planning

The worst urban studies student ever……

My freshly minted college degree includes a concentration in urban studies.

While I have no plans at the moment to become an urban planner, I’ve always felt that many of urban studies’ core ideas — about the ways we live and the demographic groups that define us — were deeply relevant for the 21st century and are applicable to just about every industry and every part of our country.  I found that it encompassed many of the things I’d been writing about for years, the changes in how we live and work.

In my personal life, I’d been doing a lot of things we’d discussed in class. I have never owned a car and, perhaps more shockingly, have never held a license to drive. I’ve walked or taken public transportation for most of my life, and I always lived in the core of a city, so I could have an existence that allowed for walking and mass transit.

Three years ago, my partner and I bought a home in the middle of a neighborhood close to Chicago’s Loop.

Our neighborhood (the West Loop) has growing density, a great walkability score, access to multiple channels of mass transit, two parks within a few blocks, and more restaurants and nightclubs than I can count.

Yes, it's true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

Yes, it’s true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

There’s only one thing: I’m really unhappy living here.

Some of the things that I’ve always endorsed? Are driving me crazy.

I am the worst urban studies student EVER.

The biggest negative impact for me has been noise pollution. While we live in a nice building, literally every flat space surrounding us has been under construction for three years. THREE. YEARS. That’s three years of not being able to sleep past 6 a.m., of constant drilling and hammering and bulldozers and cranes.

A new company has moved into a neighboring commercial building (formerly part of Harpo Studios), and promptly installed a motion alarm on their parking gate that I am pretty sure can be heard in Aurora. Possibly in space.

Indeed, our neighborhood is BOOMING. Google’s Chicago headquarters are moving just a few blocks north. A hotel is opening just east of us, and many of the small, nondescript factory spaces dotting the West Loop are being snapped up by developers. A company called Sterling Bay has, to a large degree, bought the West Loop and is now developing its use.

Of course, beyond the noise, which feels as if it will never end, many of the issues that are emerging show the wisdom of good urban planning and the repercussions that happen when it’s absent. It’s nearly impossible to cross Madison Street now with the boom in traffic, and lack of pedestrian crosswalks near us.

Parking has become a huge issue. The West Loop, like the South Loop and Andersonville, desperately needs a dedicated parking area. Instead, patrons who think nothing of spending $200 at a Restaurant Row eatery or at a Blackhawks game will insist on parking for free on one of our streets. (With car alarms set to stun; the West Loop is a symphony of sounding car alarms every day.)

Parking in the city is its own nightmare (Google Chicago parking meter deal)  but I’ve never understood why parking doesn’t come *before* or *as part of* planning here. There’s a huge, hulking half-built building at the west end of the West Loop that would be perfect to retrofit into a neighborhood park house, with shuttles running up and down Randolph.

Residential development has been the main part of the boom thus far, but as commercial development continues, a conflict is emerging between the two camps. I haven’t seen any movement to define patches of the West Loop as solely residential or commercial. We’ll have two rooftop bars opening soon near us – far closer to residences than they should be.

The other main irritant hits a little closer to home.

In my mind, I always thought that living in close quarters with your neighbors would lead to that kind of engaged community, where neighbors became friends, where people socialized and looked after one another.

A few homeowner’s association meetings have disabused me of that notion.

With precious few exceptions, our neighbors create more drama than Downton Abbey, and are guilty of more metaphorical backstabbing and bloodshed than Game of Thrones. It’s a toxic batch of entitlement and manipulation. (While we’re on the pop culture references, the most entitled and manipulative ones bring to mind Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.)

There’s still much to be said for sustainable urban living, and I haven’t changed my stance on those ideas, those policies.

I think it might just be that we’re outgrowing this place. This neighborhood is becoming a huge cluster for clubs and nightlife, and will be a fast-paced hub for twentysomethings. My twenties are a bit in the rearview mirror for me, though.

My partner and I want something quieter and calmer for our next home, and will likely move out of Chicago to find it. But I think we’ll be sticking with urban settings, or the “cosmoburb,” where access to walking paths, bike paths and mass transit still exist.

Of course, I also know that I’m ridiculously lucky. Lucky to have a home, lucky to have a choice to leave a place that isn’t a good match.

We’re in Chicago, where bad planning and years of discriminatory zoning and lending policies have created neighborhoods where basic life, liberty and safety are harrowingly hard to come by. Lots of people don’t have the choices we do to change neighborhoods, or to move at all.

Rahm Emanuel has followed in the footsteps of the Daleys, enacting or sustaining policies that stand in the way of evolution or change for disadvantaged neighborhoods. 2014 feels a lot like 1974 in some of these neighborhoods. It feels impossible to effect change here.

Hopefully, our next home will be in a place where we can take advantage of good planning and great living space — but also contribute to our community, where we can become advocates for everyone who lives there.

I’m going to brainstorm about this right now! You might not be able to hear me, though, with the noise in the background…….

 

Pittsburgh: As The Yinzer Turns

Did Pittsburgh become Chicago while I was sleeping?

Luke Ravenstahl

Luke Ravenstahl

If you’ve watched what’s transpired in Pittsburgh over the last few weeks, it certainly seems so.

Increasing political conflict in city offices, and the firing of the police chief, led to a surprise announcement this morning from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl that he would not seek reelection.

That announcement may not sound significant on its own.

But it’s a culmination of months of unanswered questions swirling around city offices, and around the mayor himself. And even before this latest scandal, Ravenstahl’s actions – and inactions – fed accusations and rumors about his professional and personal life.

Pittsburgh’s made some huge strides forward into the 21st century.

Will the next Mayor help nudge that progress along – or will they embrace the traditionalism that Pittsburgh is known for?

(more…)

Pittsburgh: Progress and Potholes

NOTE: While the city of Pittsburgh will be a frequent topic for this blog, this is the final post in this initial four-part series on Pittsburgh.

My initial posts about Pittsburgh may strike a casual reader as needlessly critical. (In my defense, it’s kind of the old, traditional Pittsburgh way to offer unsolicited advice, to friend or stranger, about their problems and potential solutions!)

So let me be clear: I love Pittsburgh. And I don’t want it to be the “new” anywhere.

For most of the time I lived in the proper “city” as an adult, I lived in Lawrenceville. In the early 2000s, Lawrenceville was on the precipice of something. Many of us could see it and feel it.

At the time, I was paying $300 rent in a building that likely wouldn’t pass fire code today, and our sidewalk was filled with broken glass and prostitutes, sometimes simultaneously. The same streets today are filled with vibrant shops, nice living spaces and a lot of people.

The transformation of Lawrenceville astonishes me, and makes me so happy. And more importantly, I don’t think L’ville lost any of its essential Pittsburgh qualities in its transformation. Hell, it launched Sharon Needles and a spooky, Terminal Stare-style drag queen is about as Pittsburgh as you can get!

On my recent visit home I saw a lot of encouraging signs, and I’ve read a lot of great stories about the continued evolution. Years ago, when I worked in retail downtown, I remember sections of streets near Forbes and Wood being so desolate during the day that it was not unusual (well, odd but not uncommon) to see a homeless person defecating on the street.

But there’s a definite renaissance happening with many buildings and spaces downtown, and it’s not just the tall skyscrapers owned by PNC. It’s smaller spaces, like the ones outlined in this article. (The comment section in that article? Interesting discussion.)

Another Post-Gazette article profiled an interesting mixture of “old” and “new” Pittsburgh – food carts and pierogies! (Again, interesting comment section.)

The things that are working, the positive parts of Pittsburgh’s evolution, are led by people who understand that the city doesn’t need a “reinvention” as much as it needs ideas for repurposing, or re-using, the resources it already has in its wheelhouse.

I know Pittsburgh is a collection of neighborhoods, but for a suburban boy like me, downtown Pittsburgh is the crown jewel, and I worry about its future and the plans for its use.

Mistakes have been made, and not all of them have been as far back in the rearview mirror as, say, the Penn Circle urban renewal debacle or the plans for the (now demolished) Civic Arena that tore apart the Hill District

The space developed in downtown Pittsburgh is greater than what a smaller, more streamlined 21st century ‘Burgh needs.

Yet there’s still suggestions that we need to fill the empty space with more office space, or more retail, despite the high profile failures of the downtown Lazarus project  (subsidized, in part, by the city of Pittsburgh) and the Lord & Taylor debacle – where a historical building was torn asunder for a department store that (a) was a carbon copy of the store next door and (b) closed soon after it opened its doors.

I’m hoping that more progress is made in re-imagining what can be for the city, but it will take a continued commitment to new ideas and new sized solutions. Pittsburgh can’t continue to party like it’s 1949. We need more progressive ideas, and less cheap fixes that just turn into potholes. There are enough of those in Pittsburgh.

END NOTE: Full disclosure – I’ve mentioned PNC in this blog a few times. I worked for them for several years. I have nothing but positive things to say about them as an employer and a company.

However, it concerns me a little that so much of in the city is being built on their shoulders. Depending on one company, or one industry, to turn the wheels in the city is a mistake Pittsburgh made in the past – and one it should avoid in the future.

Pittsburgh: Confluence and Conflict

No, really - they built it right by the river!

No, really – they built it right by the river!

NOTE: This is the second in a series of posts about Pittsburgh. 

One of the most magnificent places to be in Pittsburgh is where two rivers (Allegheny and Monongahela) meet at a confluence (some might say ‘converge’) to form the Ohio River. It’s all about nature’s great planning skills, and how it all flows together so naturally.

Flow, and a sense of coalescence, is hard to come by in Pittsburgh. And that’s partly a result of the terrain of the area.

Pittsburgh has always been a collection of neighborhoods, with hills, valleys and geographic twists and turns serving as borders. Anyone looking for a north/south, east/west, numbered grid system in Pittsburgh will be sorely disappointed (and also very lost).

But some of what we see in present-day Pittsburgh is a legacy of a lack of planning, or a lack of smart planning.

There’s no better sign of this, in my eyes, than the shiny new building that scored prime real estate along the Mon. The new building is in one of the most visible areas in the city, bordered by one of the biggest LEED certified buildings in town,* and looking over to the expanding South Side Flats area.

Is it a hotel? A new office building? Erm, no. It’s the county JAIL.

And there’s not only one, but TWO large jail buildings on prime real estate. (The Golden Triangle, the small core of Downtown, is only a few blocks wide and few streets long.)

The other building, an old and imposing behemoth taking up a whole city block, is the former county jail, built in the late 1800s. (Remember the dingy, windowless scenes in the dungeon-like jail in The Silence Of The Lambs? The old county jail is where those scenes were filmed.)

Using that space as the footprint for a jail boggles my mind. But for all the beauty of its rivers, Pittsburgh seems to have little sense on what to do with the space along the river banks.

Chicago, my current town, has made a calling card out of miles of open lakeshore access. Many of us suffer through cold winters and corrupt governors because we get beautiful lakeside access for the rest of the year. Pittsburgh could have the same sort of success with its riverside space, but hasn’t capitalized on that idea.

And that’s at the heart of the biggest planning controversy to hit Pittsburgh in years. A local developer, Buncher, wants to redevelop the iconic Strip District neighborhood.

I completely understand why – it’s a wonderful, quirky neighborhood that sits between downtown Pittsburgh and Lawrenceville, my former stomping grounds and the biggest neighborhood success story in recent Pittsburgh memory. (Editor’s note: Look for an upcoming post on L’ville,)

And certainly, the Strip could use a bit of rethinking. It still has the marks of its earlier life as an industrial space. The buildings looks like they could, to borrow the Pittsburghese parlance, “use a good warshing.”

The Strip could also use a smart, inexpensive plan for a dense, inexpensive parking structure, rather than the rows upon rows of surface parking that gobbles up much of the land nearest town in the Strip. And the old wholesale produce terminal – a central part of Buncher’s plans – could use an upgrade, or a retrofitting, to take it to the 21st century.

But Buncher’s current plans call for the space nearest the river to be private land, developed solely for the access of the proposed condo owners using that space. And so again, Pittsburgh fumbles the ball on the opportunity to open up an avenue of public space.

The city itself has had a rough road in terms of growing new business, especially new retail, in the downtown core. Part of the problem is the lack of real public space. Market Square has been revitalized in the last several years, with the new public square more accessible to people day and night.

It’s that kind of space, and the inviting storefront level activity along the square, that have re-energized that space. The new PNC office building and Fairmont Hotel a block away also helped. (For more on the planning effort re: Market Square, click here.)

Contrast that with Station Square, which is Pittsburgh’s one clear space for open riverside views. It’s still a great old space by the river (Station Square was an old train station) and it’s served by the one transit car line in Pittsburgh.

This photo shows the limits of the footprint of The Golden Triangle.

This photo shows the limits of the footprint of The Golden Triangle.

But the space has been overrun in recent years by big chain restaurants that have gobbled up the exterior space around the old station itself.

The inside of Station Square is like every other dying mall in the region, perhaps filled to 60 or 70 percent of capacity, and the restaurants are no more compelling than Applebee’s. Despite a unique, one of a kind space, few people flock to Station Square (unless it’s for the still-fantastic Gateway Clipper Fleet rides).

I think present-day Pittsburgh is suffering from a lack of cohesive planning. I’m not sure who made those mistakes, or when they happened, but I see it in neighborhood after neighborhood. Pittsburgh would definitely benefit from regional or metropolitan planning on a wider scale.

Pittsburgh has so many magnificent resources, and I know that there are many groups working to help plan the city’s next steps.

As with many other cities, private groups and advocates are fighting with entrenched politicians and chasing development money. It’s a private developer that’s driving the current Strip District project. And neighborhood groups are fighting back.

But the Golden Triangle itself is still a neighborhood in transition. I think everyone across the city – and those of us who love it – need to be advocates and defenders of its future, one where the beauty of Pittsburgh and all its rich resources are open to all her citizens.