose personal circumstances allow them to get out in front of and control the dialogue.

To this end, Hudson needs to embrace a patient, inclusive, human-scaled model of economic development that builds organically and creatively on who we are and what we have—warts and all—from the bottom up. And right now, we have people of ambition, talent, and need sitting idly all over our city (although more north of Warren Street than south of it) who could become productive businesspersons in their homes if they weren't forbidden to do so by intrusive regulations and the fears of the anti-industry set. Up and down State and Columbia Streets, in living rooms, bedrooms, and garages, residents could be opening repair shops, second hand stores, weaving studios, cafes, and a thousand other things we can't predict in advance, if only our economic development environment didn't force them to forever sit on their hands. In time, a few of these mom and pop entrepreneurs would outgrow their home locations and move to Hudson’s outlying industrial areas, where they would become exporters to other parts of the world. These industries would not only be in Hudson, they would be of Hudson.

What an exciting and original city Hudson would become, if only we were willing to let it be.