Malmo-lous, Simply Malmo-lous

Get ready for a lot of press about Malmo, the formerly industrial city in Sweden that is trying to reinvent itself in a big way. A paradise for urban planners who love to play with waterfronts, they have done a great deal of work in creating an urban oasis in the last few years on what used to be docklands, fill, and a car factory.

The Guardian ran a nice article on Monday and there are also several Swedish sites with good photos. It all started with the original 2001 housing exhibition, which has since evolved into the uber-trendy Bo01 neighbourhood.

The onslaught of press will occur when Calatrava's spectacular Turning Torso opens. This is the building that will have an impact on every single condo tower in North America. I'm sure someone in Vancouver, Toronto, New York, Miami, Chicago and San Diego is scheming a knockoff as I type this... Check out the developer's website.


Don't Fence Me In

Dear Toronto Public Space Committee,

I have been following your campaigns for some time now. While I disagree with some of them (I am cognizant of the poor funding environment for cities and therefore tolerant of commercial street furniture and transit ads), it pleases me to see that someone out there is concerned with the deteriorating quality of Toronto's public space. Unlike many older American cities (blessed with long histories of philanthropy and reform movements), there is not much to begin with in Toronto and the little remaining attractive public space must be carefully nurtured.

Which brings me to Moss Park. The Armoury on the corner of Jarvis and Queen has long been somewhat of an eyesore, both for its banal architecture and its lack of utilization. (Such a prime corner probably has better uses than as a parking lot for army reserve vehicles.) Nonetheless, I do not object to the continuing military use of the site and strongly disagree with the reprehensible homeless "activists" who often try to take over the building. My concern is with the visual environment around the building.

The main redeeming feature of the Armoury is that it currently offers a generous amount of green grass buffer in an area that, although now gentrifying, is still very hard-edged. This grassy relief is now in danger, physically and visually.

Apparently a contractor has begun to install chain link fencing around the site today. This action needs to be investigated:

1) Did the city grant a permit for this work? Does Planning know about it?

2) What is the purported need? Does it justify an 8' tall fence around a small reserve installation? Would a low fence suffice?

3) Why is the fence not set back more from the street?

4) Why is it not a more attractive fence design (such as painted metal) that is compatible with an urban environment?

5) A similar fencing action was attempted about six years ago but withdrawn after protest (with the assistance of Councillor Rae). Is this simply another attempt to fence off the property?

Simply claiming "military security need" is not sufficient for ill consideration for the public nature of the buffer space. It fact, a chain link fence in the face of pedestrians on Queen Street is quite insulting. As you so carefully point out on your de-fence project, chain link fences are not positive materials for the borders of public spaces.

There are ways to provide security, if in fact it can be justified, without harming the streetscape. Please consider this a cause for your website.

CC: 32 Brigade Public Affairs Office, Councillor Kyle Rae

Note -- to see the difference between a tall chain-link fence and an attractive iron fence, see the fence replacement project at New York's Central Park Reservoir. These are the details that nobody thinks about but everyone loves.


UPDATE: Within a few days, I received a response detailing that the fence had in fact been discussed with the city and community groups, would soon be replaced by a setback wrought-iron version, and that flowerbeds would be added to enhance curb appeal. Fantastic!


Bikes and Condos

Just a short news item on two things I thought were cool:

This Ritz-Carlton (left) is unusually attractive-looking for a downtown hotel. What could have been a nightmare in Philadelphia's most important square instead looks pretty good.
Could this bike scheme(right) in Lyons really work? They brought back the old leave-bikes-around-town-for-free model and this time are trying to make it work. Will credit cards and electronic sensors prevent the theft and vandalism that ruined the concept in past applications? The best part -- the whole system came at no cost as part of the deal that gave anad company the right to put up posters at Lyons' bus shelters.

The Real Underground Art Scene

Came across this article on art in subway stations and was very impressed. Why does this matter, you say? Well, it doesn't, except when you spend long periods of time staring at the wall in a subway station that is well over 100 degrees in the summer you wonder about how different treatments of a concrete box might make for a more pleasurable day.

Art for a token... or is it token art?
New York is doing fairly well on the art front these days, as they have actually removed the 1970s bland tile from many stations and restored a faux-1900 mosaic tile look to them. There is also a reasonable amount of installed artwork, though many of the more interactive ones eventually break down. The best has to be REACH-New York, which can be found very close to uSkyscraper's home base.

Toronto is more of a problem. Because of the city's total funding crisis, the TTC is doing a great job of maintaining the status quo but is falling behind on renovations and expansions. This can be cool in a way (where else can you see 1960's retro buses roaming the streets?) but the old subway stations pretty much look like an unrenovated bathroom at this point. The new stations were done with such obvious budget constraints that they feature exposed concrete and depressing fluorescent lighting. Someone's architects should have ridden the Stockholm subway first...


Downtown Dorms

One of my favourite sources for architectural news is ArchNewsNow, which collects stories from papers around the world, and also posts some original content. One great recent feature article by Trevor Broddy discusses the unusual urban situation now unfolding in Vancouver, one of North America's most attractive cities. With its dramatic mountain and ocean views and forest of tall condo towers on a small pennisular, some have called it urban paradise.

Paradise, yes, but because of short-sighted urban planning, downtown Vancouver may be becoming a fool's paradise. This is because people are coming to live and play here, but not to work. Director of central area planning Larry Beasley confirmed in a recent interview that no new office tower has started construction or even been proposed by developers for our downtown core in the new century.

How many office buildings can you see in the above photo?

In other words, downtown Vancouver has few office towers to start with (only 15 million SF of class A office space, similar to Jersey City or Pittsburgh) and almost zero potential or desire for office growth. It is becoming a bedroom suburb of, er, the suburbs, which is so confusing that there is no word for it.

It is not surprising that offices are being built in the suburbs and not downtown Vancouver. For a huge number of reasons, lousy downtown quality of life among them, most US cities long ago passed the point where more than 50% of their regional office space was not downtown. What is surprising here is that this change is happening in what is otherwise a super-successful city that has undergone a decade long building boom.

The same trend is happening in a few other popular cities successful -- San Francisco, San Diego, and Miami. Because these cities have attractive urban environments there is rampant condo construction on the order of thousands and thousands of units a year in the downtown cores. However, due to high business taxes, declining roles as head office locations, deliberate planning or all three there are virtually no office buildings under construction. This is not the case in New York or Chicago, where new office buildings are sprouting up alongside, or sometimes under, new condos. Toronto has a problem with office suburbanization -- only a couple new office buildings in the core in the last decade -- but the large base of existing commercial office space and the city's continuing national head-office role mitigate the issue somewhat.

What is going on in Vancouver is definitely the most extreme case of a downtown being exciting, vibrant, diverse, full of retail and entertainment and yet losing its original function as a commercial center. By definition, downtown areas were created because businesses needed to be close to each other and their customers, and organically evolved into districts with high density and high land values. Vancouver still has the density and high values, both the highest in Canada, but diminishing commercial office activity.

What happens to a city when no one works downtown but everyone wants to live there? Is this a failure that will doom the city to become a glorified urban theme park, or a wild success for those who felt that the last fifty years of commerical-oriented downtowns had destroyed traditional cities? Should the Vancouver continue with condomania or should incentives be offered to try and encourage downtown office development? Is there even a problem here?

What would you do if you were mayor?


The Sky is Falling

Dear Mr. Healy,

I enjoyed your article in the Times regarding skywalks. However, I was a little surprised that you kept the national blinders on and did not discuss the skywalks in Calgary (the largest skywalk system) or the underground networks in Montreal and Toronto (two of the largest underground). You did note that cold-weather skywalks were not really a problem, but I think any study of what makes these systems work or fail should have included the Canadian examples.

Perhaps a critical mass of buildings needs to be present (the failed systems are quite small), or rapid transit (something that Cincinnati and Hartford do not have, and that Dallas does not connect to), or just a long winter. In any case, it would have been interesting to have gotten the reaction from those places. Is the Calgary skywalk now falling out of favour? Does Toronto regret its underground retail pull?

(Mr. Healy later responded that the "blinders" were not intentional, since he was focussing on failed systems, which tended to be located in the US. See NPR host Kurt Andersen's skywalk article for a prescient analysis from almost 20 years ago. )


Apple vs. Apple

Seems the Big Apple can't quite handle the architectural stylings of that other Apple. The New York Times ran an article yesterday that discussed a new Apple store proposed for the old Andrews Coffee Shop at 5th Ave and 19th Street:

But if Apple hopes to get its plans for a retail store approved by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, the preservationists at least want the building to bear some of the architectural basics of its neighbors. Plans for the site, in the Ladies' Mile Historic District, are subject to commission approval.

Apple's first plan, to simply replace the aluminum-framed storefront of what had been the Andrews Coffee Shop with a gray limestone facade - its logo of a large once-bitten apple etched into the stone - ran into opposition from Community Board 5, a local advisory body. Its second proposal, said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a nonprofit preservation group, "presents this flat pane of glass that would be more appropriate to an aquarium."

Let's examine the facts. This is probably one of Apple's medium size streetfront stores, like this one in California, not a huge flagship store like the existing one in SoHo. Apple has a strong retail architecture which is extremely consistent. It is a little unorthodox in terms of rebuilding the entire facade with a minimalist modern look, but that's their product and in most retail environments it is a real improvement. Most big brands now have their own architecture anyways -- visit Fifth Ave in the 50s, or Oxford Street, or Tokyo's best areas. Everyone is doing it. Remember Prada?

The proposed area is historic but the site certainly is not. The actual "Ladies Mile" was not on Fifth Ave but Broadway, and the great historic department stores of the era, that truly invented the entire concept of a department store, are on 23rd Street or Sixth Ave. Examine for a moment the actual facades around the site in question -- thanks to the wonders of A9, you can do that by clicking here and then moving left and right up the block. There is a lot of bulky limestone, and a lot of tacky awnings for Lenscrafters and delis. The immediate neighbours are not architecturally significant.

If Apple were to propose gutting a substantial building with a historic facade it would be one thing. But to take the worst storefront on the block and update it with glass is not worthy of bureaucratic opposition. Putting a fake historic pastiche on the site would be a lie and not serve anyone. Cities change, and sometimes contrasting that change can have benefits. A couple years ago the Harvard Club on 44th Street went through a gut-wrenching debate over an addition. Should the old red-brick facade be faked up and copied, even though no one builds that way anymore, or should a minimalist glass facade be constructed instead to highlight the older buildings around it? The decision was to go with the glass, and I think people were pleasantly surprised with the result.

My point is, when presented with a non-historic site in a historic district, what better way to highlight the beauty of the older buildings than by building an invisible glass wall that delicately inserts modernism while reflecting, literally, the history around it through comparison? Apple has the right idea. Landmarks is wrong on this one.


Editorial Gridlock

Now lost to the archives of the Internet, I read an editorial on the weekend in the Toronto Sun that pleaded for the provincial government to build more roads. The Sun is fairly right-wing, but I was still surprised by the vitriol against transit and demands for more highways, "even expressways." Now that I think about it, I've noticed an increasing number of references to gridlock in the Toronto media of all stripes.

On the one hand, this is a good thing because it is a spinoff of the discussions about the city getting more money and power to shape its physical infrastructure thanks to the long-awaited gas tax redistributing to local authorities. (Way to get with the 20th century there, guys. ) Any debate about how to spend money on infrastructure is a good debate, since it means people are talking about the built environment of cities.

That said, it will be very interesting to see which way this turns. Here is a breakdown of Toronto's transit personality by decade:

1950s - Small city. Nothing to do and nowhere to go. Streetcar system and city streets are still sufficient.

1960s - Growing ambition. Highway building coexists with subway building as the city remakes itself for the modern era.

1970s - Fear of heights, realization of American planning mistakes, and focus on neighbourhoods. All future highways cancelled. Subways expand slowly.

1980s - Integrated transit system of bus, streetcar and subway is North America's model of efficiency. Ridership peaks. City booms.

1990s - Suburbs pass 50% of regional population and transit (which has not expanded) suffers. Ridership drops, fares go up, toll highways appear in the burbs.

2000s - New focus on transit with some gains. But population shifts have left everyone unhappy and there is no money anymore to build anything, anywhere.

In other words, Toronto is still pretty transit-oriented. Even the road lovers allow that public transit must be supported. But it's like Vienna suddenly grew an Atlanta around it. The downtown is lively, has a huge population and decent transit; but there are also now massive suburbs, office towers outside the core, and industry kicked far into the 'burbs to accommodate all those downtown condos. People must drive because they have no other options. Might be their fault for moving there in the first place but growth was allowed or encouraged and now they are stuck. What to do? An article today anguished:
Does anybody really believe that better co-ordination of transportation planning, improving communication to drivers, better sequencing of traffic lights and better timing of road construction -- the four big solutions Mr. Tory presented last week -- will make the slightest difference to commuting times? In fact, the present government is already doing most of what Mr. Tory wants to do, and the most one can say is such policies are potentially slowing the rate at which Toronto traffic slows.

Assuming for a moment, that one must do something (more on that later), what is the right path?

1) Build massive new rapid transit. Hate to say it, but this is pretty impossible. Even if you had billions to spend you can't build enough to suddenly turn a postwar city into Manhattan (and even in Manhattan people hate being forced to take the subway.) Beijing and Shanghai are actually trying to do this and it still isn't working for them. The more they build, the more people want to drive. Planners are stunned but infrastructure can't beat the addictive car culture that is now a global phenomenon. Cars are, frankly, amazing if you can afford to have one. They wreck cities but hard to see that from one's insulated little steel cocoon.

2) Build new highways. The war-cry of conservatives (like that Sun editorial), this just doesn't work. Sorry to call people uneducated, but a careful study of history (and common sense) will show that if you make it easier to drive somewhere, more people will do it, and unless you freeze development you are guaranteeing that new suburbs will clog whatever capacity you build. And it's not exactly insignificant that you have to destroy, as in utterly ruin, whole neighbourhoods to build them. Newsflash -- Robert Moses was spectacularly wrong. It cannot be done.

3) Change behaviour. Most impossible of all, though it may happen through factors that can't be controlled like the price of oil or federal tax programs. You can try to impose tolls on roads, but good luck finding a politician to support it. The entire structure of our society is geared towards car convenience. Not necessarily a bad thing, as our standards of living have, in many ways, improved as a result. I mean, if all cars were electric would there be any problem at all? (The answer is still yes, but one can dream.)

4) Optimize. This is the best idea in my opinion. There is actually a lot of space already dedicated to the streets and Toronto has an excellent grid. The problem is that they are often horribly used in terms of efficiency. I'm not talking about fixing a traffic light here or turn lane there. I want total redesign of the streets so that all streets are one-way, all lights are adaptably synchronized and there are minimal screw-ups with cars fighting pedestrians fighting cars for crossings. Encourage transit within this optimization, but don't kick people out of the cars that they were forced, or democratically chose, to drive. Computer technology exists to remake the way we use streets, and Manhattan proved the wonder of the system when it switched from 2-way streets to one-way synchronized years ago. At night you can cruise any avenue in Manhattan for 100 blocks on the "green wave" without hitting a light. No need for an urban expressway - just sail up 8th Ave. Toronto is more complex but much more could be done to keep short-trip drivers off the expressways and on the city streets while not damaging the built fabric that lines them.

This whole crisis is not totally surprising, since the exact same issues have been around before. Check out this fantastic 1957 CBC television special about Toronto's traffic problems back then. The difference between 1957 and 2007 is the technology. Use it properly and the city street, one of mankind's greatest inventions, may survive just fine for years to come.