Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Inside a pop-up: remaking an empty lot with art and community engagement

There has been a lot of buzz recently about pop-up urbanism. From New York to Vancouver, there are a number of new, small projects that reclaim a bit of underused space and turn them into public spaces. I have yet to find a really clear definition of “pop-up urbanism,” but the projects are generally small, often temporary, ways to explore creative possibilities urban space.

While such projects may not require the hundreds of millions in financing - or the years of planning - of major urban redevelopment projects, the term “pop-up” can belie the effort that goes into making them happen. Recently, I have had the privilege to get an insider’s perspective on a project that is a bit of pop-up urbanism, and I want to profile it here to give some perspective on what goes into making these pop-ups happen.

The Project for Empty Space (PES), a New York-based non-profit, brings contemporary art to abandoned or unusual urban spaces. The site is an abandoned, city-owned lot on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The newest installation in the space opened on September 13, and in the weeks leading up to the opening, I’ve watched it take shape, while talking to PES founders Jasmine Wahi and Meenakshi Thirukode about their goals, and what it takes to realize them. First, they had to find a plot of land to use. This alone took several weeks of working through the city bureaucracy. It turns out that this was an unprecedented use of land for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (NYCHPD), the agency that owns the space, so it took a while to process the agreement that allowed PES to use the site. Second, they had to raise money. PES raises money through sponsors (usually local businesses), grants, and an annual benefit dinner. They also spend a lot of time reaching out to local organizations, such as the Lower East Side Girls Club, because community involvement is so important to PES’s mission.

The abandoned lot at 181 Stanton Street in its original state in 2010 (photo courtesy of Project for Empty Space)

Their mission is to bring art into abandoned or unusual urban spaces as a way of revitalizing a neighborhood. Their goal isn’t just to put art in the space and walk away; the idea is that this will be a starting point for the community to reclaim the space for their purposes. By making something positive happen in the site (as opposed to staying a rubble-strewn gap between buildings), they hope to spark the interest of the site’s neighbors in making the land a valued part of the neighborhood again. They’ve been in the space at 181 Stanton Street for a year now, and this is the second exhibit. In that time, residents of the nearby apartment buildings have told them that it has transformed the neighborhood. People slow down as they walk by, peering into the space. Some stop to chat with the artist, curators or others who have stopped to see it. It sparks conversations, and gets people thinking about the space again. In the past, it was an eyesore, something to hurry by and not spend too much time looking at. PES’s hope is that the space will become a permanent community fixture, where the community will determine how it develops.

Opening day of Fall 2010 installation. Photo courtesy of Project for Empty Space.

Between the NYCHPD and a 50-year resident of the neighborhood, we pieced together a sketchy history of the lot at 181 Stanton Street. Until the early 1980s, there was a building on the site typical of many on the Lower East Side – probably built in the early twentieth century, with apartments on the upper floors. According to the long-time neighbor, the building deteriorated in the 1970s – like a lot of things in New York – and finally, when the last tenant moved out in the early 1980s, the building was knocked down so it would not be colonized by squatters. It’s not quite clear when the city purchased the site, but it was probably sometime in the early 1970s.

Since the building was torn down, the neighborhood has turned around considerably, but the space remains undeveloped. It is too narrow for current building codes, so it would require a variance to built on it again.* It might seem logical for it to become a garden or courtyard for one of the adjacent buildings, but only if the neighbors are willing to pay what the city considers to be market value for the un-developable land: $3.2 million. Even a future as a space curated by PES is not necessarily assured: NYCHPD has told PES that it wants to be relieved of administering the lot. If they want to stay in the space, they have been told, they must either buy it or find another city agency to take over its administration. But finding that agency will be PES’s responsibility, which means that Jasmine and Meenakshi have to try to persuade employees in the vast city bureaucracy to help their cause (or even just return their phone calls). Not surprisingly, they have not yet found any agency eager to assume a new responsibility. And at the laughably high asking price, the city has yet to find any buyers.

The PES Fall 2011 installation taking shape in early September. (photo: Meenakshi Thirukode, courtesy of Project for Empty Space)

In our current economic times, pop-up art installations, cafes and other public spaces are taking the place of larger projects. They are an innovative way of creating increments of urbanism in the face of economic reality, where larger, more permanent projects may be on the shelf for quite a while yet. But as you visit some of these pop-ups and enjoy them, remember how much work goes into them. Behind each of them is not a massive developer with huge coffers, but often just a couple of people who care deeply about their city and want to make it a better place, one piece of incremental urbanism at a time.

* The lot has a frontage of 18.92’. The narrowest frontages among neighboring buildings are at least 20’, and most are at least 25’ wide. Source: http://gis.nyc.gov/doitt/nycitymap/template.jsp?applicationName=ZOLA).

Monday, September 12, 2011

How Government Policy Has Shaped American Love of Cars and Suburbs

This recent piece by James D. Schwartz got me thinking about two bits of conventional wisdom: Americans love their cars, and they prefer the suburbs to central cities. That so many Americans do live in the suburbs and commute by car is taken as proof. While it is true that Americans are making the rational economic decision given their available choices, the available choices do not reflect an unfettered market. Too few people realize how much government policy has shaped a supposed cultural preference.

Schwartz calls the government subsidization of driving socialism. That’s a pretty overused term these days, and I’m not interested in igniting political flame wars. But think about this: we used to consider ourselves pretty superior to the Soviet Union when we saw them lining up for some good, made artificially cheap by the government. We told ourselves that such a thing would never happen here, because the free market would not allow it to happen. But when cars line up for hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic on our roads, that is exactly what is happening: people are lining up for a good made artificially cheap by government subsidy. Whether you choose to label it socialism or not, the fact is that if individuals are not paying the full price for their goods, then the free market is not working. Schwartz lays out the ways that motorists benefit from government subsidy:

From subsidies given to oil companies to produce cheap oil, to government bailouts/ownership of auto manufacturers, to road construction and maintenance on streets that cost nothing to use, to highly subsidized parking spaces, to government health care costs associated with pollution from automobiles, to the detrimental health that results from sedentary lifestyle that cars promote, to the vast government policing forces required to enforce our streets: it is undeniable that driving places enormous costs on our society, and this cost is highly subsidized by our government.

The gas tax is an effort to make motorists bear some of the negative externalities created by driving; however, the fact that this money goes into funding more roads simply rewards the very behavior it is meant to limit. Furthermore, Americans pay some of the lowest gas taxes in the developed world; for one estimate of the full cost of a gallon of gas, see this video. The suggestion of raising the gas tax is a political non-starter. A higher gas tax is unpopular across a broad swath of the political spectrum, including among those who decry the socialism of public transit subsidies.

The other piece of received wisdom above - the American cultural preference for suburbs - is another choice made in a government-manipulated market. Federal policy skews demand through the mortgage interest tax deduction, subsidizing buying rather than renting. Municipalities skew supply through zoning codes: Edward Glaeser and Ryan Avent both write about the difficulty of building in places like New York and San Francisco, because of restrictions demanded by residents who don’t want any change. The restrictions limit supply in the urban core, making it more expensive. This in turn drives people to the periphery in search of affordable housing.

I certainly don’t deny the need for any government subsidy - I’m not sure there exists a public transportation network in the world that would be completely viable without some government subsidy (please enlighten me if one does exist). Nor do I deny that there exists - among some of the population - a strong preference for the suburbs. I do think it is wrong to use Americans’ preference for cars and suburbs to justify the continuation of policies that favor those things. It’s circular logic. The truth is that we really do not have the data to justify the conventional wisdom. In fact, recent data is showing a growing preference for walkable neighborhoods.

What I advocate is allowing for real choice - and asking people to pay more of the true cost of their choices. With less subsidization for an auto-dependent lifestyle, it would no longer be as cheap relative to living in the urban core. Only at that point can we start to make sweeping generalizations about Americans’ cultural preferences.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Density by itself is neither the problem nor the solution

Urbanists often present density as the solution to auto-dependent suburbs. Adding more people per square mile, they say, will bring about the critical mass necessary to support good public transit and vibrant downtowns, while simultaneously preserving open space. I argue that it is not density that we should be trying to sell, for two reasons: for one, it scares a lot of people. Secondly, it will not solve the problem that urbanists are trying to solve, namely auto-dependent sprawl.

Convincing Americans (outside of New York, San Francisco and a handful of other places) of the virtues of density is going to be a tough sell. For many, density is just another word for “overcrowded.” Countering with evidence that some of the most desirable city neighborhoods in the world are also among the densest is not all that persuasive. It is assumed that the rich will make themselves comfortable no matter where they are. Furthermore, such places strike many ordinary people as completely impractical for their needs, which may include raising and educating multiple children.

We need a better term for what it is that we are advocating. There are all sorts of long-winded ways of describing it: we want walkable, mixed-use, transit-served neighborhoods that accommodate a variety of ages and incomes. I propose that we borrow from the “Complete Streets” movement and promote the development of “Complete Neighborhoods.” A complete neighborhood - not simply a dense one - is the counterpart to sprawl. A neighborhood should be considered complete when it can accommodate multiple modes of transportation (including walking), house people at different incomes and stages of life, and be able to serve most of the daily needs of its inhabitants within the ideal walkable radius of ¼ - ½ mile. It is possible to have density without having these other components - just look at a low-income urban housing project or a middle-income suburban garden apartment complex for examples of localized density without the lively cafes, nearby grocery stores, or any of the other benefits that are supposed go hand-in-hand with density.

I am not arguing against density. In fact, it is inevitable that these complete neighborhoods will be denser than what many suburbanites and exurbanites are accustomed to. It is impossible to achieve the mix of uses, walkability and critical mass for public transit at exurban lot sizes, nor does it provide options across income and age levels. Thus a complete neighborhood will have a range of housing types, and because of its compactness, it will be moderately dense, anywhere from 6,000/square mile (example: Montclair, NJ) to 40,000/square mile (example: Hoboken, NJ). However, I think people may not even think of the density when they see places like this; certainly, it will not come across as something that will diminish the quality of life to which they are accustomed. For example, a neighborhood of single-family homes can be made more compact simply by shrinking the front lawn. Options for different income levels can be provided by allowing the construction of so-called accessory dwellings. A complete neighborhood would probably have townhouses and apartment buildings at its densest part. These changes would allow for a neighborhood to offer an array of housing types, use less land, and increase walkability.

Montclair, NJ (photo credit: Flickr user shutterbugMike)Hoboken, NJ (photo credit: Flickr user wallyg)

Rather than chiding Americans that they ought to live densely and walk more, we should demonstrate the virtues of a complete neighborhood. By that I mean the virtues of meeting people’s everyday needs better, not the virtues of lower carbon footprints and more sustainable land use. These are admirable things, but only selling points to a relatively small (and affluent) segment of the population. For the average person or family looking for a place to live, the challenge is going to be explaining that the tradeoff (in private space) to live in such places may actually make them happier. This is something that people have trouble imagining, and is what we need to address if we going to sell “complete neighborhoods” to people who previously would not have considered them.