Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Rise of Neo-Modernism?

Architectural critic for the New York Times Nicolai Ourossoff spent a good number of words today thrashing a straw effigy of Jane Jacobs.

That schism ("modernists vs. historicists") dates from the 1960's, when the activist Jane Jacobs challenged Moses' megalomaniacal plans, but it has little relevance today. For architects like Mr. Pasquarelli, the suburban promise embodied in Moses' freeway and park projects represent, for better or worse, a part of our collective memory. Their task, as they see it, is to salvage the corners of unexpected beauty from those childhood landscapes and give them new meaning. It is an approach that is far more relevant to contemporary life than Jacobs's - and every bit as humane.

Huh? Help me understand first, how Jane Jacobs can be dismissed as simply an historicist? It seems to me that her architectural preferences might be better summarized as "humanist." Second, in what way is her vision of urban life irrelevant to contemporary life? Let it be recognized that Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities had no illustrations and really had no specific proposals for architectural design or detailing (historicist or otherwise) -- she was not an architect and didn't pretend to be one. Jacobs did, however, propose a vision of the city that valued street life, the activities of immigrants and the marginal, and opposed the brutal (and brutalist) destruction of the city in pursuit of dubious claims of economic development, power, speed, and aesthetics.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


In an attempt to inject some more architecture into this blog, I've added gossip blog The Gutter to the blogroll. Make sure you've got some catnip and maybe a long ribbon before you click; this blog is catty. Today's subjects of derision: Daniel Libeskind and the NYTimes House and Home section.

To balance it out, Urban Cartography also goes on the pile. Don't worry, though -- I'm setting a strict limit of 20 links on the blogroll. I'm not going to go all Zwagerman on your asses.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Redesigning the American Dream

Check out this interview with Dolores Hayden in which she exhorts the need for non-profit developers in the housing market.

One of the real issues is, I suppose, how you get more non-profit developers into the game. I don’t think we can rely on big for-profit developers to bring that much innovation to this country. We haven’t seen it. And in the 40’s and the 50’s there was a terrific shift in terms of the size of most development companies. I think that while there may be competition to sell different kinds of units, there’s not enough competition to come up with energy efficient, sustainable neighborhoods for people of mixed incomes that also have the kind of public space you’re interested in seeing. Getting this for mixed incomes is particularly difficult because of the whole history of segregation by race and class in this country. Many developers feel much more comfortable building a whole bunch of $400,000 houses than they do building something that has a mixture of units of different sizes and different prices.

[via Urban Cartography]

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Affordable Housing -- Student Sector

Now that I've suggested the formation of a non-profit housing corporation as a means of developing an Affordable Ann Arbor, I ought to talk a bit about its implementation.

As far as I can tell, there are currently two housing non-profits in Ann Arbor, Avalon Housing and the Washtenaw Affordable Housing Corporation. Avalon Housing was formed with the needs of the mentally and physically disabled in mind, a mission they have maintained. WAHC is more difficult to figure out, as they don't seem to have a Web site, but several sources indicate that they emphasize families. These two organizations, according to the City of Ann Arbor's fall 2004 HUD report, are the main enduring beneficiaries of federal HOME funds from the federal government -- they own and operate housing. "HOME funds" is money from HUD that's allocated for affordable housing (rehabilitation of existing units, purchase of new units, building of others). Groups like Habitat for Humanity also sometimes get HOME funds from the city (which got a million dollars last year from HUD).

Because of this federal funding, the city has to put together a 5-year vision statement and a one-year action plan to let HUD know what they're going to do with their money. I have found this report on the city's Web site, which first details the assessed housing needs in Ann Arbor. What it details is that most aid is going to small and large families who rent. Much as I hate to decry aid to the working poor, the city is utterly neglecting the largest portion of its low income population. These are "other households" who rent. According to the city, there are 10,924 unrelated renter households making 80% or less of the Median Family Income of 71k. I think it's safe to put about 90% of students into this category -- less the people who are married and who live outside the city. The city, in the next 5 years, is not planning on developing or supporting a SINGLE unit for this sector of low income households, which, incidentally, make up 40.1% of the 27123 low-income renting households and 33.9% of all 32230 low income households (owner or renter) in the city. Please check these calculations using the city's own numbers because I wish I were wrong. Unfortunately, it is the city that is wrong in neglecting (totally abandoning?) this needy and significant segment of its population.

While I am most sensitive to the needs of low-income students, this group also includes recent graduates, people without college educations (the working poor), and even young professionals. This is actually a broad grouping of citizens whose housing needs are not being met and are not even being planned for. I urge you to read through the city's numbers, because more than 3/4 of this group is spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and a frightening portion is spending more than 50 percent.

So we can CLEARLY see there is an unmet need here. The next question is, what kind of resources are there? First off, there is the million dollars in HOME funds the city got last year (3 million the year before). Then there is the 1.7 million in Community Development Block Grants. Then there is the 600,000 of affordable housing subsidies the city extracts from developers. Then there is the 500,000 of residuals from unspent money the previous year. These numbers come from the city's 2004-2005 budget, by the way. All told, the city annually plans for 6 million dollars in revenue for affordable housing and community development, and will not support the development of even ONE UNIT for students and other unrelated low-income renters in the next five years. And I emphasize support, meaning not that the city builds housing, rather the city doesn't contribute even A PENNY towards securing a construction loan or a mortgage or land acquisition. [The words of Mayor John Hieftje ring particularly hollow when he blames the university for not providing housing for its students. How about providing some housing for your citizens, Mr. Mayor?]

So what can we do on this front? Clearly there is a problem of affordability when demand for residence in the city and county increases and there is no increase in housing supply in the city. This is the chief cause of the problem of unaffordability -- demand exceeds supply. This fear of turning into a real city must be overcome. Second, as Murph talked about, there needs to be a plan (or at least a concept) for providing for the poor, including both those who are poor by choice (students, artists, etc.) and those who are poor by force (disability, age, lack of education, etc.) in an integrated fashion that will provide access to amenities and services AND that will integrate these poor into the larger community. I cannot emphasize enough how the presence of young people can improve the quality of life for the elderly -- a neighbor to help shovel the snow, someone to bring them meals, or simply providing a different type of social interaction. This goes for students and the working poor in a neighborhood. Instead of setting up tutoring programs that match up college students and underprivileged grade school kids an hour a week, why not put them in the same neighborhood where they can have interactions all week long? And why not put them both near a bus line or two? Radical thinking, I know. As I said, one of my goals is to begin the process of developing a non-profit developer that will begin serving this largest and most under-served segment of the city's low income population.

UPDATE: I made an inquiry to the city for discussion or clarification of my analysis of their affordable housing plans; no response has yet been tendered.

The Rural Studio

Having dinner with one of my HABS summer colleagues last night, I tossed off the name Samuel Mockbee as a contemporary architect about whom I knew nothing. The only reason I knew his name was there was a paper on one of his houses at the Society of Architectural Historians conference in Vancouver.

My colleague enthused mightily about the late Mockbee, an architect from the Deep South who started up an organization affiliated with the Auburn University school of architecture, called the Rural Studio. The Rural Studio was (and is) an ongoing project that takes students for a semester out to rural Alabama and has them live in a poor community as prelude to designing a house for an impoverished family. The house is then constructed from found and recycled materials.

Damn, that sounds like a great project. The Rural Studio is now on the blogroll and I hope you'll take a look at some of the houses they've built. Used rubber tires and strawbale construction -- maybe it's only because it's rural Mississippi that they can get away with it, but I would LOVE to see some actual innovation in urban architecture like that (even if it's only on the suburban end of the spectrum).

Did I mention FLLW's work with Cooperative Homesteads, outside of Detroit, featured "rammed earth" construction? Yep, the whole structure of the house was basically sand, clay, and water rammed into set forms. After it was set, it was to be plastered and painted, and the floor covered with linoleum.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Affordable Ann Arbor

Since Murph got the ball rolling for a fairly serious and hopefully lengthy discussion of how to advance the cause (and reality) of broadly affordable housing in Ann Arbor, I'm obligated and eager to respond.

First off, for the newcomers, let me distinguish between the ideas of "affordable housing" and "broadly affordable housing." Affordable housing has generally been used to mean housing for the poor. The term affordable housing, employed by the federal government, means housing that costs 30 percent or less of a household income, whatever that might be. I say "broadly affordable housing" to encompass that idea -- a variety of housing types, of which one or more can be had for thirty percent or less of whatever level of income. Meaning there is decent, desirable, and affordable housing for the working poor, grad students, young professionals, middle class service workers, long-time residents, realtors, physicians, and retirees.

By "desirable," I mean meeting several, but probably not all, priorities that a particular resident wants. #1 on my personal list of priorities (after affordability) is proximity to urban amenities. I want to (and fortunately do) live close to campus, to the CBD, and to the AATA transit center. Others may want a yard, a large bedroom, or to have few or no roommates, which I have to skimp on -- that might be nice, but they're not important enough for me to live in one of the townships. Some goals like a big yard and urban proximity are almost diametrically opposed; unfortunately, Ann Arbor is too big a town to be able to fulfill such a priority. "Decent" should be pretty clear to everyone -- no structural, ventilation, heating/cooling, mold, insulation, etc. problems with the house.

In addition to Murph's list of tools for discussion, I suggest two of my own -- the development of neighborhood centers away from the CBD, and the creation of several development interests (featuring non-profit developers).

Neighborhood Centers -- It's a mite unfortunate that such a big university grew up in Ann Arbor, because the city has been too small to support it. That is the heart of the problem in Ann Arbor -- there wasn't enough stuff or people here a century ago to build or create businesses, etc., because it was a pretty sleepy little town. As a result of those small town roots, there is still a "small town" feel that some people like to talk about, even though the city is now more than 100,000 people. There are few tall buildings, the central business district is a couple blocks in size, and there are few major employers besides the University -- Pfizer and ProQuest are distant seconds. Because of this smallness, there really seems to be just one set of concentric rings from downtown. Things are most dense in the middle and become less so as you move farther away from it. There are no walkable satellite areas that spring up when the downtown is developed. Thus, all the amenities and walkable stuff is in one central area, meaning if people want walkability and access to amenities, they all want to live near the same place. If we developed neighborhood centers where there were restaurants, shopping and entertainment, say, a mile from Main and Washington, people would be happy living there, too, relieving some pressure on the near-downtown housing market. As it stands, Main St., State St., Kerrytown and South U. are too small and too near each other (I consider them really all part of the same central area) to diffuse the desire for downtown housing.

Varied development interests -- Ann Arbourites have frequently lamented the prominence of private development interests in preparing for the future of Ann Arbor. Pretty much every NIMBY obstruction employs the "developers want to bulldoze OUR TOWN and put up THEIR BUILDINGS" rhetoric. This is ridiculous for a number of reasons. First, developers have ALWAYS done the building in the history of American cities. The only notable exception was called urban renewal. Nearly every building in Ann Arbor (except most campus buildings and a handful of government ones) was built or enabled by a private developer, a speculator, or a small-time entrepreneur. This includes many of the houses -- that's why many legal descriptions for lots are in "Matthews' Annex no. 1" or something like that -- a developer bought the land, platted it, and graded the streets. Anyway, despite the need for private developers in Ann Arbor (now that the locals are gun-shy, we're recruiting out of town developers to do the deed; THAT'S irony), they shouldn't be the only game in town. We need to create non-profit development corporations to start developing the housing that the private market has been neglecting and that has stagnated over the last two decades of stifled growth and development. Let Shaffran Bros. build the condos for 450k a unit; one or two non-profits will take their affordable housing subsidies, along with other public funds and grants, and start planning and building its own units. I am SURE that, with a reduced profit motive and good planning, such a group could win public support and could have an impact on the housing market, all while creating greater density and a more sustainable city.

UPDATE: Next discussion post here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Urban Oasis' Furious Five

1. Recent Pittsburgh Post articles have highlighted the rapid loss of farmland to single family residences at the fringe of the city’s urbanized area. Locals lamented “you can’t fight city hall” while township executives admired their bottom line, temporarily flush from new construction. Little do they know that in 20 years they’ll be trying to talk the city and first ring suburbs into helping bail them out of financial and social crisis.

2. The Washington Post from a few weeks back detailed that the city’s booming housing market involved half of DC home purchases over the last 5 years having been bought with interest-only mortgages. For some, this will certainly pay off, as the federal government isn’t getting any smaller and Washington’s housing stock may be unparalleled (except maybe by Boston) in its age and quality. But while this bubble may not burst, it will surely spring a leak in the coming years. As serious as the oil peak for us doomsdayers? Not quite, but it's up there.

3. Sam Bass Warner characterized the finely-grained urban housing form of suburban Boston as “The Weave of Small Patterns.” He meant that the small-scale speculating and homesteading in the city’s streetcar suburbs, taken together, demonstrated the individuality and variety of individual owners and builders in a large system of suburbanization. Driving through Washington DC’s many neighborhoods Sunday afternoon, it seems that this same weave of small patterns breeds street activity. Working in the “lonely financial zone” as I do, even with some mixed use, the city block-sized buildings do not generate enough activity to make street life interesting. My earlier screeds on the lameness of DC are amended to recognize that I work in one of the worst areas in DC in this respect.

4. Two non-academic goals I’d like to achieve by the end of my graduate program. A. Help establish a non-profit housing corporation to develop affordable housing in Ann Arbor (particularly for students, but as a start to making Ann Arbor broadly affordable). B. Help build the Ann Arbor Community Car Cooperative into a viable transportation option for Ann Arbor. Both of these fall within the scope of my New West Side and Ann Arbor Alliance work.

5. Recently, I was awarded a research grant from the UofM Center for Non Profit Management to study the partnerships that several cooperatives formed with Frank Lloyd Wright to build residential and recreational communities in Michigan. Cooperatives, I may have mentioned, became rather popular ways to deal with Depression-era economic problems and to aid in the modernization of rural areas. Rexford Tugwell, the genius behind Greenbelt MD, prior to directing the Resettlement Administration served as undersecretary of agriculture. Due to his influence we have many of the ag coops still functioning today. Anyway, this surge in cooperation continued into the 40s and led to the formation of several groups who contacted FLLW. The architect was coming out of a period of dormancy and disgrace and was promoting his ideal of Broadacre City. He began working with cooperative groups to design and help develop Usonian communities as a part of his Broadacre vision. The two communities in the Kalamazoo area constitute the largest concentration of Usonian homes in the world. I will be studying 5 Michigan coops. Look for an exhibit on the UofM campus in April.

Please note the term "Furious Five" unabashedly ripped off from the Daily.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

People can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent.

"fourfteen percent of all people know that."

If anyone has read this USA Today article on gentrification from 6 weeks ago and cares to comment -- particularly if you've read the scholarly article in Urban Affairs Review -- please do so. Basically, Lawrence Freeman, a Columbia urban planning professor, claims people aren't displaced any more by gentrification than there is normal turnover in a poor neighborhood.

It reads like bull to me. Freeman acknowledges "succession," where the rich move in after the the poor move out, but doesn't acknowledge that the normal inflow of poor is blocked by rising home values. That's gentrification, too. Why such a narrow interpretation of the word could catch on -- or would be allowed to stand -- is beyond me. I've got to check the UAR article tomorrow.

The system is down. The system is down.

On the lighter side of things, more than a dozen slashings and stabbings at D.C.-area nightclubs prompted the City Paper to run the Nightlife Survival Guide. Not the joking guide of The Onion, this article offers serious advice for when someone draws a knife on you.

1.Skip the dodgy clubs. Go square dancing.
A foolproof tip, if one that will be totally ignored.
2. Scrap the macho routine. Play it cool.
"In hindsight, Rodekohr figures he shouldn't have pushed [his assailant] back." Because the pushee's response was to stab him.
3. Don't get too snockered.
I'm not sure if there is another reason to go to a club, except to grind on some knife-wielding maniac's girl.
4. Watch out for shady types who touch themselves.
Not there -- they mean to feel if their knife is still there.
5. Expect to get cut--even if you see it coming.
6. Don't go for the knife or try to pull some Jackie Chan shit.
Try to pull some Chris Tucker shit.
7. Fend off incoming strikes with your (outer) forearms.
"It'll be bad," Franco notes. "But you won't be incapacitated." No comment.
8. Suck in that gut and back that thang up.
ie, don't let your attacker get a good shot at your heart or your genitals.
9. Fight back with makeshift weapons.
aka run like shit.
10. Stop the bleeding. Put your feet up. Wait for help.
11. Get a lawyer.
To sue the club for bad security; don't worry about the lax policing and the insanity of getting stabbed in a dance club.

I don't think I'll be heading to Dream this weekend, but if I'm up for a wild stabbing for the 4th, I know where to go.