The Omnibus Roundup — Change in Times Square, Preservation in the Village, Walking in America, Apps for Data, Policies for Transit, and Design for Revolution!

Times Square Redesign by Snøhetta | Rendering courtesy NYC DOT

Times Square Redesign by Snøhetta | Rendering courtesy NYC DOT

What defines an edge condition? How is the street differentiated from the sidewalk? For the past couple of years, Times Square has been the site of an experiment: what happens when you take away traffic from one of the most congested intersections in the city and give the street space over to pedestrians? The experiment has been a success: the air in Times Square is cleaner, the number of traffic accidents has gone down, rents have gone up and people seem to enjoy being there more. But the markers that distinguish street space from pedestrian space (despite chairs and paint) are still there: the curb, the signs, the phone booths, all the elements that silently tell a pedestrian where her space ends. That is soon to be no longer. Snøhetta, the firm designing the World Trade Center Museum, has put forth a design that will make the pedestrianization of Times Square permanent by removing curbs and installing sizable benches (up to 50 feet long) that emerge from patterned pavers. Whether these changes will make even New Yorkers want to be there, we’ll have to wait and see. Read more of the coverage at New York Magazine.

Among the constants of city life are continuous change and continuous complaint about change. One of the historic preservation mechanisms used to regulate the balance between a city’s shifting needs and its respect for the legacy and continuity of its built environment is historic district designation. Will Doig, in his article “Preserving history, or the 1 percent?,” takes on the question of who benefits from the development restrictions that follow such a designation. Citing the astronomic rents and subsequent lack of ethnic and economic diversity in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood largely responsible for neighborhood preservation as we know it, Doig questions whether the act of designating a neighborhood a historic district maintains or threatens city life. Read the entire article on Salon‘s Dream City.

The Atlantic Yards project has been fought over since its inception. Critiques run the gamut from accusations of eminent domain abuse or wasteful public subsidies to complaints about the current construction process and fear of the coming influx of rowdy concert goers and Nets fans. Anticipation of all that foot traffic is already intensifying the increased pressure on the rental market for retail space along Flatbush Avenue, according a New York Times article that reports on the concerns of businesses — like hardware stores and dry cleaners — being priced out of the neighborhood as well as those of residents fearful of noise, traffic and trash. The effects of the arena and its patrons, which will open this fall, are foremost on people’s minds. Concerns about the effects of the 14 promised residential towers of 6,430 apartments, have been pushed, like the 25-year construction schedule, well into the future.

New York City is widely understood to be one of the United States’ most walkable cities, but, as a nation, Americans don’t walk. We drive. Last week, in an extensive four-part series on Slate, Tom Vanderbilt took on the questions of why Americans don’t walk, how pedestrians function, what a walk score is and how to get Americans walking again. Part one, “The Crisis in American Walking,” includes a semantic analysis of the word “pedestrian” and an anthropological overview of “what walking is for” across the country and around the world. In part two, Vanderbilt dives into the behavioral and physiological science of walking, zeroing in on particular elements of the built environment inhabited by pedestrians — the street corner, the crosswalk, the escalator, the stairway — and revisiting lessons learned from William H. Whyte, David Simon’s The Wire, Jeff Zupan, Legion’s pedestrian modeling software, and a series of urban street photographers along the way. Part three, “What’s Your Walk Score?“, considers the rise of “walkability” as a quantifiable metric through a visit to the office of Walk Score, a company dedicated to promoting walkable neighborhoods, primarily through their online tool that calculates locations’ pedestrian-friendliness using a variety of proprietary algorithms and data streams. The final segment, “Learning to Walk,” lists some bleak examples of how transportation planning, funding and policy decisions have all but “engineered [walking] out of existence,” and what we can do to turn those tendencies around. Check out the entire series at Slate.

The winners of BigApps 3.0, which challenges software developers to create applications that “make NYC better” through the creative and productive use of NYC Open Data, have been announced. The top prize goes to NYCFacets, an app that offers a way for software developers, businesses and individuals to more efficiently sift through and make sense of the huge quantity of data made available by the city. Runners up include Work+, an app that helps users identify and find their ideal work environment; New York Trip Builder, a site that helps visitors create personalized itineraries for their time in New York; Scene Near Me, which alerts users to nearby locations of famous movie scenes; and 596 Acres, an app that facilitates the adoption and productive use of disused and vacant lots in Brooklyn. You can find details about all of the winning apps at the BigApps website, or read more coverage on Metro Focus.

The presumed candidates for Mayor are beginning to make their policy platforms known, and this week Manhattan Borough President tried to establish a firm claim to the mantle of transit, declaring the MTA would be a top priority for his mayoral administration, and engaging in a flurry of recriminations with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over Stringer’s support for a commuter tax and Christie’s canceling of the ARC tunnel in 2010 (a decision Vishaan Chakrabarti decried on these pages as narrow-minded, short sighted and antithetical to bringing about a Country of Cities). But Stringer isn’t the first candidate to declare his “unswerving commitment to New York City public transit,” as Streetsblog points out. In October, former Comptroller Bill Thompson proposed a three-step solution to fixing the MTA in an op-ed in the New York Post.


DESIGN/HISTORY/REVOLUTION CONFERENCE  Design has functioned throughout time as an agent for change, as well as an analytical method for studying history. Examining the design of objects as well as spaces, across historical periods and through the lenses of multiple disciplines, Parsons is hosting a conference looking at design’s role in history, with a keynote address delivered by Barry Bergdoll, The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. More information available at the conference website. Friday and Saturday, April 27 and 28, Kellen Auditorium, 66 5th Avenue.
A STROLL THROUGH CENTRAL PARK  Last year, we took a walk through Fort Greene Park with poet Jon Cotner as he shared his musings on neighborliness, introspection and interaction in the urban environment. Next weekend, on April 28th and 29th, Cotner will lead two walks through Central Park, hosted the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Horticultural Society of New York in celebration of National Landscape Architecture Month and the legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted. Spaces are limited, so registration is required. Click through for more information about the Saturday and Sunday walks.


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The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Norman Odedr April 20, 2012

That Times article on Atlantic Yards was myopic and misguided; much of the retail change it focused on, including most of the businesses featured in photos, were established before the project was a go. More importantly, the article provided just two paragraphs about an important appeals court decision, and otherwise scanted issues of accountability.

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