Whither Midtown?

More Downtown? Tourist trap? Entertainment Area? Neighborhood meeting place? ?

Overheard on a Midtown street corner:

S Hey, Vodçek, is that you? What are you doing up here in MIdtown? Who’s tending the Fog Island Tavern?

V Oh, hi, Sophie, good to see you. Well, things have been slow out there since the last hurricane, though we were spared the worst. One more time. So Abbé Boulah suggested that we should open a branch, a Disaster Evacuation Tavern for emergency refugees, up here. See, you are still here too, like several of the other regulars. Where are you going to solve all the universe’s problems?

S You’re right, I’ve been feeling out of sorts. The others too. I even spotted Renfroe down on the deck of the Black Dog a while ago — want to go down there to chat? It’s the only place where your conversation is’t drowned out by all the sports TV…

V Okay: even though they don’t have any Zinfandel there anymore…

S You’re talking last millennium, my friend. Has it been that long since you’ve been there?

V I’d have to look up my old time management records. Well, yes, it’s been a while. The people I used to chat with down there have disappeared, now there’s just a bunch of cellphone and laptop addicts that can’t even hear you when you say hello.

S So now you are looking for a place to start your refugee tavern around here? You may have to wait ’til they build that new thing on Fifth Avenue and Thomasville Road. But people were so upset about it, they got city hall to stop it. Well, actually just put it on hold.

V Why were they upset?

S Well, it was really a parking garage. A five-story one, with a few ‘commercial’ additions thrown in along the streets.

V Five stories? Of parking? On a street where everything else is just one or two stories? Except the one two blocks away that qualifies as the second ugliest building in town. I see why people don’t think i’s a good fit. Why would you even think I could put a tavern in it?

S Well, the renderings I saw showed some commercial space along the street. A ‘food court’. Didn’t see any details though. But that made the facade look less like a parking structure, a little like the kind of antiquished-old-time imitation we’ve seen around town. Trying to fit in with the older residential places that already were converted to offices around there? What did you have in mind for your tavern — some maritime, island theme?

V I hadn’t even though about that yet. Can you really ‘design’ something like that — what you see on the island has just grown by itself over time, starting from a simple storage shed.

S Didn’t you listen to all the stories they talked about, Abbé Boulah’s buddy’s theories about occasions and image, on those long Zinfandel-fueled nights, right in your own tavern? Sure you can design places with a distinct image, even places that evoke several layers of image associations, depending who’s looking at it. Say, there’s Bog-Hubert, he can remind you of those things better than I can. Hi Bog-Hubert! Up in town pursuing your mysterious business projects?

B Hi Sophie, Hi Vodçek. My, you’re looking so serous: discussing profound questions?

S Yes, it could be important, I think. Vodçek is thinking about a Fog Island Tavern branch up here for when we’re evacuated from the coast by some emergency or other. And we were discussing whether it might fit into that garage project they were planning across the street from the Redeye Café. Image-wise, that is.

B Yes I’ve seen some plans for that one. Interesting problem, that: make it acceptable to the folks around there, in the residential neighborhood, to make Midtown more lively and interesting, not just financially profitable. The design they came up with looks like they didn’t even try.

S You think so? We were just talking about how their weird brick facade looked, like they were doing another job like that ill-fated building downtown where the main drugstore tenant gave up after a few years.

B Yes, it makes you wonder. This is the state where they shoot rockets into space, and try to make their downtown look like something from a couple of hundred years ago. While ignoring basic common sense about how cities work. Who are we?

S Weren’t you going on, Bog-Hubert, down in the Tavern, on more than one occasion, about how a skilled designer could make a place speak to different users, visitors, on several different levels of imagery — those ideas of Abbé Boulah’s friend at the university?

B Sure. Some places just look like they don’t understand that, and design up to one single but fake image they think people will fall for. What did this design speak to you about?

V Hmm. Good question. I’m not sure people are even worried about that at all, in the first place: Wasn’t it just the size of it they felt is not fitting the neighborhood? Out of scale? And afraid it would impact the neighborhood in undesirable ways? Traffic, property taxes? Gentrification?

S Okay, that needs to be discussed, I guess. I see a lot of change and gentrification there already. All those older houses turned into law offices, associations, and their yards paved into parking lots. But I want to know more about that image issue you were talking about.

B Well: You started it with the comment of how it ‘fits’ with the existing buildings nearby. Do people want it to be somewhat ‘like’ what’s there now? And I’m not sure that’s easy to describe: Look at the old ‘iconic’ Whataburger across the street. From what I’ve heard, it used to be the place where people met for gossip and local politics, so there’s some memory of the old days involved. Is the Redeye Café taking that role now? And that building doesn’t exactly look like the more ‘residential’ flavor of most other buildings around there. Midtown is rather a hodgepodge of styles. Not exactly a kind of environment like popular tourist destinations abroad that derive their charm from the slight variations of styles held together by common materials and colors, height, uses, street profiles.

V So why do you think the proposed building is getting so much opposition, on the ‘fit’ aspect?

B Hmm. You think it should be welcomed as just another diverse item in that collection of styles?

V Why not?

B I have a suspicion the people who were protesting get a slightly different feeling. If you look at all those older buildings, for all their differences, don’t they all express some sense of sincerity, however naive it may seem today: at the time, they were expressing what they thought really was the present, or future — even and particularly the funky Whataburger. At the time, they were part of what they thought was the right thing to do: the future, the good, modern society. They were looking forward, not back — whatever we may be thinking about that today. By comparison, the picture I saw looked like a deliberate step back — a retreat into some ‘old time’ that never was; serving to hide the cruel reality of what it was: just a big ugly parking garage.

S What do they need that much parking for, anyway? To get people from the suburbs to stop and spend money there?

B That’s what the city said they wanted to check again. There was a new crew of commissioners coming in after the election. But it may have just been an excuse: It stands to reason that the city wants development there — use the new popularity of the area to attract more revenue-producing activity. And that needs parking.

V I get it: are they clear about what kind of development they want to attract? Because it would make a difference in estimating the need for parking, right?

S What do you mean: what kind of development?

V Well, isn’t it obvious? Nobody is talking about it: but I think some people just see it as an extension of downtown: state and private office buildings, banks, law offices, hotels.

B What I see going on there is more of an entertainment area. Already, many of the businesses are restaurants, bars, cafes. So if that is where Midtown is heading, the parking needs will be different from a regular downtown extension.

V Yes. And if that is going to morph into what some people are pushing for: attracting tourists to ol’ Tallahassee, the parking patterns and needs will be different again. Not sure they’ll be able to conjure up much in the way of genuine Disney World competition though. But the city is spending money on official groups promoting such ideas. Not just getting folks to retire here.

S Interesting. Talking about retirees: housing: I got the impression that the most vocal opposition from the neighborhood residents was based on an idea that Midtown would — or should — be more of a residential-service area: Sure, some cafes and restaurants, but small stores and services for pedestrians from the nearby residential areas and perhaps more apartments, all somehow within walking distance. Retirees? Student housing? A different combination of uses. Right: with different parking needs.

B But here’s the question: Is anybody really talking about this issue? Why isn’t there any public discussion about this? Because the city traffic and parking planners must make some definite assumptions to ‘study the parking needs’ estimates. If they are really serious about this and didn’t just use the parting estimate excuse to gain some tIme, to let the dust settle and wait for the upcoming dog days to let the cat out of the bag about what they have in store for Midtown? Planning a lot of parking built with public funds to attract developments so these projects don’t have to worry too much about parking, the neighborhoods be damned?

V Suspicious concerned citizens, aren’t we today, eh?

S Just wondering. Some of those citizens are already concerned enough to sell out to the gentrification crowd.

V Or to whatever the city and the developers want or let the area turn into, under the banner of growth and highest and most profitable tax return? By Abbé Boulah’s drooping mustache!


Sustainable cities

Sustainable cities
This post was triggered by a call for papers for a conference on sustainable cities. The conference, to be held in Spain, suggested a very viable menu of topics — but the conference fee alone, before even considering travel and accommodation — was listed as over 1000 Euros (almost $1500.-) which would seem to make it rather unsustainable for even members of public universities let alone retirees to attend. If it is acknowledged that even such oldtimers might have some useful ideas about problems like this, some other means for inviting and communicating about them ought to be considered.
Here is one small idea for helping cities achieve a smoother transformation to a more sustainable future.

The problem of sustainability of cities is already a formidable one and will become more urgent. The proposals for what to do to diminish the impact seem to focus mainly on application of new technology to new building construction. The bulk of new development will, however, tent to occur — as it has in the past — at the periphery of existing cities. This will not only leave the existing structure with its inefficiencies largely intact, it is also debatable whether the gains in sustainability will be significant enough, given the obvious negative impact of any new construction as compared to existing builidngs, regardless of their efficiency gains in the long run. In addition, the application of new technology for better sustainability tends to be at least perceived if not actually incur increased initial costs that act as a deterrent slowing down the pace of transition. The question therefore must be, in my opinion, less about how to make new construction more sustainable (not to discourage such efforts at all however), but to look for ways on which necessary new elements can be used to gradually turn tendencies, habits, and patterns of urban life around. The patterns that contribute to sustainability problems are many; but they can be grouped under a few headings: segregation not only of functions but also of socio-economic and ethnic strata, all of which lead to transportation problems; density — or the lack of it as it applies e.g. to the suburbs, which increases the resources that must be devoted to infrastructure (roads, utilities, and other services); and widely shared perceptions regarding independence, privacy and the like that seem to guide consumer preference for detached suburban dwellings in spite of the conformity constraints reigning in such developments that all but negate those desired freedoms.

I suggest that part of a meaningful sustainability strategy for cities should include the deliberate use of new urban elements to provide the initial catalyst for changing those trends. One example is the need for cities to develop better services related to emergencies such as those caused by natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes. In such situations, there will be a need for immediate short-term shelter for a large number of people. Such shelters must then have various services: food and water, sanitation, health services, power supply, protection, and communication. This suggests that any facilities developed for such purposes must provide not only space but adequately planned components for each of these services, which of course does not match prevalent concepts of what temporary shelter facilities should look like, and more importantly, what they should cost.

The question is whether such shelters should be regarded as merely temporary (with the above-mentioned services housed in their regular headquarters elsewhere and only establishing a temporary presence in the shelter).

While the plausible expectation is that most of the people requiring shelter during an emergency will be able to return to their homes after the emergency has passed, experience shows that many disasters lead to the destruction of homes, making their owners homeless and requiring alternate shelter for an extended period of time, before their residences can be repaired or rebuilt. This has traditionally been done, for example following the hurricanes Katrina and Rita, by either relocating people in motels up to hundreds of miles away, or in ‘temporary’ settlements of trailers that soon become new forms of ghettoes, requiring services that now had to be provided in the respective locations, all of which is not only expensive but — because ‘expected’ to be temporary and thus ‘cheap ‘ — usually quite substandard and troubled by new problems.

An alternative kind of response to this urgent task of planning for emergencies — which many cities only have begun to consider in earnest — would be the following:

An emergency shelter would be planned not only for short term accommodation of large numbers of evacuees, but as a potential nucleus or catalyst for a new form of urban settlement. It would provide for the possibility of people requiring extended stay, to begin to ‘expand’ and convert their crowded temporary accommodations into regular, full-service residences. The municipal services of police protection, health care, utility services, plus shopping, day care, schools, transportation, financial services, and even increasingly: employment, for example in branch offices of established firms (for example services for repairs and remodeling construction, and supplies for the expansion of shelter accommodations) merely setting up their own emergency operation in or near the shelter facilities, whose coordination during an emergency is critical, would be permanently located in the facility. The building or buildings themselves would have to be built not only to survive hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes, but would of course would have their own power and water supply independently of public infrastructure that might be incapacitated by the emergency. This means that they could and should be built as model or demonstration sustainability projects, utilizing available technology, possibilities and resources for energy generation, from the very beginning (rather than having to rely on emergency generators for which the supply of fuel might well be jeopardized by the very emergency).

The need of some evacuees for extended stay in shelter facilities will now result in a new housing supply in a well integrated and serviced urban setting providing essential services ‘within walking distance’. It is arguably only a matter of careful design to plan these facilities in such a way that they can become attractive, convenient places for ‘regular’ urban life. They might not only provide a new market for housing for ‘startup’ households, but even entice some of the evacuated residents to stay in these new quarters, and thereby contribute to the eventual transformation of parts of urban life in a gradual, step-by-step fashion. The financing of such facilities could be achieved by combining resources and funds now devoted separately to emergency response, and to efforts to improve sustainability: each done separately will likely run into obstacles of funding, but if both are acknowledged as necessary, their combination can make such projects eminently feasible. It could even be part of a perennial effort to ‘revitalize’ parts of cities in or near downtown that have fallen victim to urban blight, crime, and abandonment.

A case for such a project was made in response to a City of Tallahassee call for citizen ideas to improve the community. It was one of four such ideas ‘selected’ for implementation — or at least consideration — out of a total of some 35 submissions. But strangely and perversely, the site selected for the project was one far outside the city center, on a major artery but far away from any employment, shopping or even nearby residential areas; a location that missed the opportunity for such a project to help transform the current urban patterns towards greater sustainability. The call for proposals was not inviting any detailed description or design solutions — visual tools that might help clarify the potential of such ideas. This is a task that perhaps should be taken up in the form of design projects in local architecture and planning schools (in cooperation with official planning authorities), or through public competitions inviting local architects, developers, and planners to devote part of the time of waiting for economic recovery to contribute their creativity and skill to such overarching community projects.