Thursday, April 28, 2005

Origins of the urban crisis

After watching the thesis presentations of several M.Arch students at Michigan this week, in addition to several other studio crits, I am not optimistic about the future of our built environment. How does a cliche become a cliche? By architects' taking a narrow and self-serving object for their work.

One thesis investigated new ways of using vinyl siding on the detached single family residence -- how plastic can be used to create new types of porches, sun rooms, and so forth. Unfortunately, she did not acknowledge that the reason we have vinyl siding is because it looks like wood siding (sort of), except that it has lower maintenance requirements. Its introduction and adoption were in response to our long-time understanding of what a house looks like -- four walls, a pitched roof with asphalt shingles and maybe a dormer, lapped clapboard siding or brick, and a front door in the midde of the facade. I don't think you can expect to alter consumers' use of siding significantly unless you alter their conceptions of houseness.

Aside from that there was a lengthy comic strip for a thesis and a set of models and images for another questioning architects' received ideas of scale that took about 5 minutes, literally, to explain. I am incredibly skeptical of any "thesis" that can be presented in 5 minutes. Fortunately, one member of the commentary panel took the student to task, acknowledging what I felt, "Maybe I'm not getting it, but I can't see that you've told us anything about architecture." She stumbled in her answer and offered that the project had helped her become more aware of scale in her own life. This may be a valuable outcome, but I object to the notion of this as a "thesis."

Only a very few projects acknowledged the surrounding built environment in the cases where they (gasp!) designed a building at all. The antipathy of architects vs. planners and the objects of their professions (see My Architect for a great illustration) is alive and wll. During my recent trip to Vancouver, we met with Arthur Erickson, an architect who had spent decades advocating densification and citywide planning and who had also designed some of the best buildings in the city (and province). On the day we met him, the Globe and Mail named him one of the 10 most important people in the history of British Columbia for his architecture and his urban vision. Sadly, he is an incredible rarity and I don't see that kind of broad vision coming from today's students.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

History is more or less bunk

With the winter departure of Ann Arbor's Historic District Coordinator, things are not looking good for preservation in Ann Arbor. Historic districts are frequently associated with anti-development stances in this city, but I think the historic districts have an important role to play in future development of Ann Arbor, difficult as that may be to reconcile.

First, we should recognize the importance that historic district ordinances have played (both in Ann Arbor and in other cities) in preserving the frequently better-built and more attractive architecture of the past. The buildings on Main Street and State Street and the houses of the Old West Side and Old Fourth Ward are testament to the foresight of residents some 25 years ago when development pressure would have torn them down or "modernized" them into a crappy state that we would surely be regretting today. At least part of Ann Arbor's vitality can be attributed to its ease of walkability, preserved during the years America was gutting its downtowns.

Now, we should reconsider and even reaffirm the importance of legal protections of historic buildings today. Considering most of what has been built in this town in, say, the last 30 years, and even the last ten years -- is there anything built recently that can match the architecture and urban attitude of buildings now one hundred years old? There is not. When we preserve or adaptively re-use old buildings, we are not merely holding onto the past; we are maintaining buildings that are better suited to our community uses, that are more comprehensible to our eyes, and that better promote the kinds of lives we want to live. I submit anyone look at the new Life Sciences buildings and the Biomedical Research Building (Venturi, Scott Brown, architects) and tell me they would rather have that in their community than something like the Natural Science building (Albert Kahn, architect). Both were designed for modern biological research purposes. One is attractive; the other is not. One makes a pedestrian feel good about walking near it, the other only has room for cars. One has grass and landscaping around it, integrated into a thoughtful mall and other, similarly styled and scaled buildings nearby; the other offers sheer surfaces and wind tunnels to force anyone back inside who even thought about walking around outside. Let me also point out the LSI complex is turned inward and from the inner "courtyard" or whatever one might call it, does not offer visual connections to the rest of the Michigan campus. Anyway...

That said -- current blocks to development in historic districts (including, notably, accessory dwelling units) have served to keep cranking property values -- taxes, mortgages, and rents up sky high. This is ludicrous and only leads to a backlash when city employees and average joes are unable to afford living in Ann Arbor.

Property owners in historic districts and members of neighborhood associations MUST come together with student representatives, development interests and local business owners to negotiate compromises to provide for development in Ann Arbor. The future of the city (20-40 years) are too important to be taking self-interested, principled stands on any particular projects. People are complaining about the two houses on the Glen Ann block being lost to new development. These rentals should be donated to a community interest group and moved elsewhere in the city. These houses really are remnants of a bygone era, when the university had about 8,000 students and faculty probably lived there. The notion that that block is an historic district anymore is ludicrous, what with the BioMed building looming stories above, along with the Power Center a block up, and the old gas station on the corner. This block SHOULD be redeveloped into a set of six-or-so story complexes. However, the city SHOULD mandate that the houses be moved and the building designs be of a sympathetic design (NOT to the ugly BioMed building).

There is a place both for preservation and urban development in Ann Arbor. Indeed, reconciling the two are essential to the city's future.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A Force of Nature

I had the good fortune of stepping out of my lame-ass orientation seminar today so that I could go to an MUP round table with Huron Valley Sierra Club president Doug Cowherd. Cowherd came in to talk for an hour (that turned into 2 hours) about the HVSC and the plan for the Ann Arbor Greenway.

Not having had any contact with Cowherd until today, I expected something different from what I got. The bottom line on Cowherd is that he is smooth -- polished to a deep glow, really. Unfortunately, I think that popular characterizations of him, while they simplify his message and position, are mostly accurate. He came onto the planners (6 in the room, plus me, I recall) right off by presenting the HVSC's message as more or less equally valuing urban densification and peripheral greenspace. "Wow," I thought, "isn't this guy on our side?" He then claimed that unavoidable economic forces would bring density to Ann Arbor; his agenda was simply to promote a higher quality of life in the face of this coming development. He went on to say how he/HVSC was in favor of walkable neighborhoods and density and challenged anyone in the room to name a development HVSC had shot down. Of course, no one could name one. An unproductive Dickens Woods example followed, which he fairly skillfully parried.

The thing is, that is not the way these things work. Cowherd pointed out that the HVSC has no staff and has about 4000 members, about 80 of whom are active in their three-county area. He made it seem like the HVSC was the Davidian voice of the people with a little sling shot against the Goliath developers. The reality is much like my own neighborhood association, Old West Side. I am a dues-paying member, and I get about one email a month (if that) from the OWS leadership, along with the Old West Side News. There is nothing going on. However, there is a flurry of communication every time a NIMBY issue (eg the Greenway) comes up, and people who have some identification with the group (perhaps because of the OWS News) jump to action for their team. I suspect it is the same thing with the HVSC. The HVSC doesn't have much of a heirarchy or bureaucracy, but they have a base that Cowherd loves to whip into action when he sees something he doesn't agree with. On one level, it is good -- this is how grassroots activism is supposed to work. However, Cowherd is being disingenuous about his and the HVSC's position and agenda. He whips people into a frenzy, be it the OWS or the OFW or the other three groups he said he had been talking to over the last week or two, and THEY are the ones who jump in front of the cameras and boo at meetings as "accidental activists." And the HVSC's hands are clean.

At this point I interjected that I didn't buy his assumption that densification was inevitable, and in fact the county was expecting its population to increase by about 25 percent in the next two decades, while Ann Arbor was only planning to grow by 2-3 percent. I further went on to say that with such demand for the area, if only 2-3 percent growth were the case, Ann Arbor prices and property values would continue to rise in their current fashion. He challenged me to name a project that had been shot down. I responded North Main condos. He said name another. I responded (incorrectly) 828 Greene. It was an attempted shoot-down, but it passed. He said there were 200 sites downtown that he felt could be sensitively developed to 3-6 times their current density, but chose not to name them. I hit him harder on the "unavoidable densification" point, which he tried to explain away.

Later, when he was promoting a green-spacey, transit-oriented, walkable environment (with photos), I asked him how the buildings in his photos (which he claimed were from the national SC Web site) were different from the Corner House Lofts, which he had opposed, the one project he acknowledged opposing. The were really remarkably similar, from the brick veneer to the green awnings over the sidewalk. He got defensive and said he wasn't an architect, so he couldn't say how they were similar or different. I responded that he had opposed the CH Lofts on their design and detailing and height, not on their structural or material merit; he said CH Lofts weren't sensitive to the historic neighborhood; I said, not to the OFW, you mean? He said, no to the historic State St area; I asked him if the abandoned Olga's building that it replaced was more historically sensitive to the State Street area. He responded that the city should have forced a better design or waited for one. This contradicts his apathy towards zoning, even form-based guidelines, which could have helped improve the design. (BTW, I agree it could have been done better, but it is in fact almost EXACTLY in line with the physical vision he was putting forth using Denver and Oakland as examples).

He then went on to explain how pretty much every official in the city was in bed with developers, from the DDA to the planning commission to the city council. Long story short, he made it seem as though the developers really ran the town. I agree with him in part -- Realtors and developers are too powerful. But I have always thought that, and I don't necessarily think we should demonize developers, as SOMEONE has to do the building that we all want (or claim to want).

Anyway, he was clearly polished and had been through this several time before, and it seem like he had done his homework, because he knew a lot about pretty much every project we talked about. I was a bit surprised, because I think he was the most locally knowledgeable person in the room; the MUP students no doubt only spend a little time on local issues and have to think theoretically, regionally, nationally, even globally, while Cowherd probably spends his free time talking and thinking about the latest Ann Arbor project.

He bashed the media a couple times, saying the AA news, the Observer, and some other print source was also in bed with developers, in that they got advertising from them and he didn't feel that they reported truthfully on him.

We went around and around; the planners tried to talk about zoning as the key and he downplayed its importance, saying the politicians would subvert it anyways. Cowherd lectured us about the evils of sprawl, the subsidies for sprawl, the blah blah blah that seemed to be part of his standard stump speech and was really wasted on us -- preaching to the choir, so to speak. I think he could have gone on for both hours without letting us speak once, so enthusiastic was he to talk.

We eventually addressed the Greenway, which in his vision was a connected greenspace that, with the DDA's three sites, could be a location for local festivals, walking, biking, etc. I asked how the greenway would work on the railroad tracks, which only have a few feet on either side for "green space." He didn't really address that, saying that we could put up fences, and I think he wanted to say that there was enough on either side to make it functional. I've got to give him points for at least pushing something like this that could potentially be a community asset. However, we disagree on an essential point -- the railroad is no place for a greenway.

He also claimed there was no market for mid-level downtown residences, based on the BDW roundtable from last year (AAiO referred to it 6-24-04, though it's no longer online). I claimed he misinterpreted the article, as the developers were saying you can't develop mid-level (150-200k) residences because land values and built-in costs were so high. There clearly is a demand; you just have to look at a certain way. The reality is that students by and large would rather live in an affordable apartment than an expensive old house. Some would rather live in a house; I would give up my front porch if I could live on William and Fourth with a decent view. The vacancies in the houses would eventually make it more sensible for houses to actually serve as single family residences instead of apartment houses (which they can only do because students more or less have to live near campus and a house can MAKE money if it is rented out, while above a certain point homes are just too expensive for families to buy anymore), meaning houses in the OWS and the OFW would be occupied by families, meaning there is a market for more downtown density -- both renting and owning. I don't think I'm going out on a limb here with this theory.

I certainly wasn't the hero of the discussion, though it may seem like it on this blog; I just remember my own points best. That said, I asked why the HVSC, if urban densification and protection of peripheral green space really were proportional goals, didn't spend as much time promoting its "200 sites" for development vision as it did its greenway vision. He said that, since the HVSC was traditionally a pro-greenspace/endangered species/nature-oriented group, he had to respond to the desires of his constituency -- he was an elected president, after all. This was another disengenuous response, I feel. He leads the organization; he should admit it. If he feels that densification is as important as greenspace, as he implied at the outset of the discussion, or if he feels that it is important, whether or not he puts it on the same level as greenspace, he should demonstrate that by action. He has not; therefore, we can conclude that he does not actually mean it (ie actions speak louder than words). He knew whom he was speaking to and tried to tailor his message to us. I guess it remains to be seen who bought it.

Bottom line, Cowherd is enthusiastic about the Greenway and cynical about city officials. He made himself seem like the one guy in this town sticking up for the little guy (who is actually a yuppy making 100k a year). He must be reckoned with, though I think his vision for Ann Arbor is not the right one. Unfortunately, I think his real agenda regarding downtown and the city is in a zero-sum position with my (and others') vision of densification and fair-share growth.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Back from the brink

Last night I returned from a conference in Vancouver, BC, location of the continent's highest residential density. Vancouver has long been known as a "terminal city," owing to its location at the end of the Canada Pacific rail lines, as well as the accompanying phone lines and roads that followed. The city has been able to reposition itself as an international hub with a great deal of neighborhood vitality. It has not been without its challenges -- losses in the manufacturing sector, gentrification, and business sprawl, to name a few.

However, I was reminded daily of how great city life is -- each morning I got down to the lobby of our obscenely fancy hotel and was faced with numerous options of rewarding ways to spend my time, all within easy access. by the water...walks through city neighborhoods...architectural photography. That was off the top of my head and all visible from within a block of the hotel. More to come, along with some photos.